Nature Breifings

Hello Nature readers,
Today we explore the race for antiviral drugs to beat COVID-19 — and the next pandemic. Plus, we discover the sources of microplastics in the air and consider what we can learn about leadership from plants.
(Illustration by David Parkins)
How to build an antiviral arsenalOutbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012 could have been the wake-up calls that spurred drugmakers to develop and stockpile more drugs against viral pathogens. Instead, they went back to sleep. Aside from one qualified success — remdesivir, a therapy originally developed to treat hepatitis C and Ebola — there were practically no strong antiviral drug candidates to quickly test and deploy against SARS-CoV-2. The US National Institutes of Health, a new industry-backed coalition called COVID R&D Alliance and other research groups aim to ensure they don’t make the same mistake again.Nature | 12 min read
Microplastics rain from the skyThe atmosphere is laden with tiny plastic fragments. Researchers modelled the air above the western United States and found that it contains almost 1,000 tonnes of microplastic. Most — 84% — comes from roads, much of it from car tyres that constantly produce microplastics as they wear down. And 11% blows in from the ocean — which has so much plastic in it that most continents receive more from the marine environment than they put in.Wired | 6 min read
Reference: PNAS paper
COVID-19 coronavirus update
The Swiss-cheese model of protectionFrom ventilation to vaccines, there are many layers of defence that can protect us from COVID-19 — but none of them is impenetrable. The multilayered ‘Swiss cheese’ model helps us to visualize how, when we combine all the strategies, no one hole lets the virus through. Based on virologist Ian Mackay’s original design (pictured below), the BBC’s visual guide explains why we need more than just vaccines to end the pandemic.BBC News | 3 min read
Ian M. Mackay (CC BY 4.0)CORONAVIRUS RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS: 1-MINUTE READSRead more about these studies in Nature ’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints.

Quick tests show value for stopping COVID’s spread
Researchers estimate that ‘lateral-flow’ COVID-19 tests can detect most coronavirus infections that will lead to further transmission. The tests are less effective at detecting infections than are gold-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, but they are faster. Researchers in the United Kingdom looked at data from about one million people with positive coronavirus PCR tests and about 2.5 million others who had come into contact with them. Their simulation, based on the performance of lateral-flow devices, suggests that the most sensitive rapid tests could have detected nearly 90% of cases that led to an infected contact.
(Reference: medRxiv preprint — not peer reviewed)

Sputnik V might have mixed success against variants
A coronavirus variant that was first detected in South Africa can evade antibodies elicited by the Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19. Researchers tested antibody-laden blood serum from 12 people vaccinated with Sputnik V against benign viruses engineered to make the versions of the spike protein found in certain SARS-CoV-2 variants. The team found that 8 of the 12 samples did not inhibit viruses equipped with spike from B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa. But the samples did effectively overcome viruses with spike from B.1.1.7, a variant first detected in the United Kingdom.
(Reference: medRxiv preprint — not peer reviewed)

Moderna vaccine antibodies last for months
The 2-dose vaccine made by Moderna in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been shown to be 94% effective at preventing COVID-19. To learn whether the vaccine provides lasting protection, researchers tested antibodies collected from 33 people who received the vaccine during an early phase of trials. Three types of lab test showed that participants still had antibodies against the coronavirus six months after receiving their second dose of the vaccine.
(Reference: New England Journal of Medicine paper)Get more of Nature’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints on COVID-19.
NOTABLE QUOTABLE“To survive the enduring pandemic ahead, we must recognize mental and physical health as mutually influential parts of human health that work best when they work together.”Psychologists June Gruber and Jessica Borelli offer evidence-based suggestions for how to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, without sacrificing our mental health. (Scientific American | 5 min read)
Features & opinion
My most memorable mentors? PlantsTo nurture a thriving scientific community, plant scientist Beronda Montgomery suggests looking to the natural world. “Consider the fascination that microbiologists feel for bacteria that do not grow under standard laboratory conditions. They don’t blame the bacteria; instead, they try to find and supply the correct nutrients, temperature, light or other conditions that the microbes require to thrive,” she writes. “This is the sort of curiosity needed to learn what contributes to the success and growth of individuals, such as those from backgrounds that are under-represented in research.”Nature | 5 min read
Audio long-read: Rise of the robo-writersThe artificial intelligence called GPT-3 boggled onlookers with its ability to convincingly write everything from songs to satire. It can also make silly mistakes, regurgitate negative stereotypes and expose sensitive data that were included in large training sets. Researchers are investigating how to address potentially harmful biases by instilling the models with common sense, causal reasoning or moral judgement. “What we have today,” says computer scientist Yejin Choi, “is essentially a mouth without a brain.” Discover more in this audio feature read by Nature’s Benjamin Thompson.Nature | 24 min listen
Farewell to AreciboThe collapse of the Arecibo telescope on 1 December was a loss deeply felt by astronomers, especially in Puerto Rico. The New Yorker explores the history of the iconic observatory, the issues that led to its demise and its impact on the scientists and enthusiasts who loved it. Meteorologist and broadcaster Ada Monzón, who has reported live during hurricanes and earthquakes, says that relaying the instant of the collapse was “one of the most difficult moments of my life”. Arecibo “was a place of unity for everyone who loves science on this island, and all of us who truly love Puerto Rico”.The New Yorker | 16 min read
Read more: Gut-wrenching footage documents Arecibo telescope’s collapse (Nature | 4 min read)
QUOTE OF THE DAY“It’s sort of like if you’re drowning, and the university tells you, ‘Don’t worry if it takes you an extra year to get back to shore.’ … It’s like, ‘Hey, that’s not helpful. I need a flotation device.’”Measures, such as extra time to achieve tenure, might not go far enough to help female scientists’ careers recover from the pandemic, says biostatistician Daniela Witten. (The New York Times | 7 min read)
Parpal Dumplin is the nickname of this lovely sponge, from the subgenus Hymedesmia (Stylopus) and newly described by science. The name — which sadly won’t be its scientific one — was chosen from a list of children’s submissions to the Marine Conservation Society. It reflects the delightful dialect of its home in Norfolk, UK, and the fact that ‘the sponge is purple and it looks like a dumpling’.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Emma Stoye
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