Daily briefing: COVID-sniffing dog tops the month’s best science images

Sniffer dogs to screen for COVID-19, what China’s speedy COVID vaccine deployment means for the pandemic and what scientists in Sweden think of its controversial COVID strategy.

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Floki the dog sticks his head into a cone in an experimental set-up to detect COVID-19.

Kelly Barnes/Getty

The month’s best science images

This is Floki, a springer spaniel that scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia are training to detect signs of coronavirus infection in human sweat. The research is part of an international effort to train sniffer dogs to rapidly screen people for COVID-19. The canines are rewarded with positive reinforcement — in Floki’s case, being allowed to play with his favourite toy — when they pick a sweat sample from someone with the disease out of a line-up. Preliminary studies show that dogs trained in this way are able to identify people who are infected with the coronavirus before they develop symptoms. A pilot scheme involving 4 sniffer dogs at Helsinki airport indicated that dogs can detect the presence of the virus in less than 10 seconds with nearly 100% accuracy.

Nature | Leisurely scroll

Can China vaccinate the world?

Expectations that a successful Chinese vaccine will soon be available are high, and China is making bold promises about bringing it to the world. The country has committed to sharing its vaccines with more than a dozen nations, particularly low-income countries that it has close ties with. But China is notably absent from COVAX, the international coalition that aims to fairly distribute COVID-19 vaccines (as is the United States). And some scientists question whether it’s possible for the country to produce enough doses to fulfil its pledge.

Nature | 6 min read

Mario Molina, Mexico’s scientist in chief

Mario Molina, who alerted the world to the atmospheric dangers of chlorofluorocarbons and helped to save the ozone layer, died yesterday at the age of 77. Molina won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that work in 1995.

Molina was an optimist at heart who dedicated himself (and his fame as Mexico’s only science Nobel laureate) to clean air, particularly in his hometown of Mexico City. “The Nobel prize is of course a big honour and so on, but it's also a responsibility,” he said in a 2010 Nature profile.

The San Diego Union-Tribune | 7 min read & Nature | 12 min read

£50-million ‘Earthshot’ Prize for green ideas

Iconic naturalist David Attenborough and local man Prince William have announced a £50-million (US$65-million) prize for innovative solutions to environmental challenges. The Earthshot Prize will consist of five £1-million prizes awarded each year for the next ten years, and a celebrity-packed judging panel will pick the winners in a bid to inject positivity into the search for green solutions. “I think that urgency with optimism really creates action,” said William.

The Guardian | 7 min read

The Spinoff Prize

Applications are now open for The Spinoff Prize — a €30,000 (US$35,000) award for early-stage university spinoff companies from around the world. The deadline is 15 November — apply here.

Features & opinion

Listen to people with long COVID

“We have received your SOS,” director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a meeting of COVID patient groups. “We have heard loud and clear that long COVID needs recognition, guidelines, research and ongoing patient input and narratives, to shape the WHO response from here on.” A Nature editorial urges researchers and clinicians to do the same and turn to patients to help define long-lasting COVID symptoms.

Nature | 4 min read

Masked lecturing with deaf students

Face masks are vital to containing the spread of COVID, but lecturers and universities must find ways to remove the barriers that masks might raise for deaf students, say geochemist Olivier Pourret and structural geologist Elodie Saillet. Drawing on their experiences as lecturers and parents of a deaf child, they share their insights about facilitating lip reading, questions and clear communication.

Nature | 4 min read

What Sweden’s scientists say

Sweden’s light-touch approach to the COVID-19 lockdown has gathered interest from around the world — and controversy within the country’s scientific and medical community. Science assesses the approach spearheaded by top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, speaks to scientists and physicians who are critical of the plan and explores the current state of play in the country.

Science | 17 min read

Infographic of the week

figure 1

Figure 1 | Rings in a young protostellar disk. Stars form when a cloud of dust and gas collapses to produce a denser disk of material, known as a protostellar disk. The star forms at the centre of the disk, whereas planets can form from the disk material. Segura-Cox et al.1 report observations of a protostellar disk that is so young (less than 500,000 years old) that the disk is still surrounded by an envelope of material from the original cloud. Rings visible in the disk could be signs of planetary formation; the rings in the actual system are very faint (see Fig. 1 of the paper1), but are shown more prominently here, for clarity. The findings cast light on the earliest time at which planets can form in protostellar disks.

This artist’s impression shows an embryonic star that is less than 500,000 years old. The protostar, called IRS 63, is so young that its birth cloud of gas and dust is still collapsing to form the star and its protostellar disk. The series of rings and gaps could be signs of planetary formation (the rings in the actual system are very faint and are shown more prominently here, for clarity). The findings cast light on the earliest time at which planets can start to form. (Nature | 6 min read)

Reference: Nature paper

Quote of the day

“They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.”

The New England Journal of Medicine calls out US leaders’ handling of COVID-19 in a uncharacteristically scathing editorial.

Treat yourself to this joyful video of biochemist Jennifer Doudna enjoying the first moments of her Nobel Prize in Chemistry — particularly the first bit where she reveals how she found out she’d won from Nature’s own Heidi Ledford.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 21 October 2020: An earlier version of this briefing erroneously stated that chemist Mario Molina was Mexico’s only Nobel laureate. In fact, he was the country’s only science Nobel winner.

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