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Daily briefing: mRNA vaccines take on flu

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Winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economics. From left to Right: Joshua-D.-Angrist, Guido W. Imbens and David Card.

Left to Right: Joshua Angrist, Guido Imbens and David Card share the 2021 Nobel prize in economic sciences for work that has helped economics research undergo a 'credibility revolution'.Credit: MIT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Andrew Brodhead/Stanford News Service/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Noah Berger/AP/Shutterstock

‘Natural experiments’ win economics Nobel

Economists Joshua Angrist, Guido Imbens and David Card have won the 2021 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences for work that has helped the field to undergo a ‘credibility revolution’. They received the award for research that shows how causation can be inferred from observational data in real-world natural experiments. Their approach has been used to examine, for example, how different minimum wages affect jobs and businesses, and the economic impacts of immigration. The main impact of the trio’s research is “in getting people to spend a lot more time and effort developing credible, high-quality empirical evidence, and in ‘calling out’ weak evidence”, says Card.

Nature | 5 min read

mRNA vaccines take on flu

Drug companies are racing to apply messenger-RNA (mRNA) technology, which has been so successful in COVID-19 jabs, to influenza vaccines. They hope the shots will have better efficacy against seasonal flu: existing vaccines, built around inactivated viruses or recombinant proteins, typically offer 40–60% protection against infection. But making mRNA vaccines against the flu might be more challenging than crafting ones against COVID-19. There is more competition: there are already nine flu jabs available in the United States alone. mRNA vaccines can come with unpleasant symptoms. And it’s no sure thing that mRNA can effectively deliver the main antigen found in flu vaccines.

Nature Reviews Drug Discovery | 10 min read

Read more: The tangled history of mRNA vaccines (Nature | 20 min read)

Global Methane Pledge gains momentum

Two dozen countries have joined a pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels. The group, led by the United States and the European Union, now includes 9 of the world’s top 20 methane emitters, but not the top 3: China, Russia and India. Although methane is a fraction of total greenhouse-gas emissions, it packs an outsize punch: in the first 20 years after release, methane is around 80 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The good news is that it breaks down very quickly, so curbing methane emissions will reap quick rewards.

Scientific American/E&E News | 4 min read

Read more: Control methane to slow global warming — fast (Nature | 5 min read)

Why the UK’s COVID strategy failed

The United Kingdom became one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 “because of the official scientific advice the government received, not in spite of it”, finds an investigation of the UK response to the pandemic. The report from a cross-party parliamentary group says that, despite the country having “some of the best expertise available anywhere in the world”, the government adopted a “fatalistic approach” that cost many thousands of lives. Scientific and political decision-makers were hobbled by ‘groupthink’, a lack of international perspective, a weak testing and contact-tracing system and doubts about how the public would respond to health restrictions.

Financial Times | 5 min read

Reference: UK parliamentary report

Features & opinion

‘Disaster is imminent’: a Red Sea time bomb

A few kilometres off the Yemeni coast lies an abandoned oil tanker with a bitterly ironic name: Safer. It could crack or explode at any time, and would release 1.1 million barrels of oil, more than 4 times the amount leaked by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Modelling work shows that such a spill would disrupt essential supplies of food and clean water to several million people in Yemen, which is already experiencing a humanitarian disaster after years of war and blockade. Negotiations have stalled with the Houthi militia, which occupies the territory where the Safer is situated. In the meantime, a skeleton crew works to keep the ship floating for one more day. “Science, mind, logic, experience… all confirm that the disaster is imminent,” says the Safer’s chief engineer, Yasser al-Qubati. “But when [it] will exactly happen, Allah alone knows.”

The New Yorker | 32 min read

Read the expert view written by disaster recovery researcher Stephanie Chang in the Nature Sustainability News & Views article. (5 min read)

Reference: Nature Sustainability paper

Image of the week

A marine ranger is reflected among seaweed.

Marine ranger Caitlin Woods explores an underwater forest of seaweed in this photograph by Justin Gilligan, which won the plants and fungi category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. See more of the month’s sharpest science shots, selected by Nature’s photo team.Justin Gilligan/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02810-1

So, Star Trek’s William Shatner went to space today, and is safely home. He spent about 10 minutes on the jaunt, reaching just over 100 kilometres above the Earth. Despite being more of a Captain Janeway fan myself, I’m always delighted to see a fellow Canadian slip the surly bonds of Earth.

I’ll be flying high if you share your opinion on this newsletter. Please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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