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Daily briefing: What’s holding back new treatments for COVID-19

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The four sky maps made with the new ESA Gaia data released on 13 June 2022.

The Milky Way in four maps: data from the Gaia spacecraft show the speed at which stars move towards or away from us, known as radial velocity (top left); their radial velocity and proper motion, or how they move across the sky (bottom left); their chemical make-up (bottom right); and the interstellar dust (top right).Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC/CU6 (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Mega-map of Milky Way adds depth

Astronomers’ main reference guide to the Milky Way just received a major update. The Gaia mission, a spacecraft that is tracking nearly two billion stars, has released a vastly improved map, which now includes the 3D motions of tens of millions of stars and thousands of asteroids, and detections of stellar ‘quakes’ and possible extrasolar planets. Gaia has proved to be a gold mine of scientific data. “We are now producing 1,600 papers per year,” says European Space Agency director of science Günther Hasinger.

Nature | 4 min read

New COVID drugs face delays

Researchers fear that development of new treatments for COVID-19 could falter as the clinical trials needed to test them become increasingly difficult. In many places, vaccinations have led to a decline in severe disease, shrinking the pool of potential study participants. Hesitance to enrol in trials is rising, and the existence of potent treatments is making statistical analysis more difficult. But new treatments are needed: current options can be expensive and limited in supply, and some strains of SARS-CoV-2 could become resistant to them.

Nature | 6 min read

‘People have this myth in their brains’

Most people in the United States think poverty is why pollution disproportionately affects Black people, despite evidence that racism is the major cause. Respondents to a survey by sociologist Dylan Bugden were more than twice as likely to blame pollution exposure on poverty as they were to blame it on racism. Furthermore, many people suggested that a lack of hard work and poor personal choices were responsible for increased exposure to pollution. Researchers say the lack of understanding undermines efforts to fix the disparity. “People have this myth in their brains that poverty is the biggest driver of the differential burden of hazards when it isn’t,” says environmental health scientist Sacoby Wilson. “It’'s race and racism.”

Nature | 4 min read

338,000 deaths & US$105.6 billion

Costs of COVID-19 so far that could have been averted by universal health care in the United States. (Scientific American | 4 min read)

Reference: PNAS paper

Features & opinion

Why chemists can’t quit palladium

Palladium catalysts are practically indispensable for making drugs, but the silvery-white metal is more expensive than gold, and molecules that contain palladium can be extremely toxic. Thrilling reports of palladium-free catalysts have repeatedly turned out to be sullied by tiny amounts of palladium contamination, which can cling to laboratory equipment and lurk in reagents. But hope springs eternal, with chemists going to extreme lengths to purge their labs of palladium in the quest for long-sought alternatives.

Nature | 11 min read

He looked into the heart of the atom

Benjamin Mottelson won a share of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physics for his description of the structure of the atomic nucleus. The ‘collective model’, developed with Aage Bohr, stimulated fresh experiments in nuclear physics and proved fertile across disciplines by relating the atomic nucleus to areas such as superconductivity and the physics of neutron stars. Born in the United States, Mottelson enjoyed the benefits of his adopted home in Denmark, including a daily 12-kilometre cycle ride to the Niels Bohr Institute from his home in a suburb north of Copenhagen. Mottelson has died aged 95.

Nature | 5 min read

Gates’s pandemic prescription

A new book by philanthropist Bill Gates offers life-saving lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that are ambitious and achievable, writes reviewer and global-health policy researcher Matthew Kavanagh. For example, Gates proposes building a global team of expert epidemiologists that would facilitate collective action — much as public fire departments collectivize the work of fighting fires. The book is deep and highly readable, writes Kavanagh, but overlooks insights from the study of politics that could help to reveal why many of its recommendations have not gained traction.

Nature | 6 min read

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“The bacteria kept doing interesting things. I realized that it should just go on for as long as humanly possible.”

Evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski has been maintaining 12 lines of Escherichia coli bacteria for 75,000 generations — that’s 34 years. The E. coli are about to start a new life in the laboratory of Jeffrey Barrick. (Nature | 7 min read)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01670-7

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Thanks for reading,

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips

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