Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • NATURE PODCAST

Could you prevent a pandemic? A very 2020 video game

Listen to our seasonal special, brought to you by Benjamin Thompson and Nick Howe.

In this episode:

01:02 Balancing responses in a video game pandemic

In the strategy video-game Plague Inc: The Cure, players assume the role of an omnipotent global health agency trying to tackle outbreaks of increasingly nasty pathogens. We find out how the game was developed, and how it might help change public perception of pandemic responses.

Plague Inc: The Cure from Ndemic Creations

10:02 “We three Spacecraft travel to Mars”

The first of our festive songs, we head back to July this year, and the launch of three separate space missions to the red planet. Scroll to the transcript section at the bottom of the page for the lyrics.

12:54 Research Highlights

Giant pandas roll in piles of poo to keep warm, and how different bread-baking styles have led to distinct lineages of baker’s yeast.

Research Highlight: Why pandas like to roll in piles of poo

Research Highlight: Sourdough starters give rise to a new line of yeast

15:17 The Nature Podcast Audio Charades Competition: Lockdown edition

In this year’s festive competition, our reporters try to describe some of the biggest science stories, using only homemade sound effects. Results are mixed, at best...

24:15 Nature’s 10

We hear about some of the people who made it on to this year’s Nature’s 10 list this year.

Nature’s 10: ten people who helped shape science in 2020

32:20 All I want for Christmas is vaccines

In our final festive song, we celebrate a huge scientific achievement, and one that’s offering a little hope for 2021. Scroll to the transcript section at the bottom of the page for the lyrics.

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03594-6

Transcript

Listen to our seasonal special, brought to you by Benjamin Thompson and Nick Howe.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Hi, listeners. It’s our final show of the year, and although 2020 has clearly been incredibly difficult for a great many people, we wanted to try and raise some cheer in the face of all that’s been going on. Nick, you know what that means.

Host: Nick Howe

What’s that?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Cue the music.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

We’ve an absolutely packed podcast this week. Coming up, we’ll have Shamini’s sensational audio charades competition, and we’ll also have the latest in our long line of science-based festive songs. But it’s not all fun and games, right, Nick?

Host: Nick Howe

Yeah, I’ve been finding out about some of the people who’ve made an impact in the world of science this year. I’m Nick Howe.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Throughout 2020, somewhat unsurprisingly, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about public health. As governments around the world have strived to get to grips with the pandemic, they’ve been forced to perform a series of delicate balancing acts, weighing up a myriad of different social factors and vital public health protection measures. Debates are raging over who’s getting right and wrong, and it feels like everybody has an opinion on the best way to do things. In fact, I’ve sometimes caught myself wondering what would I do if I were in charge? Armed with evidence and the latest science, could I have done better? Well, now, at least virtually, there’s a way to find out, as these balancing acts are at the heart of a new video game. Nature’s Brendan Maher has been playing it, but he’s been having a bit of a problem.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

I have a confession to make. I’m having a hard time with a fungal infection. These are the sounds of me playing Plague Inc: The Cure, a strategy-based video game, on my phone. In the game, I play the part of an omnipotent global health agency trying to tackle outbreaks of increasingly nasty pathogens. The bacterium was easy. The virus wasn’t too hard. But that fungus…

[Music from Plague Inc: The Cure]

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

Tapping on my screen, I mobilise field operatives, shut down borders and research a vaccine. I even impose media blackouts to stop the spread of misinformation. But it’s no use. After a few minutes, hundreds of millions of people are infected. I see news flashes across the top of the screen. People in Poland are rioting over my mismanagement. Greenland turns from red to black as deaths soar. And once the little blue bar representing my global authority drops to zero, it’s game over. I’m fired… again.

[Music from Plague Inc: The Cure]

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

Maybe it’s me. Although I’ve written about public health and infectious disease for decades, I’m certainly no expert. So, what about people who are? How have they fared playing the game?

Interviewee: Malia Jones

Seeing all those countries light up in red and then in black, I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I’m failing. I’m failing to save the world!’

Interviewee: Mike Whelan

I was playing it the other day and I managed to get to 99%, and then it said I’d failed, which I was very annoyed about.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

Plague Inc is a popular game that’s been around for nearly a decade. Inspired by a handful of other pandemic-related games, it’s goal was to be the bug. You play the part of a pathogen trying to wipe out humanity. You win when the last human on Earth falls. It was a fun concept until 2020 rolled around and the world had to face down a very real deadly pandemic. At this point, life started to imitate art a little too closely, says the game’s designer, James James Vaughan, the founder of Ndemic Creations.

Interviewee: James Vaughan

Back in January/February time when COVID was just getting started, we saw a huge surge of interest in Plague Inc because when people are curious about disease, they want to understand more about it. We always see an increase in people playing. And it was quite an uncomfortable feeling for us because our game is a fictitious game but suddenly I was seeing what I’d put in my game all those years ago suddenly playing out in the real world, and that was quite a disconcerting feeling for us.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

So, James decided to make an update to his game and be the good guys instead of the deadly pathogen. It turns out that’s a lot harder than it seems. But Plague Inc’s popularity opened some opportunities for the company. It’s educational value had captured the attention of people working in public health in the past, and James was able to reach out for advice from organisations like the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Ndemic Creations also donated US$250,000 split between the WHO and CEPI to help fight the pandemic.

Interviewee: James Vaughan

Because I’m just making a game about it going off my limited research, whereas there are people who spend their whole lives building up deep expertise in the topic of infectious disease, and so I knew that I needed to have a number of respectable experts who could help make sure that we were tackling the subject matter in the correct way.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

For months, working remotely, James and his team built realistic public health and economic aspects into the game, like lockdowns, furlough schemes and vaccine development. Now, when it comes to vaccines, not only do you have to develop one, you have to start building up the manufacturing capacity for it or else you’ll never have enough doses to go round. Mike Whelan is one of the experts who advised James on the game. Mike’s a project leader with CEPI, which has been funding and guiding the development of several COVID-19 vaccines.

Interviewee: Mike Whelan

They thought about all the different scenarios and then just worked through them with us to say whether they were realistic or not. Now, obviously, we’ve had to cut corners. There’s a lot of stuff that’s just not terribly interesting. But pretty much most of it’s there and most of it is pretty much spot on, so we were impressed with it and if people get a general overview of how we do things and how we spend public funds, that’s got to be a good thing.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

It’s also a good game… and a pretty difficult one. There are so many decisions. Do I spend my limited resources on test and trace programmes, securing supply chains for personal protective equipment. How aggressive should I be with travel bans? These sorts of decisions mirror to an extent what goes on in the real world. This impressed Malia Jones, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She shifted much of her work during the global pandemic to communicating difficult epidemiological concepts to the public.

Interviewee: Malia Jones

If the mission was to show how hard it is to be in charge in a pandemic, mission accomplished, right. It’s really hard. It’s tough. In fact, I’d say I lost much more frequently than I won the game. They have a list of the available measures to control an outbreak that I think is pretty thorough, things like social distancing and border controls, clinical interventions, but I think that they’re obviously implemented in a way that’s not very realistic, right. We don’t actually get to flip a switch and just turn on contact tracing worldwide unfortunately.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

And of course, it can’t be entirely realistic. If you successfully manage to research and manufacture a vaccine, for example, a few dozen little blue jets will fly it out to every country on the map in an instant, and then everyone takes it. The entire world comes together and you get the prize for saving the day. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen in the real world. But regardless of those hopeful simplifications, James thinks his game is proving instructive to players.

Interviewee: James Vaughan

We have huge numbers of people saying to us, ‘Hey, this is really helping me understand what’s going on. This is just making this big, unknown thing seem a little bit less scary.’ We didn’t set out to make the game educational initially, but our games do educate people by accident. As they play the game, they learn stuff and maybe it might make somebody think, ‘You know what, I might wash my hands a bit more,’ or ‘I might wear a face mask after all because I saw how it worked in Plague Inc.’

[Music from Plague Inc: The Cure]

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

These kinds of changes in perception to public health messaging couldn’t be more important right now, as COVID-19 surges around the world. And for any armchair epidemiologists out there, Plague Inc: The Cure gives at least a glimpse of what it’s like to try and guide pandemic preparedness and response. And in the meantime, while I struggle with my fungus, I take some solace in knowing that I’m not alone in feeling so stumped.

Interviewee: Malia Jones

I think, though, the big take away is really about how hard it is to make these decisions in a way that is informed and also how hard it is to keep your grip on something as slippery and random and hard to control as a pandemic, right. I tried many times to get containment in the first country that had the outbreak of disease or the disease was first detected. I tried several times to just throw everything I had at containment to keep it from spreading around the world and was never successful, and I think that’s actually pretty accurate in terms of how hard it is to control a novel infectious disease worldwide.

Interviewer: Brendan Maher

On the plus side, with the game, you can always start over.

[Music from Plague Inc: The Cure]

Host: Nick Howe

That was Brendan Maher. You also heard from James Vaughan, Mike Whelan and Malia Jones. We’ll put a link to where you can find out more about Plague Inc: The Cure in this week’s show notes.

Host: Nick Howe

Time for our first festive song, and to prepare you, think back to July and a busy time for planetary science. Here’s We three spacecraft travel to Mars performed by Emily Renshaw, Lucy Gove, Richard Navarro and Phil Self. If you want to sing along, head over to the show notes where you’ll find the lyrics.

We three spacecraft travel to Mars

Performed by Emily Renshaw, Lucy Gove, Richard Navarro and Phil Self

We three spacecraft travel to Mars

Bearing probes we traverse afarRockets firing

Launching, flying

One by one we depart

Oh-oh one from China

one the States

one the Arab Emirates…

Careful timing

Worlds aligning

launching on the perfect dates.

First is Hope from the UAE

I map weather, orbitally

My ambition

our first mission

Interplanetary

Oh-oh one from China

one the States

one the Arab Emirates…

Careful timing

Worlds aligning

launching on the perfect dates.

Next Tianwen-one will debut

I’ve a rover and orbiter too

Plus a lander

And I’ve planned a

Mission returning soon

Oh-oh one from China

one the States

one the Arab Emirates…

Careful timing

Worlds aligning

launching on the perfect dates.

Last it’s NASA’s emissary

I have Perseverance you’ll see,

A car-sized rover

Rolling o-over

Sampling geology

Oh-oh one from China

one the Statesone the Arab Emirates…

Careful timing

Worlds aligning

launching on the perfect dates.

Host: Nick Howe

Coming up in the show, we’ll have our annual festive game, where members of the podcast team, including myself, will be demonstrating our audio creativity. Trust me, you do not want to miss that. But first, it’s time for the Research Highlights, read by Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

If you’re feeling a little chilly this winter, perhaps you might want to consider a quick roll in some horse manure to warm up. At least, that’s what seems to work for giant pandas, who scientists have spotted rolling in horse dung on cold days. A team of researchers studied 38 instances of giant pandas rolling in horse manure in the Qinling Mountains in China. They noticed that the bears usually chose manure less than ten days old, prompting them to wonder if the animals were seeking certain volatile compounds only present in fresh dung. Experiments with a few such chemicals revealed that they allowed mice to better withstand cold temperatures by blocking cold receptors in their skin. Since the majority of the observed panda rolling events happened in temperatures below 15ºC, the researchers concluded that the pandas use these chemicals in the manure to make themselves feel warmer during winter. Read that research in full at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

If you’ve been inside for most of 2020, it might be the year you’ve finally perfected your artisanal sourdough loaf. Now, a survey of yeasts from around the world shows that over the course of centuries, industrial and artisanal breadmaking have led to the evolution of two distinct lineages of baker’s yeast. Bakers can ferment their dough with industrial cultures of yeast or with a sourdough starter, which contains yeast as well as other microbes. Researchers analysed 31 mass-produced strains of yeast and 198 strains found in sourdough starters in order to characterise the different leavening agents. While these yeasts are all a single species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the strains are quite different. The researchers found that industrial strains of baker’s yeast are more genetically similar to beermaking yeasts, whereas sourdough strains resemble yeasts found in natural environments like water or fruit. They think that preserving a range of breadmaking practices will help maintain this genetic diversity. See if that research is the best thing since sliced bread at Current Biology.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

It’s become quite the tradition round these parts that we play a party game in our last episode of the year. Now, I had a little listen back, and it turns out I’m actually the reigning champion, but like the magnanimous winner I am, I’m taking a backseat this year to let someone else have a taste of victory. So, without further ado, let me hand you over to our quizmaster, Shamini Bundell.

Shamini Bundell

Welcome to a very special event, one you’ve been waiting all year for, and what a long year it’s been. But never fear, the time is finally here. It’s the Nature Podcast Audio Charades Competition: Lockdown Edition! If you don’t remember this exciting and much anticipated event, it’s because I made it up last week. Because like many of you, here at the Nature Podcast, we’ve all been working at home for the past nine months, so this game is specifically invented to work over a good, old-fashioned conference call because we know you love those, and it uses items from around the competitor’s homes. And our competitors today are Lizzie Gibney…

Lizzie Gibney

Hello, Shamini.

Shamini Bundell

…Dan Fox…

Dan Fox

Hello, Shamini.

Shamini Bundell

…and Nick Howe.

Nick Howe

Hello, Shamini.

Shamini Bundell

So, I’ve told you the rules for this game already, and you’ve actually gone away and done your prep, but the for the benefit of the audience, the aim of this game is to represent a 2020 science news story using only sound effects… hence audio charades. But the twist is that these sound effects can only be made by things that are lying around your house. So, I’ve given you some assignments. How did you all get on finding household items to make sounds with?

Lizzie Gibney

It was a bit of a nightmare. There were so many things where I thought if I could just make the sound myself like with my mouth or get a recording from online or something, it would be really easy, but it’s actually really hard.

Nick Howe

Yeah, I’ve just moved as well so finding things that I could actually use was also quite difficult, so my sounds consist of whatever I could grab nearest to me, and we’ll see how this goes.

Dan Fox

It turns out that an unexpected benefit of having a new baby is a wide collection of noise-making material just in the house, so some toys may feature.

Shamini Bundell

I feel that maybe this challenge is harder than it might first appear, but that will be for us to judge when we hear what you’ve come up with. Let’s kick off, and to start with, I think we should start with the wonderful Nick Howe. Presenting the first 2020 science news story represented by Nature Podcast Audio Charades Competition: Lockdown Edition…

Nick Howe

So, this is a combination of sounds. Let me just try and put it altogether live.

[Nick’s audio charades]

Lizzie Gibney

So, it sounds like it’s some kind of spring.

Nick Howe

I cannot confirm or deny this.

Lizzie Gibney

And the second bit was a kind of snappy, clappy thing.

Dan Fox

Yeah. Is this a physics story?

Nick Howe

Yes.

Dan Fox

Spring gave it away.

Lizzie Gibney

That means it’s something that I should know.

Nick Howe

It is one you covered, Lizzie.

Lizzie Gibney

Oh no!

Dan Fox

The clap story, the big story of the summer.

Lizzie Gibney

I’ve done so many springy, clap stories. I’m just trying to pick between them.

Nick Howe

What do springs do when they make these sounds?

Lizzie Gibney

They wobble.

Nick Howe

They vibrate.

Lizzie Gibney

They vibrate and then they stop vibrating so much.

Nick Howe

Yes.

Lizzie Gibney

Ah, so I think I know. Is it the super-cold molecules?

Nick Howe

It is, yes! Do you know why it is?

Lizzie Gibney

Yes, so the whole point is that they have thermal vibrations and that’s what you’re trying to get rid of, so you cool them down and then they vibrate less and less and then you are able to put them in this extremely cool quantum state, or we will be able to very soon, and they can do all kinds of funky things because they’re molecules rather than atoms on their own, so they can interact in other ways and make lots of very cool quantum states.

Nick Howe

Yeah, so this clappy thing, it’s called collisional cooling, so that was my interpretation of things colliding with them.

Lizzie Gibney

I see. So, they go wobble, wobble, wobble and then they collided and then wobble no more.

Nick Howe

Yes, that was the aim. It’s a ruler and a die. So, the ruler I just twanged like you did in school, and then just lengthened it out and lengthened it out to make the vibrations less and less. And then a dice I just hit on the table.

Shamini Bundell

I love the creativity there. That was excellent. Particle vibrations represented by a ruler. Perfect.

Lizzie Gibney

Very good.

Shamini Bundell

Next up, so, Lizzie Gibney, slight advantage there being one of your stories that you got that one, but would you like to present us all now with your scientific sounds.

Lizzie Gibney

Sure, okay, so…

[Lizzie’s audio charades]

Nick Howe

So, it sounded like water being splooshed about and a hoover.

Lizzie Gibney

It’s not a hoover.

Shamini Bundell

It’s a hairdryer, right?

Lizzie Gibney

Correct.

Nick Howe

So, is water getting warmer?

Dan Fox

Is it an egg?

Lizzie Gibney

It might be.

Nick Howe

Oh, that doesn’t help me at all.

Dan Fox

Warm water and an egg. Is it life starting in a pond from last week?

Lizzie Gibney

It is!

Nick Howe

Oh, wow!

Dan Fox

Yay!

Nick Howe

I did not get that at all.

Dan Fox

Brilliant. That was mine.

Lizzie Gibney

So, it’s life started not deep in the oceans but in these warm puddles that would go dry and then wet and then dry and then wet.

Nick Howe

Oh, they were drying out with the hairdryer. That’s really clever.

Lizzie Gibney

I used yesterday’s egg shells rather than just ruining a whole pack of eggs.

Shamini Bundell

Right, Dan Fox, I think that means it is your turn.

Dan Fox

Right, I just need to kind of position my sound effects because there is a few for this and I kind of have to have them all at the same time.

[Dan’s audio charades]

Shamini Bundell

Is this one of your children’s toys, that initial sort of squeaky rattling?

Dan Fox

That is a child’s toy. I would ignore the rattling and focus on the sort of squeaking.

Lizzie Gibney

A baby animal?

Nick Howe

And then it’s getting hammered?

Lizzie Gibney

That sounds very cruel to whatever baby animal we’re talking about here. Is this the uncrushable beetle?

Dan Fox

No, it is not the uncrushable beetle. Although I think the beetle would have been a better fit for the noises that I’ve made now. Maybe I should just say it was the uncrushable beetle.

Nick Howe

But it’s an animal?

Dan Fox

The first thing is an animal. The second thing is something around it.

Lizzie Gibney

Is it noise around it?

Dan Fox

It is noise around it.

Nick Howe

Oh is it the birds and noise, like the anthropogenic noise and birds?

Dan Fox

It’s noise and light pollution annoy birds.

Nick Howe

Oh, great.

Dan Fox

Well done.

Lizzie Gibney

Yay!

Shamini Bundell

Well done, Nick! This was your story, Nick, so can you summarise the story for us?

Nick Howe

Yeah, so this was like a huge survey of thousands of songbird nests across the US, the continental US, and they were basically looking at what the impacts of noise and light are on birds and it had lots of different effects but they were able to show that there were like direct effects on bird reproduction of noise and light. For example, if the bird had a call that was masked or covered by the sound of humans then they wouldn’t do so well reproductively because they’re not able to attract a mate and stuff like that. That was an example of one of the effects.

Dan Fox

Yeah, and clearly you got that from the hammering and drilling and the bird toy noise.

Nick Howe

I’m very impressed Lizzie got that because this was my story and I had no idea.

Shamini Bundell

Well, that was an excellent showing from everyone with some extremely tricky scientific sound effect challenges there. I think it was relatively evenly spread but I’m going to arbitrarily declare the winner of the Nature Podcast Audio Charades Competition: Lockdown Edition to be Lizzie Gibney.

Nick Howe

That’s fair.

Lizzie Gibney

Thank you so much.

Shamini Bundell

And the crowd goes wild.

Lizzie Gibney

I would like to thank my mum. No, genuinely, it is her hairdryer actually.

Dan Fox

Celebrate with a giant bowl of eggs now.

Lizzie Gibney

Yes, a very large omelette is how I will celebrate.

Shamini Bundell

You’ve all done amazing work and everyone, you can join us next year for more cut-throat competition and more high-stakes tomfoolery in some completely different game that we will just make up next year. But now, it’s back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Host: Nick Howe

Finally on the show, the year is starting to wrap up and so it’s time for looking back and reflection on the Nature Podcast. To do that, we’re looking at Nature’s 10, Nature’s list of ten people who mattered in the past year in science. Joining me for some reflection is Nature’s chief features editor, Richard Monastersky. Now, Richard, your team are the people behind Nature’s 10, so maybe to start us off, you could tell us a little bit about how you decide who goes on the list each year.

Richard Monastersky

So, we try and take a look at what happened in the course of the year and then pick individual people to showcase some important events.

Host: Nick Howe

And so, this is the perfect way to reflect on the past year. We won’t have time to talk about everyone that’s on the list, but in the first instance, I wanted to talk about someone who’s been quite central to the whole pandemic, and that’s the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. I mean, Richard, it may actually go without saying why he made it on to the list, but can you just talk me through what the thought process was for him?

Richard Monastersky

So, Tedros, as he’s known, has been at the centre of news about the pandemic since the beginning of the year. He has been informing world leaders and the public about the dangers of the pandemic and rallying nations to respond to it.

Host: Nick Howe

And it’s not always gone particularly smoothly for him. As I understand it, there was a lot of criticism of his role as well.

Richard Monastersky

Right, there’s been some concern that the WHO has been slow to react in some ways to information that was coming out about the pandemic, and that the WHO and Tedros may have been a little bit too gentle with China in terms of how China was releasing information that could have come out several days or weeks earlier about what was actually happening at the early stages of the pandemic.

Host: Nick Howe

But overall, like what are researchers views on Tedros?

Richard Monastersky

Many researchers and public health officials are complimentary about how Tedros has been handling this. He’s had a lot of experience with outbreaks and won a lot of praise for how he handled the Ebola outbreak, and then he came out with some very strong statements early about how the outbreak was growing in China and the risks to the rest of the world and that advocated for some strong actions, and many nations responded quickly and we saw them actually do a good job of controlling the outbreaks there.

Host: Nick Howe

And so, it’s not, obviously, an easy position that he was put in. This was quite the unprecedented situation, and quite early on in this as well, the Trump administration made moves to actually withdraw funding from the WHO, and how did Tedros respond to this?

Richard Monastersky

When the Trump administration came out with criticisms of Tedros in April and the WHO, Tedros himself responded very diplomatically, and at that point, I think he was hoping that he could work with the United States to bring them back on board and to have them be a partner with the WHO and the rest of the world, which ultimately did not succeed.

Host: Nick Howe

And the next person I wanted to discuss is, again, associated with the pandemic – maybe a little bit of a theme of 2020 – but this person was involved in the hunt for a vaccine, and this is Kathrin Jansen. Richard, what can you tell me about her?

Richard Monastersky

Kathrin Jansen is head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, one of the drug firms that’s been working to develop a COVID vaccine, and Pfizer, along with BioNTech, a German company, raced ahead of many others to develop a vaccine based on messenger RNA.

Host: Nick Howe

Well, I mean, there have been many people involved in the search for a vaccine. Why, in particular, did you think to highlight Kathrin Jansen?

Richard Monastersky

We decided to highlight Jansen because Pfizer has been one of the leaders from the start, and did come out first with results of phase III trials that showed the vaccine to be very promising and was the first to achieve approval in the UK based on those results.

Host: Nick Howe

I guess this was quite a feat as well. RNA vaccines are still quite new, and getting the approval process, as well, through quite quickly, that’s not a small thing.

Richard Monastersky

Right, that’s a first for vaccines based on messenger RNA, and if it works, it’s a very promising development because these kinds of vaccines could be developed more quickly than traditional vaccines for other types of diseases.

Host: Nick Howe

And Jansen has form in this area as well. Throughout her career, she’s been involved in the creation or the implementation of many different vaccines.

Richard Monastersky

Right, so, in previous efforts she’s worked on human papillomavirus and on pneumonia and has had a number of successes with different vaccines, and this could be the biggest one yet.

Host: Nick Howe

Yes, certainly, and we’ll have to wait and see how successful this vaccine is. But for the last person I wanted to talk about, I wanted to move away from coronavirus and instead focus on a different disease that maybe didn’t get quite as many headlines, and that’s dengue fever. And, Richard, this year, Nature has highlighted Adi Utarini for her work in this field.

Richard Monastersky

Right, so Utarini ran a very successful trial in Indonesia that showed a method for combatting dengue, and the way they did that is they infected mosquitoes with a bacterium called Wolbachia, and that bacterium prevents mosquitoes from transmitting different viruses, including dengue. So, once they had those engineered mosquitoes, they placed eggs in different parts of the city, and that cut down on transmission of dengue by a very significant amount.

Host: Nick Howe

Yeah, so I actually remember this one because I discussed on the podcast once, and this was a very successful trial. It reduced dengue fever by almost 77% in parts of this Indonesian city, Yogyakarta, so it was quite the success.

Richard Monastersky

It was. There had been some smaller trials in Australia and Vietnam, but this trial in Indonesia was the largest and it was a randomised controlled trial, so it was very successful and people are incredibly enthusiastic about this technique and hopes for eliminating dengue from some major cities.

Host: Nick Howe

I mean, this is a terrible disease, so anything that could help fight against it would be amazing. But I’m surprised as well that she was able to get the buy-in from communities. She’s saying like, ‘We want to fight dengue by releasing more mosquitoes.’ That must have been quite the process.

Richard Monastersky

So, one of the things that made this trial very successful was Utarini’s team managed to work with the communities that would host these mosquitoes and by using media announcements and even paintings and face-to-face meetings and they had a film competition, they were able to inform the community about how this worked and allay fears, and so people in the city were very keen to take part in this trial, and that was one of the reasons why it was so successful.

Host: Nick Howe

Yeah, I guess that’s almost as important as the science itself, getting people to actually be involved with it. But I think that’s all we’ve got time for. Richard, thanks so much for joining me.

Richard Monastersky

Thanks, Nick. It’s been a pleasure.

Host: Nick Howe

And listeners, if you want to find out more about everyone on this year’s list, then make sure you check out the feature which will be in the show notes.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, there we have it for another year. Later this week, there’ll be the final Coronapod of 2020, where we’ll have a retrospective of some of the year’s most significant pandemic-related research papers. And we’ll be back next week with our clips of the year show. But before we go, a huge thank you to each and every one of you who have stuck with us this year or who found us for the first time. It wasn’t easy recording from places like the South London basement but we got there. This year, of all years, I also want to extend my thanks, our thanks, to all the people who help keep the world spinning. To end the show, we’re going to leave you with one final song. It celebrates one of the biggest scientific achievements of a year which has been tough at best, and one which we hope might make 2021 a little bit brighter. We’re back in a few weeks. But from me and Nick and everyone on the podcast, stay safe. See you next year. To play us out, here’s All I want for Christmas is vaccines, performed by Kim Collman.

All I want for Christmas is Vaccines

Performed by Kim Collman

I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need,

I don’t care about he presents underneath the Christmas tree,

I just want you for my own,

More than you will ever know,

Grant me all my dreams.

all I want for Christmas is Vaccines

It could come from Oxford Uni,

Germany or from the States

RNA sounds lovely to me

even viral vector based,

I am done with social distance

given up on test and trace

Scientists have been so busy

I don’t care who’s won the race

s’long as they are tested right

randomized and double blind

Grant me all my dreams

all I want for Christmas is vaccines

I won’t ask for much this Christmas

twenty twenty’s been too tense

I just want good efficacy

And clear dosing regimens

I know it has been a challenge

Running phases one, two, three

But results are so exciting

If only preliminary

I just want you here tonight

the most at need prioritized

Grant me all my dreams

Baby all I want for Christmas is vaccines

Sure they’ve been developed more quickly than before

With streamlined protocols, new funding and platforms

It shows what science can do

with focussed clinical review

Santa, won’t you bring me the one I really need?

Won’t you please bring the vaccine to me?

Oh I know it’s a lot this Christmas

billions of doses sold

I know it won’t stop transmission,

And some must stay super-cold

But safety data seems just fine

And regulators say alright,

Grant me all my dreams,

Baby all I want for Christmas is vaccines

All I want for Christmas is vaccines

Subjects

Nature Careers

Jobs

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing

Search

Quick links