Daily briefing: Superspreading is a key to ending the pandemic

Superspreading drives the COVID pandemic — and could help to tame it. Plus, why COVID vaccines are hard to compare and game theory points the way for fairer sharing of doses.

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A man sits while medical workers prepare vaccines.

A COVID-19 vaccination centre in Dhaka.Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters/Alamy

Why it’s hard to compare COVID vaccines

What is the best COVID vaccine? It’s not as simple as comparing reported effectiveness. Supplies, costs, the logistics of deployment, the durability of the protection they offer and their ability to fend off emerging viral variants all factor in for decision makers. And even measures of efficacy come with a degree of uncertainty: trials might have differing definitions of important criteria, such as what constitutes a ‘severe’ bout of COVID-19. Researchers are gathering crucial data from vaccine roll-outs, testing different doses and combinations and keeping an eye on vaccines coming on the scene. Eventually, the aim is to be more strategic about which vaccines to use in which settings.

Nature | 6 min read

Huge database to track COVID

An enormous international database launched today will help epidemiologists to answer burning questions about the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. collects anonymized information about individuals who’ve had COVID, such as the date when they first had symptoms, the date they received a positive test and their travel history. The Google-funded effort builds on an ad-hoc spreadsheet that epidemiologists cobbled together in the early days of the pandemic.

Nature | 6 min read

Female economists face toxic Q&As

Female economists are asked 12% more questions during their talks than their male colleagues — and the questions are more likely to be patronizing or hostile. Researchers attended hundreds of economics seminars and job-market talks, which are part of the recruitment process, across most leading departments in the field in the United States. “It measures something that we thought couldn’t be measured,” says economist Alicia Sasser Modestino. “It links it to a potential reason that women are underrepresented in the profession.”

The New York Times | 6 min read

Reference: working paper (to be published next week by the National Bureau of Economic Research)

Features & opinion

Infection connections. Graphic showing reconstructed chains of SARS-CoV-2 infections in Hunan province in early 2020.

Source: K. Sun et al. Science 371, eabe2424 (2021)

Superspreading is a key to the pandemic

Superspreading, in which some individuals infect many people but most infect only a few, if any, seems to be especially pronounced in COVID-19. The jury is still out on whether biology or behaviour is central to why some people are more infectious than others. But there is ample evidence of what makes a superspreader event: prolonged indoor gatherings with poor ventilation, and aerosol-intense activities such as singing and exercise. Quashing superspreader events through prevention and contact tracing will be key to bringing the pandemic under control.

Nature | 12 min read

Game theory points the way for vaccines

COVAX, the global sharing mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines, is getting pushed to the back of the queue in favour of direct deals between nations and vaccine companies, notes physician-scientist Gavin Yamey. Not only is this unfair, but it seems likely to prolong the pandemic as uncontrolled spread leads to dangerous virus variants. An immediate solution is for richer nations to share their doses, argues Yamey. “With such collaboration, global vaccine distribution would no longer be a zero-sum game,” he says.

Nature | 5 min read

Audio long-read: the Thundercloud Project

Researchers in Japan are trying to understand why thunderstorms fire out bursts of powerful gamma radiation — and what it says about the origins of lightning. Let Nature’s Benjamin Thompson read you our gripping feature on one of the biggest mysteries in atmospheric science.

Nature | 23 min listen

This is an audio version of our feature: Mystery gamma rays could help solve age-old lightning puzzle (Nature | 14 min read)

Me and John James Audubon

“Race is an issue in every aspect of American life,” writes Black ornithologist J. Drew Lanham. “For birders, it is an issue fledged from the nest of its ‘founding father,’ John James Audubon.” Audubon enslaved people and held white-supremecist views, and might have been multiracial himself. Lanham grapples with his own feelings about the iconic birder and how the organizations bearing Audubon’s name can press forward.

Audubon Magazine | 19 min read

Quote of the day

“Dare mighty things.”

The message encoded in the red-and-white stripes on the landing parachute of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. (DevonLive | 4 min read)

Inspired by a tweet by glaciologist Megan Thompson-Munson about how we’re drawing icebergs all wrong, software developer Joshua Tauberer built an interactive iceberg maker so we can try it for ourselves.

This newsletter is always evolving — tell us what you think! Please send your feedback to

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 12 March 2021: An earlier version of this briefing erroneously stated that the tweet by Megan Thompson-Munson was about drawing glaciers.

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