Daily briefing: Russia approves ‘reckless’ coronavirus vaccine

Scientists say the world’s first coronavirus vaccine approved for widespread use is dangerously rushed. Plus: how neuroscientists are investigating animals' emotions and desires.

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An aerial view of the MV Wakashio off the coast of south-east Mauritius and a large patch of leaked oil.

This aerial view taken on 8 August shows a large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of south-east Mauritius.AFP via Getty

‘Nightmare’ oil spill in Mauritius

A Japanese-owned ship is spilling oil into the coral reefs and pristine lagoons of Mauritius. More than 1,000 tonnes of fuel has escaped from the MV Wakashio since it ran aground on 25 July. It still has 2,500 tonnes of oil onboard, and experts warn that it is likely to break up. “Never in my wildest nightmares would I have imagined something like this,” said Vikash Tatayah, director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

NBC News | 5 min read

Why the Beirut blast was so devastating

Lebanese authorities say that the explosion, which killed at least 220 people, injured more than 5,000 and left an estimated 300,000 homeless, was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. This makes it one of the largest accidental ammonium-nitrate explosions ever recorded — so powerful that it was heard more than 200 kilometres away in Cyprus. But the disaster has had such tragic consequences for reasons unrelated to the explosion itself: it hit a country that is strained by the coronavirus pandemic and still reeling from an economic crisis. “This is a crisis layered upon multiple crises — an economic crisis, a political crisis, a health crisis,” says social scientist Charlotte Karam.

Nature | 4 min read

Conferences fail to protect LGBT+ researchers

An analysis of 30 ecology and conservation conferences held since 2009 found that almost 40% took place in locations where laws and societal norms discriminate against people of specific genders or sexual orientations. About half of the events had codes of conduct promoting equity, diversity and inclusion, but these did not always lead to initiatives that reduced implicit biases and barriers to participation. “Diversity initiatives are not being done in a strategic way,” says conservation scientist Ayesha Tulloch, who did the analysis.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature Ecology & Evolution paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Vladimir Putin sitting at a large desk, watching a videoconference, with a flag behind him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin receives a video report about the approval of a coronavirus vaccine.Credit: Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Russia approves ‘reckless’ coronavirus vaccine

Russian president Vladimir Putin announced today that the country’s health regulator had become the world’s first to approve a coronavirus vaccine for widespread use. Scientists worldwide have condemned the decision as dangerously rushed. Russia hasn’t completed large trials to test its safety and efficacy, and rolling out an inadequately vetted vaccine could put at risk people who receive it, researchers say. “If they get it wrong it could undermine the entire global enterprise,” says vaccine scientist Peter Hotez.

Nature | 5 min read

Reconsider what we mean by ‘mild’

Had COVID-19 and survived? Then you’re counted as ‘recovered’ — a metric that fails to record any ongoing ill health. And previously healthy people with persistent symptoms that prevent them from resuming their normal lives are still classed under the ‘mild COVID’ umbrella. Public-health researcher Nisreen Alwan shares her own difficult ongoing rehabilitation from a ‘mild’ case and calls for more-sophisticated definitions for recovery and severity.

Nature | 4 min read

Surgical masks work, fleece gaiters not so much

Fitted N95 masks without valves and three-layer surgical masks came out on top in a study of which face coverings are best at stopping transmission of respiratory droplets. Researchers used lasers to illuminate the droplets expelled by a person saying “Stay healthy, people” 5 times while wearing one of 14 different types of mask. They found that folded bandannas and knitted masks did not offer much protection. Fleece neck gaiters seemed to break up the largest droplets into smaller ones and so might actually be worse than wearing nothing. The authors hope their simple, inexpensive experimental setup will encourage more testing to help people to choose the best mask.

San Francisco Chronicle | 6 min read

Reference: Science Advances paper

Notable quotable

“We just continue to squander every bit of opportunity we get with this epidemic to get it under control.”

Epidemiologist Michael Mina decries the failure of authorities to tackle coronavirus in the United States before the cold and flu season hits and people are forced indoors by cold weather. (STAT | 8 min read)

Features & opinion

Emotion, aggression, desire: inside the mind of an animal

Neuroscientists wanting to understand the brain have conventionally studied how its networks of cells respond to sensory information and how they generate behaviour, such as movement or speech. But they couldn’t look in detail at the important bit in between — the vast quantities of neuronal activity that conceal patterns representing the animal’s mood or desires, and which help it to calibrate its behaviour. A slew of techniques that allow scientists to scrutinize huge piles of data is starting to change that.

Nature | 12 min read

Why Shark Week matters

For some female marine scientists, Shark Week (a week-long celebration of sharks on US television) can raise mixed feelings, says shark biologist and ecologist Catherine Macdonald. “Many women I’ve spoken to were passionate viewers as children,” she says — but when they grew up, the programmes’ emphasis on senior male researchers began to ring hollow. More than 60% of graduate students in the field are women, and Macdonald and others share examples of sexual harassment during fieldwork and discrimination in academia.

Scientific American | 10 min read

Quote of the day

“It’s almost anti-human not to understand that we are a global society, and that the benefit of science — for example, vaccines — needs to be shared.”

Infectious-disease researcher Rita Colwell, the former director of the US National Science Foundation, says an international perspective is essential to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. (Nature | 5 min read)

This week, I’m excited to support and celebrate Black chemists during #BlackInChem week, and so is MC Hammer.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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