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Daily briefing: The scientist leading the ambitious US COVID-19 vaccine programme

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Fully printed ultrathin solar cell is light and flexible enough to rest on the surface of a soap bubble.

Credit: Anastasia Serin/KAUST

Materials scientists have made printed solar cells that are so thin, light and flexible that they can rest on the surface of a soap bubble. Researchers formulated ‘inks’ for each layer of the solar-cell architecture so that they could print the cells on a substrate using an inkjet printer. The technology could one day help us ditch heavy batteries and generate power straight from the Sun for lightweight, flexible devices such as medical patches.

See more of the month’s sharpest science shots, selected by Nature’s photo team.

Nature | Leisurely scroll

Megalodon was an absolute unit

The extinct giant shark Otodus megalodon probably had a dorsal fin about as tall as me — 1.6 metres. Palaeobiologists used their knowledge of five modern sharks to calculate eye-popping estimates for the length of the megalodon’s head (almost 5 metres) and the height of its tail (almost 4 metres). Previously, only the approximately 16-metre length of the whole creature had been estimated, by comparison with the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). “To study the whole animal is difficult considering that all we really have are lots of isolated teeth,” says palaeobiologist Jack Cooper.

The Guardian | 4 min read

Reference: Scientific Reports paper

Afloat on an upside-down sea

Last week I mentioned a gravity-defying physics experiment in which liquid can levitate and boats can float upside down. Go deeper into how this counter-intuitive behaviour results from constant vibrations, which change the forces acting on the floating object, in this Nature video.

Nature | 4 min video

Reference: Nature paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

SEM of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus particles (yellow) on an apoptotic cell (red) from a US patient sample.

Electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus particles (yellow) on a cell (red).Credit: NIAID/NIH/SPL

Three questions about reinfections

Last month, news broke of a man living in Hong Kong who had been infected with the coronavirus for a second time, months after recovering from a bout of COVID-19. The reinfection did not cause symptoms. Less than a week later, reports of another reinfection emerged — this time in Nevada, and with more-severe symptoms. Researchers are studying these cases to understand whether the world can rely on people’s immune systems to mitigate the pandemic. They want to know how common reinfections are, whether they will be more or less severe and what implications they have for vaccine prospects.

Nature | 7 min read

US university workers fight a return to campus

Lawsuits and protests are among the ways that graduate students, faculty members and other campus staff are pushing back against requirements that they return to campus after their summer break. One group has filed a lawsuit claiming that the University of North Carolina (UNC) system, which includes 16 institutions across the state, has not provided a safe workplace. UNC-Chapel Hill is already facing an outbreak that has affected 60 staff and more than 1,000 students. Institutions are under pressure to reopen to safeguard their incomes. “They either have to risk a public-health disaster or face a certain financial calamity,” says historian Jay Smith, the vice-president of the American Association of University Professors’ chapter at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Nature | 7 min read

At the helm of Operation Warp Speed

Immunologist Moncef Slaoui, who came out of retirement to help lead the US government’s ambitious project to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, describes the work being done by Operation Warp Speed. “I firmly believe that we will have a vaccine available before the end of the year, and it will be available in quantities that can immunize subjects with health at the highest risk,” he told NPR. As for worries that an unsafe vaccine might be rushed out to influence the US election in November — not on his watch, says the former head of vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline. “I would immediately resign if there is undue interference in this process,” he told Science.

NPR | 7 min listen & Science | 10 min read

Coronavirus research highlights: 1-minute reads

Steroid treatment linked to lower deaths

People severely ill with COVID-19 are less likely to die if they are given drugs called corticosteroids than are people who do not receive this treatment, according to an analysis of hospital patients on five continents. The authors say that steroids should be part of the standard treatment for people with severe COVID-19.

Reference: JAMA paper

Mink can pass SARS-CoV-2 to humans

An investigation of Dutch mink farms has found the first documented cases of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between animals and humans. Genetic analysis suggests that workers had introduced SARS-CoV-2 to mink, which spread the virus back to workers.

Reference: bioRxiv preprint (not yet peer reviewed)

Antibodies persist for months

A sweeping survey in Iceland shows that antibodies against the new coronavirus endure in the body for four months after infection. This counters earlier evidence suggesting that these important immune molecules disappear quickly. The antibody levels of more than 1,200 people who had recovered from COVID-19 rose during the two months after diagnosis, plateaued and then remained at the same level for the duration of the study.

Reference: New England Journal of Medicine paper

Testing helped summer camps avoid outbreaks

Repeated testing and 14-day quarantines in small groups prevented outbreaks at four overnight camps in the US state of Maine. Of more than 1,000 attendees, 2 staff members and one camper tested positive at camp and were isolated until they tested negative, and the virus did not not spread further. The case contrasts with a camp in the state of Georgia, at which at least 250 campers and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 despite all having tested negative fewer than 13 days before arrival.

Reference: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report paper 1 & paper 2

Get more of Nature’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints on COVID-19.

Notable quotable

“If large parts of the world remain shut down because of the selfish hoarding of initial supplies by richer nations, we all suffer for it.”

A vaccine will not be an instant cure for the coronavirus pandemic, writes Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust. (The Guardian | 7 min read)

Features & opinion

Mindfulness for scientists

Mindfulness has helped ecologist Ana Pineda to juggle the stress of academic research, life in a foreign country and the demands of parenting — such as “not having slept a full night in years”. She shares her tips for building a meditation routine for a more productive, creative and happier scientific life. For busy scientists, she suggests guided meditation using an app — her favourite is the free app Insight Timer.

Nature | 4 min read

A moment of mindfulness

Ecologist Ana Pineda, who advises scientists on developing mindfulness, suggests this quick breathing exercise if you’re short on time. Close your eyes, and in four stages of five seconds each, inhale, hold your breath, exhale, hold your breath and repeat (it’s known as box or square breathing because of the four stages). Pineda also offers some free resources on her website to guide you through it.

When research antibodies mislead

Commercial antibodies are commonplace in biology laboratories. Researchers use these giant Y-shaped proteins to detect specific molecules in cells, tissues and test tubes. But sometimes the proteins detect other molecules, too — or even instead. Scientists are seeking ways to ensure that research antibodies can be validated and identified to ensure that antibody-driven experiments are trustworthy and reproducible.

Nature | 7 min read

Quote of the day

“[It’s like] if a human came out of a platypus egg.”

The unintentional creation of ‘sturddlefish’ — hybrids with American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) fathers and a Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) mothers — could shake up our understanding of how animals breed, says ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty. (Quanta | 7 min read)

Reference: Genes paper

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02570-4

On Friday, our bashful bird buddy Leif Penguinson was out enjoying the spectacular views at Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile. Did you find the penguin? When you’re ready, here’s the answer.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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