Daily briefing: Broken cable smashes main dish at the iconic Arecibo Observatory

The huge main dish at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has been damaged. Plus: the promise of monoclonal antibody drugs for COVID-19 and gravitational lensing turns a distant galaxy into a ring of fire.

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View of the damage to the telescope’s reflector dish.

The main collecting dish is among the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes. The reflective dish is 307 metres in diameter and 50 metres deep, and covers an area of about 81,000 square metres.Arecibo Observatory, University of Central Florida

Cable smashes Arecibo main dish

A broken cable has damaged the huge main dish at the iconic Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It’s not clear why the cable broke in the middle of Monday night, said a statement from the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory. Arecibo has been weathering hurricanes and other challenges since 1963, and staff will focus on “restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible,” says observatory director Francisco Cordova.

University of Central Florida | 2 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Close up of an Alpaca in Australia

Prerna Jain/iStock/Getty

Alpacas join search for COVID-19 cure

Australian researchers are immunizing alpacas (Vicugna pacos) with a synthetic version of a protein found in SARS-CoV-2, in search of treatments against the virus. They are attempting to extract and purify antibodies produced by the animals, which could later be injected or inhaled by patients to prevent or cure COVID-19. Alpacas and other camelids produce two types of antibodies — one similar to human antibodies, and a dramatically smaller version called a nanobody. The nanobody’s small size makes it more effective at getting around the virus’s defences. “They are really special. They are really small, very stable, and extremely sticky to the spike protein,” says infectious-disease researcher Wai-Hong Tham.

The Age | 5 min read

Antibody therapies offer bridge to a vaccine

Monoclonal antibodies could be used to treat people with COVID-19 until a vaccine is available, or people who can’t get vaccinated once there is one. In this approach, researchers isolate antibodies from recovering patients and identify those that best ‘neutralize’ the virus by binding to it and keeping it from replicating. They then produce these antibodies in bulk in the laboratory. (This differs from ‘convalescent plasma’ taken directly from the blood of people recovering from COVID-19 and used to treat other patients.) Dozens of monoclonal-antibody drugs for COVID-19 are in development, but they tend to be expensive to make, and it’s unclear how many people would benefit from them.

Nature | 5 min read

China pursues vaccine with ‘military–civil fusion’

China’s military is playing a crucial part in the country’s search for a vaccine. One of the front-running vaccines, made by CanSino Biologics, is already being provided to soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army, even though safety testing is not complete. Efforts to combine civilian expertise and technologies with the military are part of the country’s ‘military–civil fusion’ campaign, which the coronavirus has helped to accelerate.

The Financial Times | 5 min read

The toll on mental health is yet to be counted

Physician Sondra Crosby shares a harrowing account of her own experience with COVID-19. Her account of terrifying hallucinations, loneliness and anxiety underline her assertion that “the toll of COVID-19 on mental health compounded by quarantine, isolation, and uncertainty cannot be overstated, and the global impact is yet unknown”.

Annals of Internal Medicine | 5 min read

Features & opinion

Crunch, rip, freeze or decay

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book explores all the ways the universe will come to its final conclusion. But not to worry — the end probably won’t be nigh for at least 200 billion years.

Nature | 5 min read

Australia needs a national fire agency

Australia is “navigating uncharted territory without a compass” when it comes to wildfires, argue pyrogeographer David Bowman and seven colleagues. Their analysis of 19 years of satellite data reveals that the engulfed area last season was much smaller than estimates compiled from government fire records. Yet the fires still eclipsed the worst-case scenarios designed to prepare agencies and communities. A national bush-fire agency would improve on the current patchwork of local monitoring and provide data to help the nation overcome politicized debate and build a resilient future.

Nature | 8 min read

‘Science is like a different language’

For some scientists, the domination of English in science is so total that it can even be a challenge to discuss their field in their native tongue. “I’m having to actively teach myself how to talk about science in Spanish, which is very ironic,” says astronomer Rose Ferreira of her science-communication efforts on Instagram. “Science is like a completely different language.” Particle physicists Suyog Shrestha and Yangyang Cheng laud the benefits of a lingua franca when communicating with colleagues from over 80 countries at CERN. But they also share stories of being criticised or misjudged for their accents, and note that English can exclude people who don’t have access to the language.

Symmetry | 5 min read

Image of the week

Lensed view of the SPT0418-47 galaxy.

This ring of light is actually a galaxy a lot like our own Milky Way, with a rotating disk and a bulge around its centre. It is gravitationally lensed by a nearby neighbour galaxy, which makes it appear to us as a near-perfect circle. Astronomers spotted the distant (and thus ancient) SPT0418-47 galaxy using the largest radio telescope in the world, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope in Chile. (Science | 3 min read) Reference: Nature paper ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Rizzo et al.

Quote of the day

Yes, you do need to see Taylor Swift as classic physics textbooks and Michelle Obama as chemistry elements or element compounds.(Joining previous Briefing favourites Lady Gaga as instrumental-noise glitches in LIGO data and Prince as common population-genetics visualizations.)Send your photos of celebrities dressed as western blots — or any other feedback — to Graham, senior editor, Nature BriefingWith contributions by Nicky Phillips

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 09 September 2020: An earlier version of this briefing erroneously stated that researchers were infecting alpacas with SARS-CoV-2. In fact, they were immunizing alpacas with a synthetic version of a protein found in the virus.

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