Daily briefing: See a COVID vaccine get made step-by-step

How the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine is made, anti-twinkles hint at antimatter stars, and the deadly toll of inequality.

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Health disparities

Portrait of a migrant agricultural worker wearing a face covering as he works in an orange grove in California's Central Valley

Agricultural workers are considered essential to the US economy; it’s a label that has come at a cost.Credit: Brian L. Frank for Nature

Can science confront inequality’s deadly toll?

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the people who work in the fields, orchards and meat-packing plants are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Food and agricultural workers in California had an almost 40% increased risk of dying last year, compared with the risk for the state’s general population. Tragically, this inequality is no surprise: a century of research has shown that social determinants drive disease. The question is, what is science going to do about it? “We know what the impact is of a lack of employment, a lack of fair wages, a lack of transport, of poor education and racism,” says public-health historian Graham Mooney. “So, if public health has no power to influence these issues, then public health becomes nothing.”

Nature | 23 min read

Charts comparing the rates of COVID-19-related deaths, hospitalizations and cases by race and job losses by income level.

In the United States, Black, Latinx and Indigenous people are roughly three times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as are white, non-Hispanic people.The pandemic has the potential to widen economic inequality. Low-wage workers experienced some of the heaviest job losses in 2020, whereas higher-wage workers gained nearly one million jobs.Sources: CDC (left); Economic Policy Inst./EPI Current Population Survey (right)

Notable quotable

“We call them essential, but they’re considered expendable.”

An anonymous public-health graduate student, whose mother works in a meat-packing plant where many have died of COVID-19, grapples with the impact of poverty in one of the world’s richest nations.

Brazil rejects Sputnik V vaccine

Brazilian health regulators have not authorized Sputnik V, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Russia’s state-run Gamaleya Institute. Regulators cited a lack of information guaranteeing the jab’s safety, quality and effectiveness. They also flagged quality-control issues, including the presence of un-neutralized adenoviruses that could infect those who get the vaccine. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is managing Sputnik V’s global sales, said the decision was politically motivated. “The Gamaleya Center, which carries out strict quality control of all Sputnik V production sites, has confirmed that no replication-competent adenoviruses (RCA) were ever found in any of the Sputnik V vaccine batches that have been produced,” it said. Sputnik V has been authorized in Russia and 60 other regions.

The Financial Times | 4 min read

Features & opinion

Two scientists on long-distance love

Brazilian chemical engineers Gidiane Scaratti and Rafael Kenji Nishihora have spent about three of their eight years together separated by their careers. Now, both are back in Brazil — albeit in two different cities — and they’ve shared their advice for getting through a long-distance relationship in science.

Nature | 6 min read

How the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine is made

The process of turning a loop of DNA containing the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine takes 60 days and a jaw-dropping amount of dry ice. Walk through the process and meet the scientists in this step-by-step recipe.

The New York Times | 8 min read

Anti-twinkles hint at antimatter stars

Gamma-ray signals could be coming from antistars — stars made up completely of antimatter. Astrophysicists analysed 10 years of observations from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and found, among nearly 5,800 sources, 14 that might fit the profile of antistars. Extrapolating from that data, researchers estimate that somewhere between one in 10 and one in 400,000 stars could be made of antimatter — if they exist at all. “If, by any chance, one can prove the existence of the antistars … that would be a major blow for the standard cosmological model,” says theoretical astrophysicist Pierre Salati. It “would really imply a significant change in our understanding of what happened in the early universe”.

ScienceNews | 5 min read

Reference: Physical Review D paper

Quote of the day

“Ridiculous. How could I be lonely? You have me and I have you (plus the fuel cell), and that view out the window.”

Astronaut Michael Collins rejects the label of ‘loneliest man in the universe’ in a letter addressing the Apollo 11 command module. In 1969, he orbited alone in the module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the Moon, and his delight in the experience radiates from the page. Collins died yesterday, aged 90. (National Geographic | 6 min read, from 2019)

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