Nature Briefings

Hello Nature readers,
Today we learn that breathable oxygen has been made on Mars, explore COVID-19 vaccine trials in children and hear that the pandemic has taken more than 20.5 million years of life.MOXIE is about the size of a toaster. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance makes oxygen on Mars

An instrument on the Perseverance rover has produced breathable oxygen on Mars. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) synthesized the gas from locally collected CO2, which makes up 96% of Mars’s atmosphere. The proof-of-concept experiment could pave the way for generating breathable air for future Mars explorers or rocket fuel for their trip home. BBC | 3 min read

Bipedalism didn’t stop us climbing

An analysis of the shoulder girdle of a human ancestor that lived millions of years ago suggests that Australopithecus afarensisretained features that helped it to climb in trees, even after developing the ability to walk on two legs. The shoulder blades belong to a near-complete fossil of a specimen dubbed Little Foot, discovered in South Africa in the 1990s. “We see incontrovertible evidence in Little Foot that the arm of our ancestors at 3.67 million years ago was still being used to bear substantial weight during arboreal movements in trees,” says anatomist Kristian Carlson.Heritage Daily | 5 min read
Reference: Journal of Human Evolution paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Vaccines and children

Scientists are seeking answers to important questions about how safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are in children by launching the first COVID-19 vaccine trials in this age group. Studies will examine whether children’s immune systems respond differently, scrutinize any possible safety concerns and consider how the jab might interact with other crucial childhood vaccinations.Nature | 7 min read 

More than 20 million years of life lost

The death toll of COVID-19 is an unfathomable tragedy: more than three million people. Another way to quantify those losses is by considering how premature the deaths were. Researchers estimate that COVID-19 has taken more than 20.5 million years of life. Starting with the story of one lost life — that of 13-year-old Anna Carter in Oklahoma — The New York Times examines how this measure helps us to understand the pandemic’s terrible toll.The New York Times | 8 min read
Read more: Three million COVID deaths is a grim milestone (Nature | 3 min read)
Reference: Scientific Reports paper 


Read more about these studies in Nature ’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints.

Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine versus variants 
To see whether vaccines were still effective against worrying variants of SARS-CoV-2, researchers looked at infections among several hundred people in Israel who had already received at least one dose of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine. Among people still waiting for their second dose, these rare ‘breakthrough infections’ were slightly more likely to be caused by the B.1.1.7 variant than were those in unvaccinated people. Among fully vaccinated people, the small number who got tested positive were disproportionately infected with the B.1.351 variant. The results suggest that the vaccine might be slightly less effective against those variants, at least in those particular time windows. 
(Reference: medRxiv preprint — not peer reviewed)

Common asthma medicine could shave days off illness 
A clinical trial in more than 4,600 people at risk of serious COVID-19 found that an inhalable asthma medication shortened the duration of disease symptoms by about 3 days. The asthma drug — budesonide — is an inexpensive and widely available inhalable steroid. 
(Reference: medRxiv preprint — not peer reviewed)Get more of Nature’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints on COVID-19.

Features & opinion

Unmasking the trade in human remains

An eighteenth-century skeleton held at the University of Melbourne, posed holding a recorder, was created using bones from several people. The ‘flute boy’ was brought to Australia by the university’s first professor of medicine in the mid-1800s, at a time when human remains were openly sold in parts of Europe. Researchers’ efforts to illuminate the bones’ true provenance sheds light on the European trade in human remains and its treatment of people with unusual bodies. ABC Science | 10 min read


“We cannot replace the treasures of scholarship we have lost, but we can create new treasures out of our own scholarship.”

Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng responds to the destruction of irreplaceable collections in the library of the University of Cape Town by the Table Mountain fire. (University of Cape Town news | 5 min read)
Read more: Fire rips through historic South African library and plant collection (Nature | 4 min read)

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Freda Kreier

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