NATURE BRIEFING

Daily briefing: 2020 was the joint hottest year ever recorded

Only 2016 was as hot as 2020, and it had a warmth-boosting El Niño. Plus, the trouble with new COVID vaccine trials and how machine learning is cleaning up microscopy images.

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Map showing land surface temperature anomalies from 19 March to 20 June 2020

The Arctic and northern Siberia saw particularly extreme average temperatures in 2020, with a large region 3C higher than the long-term average.Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

2020 was the joint hottest year ever

Last year had the joint highest global temperatures on record. Only 2016 was as hot, but that year saw a natural warmth-boosting El Niño weather event. Temperature data released by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service showed that the past six years have been the hottest six on record. “Despite the absence of the cyclical boost of El Niño to global temperatures [we are] getting dangerously close to the 1.5 °C limit,” says climate scientist Dave Reay. “Unless the global economic recovery from the nightmares of 2020 is a green one, the future of many millions of people around the world looks black indeed.”

The Guardian | 4 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

New vaccines confounded by existing rollouts

As we celebrate emergency approvals of the first COVID-19 vaccines, finding participants for trials of earlier-stage vaccine candidates has become challenging. We still need more vaccines that are less expensive, have fewer side effects and are easier to administer than those now in use. They would also bolster the world’s supply, ensuring quicker distribution to all countries. But placebo-controlled trials require that half of the participants receive a dummy shot. “Once you have a vaccine that is available,” notes vaccinologist Scott Halperin, “a placebo-controlled trial is no longer ethical or acceptable.” Next-generation vaccine makers are therefore considering ways of proving their products’ effectiveness without placebos.

Nature | 7 min read

Notable quotable

“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic.”

The United Kingdom’s health service is facing an onslaught of COVID patients because of the new virus variant, says England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty. Currently, around one in 50 people across the UK is infected, said Whitty. (The Guardian)

Coronavirus Research highlights: 1-minute reads

• An early dose of blood plasma from recovered people cuts the risk of severe COVID in those at high risk. Researchers treated people who were over age 75 or had pre-existing conditions with antibody-laden blood, within 72 hours of symptom onset. Severe COVID developed at about half the rate in the study participants who received plasma compared with that in the placebo group. (Reference: New England Journal of Medicine paper)

• Two independent analyses have found that a new SARS-CoV-2 variant overtaking the United Kingdom is indeed more transmissible than other forms of the virus. Both found it to be roughly 50% more transmissible than other variants. (Reference: medRxiv preprint 1 and medRxiv preprint 2 — both not yet peer reviewed)

• Rapid COVID-19 tests that trade away a degree of reliability for speed could prove a valuable public-health tool in hard-hit communities. Researchers in San Francisco, California, tested about 3,300 people for SARS-CoV-2 with a rapid test and the gold-standard PCR test. The rapid test, BinaxNOW, detected 89% of the 237 people who tested positive with PCR — and it detected all of those who had high levels of the virus. The rapid results, which came back in in roughly one hour, meant that infected people could self-isolate quickly, reducing the chance that they would spread the infection. (Reference: Clinical Infectious Diseases paper)

Read more in Nature’s continuously updated selection of key COVID papers and preprints.

Features & opinion

Machine learning cleans microscopy images

Algorithms to filter out the noise from micrographs are yielding stunning results. But the magic does have risks: biologists must take care not to lose or muddle valuable signal. The stronger the noise, the more likely it is that the results are ‘hallucinations’ dreamt by the computer. And the algorithm’s reasoning isn’t always transparent. A growing collection of tools allows researchers to find and compare multiple de-noising approaches and to contribute new ones.

Nature | 8 min read

How the Blackwells unleashed the “caged force” of female physicians

A history of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, and her sister Emily, a fellow physician, reveals the complex personalities who dared to kick down the door of the all-male US medical establishment. “The path for women in medicine was not created by an army of kind, like-minded people,” writes reviewer Hannah Wunsch, herself an intensive-care doctor and epidemiologist, “but by determined individuals, each with her own agenda.”

Nature | 6 min read

Being a disabled lab leader in China

Microbiologist Christopher Rensing always aspired to build a large, world-class research group. A move to China made it possible — but also threw up challenges for an academic with a physical disability. Rensing shares practical tips for how he has coped, found support and made compromises.

Nature | 5 min read

Quote of the day

“If universities are serious about supporting the sharing of research beyond academia, they need to recognise these contributions in meaningful ways.”

Institutions should back up calls for public engagement with workload recognition, resourcing and training, argue education researchers Margaret Kristin Merga and Shannon Mason. (The Conversation)

On Friday, our intrepid penguin explorer was making friends with the Australian pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) nesting in Broken Bay, Australia. Did you find the Lief Penguinson? When you’re reading, here’s the answer.

This newsletter is always evolving — tell us what you think! Please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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