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Workers disinfect a residential community on the street in Hebei Province of China

Workers spray disinfectant on a street in Shijiazhuang, China, in January 2020. Credit: Zhai Yujia/China News Service via Getty

To slow the spread, focus on fresh air

As evidence has accumulated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding about the virus has changed: the majority of transmissions occur as a result of infected people spewing large droplets and small particles called aerosols when they cough, talk or breathe. Surface transmission, although possible, is not thought to be a significant risk. That doesn’t mean that cleaning doorknobs and other surfaces is pointless, but it needn’t be a priority, scientists say. “Excessive attention on making surfaces pristine takes up limited time and resources that would be better spent on ventilation or the decontamination of the air that people breathe,” says engineer Linsey Marr, who studies airborne disease transmission.

Nature | 11 min read

J&J’s one-shot vaccine is effective

The pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has announced that its vaccine was 66% effective overall in protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 at 28 days after a single shot. Although the vaccine was 72% effective in the United States, it was only 57% effective in South Africa, where a SARS-CoV-2 variant that can evade some immune responses has been spreading. The vaccine was 66% effective in Latin American countries, including Brazil, where worrisome variants have been discovered. An effective single-dose vaccine would offer faster protection than most of the vaccines approved for use so far, which are administered in two shots given weeks apart.

Nature | 5 min read

How to redesign vaccines against variants

As evidence grows that new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can evade immunity produced by vaccines or previous infections, scientists are exploring the idea of redesigning the vaccines currently being rolled out worldwide. Nature explores the open questions about updating the world’s coronavirus vaccines. “I think it’s inevitable for the vaccines to maintain tip-top efficacy, they will need to be updated. The only question is how often and when,” says virologist Paul Bieniasz.

Nature | 8 min read

Features & opinion

Outlook: Reproductive health

The freedom for people to choose when to have babies provides a sturdy foundation for families and societies to thrive. A collection of articles looks at the latest research in birth control, advances in the field and how real-world factors influence the success or failure of family-planning initiatives.

• ‘Set and forget’ devices are the most effective forms of birth control available. But few people choose to use long-lasting methods such as intra-uterine devices and hormone-releasing implants. Cost, availability and lack of awareness are all barriers to the uptake of these forms of long-acting reversible contraception that must be overcome, as is their dark history as a tool for reproductive coercion. (Nature | 8 min read)

• The development of male contraceptives has slowed in the past decade, but some preliminary studies are showing promise. (Nature | 8 min read)

• Access to affordable birth control can improve the social and economic status of women and their communities, especially in low-income countries. (Nature | 10 min read)

• In the United States, the tangled state of health-insurance coverage and political anxiety about abortion means that, for many women, access to birth control has fallen and the number of unintended pregnancies has gone up. Economist Martha Bailey explains the impact on economic inequality. (Nature | 5 min read)

Nature | Collection of articles and research

This collection is editorially independent and produced with financial support from Bayer.

Source of the super antibodies

Our immune systems’ ability to churn out a countless variety of antibodies means that sometimes, someone makes a spectacularly successful one — an antibody that can be turned into a drug to protect many people. The coronavirus antibodies in the blood of one person from Seattle, Washington, were developed into the promising COVID drug bamlanivimab, made by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. The work builds on efforts to develop an antibody treatment for HIV, based on the uniquely powerful antibodies from a person known as Donor 45. This week scientists announced that they finally had the first evidence that an antibody drug could protect against HIV.

Wired | 25 min read

Read more: Antibody therapies could be a bridge to a coronavirus vaccine — but will the world benefit? (Nature | 6 min read, from August)

Lessons from the first vaccines

Smallpox was completely eradicated in 1980 thanks to more than a century of vaccination programmes. Explore the history of the first vaccines in eighteenth century England, the early competition between clinicians with different inoculation methods and the challenges of industrializing the practice of immunization.

The London Review of Books | 18 min read

Audio long-read: The forces that shape life

At every stage of life, from embryo to adulthood, physical forces push, pull and squeeze at bodies from within. Yet despite their importance, relatively little is known about how cells sense, respond to and generate these forces. Discover the role of mechanical forces in the body, from embryo to adult, in this audio feature read by Nature’s Benjamin Thompson.

Nature | 15 min listen

This is an audio version of The secret forces that squeeze and pull life into shape (Nature | 11 min read)

Snow science solves mystery of icy tragedy

Nine students who never returned from a cross-country skiing trip in Russia’s Ural Mountains in the winter of 1959 were probably killed in a slab avalanche while sleeping in their tents. The puzzling circumstances of their bodily remains had sparked wild speculation (Were they attacked by monsters?) over what happened that deadly night. Analysis of weather and snow conditions at the time and the precise location of the accident has finally revealed that they lost their lives in a freak avalanche accident.

Nature | 9 min video

Reference: Communications Earth & Environment paper

Quote of the day

“Lifting the ban is a good step, but it must translate into actual facilitation of visas for scientific exchange.”

Physician and epidemiologist Wael Al-Delaimy is among the scientists responding to the revocation of former US president Donald Trump’s ban on people from some Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. (Science | 6 min read)