Daily briefing: What NASA missions teach about teamwork


NATURE BRIEFING
Space missions show that what gets discovered depends on how scientists collaborate. Plus, Moderna reports the third positive COVID vaccine result and the furore over phosphine on Venus.

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COVID-19 coronavirus update

Moderna’s phase III vaccine trial has enrolled about 30,000 participants.Credit: Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock

More good news: Moderna vaccine works too

For the third time in a week, a coronavirus vaccine developer has reported preliminary results suggesting that its vaccine is highly effective. US biotech company Moderna has announced that its RNA-based vaccine was more than 94% effective at preventing COVID-19, on the basis of an analysis of 95 cases in its ongoing phase III efficacy trial. Like the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine and the controversial Russian vaccine Sputnik V, early data that are not yet peer reviewed leave many questions unanswered. But it does seem that Moderna’s vaccine is likely to prevent severe COVID-19 infections, something that was not clear from the other developers’ announcements. Researchers were also buoyed by Moderna’s announcement that its vaccine remains stable in conventional refrigerators for a month and ordinary freezers for six months. (The Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine must be stored at an icy –70 ℃.)

Nature | 4 min read

Forecasters can learn from climate models

Epidemiologists predicting the spread of COVID-19 should adopt climate-modelling methods to make forecasts more reliable, say computer scientists. The researchers have spent months using a powerful supercomputer and techniques that are used to stress-test climate models to audit CovidSim, one of the most influential models of the pandemic, which helped convince British and US politicians to introduce lockdowns to prevent projected deaths. The analysis shows that, because researchers didn’t appreciate how sensitive CovidSim was to small changes in its inputs, their results overestimated the extent to which a lockdown was likely to reduce deaths. But the model correctly showed that “doing nothing at all would have disastrous consequences”, says chemist and computer scientist Peter Coveney.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Research Square preprint

An outbreak in Star City

Within weeks of Russia’s first confirmed case, the coronavirus penetrated Star City, the secretive home of the country’s space programme. It spread through the town during a period of international attention and national pride, and a few inches of glass might have been all that prevented it from traveling to space in a cosmonaut. Reuters investigates how Natalya Lebedeva, a doctor who headed the town’s ambulance service, took her own life in the midst of suspicion, fear and blame.

Reuters | 15 min read

Raoult faces disciplinary panel

Microbiologist Didier Raoult, a larger-than-life figure in French science who gained global prominence for his controversial research touting the effects of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID, is to appear before a disciplinary panel. Raoult is accused of breaching medical ethics by physicians from France’s Infectious Diseases Society.

The Guardian | 3 min read

Notable quotable

Physician and epidemiologist Céline Gounder, who serves on US president-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, ponders how to break through the politicization of mask wearing in the country. (Science | 7 min read)

In September, astronomers cautiously announced evidence that phosphine had been detected in Venus’s atmosphere. But some scientists say they were not careful enough about a finding that raised the thrilling prospect of life on the planet. Other researchers have questioned the data-analysis methods used in the original work. An International Astronomical Union (IAU) committee released a statement, later disavowed by the IAU executive, chastising the press for overhyping the potential implications. And another group apologized after submitting a paper that suggested the original publication should be retracted.

Physics World | 7 min read

Reference: Nature Astronomy paper

Features & opinion

In her new book, sociologist Janet Vertesi lifts the curtain on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Mars Exploration Rovers and shows that what gets discovered depends on how scientists collaborate. Battles over data sharing, the challenges of remote working and the malign effects of sexism are among the lessons these missions offer for teams more generally.

Nature | 5 min read

Four dams built to produce hydroelectricity along the Klamath River in Northern California will soon be taken down. The removal could restore crucial habitat for salmon and other migratory fish, and support the livelihood of the Yurok people, who have sustainably fished along the river for millenia. “These dam removal efforts are as much to remove the dams for the ecology and benefits of salmon restoration as they are to the wrongs that took place in this country for the last 150, 200 years against Native Americans,” says Frankie Myers, vice-chairperson of the Yurok tribe.

BBC | 18 min read

Physicist Masatoshi Koshiba was one of the driving forces behind the Kamiokande family of neutrino detectors, which led to two Nobels — for him in 2002 and for his former student Takaaki Kajita in 2015. Koshiba, who has died aged 94, was also “a great guy to be around, filled with insight and energy and humour”, says colleague Dave Wark.

“There are things in the world you can achieve despite poor academic records,” said Koshiba, who graduated near the bottom of his University of Tokyo class in 1951. “I’m not saying those who have good grades should slack off. What counts most is adopting an active attitude toward studying.”

Physics World | 5 min read & The Washington Post (paywall) | 3 min read

Quote of the day

More than 1,500 fraudulent votes had to be scrubbed from the ledger of New Zealand’s popular Bird of the Year contest. (The New York Times)

On Friday Leif Penguinson was basking in the autumn colours of Seoraksan National Park in South Korea. Did you find the penguin? When you’re ready, here’s the answer.

Today I’m delighting in the sound and sight of standing waves created by artist Kanazawa Kenichi using sand on vibrating metal Chladni plates.

Let me know what’s got you buzzing. Please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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