Daily briefing: Pfizer–BioNTech COVID vaccine works for high-risk groups

The Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine is highly effective across racial groups and in people over 65. Plus, trapped-ion systems heat up the quantum-computing race and why some vaccines have to be kept ultracold.

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Close up of an hourglass-shaped chip on a blue surface.

An ion trap from Honeywell’s quantum computer.Credit: Honeywell Quantum Solutions

Trapped ions heat up the quantum race

A neglected approach to quantum computing is gaining traction in the quest to build a commercial quantum computer. The technique uses ions trapped in electric fields as the basis of its quantum bits, or ‘qubits’. Trapped-ion computing has long been sidelined by major companies such as IBM and Intel in favour of tiny superconducting loops. Tech-focused conglomerate Honeywell is leading the way, and smaller spin-out firms are making inroads, on a trapped-ion machine.

Nature | 8 min read

Prospects dim for phosphine on Venus

Signs of the gas phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere — which offered the tantalizing suggestion of life — have faded, but they’re not gone completely. A new data analysis from the team that made the original exciting announcement confirms the phosphine signal, but it’s fainter than before. Astronomer Jane Greaves said she and her team redid the work because they learnt that some of the original data contained a spurious signal that could have affected the results. A separate analysis of old data from the NASA Pioneer mission also found evidence that could point to phosphine.

Nature | 5 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech say their coronavirus vaccine prevents 95% of cases. The announcement builds on early results from last week that found the vaccine was more than 90% effective. The results from the final efficacy analysis in their ongoing phase III study are based on 170 cases of COVID-19: 162 cases in the placebo group and 8 cases in people who got the jab. More good news: the efficacy was consistent across racial groups and was more than 94% in people over 65 — so it works for some of those groups that are most at risk of severe disease. There were no serious side effects. The data have not yet been published or peer reviewed. The companies say they will apply for emergency use approval from the US Food and Drug Administration “within days”.

The New York Times | 6 min read

Reference: Pfizer and BioNTech press release

Why some vaccines don’t like it hot

Pfizer and BioNTech have a plan for the tricky fact that their vaccine has to be kept below –80 ℃: specially designed, temperature-controlled thermal shippers that can be refilled with dry ice and used as temporary storage units for 15 days. Each contains a GPS-enabled thermal sensor to track the location and temperature of the shipment. US biotech company Moderna says its promising vaccine lasts six months in a normal freezer. Science investigates why some vaccines degrade at higher temperatures and what we can learn from the ultracold supply chains for the Ebola vaccine.

Science | 7 min read

Notable quotable

“The incoherence of the EU’s pandemic response is surprising for a group of nations that has so successfully acted and spoken with one voice.”

A Nature editorial welcomes a European Union plan to tackle the pandemic, but says it needs to be more outward-looking to replicate its successes with the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 Paris climate agreement. (Nature)

Features & opinion

Resisting the rise of facial recognition

Growing use of surveillance technology has prompted calls for bans and stricter regulation. Researchers, as well as civil-liberties advocates and legal scholars, are among those who are disturbed by facial recognition’s rise. Computer scientists have flagged examples of its inaccuracies and racial biases. Legal challenges have emerged in Europe and parts of the United States, where critics of the technology have filed lawsuits to prevent its use in policing. And opponents point to the surveillance in China’s Xinjiang province as an example of how it can be used to limit freedoms.

Nature | 13 min read

Duelling Dinosaurs come in from the cold

A stunning fossil that shows a Triceratops entwined with a Tyrannosaurus rex will finally be available for study by palaeontologists. The iconic rock was found by commercial fossil hunters in 2006 and remained in private hands, locked away during years of legal battles. Now a consortium of funders is buying the specimen for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “There will literally be thousands of studies done on these fossils,” says palaeontologist Tyler Lyson.

National Geographic | 10 min read

A pioneering chemist and gay leader

Happy LGBTQ+ STEM day! Chemist Abhik Ghosh profiles Martin Gouterman, a porphyrin chemist who was a leading figure in Seattle’s gay-rights movement of the 1960s. Gouterman’s four-orbital model, “which explained why blood (heme) is red and grass (chlorophyll) is green, remains influential to this day”, writes Ghosh.

Chemistry World | 7 min read

Quote of the day

We’ve got a few more days to vote for the winner of the American Society for Microbiology’s Agar Art contest. Among the stunning candidates are a Mona Lisa reproduced in Staphylococcus aureus and a glow-in-the dark black hole representing graduate school.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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