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Daily briefing: How vaccines might change the course of the pandemic

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Alondra Nelson speaking at a podium labelled 'Office of the president elect'.

Alondra Nelson has been appointed deputy director of science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

‘Inspired choice’ for US science post

Scientists are praising the selection of Alondra Nelson, a specialist in bioethics and social inequality, to help lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as deputy director for science and society. “Never before in living memory have the connections between our scientific world and our social world been quite so stark as they are today,” said Nelson at a 16 January event at which President Joe Biden introduced his OSTP team.

Nature | 5 min read

Read more: The latest on Biden’s science team (Nature | 9 min read)

See and hear gravitational waves

An interactive illustration offers the chance to explore every gravitational-wave event detected so far. These ripples in spacetime occur when two massive celestial bodies such as black holes collide. The chart, which uses LIGO and Virgo collaboration data, compares 50 cosmic smash-ups across time and includes audio for some of the mergers.

Science News | 4 min read

1,914

The number of western monarch butterflies counted in a survey on the California coast this winter — down from almost 30,000 last year and more than 1.2 million in the first count in 1997. (Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation blog | 8 min read)

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Are vaccination programmes working?

All eyes are on Israel, which has vaccinated roughly one-quarter of its population, for the first real-world evidence of a COVID vaccine’s efficacy. A preliminary analysis of people older than 60 who received the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine found that it cut the chances of testing positive for the virus by a third at 2 weeks after the first injection, compared with a matched group who did not receive the jab. More conclusive results will come after people receive their second shot. “We were happy to see this preliminary result that suggests a real-world impact in the approximate timing and direction we would have expected,” says epidemiologist Ran Balicer.

The big question is how vaccines will change the course of the pandemic. Teasing apart the population-level effects of vaccines on a drop in COVID-19 cases from the impacts of other public-health interventions, such as social distancing and lockdowns, will be tricky. In places where outbreaks are rampant or lower-efficacy vaccines are being rolled out, it will be some time before immunization significantly reduces transmission. “But even with an imperfect vaccine, that population-level impact on deaths could still be quite substantial,” says epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre.

Nature | 5 min read

Variant can elude immune responses

Researchers are trying to make sense of a tsunami of laboratory studies released this week that raise concerns about some emerging coronavirus variants and mutations. Evidence is growing that some variants could evade immune responses triggered by vaccines and previous infection. But the picture is still murky.

Nature | 7 min read

Features & opinion

Futures: Fear of the empty

The consolations of art — in a not-too-distant world in which advanced artificial intelligences have proved so useful that we allowed them to oversee much of modern life — is the topic of the latest short story for Nature’s Futures series. “The story explores resilience,” writes author Deborah Walker, “and imagines that art, craft, creation and its subsequent destruction might comfort someone facing such an overwhelming grief and guilt.”

Nature | 4 min read

The data behind hiring discrimination

An analysis of a huge dataset from Switzerland confirms decades of research that widespread racial and sex discrimination occurs in job hiring. “People from minority ethnic and immigrant backgrounds face 4 to almost 20% lower contact rates” compared with other Swiss people, public-policy researcher Dominik Hangartner tells the Nature Podcast.

Now, what did I come in here for again? Researchers have uncovered the neural process behind this ‘tip of the tongue’ feeling — in fruit flies. “We were able to map this transient forgetting phenomena to a single neuron," says neuroscientist Martin Sabandal.

Nature Podcast | 36 min listen

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Where I work

Image of the week

Videos show RNA folding as it’s made by cellular machinery.

This video shows RNA folding as it is made by cellular machinery. The computer model reflects real data collected from RNA experiments in the lab. In your body, folding like this takes place more than 10 quadrillion times a second. The videos surprised researchers by revealing that RNA often folds in surprising ways, such as tying itself into knots and then immediately untying itself to reach its final structure. (Nature | 4 min read) (Watch more of the 4 sec video in the Northwestern University press release)Julius Lucks/Northwestern University

Quote of the day

“We're hardly at the end of this road but coming back to the table globally at WHO and elsewhere is a heartening mile marker. Now the work begins.”

Loyce Pace, the executive director of the Global Health Council and a member of US President Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board, is among those welcoming the United States’ renewed relationship with the World Health Organization. (Forbes | 8 min read)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00205-w

This week, our avian explorer is traversing the steep hillside trees of Viñales Valley in Cuba. Can you find Leif Penguinson?

The answer will be in Monday’s e-mail, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.

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

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips and Ariana Remmel

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