Daily briefing: COVID-19 vaccine development — where we are now

A comprehensive review of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine landscape, why birds are so smart and ‘apocalyptic’ fires in the world’s largest tropical wetland.

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A jaguar crouches on an area recently scorched by wildfires.

Firefighters and volunteers in the Pantanal, Brazil, have been scrambling to rescue jaguars from extreme fires.Credit: Andre Penner/AP/Shutterstock

‘Apocalyptic’ fires ravage tropical wetlands

Infernos in South America’s Pantanal region — the world's largest tropical wetland — have burnt twice the area of California’s fires this year. The region, which sprawls over parts of western Brazil and extends into Bolivia and Paraguay, is home to Indigenous peoples and a high concentration of rare and endangered species, such as jaguars (Panthera onca) and giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus). Scientists worry that the extreme blazes will profoundly alter the already-fragile ecosystem of the Pantanal, and that research programmes investigating the region’s ecology and biodiversity will never recover. “It is a tragedy of colossal proportions,” says biologist Luciana Leite.

Nature | 6 min read

The hazards of travelling to the Moon

Future explorers to the Moon will be exposed to 200 to 1,000 times more radiation than levels experienced on Earth. The radiation data were collected by China’s Chang’e 4 probe, which landed on the far side of the Moon in 2019. Researchers who reported the results say travellers who stay on the lunar surface for more than a few days should build shelters of Moon dirt, made of 80-centimeter-thick walls, to protect themselves from the radiation.

Associated Press | 4 min read

Reference: Science Advances paper

Why birds are so smart

Time to lay the ‘birdbrain’ stereotype to rest forever. Two studies have revealed that birds have a brain structure that is analogous to our cerebral cortex, and that brains of carrion crows (Corvus corone) show signs of consciousness. Researchers worked with two carrion crows (named Ozzy and Glenn) in an experiment in which the crows had to keep track of what they had seen to receive a reward. The activity of the crows’ neurons showed that they had ‘sensory consciousness’: they knew what they had seen. A separate study of the neuroanatomy of birds found that a part of their forebrains — the pallium — does the heavy cognitive lifting that the cerebral cortex does in mammals.

STAT | 9 min read

Go deeper with an expert analysis by neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel in Science.

Reference: Science paper 1 & Science paper 2

COVID-19 coronavirus update

A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a "Vaccine COVID-19" sticker and a medical syringe.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine landscape now

Virologist and vaccinologist Florian Krammer offers a comprehensive review of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine landscape, including the status of the front-running candidates and their approaches. He also notes the enormous practical challenges and many unanswered questions, such as how long vaccine immunity will persist. The outlook is “cautiously positive”, writes Krammer. “It is certainly possible that vaccines with safety and efficacy proven in phase III trials might already enter the market in 2020.”

Nature | 37 min read or Krammer’s epic 138-tweet thread spells it out in simpler terms

Unequal toll of COVID-19 on Native Americans

American Indians and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than are non-Hispanic white people, according to an analysis of data from 23 US states by Abigail Echo-Hawk. But gaps in reporting mean that the full impact of the pandemic on Indigenous communities remains unclear. “The data is a national disgrace,” says Echo-Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute. “How can decisions be made in the United States to prevent, intervene, and treat COVID-19, when you can’t even truly tell what populations are most affected?”

Science | 8 min read

Reference: MMWR report

Notable quotable

“Britain is in the grip of an extraordinarily dangerous outbreak of forgetfulness.”

Epidemiologist William Hanage says the United Kingdom, where COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly, has not learnt the hard lessons from its first surge early in the year. (The Guardian | 7 min read)

Features & opinion

Scientists’ share shattered American dreams

Five international students and postdocs reflect on a turbulent year triggered by visa restrictions in the United States. “It has been a scary and painful time because I truly love this country,” says neuroscientist Gloriia Novikova, who advises other scientists to think long and hard before choosing to study in the United States. “I feel free, but I no longer feel secure and welcome.”

Nature | 10 min read

Enter the epoch of the Sun

Anthropocene, plasticene — most of the proposed names for our current epoch hinge on humanity and conjure images of the worst of what might lie ahead. “Before it comes time to engrave it in stone, to nail in the golden spike of our new epoch, we should reconsider the name we give our future — how it may subtly steer its trajectory,” writes palaeoclimatologist Summer Praetorius. In a lyrical meditation on the power of names, Praetorius proposes we call our new epoch the Heliocene, for a future in which we release our stranglehold on Earth’s carbon cycles and seize the potential of solar power.

Nautilus | 16 min read

Quote of the day

“Mid-career can be every bit as hard as the early years for women and even… worse. That moment when you become a player but equally an alien threat, clearly bothers some men.”

Physicist Athene Donald reflects on her career at the University of Cambridge, from becoming the first female physics lecturer on staff to her imminent retirement. (Personal blog | 8 min read)

On Friday, Leif Penguinson spend some time gazing penguinfully out to sea on the Mendocino Coast in California. 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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