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Close-up of orange experimental COVID-19 treatment pills called molnupiravir

If authorized, molnupiravir would be the first oral treatment for COVID-19.Credit: Merck & Co Inc/Handout/Reuters

Behind the promising first oral COVID drug

An antiviral pill called molnupiravir has been shown to cut the risk of hospitalization or death in half for people newly diagnosed with COVID-19, say its makers, Merck (called MSD outside the United States and Canada) and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. It works by interfering with how SARS-CoV-2 replicates inside our cells, causing it to mutate itself to death. The treatment is a pill — a big advantage over antiviral injections that work against COVID-19, such as remdesivir. But whether this clinical-trial success story will translate into a global game-changer in the fight against the pandemic isn’t yet clear.

Nature | 8 min read

Reference: Merck press release

Brace for a fierce flu rebound

Health practices taken up to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to have unusual and unexpected effects on a number of respiratory diseases — some illnesses have been quashed, others have ploughed through and still more are rebounding off-season. Seasonal influenza typically kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, but for most of 2020 and 2021, it practically vanished from much of the globe. Pandemic measures also seem to have suppressed some bacterial infections, including those that cause pneumonia and meningitis. Researchers warn that we might see a rebound effect as restrictions are lifted and flu spreads through previously uninfected people — so get your flu shot, if you can.

Nature | 5 min read

STRONG REBOUND: chart comparing the average yearly cases of respiratory syncytial virus in Western Australia with 2020

Source: Foley, D. A. et al. Clin. Infect. Dis. http://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa1906 (2021).

Myocarditis risk from vaccine is very low

The risk of developing inflammation of the heart muscle after receiving the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is very low. Two large studies from Israel indicate that teenage boys and young men are most at risk of developing the condition, known as myocarditis. But even in this group, the vast majority of cases are mild and people recover quickly. In one study of more than 5 million people who had received the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine, 136 developed myocarditis. The other study, of more than 2.5 million people who received the shot, identified just 54 cases of myocarditis. Epidemiologist Ran Balicer hopes the findings will “help alleviate some of the worries around the risks associated with vaccination in the younger age groups”.

Nature | 7 min read

Dismay over all-male science Nobels

All the winners of this year’s science Nobel prizes were men, wiping out promising signs last year that the prize would more accurately reflect the contributions of female scientists. Women have won about 10% of the science gongs in the past 6 years, says information scientist Lokman Meho, who this year published an analysis of prestigious prizes. Göran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, which awards the science Nobels, says that the prize-selection committees are taking steps to be more inclusive. “We’re starting from a low level,” he says.

Nature | 4 min read

Read more: Gender gap in major research awards (Nature | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

Spotlight on young people’s mental health

Worldwide, at least 13% of people between the ages of 10 and 19 live with a diagnosed mental-health disorder, according to a report published last week by the United Nations children’s charity UNICEF. It’s the first time in the organization’s history that this flagship report has tackled the challenges in and opportunities for preventing and treating mental-health problems among young people. It reveals that adolescent mental health is highly complex, understudied — and underfunded. These findings are echoed in a parallel collection of review articles in a number of Springer Nature journals, which dive deep into the state of knowledge concerning interventions — those that work and those that don’t — for preventing and treating anxiety and depression in young people aged 14–24.

Nature Editorial | 6 min read & Full collection

Reference: State of the World’s Children report

The tenacious dream of nuclear fusion

Physicists have long nurtured the bold ambition of harnessing nuclear reactions of the type that power the Sun to produce abundant, clean energy. But are nuclear-fusion researchers the Wright brothers, whose first halting, 57-second flight heralded the future of human air travel? Or are they Icarus, whose ambitions probed the limits of possibility but ultimately failed? The urgent need to replace climate-destroying fossil fuels could give the field the funding boost it needs to finally find out for sure.

The New Yorker | 26 min read

Where I work

Brother Guy Consolmagno, astronomer and director of the Specola Vaticana, looking through the Vatican’s historic telescope.

Brother Guy Consolmagno is director of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.Credit: Francesco Pistilli for Nature

“I usually wear a T-shirt at work. But if I’m posing for a photo, I’ll always wear my Jesuit brother’s attire,” says Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory. “The Church cares about science. A man of the cloth next to a piece of scientific equipment helps to tell that story.”

“[Pope] Francis himself doesn’t take an intense interest in astronomy, but Pope Pius XII was a real enthusiast,” he says. “John XXIII had little knowledge of stars and planets, but he’d bring up a bottle of wine and hang out with the astronomers, and watch them work.” (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

“It’s hard not to love a fairywren.”

BirdLife Australia’s Sean Dooley responds to news that the superb fairywren (Malurus cyaneus), known for its polyamory and shared household labour, has won the annual Australian bird of the year poll. (The Guardian | 5 min read)