Daily briefing: Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID vaccine works — but scientists have questions

Early data indicate that the Oxford–AstraZeneca jab is effective, but dose makes a difference. Plus, the scientific dilemma posed by emergency vaccine approvals, and an AI that sums up papers in a sentence.

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AI sums up research papers in a sentence

Semantic Scholar, a scientific search engine, will automatically generate one-sentence summaries of ten million computer-science papers. Papers from other disciplines should be getting summaries in the next month or so. The tool was trained on papers, their titles and human-written summaries. Since 2018, the website Paper Digest has offered summaries of papers by extracting key sentences from the text.

Nature | 4 min read

Budget boost could reshape Spanish science

Scientists in Spain are cautiously celebrating a surprise research-budget increase, which they hope could reverse some of the damage done by a decade of deep cuts. If approved, the boost would raise the science ministry’s budget to €3.2 billion (US$3.8 billion) — the most ever earmarked for science in Spain. But some researchers fear that the windfall, which comes courtesy of a European Commission COVID-19 recovery fund, might not be sustained after the European money runs out.

Nature | 5 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

A health-care worker injects a masked person with a vaccine.

Trials of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine suggest that it is highly effective at preventing COVID-19.Credit: Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Dilemma of emergency vaccine approvals

Scientists are concerned that the early deployment of promising COVID-19 vaccines could compromise ongoing clinical trials that seek to show conclusively how well they work. Following the release of early data from phase III trials on 9 November, vaccine makers Pfizer and BioNTech have sought regulatory permission to deploy their vaccine under emergency-use rules. The developer of another leading vaccine, Moderna, is expected to do the same within weeks. Once a vaccine is granted emergency approval, trial participants who received a placebo will be understandably keen to get the real thing. But if too many people cross over to the vaccine group, the companies might not have enough data to establish the long-term effects of the vaccines, including safety, how long protection lasts and whether the jab prevents infection or just the disease.

Nature | 6 min read

Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine is effective

Early data show that a vaccine candidate from the University of Oxford, UK, and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is highly effective. But the analysis found a striking difference in efficacy, depending on the dose. A regimen of two full doses was 62% effective. Among around 3,000 people who were given a half-sized first dose and a full-sized second dose, protection was 90%. A top priority for researchers is finding out why.

Like results reported for the Pfizer–BioNTech, Moderna and Sputnik V vaccines, the exciting news is based on data that have not yet been peer reviewed. Despite not matching the lofty 95% efficacy bar set by Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, the Oxford–AstraZeneca option has its advantages. It can be stored at standard fridge temperatures and it might be cheaper to manufacture than some others. And AstraZeneca has pledged to sell doses at no profit, at least during the pandemic.

Nature | 6 min read

SARS-CoV-2 relatives found outside China

Samples from lab freezers in Cambodia and Japan have yielded the first known relatives of SARS-CoV-2 found in bats outside China. The finding contributes to growing evidence that SARS-CoV-2-like viruses are relatively common in horseshoe bats both inside and outside China. Studying such viruses could contribute to understanding of SARS-CoV-2’s animal origin.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Emerging Infectious Diseases paper

Notable quotable

“We’d been planning for disease X, we’d been waiting for disease X, and I thought this could be it.”

Vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert, who leads the development of the Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, explains how the team was prepared to make a vaccine against a new foe so quickly. (BBC | 8 min read)

Features & opinion

Building a network for Black scientists

Black people are seriously under-represented in UK academia. But efforts are under way to create support networks for Black professionals in the UK science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. Nature spoke to the founder of one such initiative — BBSTEM (Black British professionals in STEM) — and two early-career scientists who have participated in its programmes. “It can be exhausting to have to hide aspects of your character because of the fear that people will judge you and not your research,” says atmospheric scientist Craig Poku.

Nature | 8 min read

I’m sorry to say that we had a glitch on Friday that meant that the Briefing didn’t reach everyone. I’ve repeated a handful of unmissable items today. If you want to catch up on the rest of Friday’s e-mail, you can read it here.

Our well-insulated wanderer Leif Penguinson remains well hidden in the ice and snow of Fort Erie, Ontario. Can you find the penguin? When you’re ready, here’s the answer.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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