Daily briefing: Coronavirus variants given Greek names

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Colourized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (red) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow)

Colourized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (red) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow).Credit: NIAID

Coronavirus variants given Greek names

When researchers in South Africa spotted a highly mutated strain of coronavirus in late 2020, they called it 501Y.V2. Other naming schemes have called the same variant B.1.351, 20H/501Y.V2 and GH/501Y.V2. Media outlets often describe it as ‘the South African variant’. To cut the confusion and avoid geographical stigmas, everyone should now call it ‘Beta’, according to a naming scheme announced by the World Health Organization. The names, taken from the Greek alphabet, are not intended to replace scientific labels, but could serve as a useful shorthand for policymakers, the public and other non-experts. “If people use it, it will become the default,” says virologist Jeremy Kamil.

Nature | 4 min read

Space-junk collision damages ISS

A robotic arm on the International Space Station (ISS) has been hit by an unknown orbiting object, which left a small hole. The Canadian Space Agency, which operates the arm, described the incident as a ‘lucky strike’ that did not affect operations or endanger the seven astronauts aboard the ISS. Analysts say the incident is a reminder of the proliferating amount of space junk circling Earth and the risk that it poses as launches and satellites in orbit increase.

The Guardian | 2 min read

Citizen scientists study swarming cicadas

In the eastern United States, billions of periodical cicadas are now crawling, fluttering, calling and mating after 13 to 17 years underground. Their appearance has roused a throng of citizen scientists, who are mapping the insects using a free app called Cicada Safari. So far, more than 150,000 people have uploaded geotagged photos of cicadas, helping scientists to track their emergence.

Science | 6 min read

£1.8 billion

The value of socio-economic benefits brought by the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom’s synchrotron. (Chemistry World | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

Hyena bone from Les Pradelles with notches

Prehistoric accounting? Markings made on a hyena bone by a Neanderthal might have recorded numerical information.Credit: F. d'Errico

How did Neanderthals learn to count?

Archaeological finds suggest that people developed numbers tens of thousands of years ago. Scholars are now exploring the first detailed hypotheses about this life-changing invention. “Numbers are just so fundamental to everything we do,” says evolutionary biologist Russell Gray. “It’s hard to conceive of human life without them.” Nevertheless, there remains a slew of open questions about exactly when and how humans first started using numbers.

Nature | 13 min read

Data-access rules mean better pandemic preparedness

There are currently no internationally agreed rules on how researchers can access data on test results, deaths and vaccinations in a pandemic. This needs to change, argues a Nature editorial. If nations negotiate an international pandemic treaty, it could provide an opportunity to agree on data access before the next emergency strikes.

Nature | 5 min read

Biomedical researchers: consider both sexes

Historically, many scientists have studied only male rats and mice, under the faulty assumption that female animals’ fluctuating hormones would make their data harder to interpret. This causes important physiological differences between the sexes to be overlooked, argue neuroscientist Anne Murphy and psychologist Rebecca Shansky, and could ultimately lead to public-health problems. “Requiring the use of male and female animals in biomedical research is an important first step in disabusing scientists (and society) of the flawed notion that males are a standard from which females might deviate,” they write. “Treating all research subjects as equally valuable in our quest for knowledge is critical to rectifying sex- and gender-based health disparities.”

Scientific American | 6 min read

Quote of the day

“This goes to show that, no matter the odds, the voices of our Tribes matter.”

Arctic tribal leaders have welcomed US President Joe Biden's decision to suspend oil and gas leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (BBC News | 5 min read)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01496-9

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Emma Stoye, news editor, Nature

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