Daily briefing: What Germany’s leading pandemic scientist says about what’s to come

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A small bottle labeled with a "Vaccine" sticker is held near a medical syringe in front of "Coronavirus COVID-19" signage

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

China announced today that it will join COVAX, the international coalition that aims to fairly distribute COVID-19 vaccines. The effort — run by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations; and the World Health Organization — wants to provide 2 billion vaccine doses to the most-vulnerable people and to health-care workers, especially in poor countries. Some 80 wealthy countries have committed to support the initiative, with the notable exception of the United States. It is not clear yet whether China will commit money or vaccines, and how much.

Reuters | 3 min read

This week, a giant fire in northern California reached ‘gigafire’ status. It burnt more than one million acres over weeks — the largest wildfire the state has ever seen. “It makes up more than all of the fires that occurred between 1932 and 1999,” said Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor. “If that’s not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is.” California experienced its hottest August on record this year, after years of below-average rainfall. These factors contributed to ideal conditions for the worst fire season the state has ever recorded; 4 million acres have burnt so far.

Los Angeles Times | 7 min read

Brush up on your Nobel science

It’s Nobel’s week! Half the fun of which is rediscovering the work that has taken home the prize this year — and the fascinating scientists behind it.

Microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and biochemist Jennifer Doudna shared the chemistry Nobel for developing the precise genome-editing technology CRISPR.

• In a 2016 profile, colleagues describe Charpentier as tenacious, modest and “so resourceful, she could start a lab on a desert island,” according to her PhD supervisor Patrice Courvalin. As for the Nobel? “Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, warned that winning prizes turned you into an institution,” Charpentier said. “I am just trying to keep working and keep my feet on the ground.” (Nature | 12 min read, from 2016)

• In 2015, Doudna wrote in Nature that the knock-on effects of her discovery were starting to keep her up at night. “I’d avoided thinking too much about the philosophical and ethical ramifications,” she wrote. “By the spring of 2014, I was regularly lying awake at night wondering whether I could justifiably stay out of an ethical storm that was brewing around a technology I had helped to create.” She called for deeper engagement with ethical issues by scientists and better education for up-and-coming researchers. (Nature | 9 min read, from 2016)

• And what of the graduate students and postdocs who toiled at the bench to make CRISPR genome editing a reality? Nature reporter Heidi Ledford — who had the unexpected pleasure of breaking the news to Doudna in a 2 a.m. phone call — says that this 2016 feature on the unsung heroes of CRISPR is one of her favourites. (Nature | 10 min read, from 2015)

Virologists Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice shared the medicine Nobel for research on hepatitis C, the virus responsible for many cases of hepatitis and liver disease.

• In 2016, spurred by the development of effective treatments for hepatitis C and expanding access to hepatitis B vaccination, the 194 member states of the World Health Organization committed to eliminating viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. In 2017, Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology explored areas that are vital to meeting this ambitious target, from basic viral research to public policy. (Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology | Collection of articles, from 2017)

• Houghton has turned down high-profile awards because they didn’t acknowledge his collaborators, George Quo and Qui-Lim Choo. “It’s all based on the Nobel prize,” explained Houghton in 2013. “In his will, Dr. Nobel says there can be no more than three. All of the other major awards tend to copy that and limit it to three. It’s antiquated.” But he did accept this prize. “I think it would be really too presumptuous of me to turn down,” he said. (National Post | 5 min read, from 2013)

Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose shared the Nobel prize in physics with astronomers Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel, who discovered a giant black hole in the centre of the Galaxy.

• Ghez “is one of a rare adventurous class” of astronomers, said Genzel in a 2013 profile in Nature. Ghez is an enthusiastic early adopter of new astronomical tools who shares an infectious enthusiasm for the pleasures of physics. “I like the risk of a new technology,” said Ghez. “Any time you look, you’re astounded!” (Nature | 11 min read, from 2013)

• Penrose’s 1972 plain-language overview of black holes — when they were still very much a novelty — is still well worth reading. (Nature | 8 min read) And, despite some shaky camera work, Penrose’s 2018 Christmas lectures in London are just the thing to get you caught up with his work and his delightful diagrams using lots of multicolored pens. (University of Westminster | 35 min video)

Features & opinion

This week, the Nature Podcast speaks to Lauren Wolf, the US bureau chief of Nature’s news team, and our US-based reporter Jeff Tollefson about why Nature must cover politics and what’s at stake in the upcoming US presidential election. “I think the short answer is: everything,” says Tollefson, who wrote a feature on how Trump damaged science, and why it could take decades to recover. The coronavirus pandemic has put a harsh spotlight on the connections between science, politics and policy, he says. “This touches on public health, it touches on just how science is used across the US government, it touches on issues of scientific integrity — and frankly it touches on issues of democracy.”

Plus, the podcast explores whether maternal behaviours are learned or innate, and I drop in to chat about the Nobel winners.

Nature Podcast | 43 min listen

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Virologist Christian Drosten, who is leading Germany’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, addresses everything from testing strategies to whether to eat inside a restaurant in a wide-ranging interview with Die Zeit. “I think we need to start preparing people now for a vaccine that may not be perfect,” he says. He also looks forward to returning to his normal life as an anonymous scientist. “I hope that people will then forget about me, that in a few years’ time, newspapers will write a ‘Where Are They Now?’ story about Christian Drosten.”

Die Zeit | 18 min read (helpfully translated into English)

Where I work

A researcher in SCUBA gear looks over a kelp farm.

Cayne Layton is a marine ecologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, Australia.Credit: Craig Johnson

Marine ecologist Cayne Layton and his colleagues repurposed concrete paving stones, metal framing and industrial-sized rubber bands made from old car tyres into 28 large artificial reefs. The reefs were placed at Maria Island, about halfway up the east coast of Tasmania, and host common kelp (Ecklonia radiata). “Many species began moving in within a few weeks… even some that we know little about,” says Layton, who is learning more about them from Indigenous Tasmanian people. The reefs “create an extremely tranquil, meditative environment to be floating in. They create an extremely tranquil, meditative environment to be floating in. The light filters through the canopy just like with a stained-glass window. You are effectively flying through the forest.” (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

The United Nations’ World Food Programme has won the Nobel Peace Prize (Reuters | 3 min read)

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