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Hello Nature readers,
Today we probe why the world’s pandemic warning system failed, hear that authors are still citing retracted COVID research and explore how uncertainty can sharpen our thinking.
Grant reviewers attending virtual meetings are easily distracted. (Getty)
Most people can relate to Zoom fatigue, and grant reviewers are no exception. A survey of reviewers by the US National Institutes of Health’s Centre for Scientific Review found that about half the respondents paid less attention during video meetings, or were less engaged. But 60% of the participants said that overall, the quality of video reviews and discussions remained the same as those done in person, which reflects the findings of similar research.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has set a record for the number of satellites carried into orbit in one go. The mission carried 143 payloads for a variety of customers into space. SpaceX itself launched ten additions to its Starlink network, a satellite constellation that will provide broadband Internet. Most payloads on the flight belonged to Planet, a company that operates a growing fleet of small Earth-observing satellites.
BBC | 5 min read
Read more: How satellite ‘megaconstellations’ will photobomb astronomy images (Nature | 6 min read) &
The potential of small satellites for scientific and astronomical discovery (Nature Astronomy | 17 min read)
COVID-19 coronavirus update
Nearly one year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) sounded its highest alarm because of the coronavirus — a declaration called a ‘public health emergency of international concern’, or PHEIC, signalling that a pandemic might be imminent. But many countries ignored it. Two new preliminary investigations — one from the WHO and another from an independent panel responsible for assessing the organization — attempt to unravel why. The term ‘PHEIC’, designed to avoid panic, might not trigger enough of a sense of urgency, some say. And global-health scholars debate whether the declaration came too late. Countries appear to agree that to improve the world’s ability to respond to pandemics, the WHO should be transformed and bolstered — perhaps through a new treaty.
Most of the papers that cite discredited COVID research in The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine don’t mention that the studies have been retracted. The infamous studies relied on health-record analyses from a company, Surgisphere, that declined to share its raw data for an audit. Science looked at 200 academic articles that cite the Surgisphere papers and found that 52.5% — including some in prominent journals — failed to mention the retractions.
Science | 6 min read
Read more: High-profile coronavirus retractions raise concerns about data oversight (Nature | 7 min read)
Leading vaccine developer Merck (known as MSD outside the United States and Canada) says it will discontinue development of its two COVID vaccines. Phase I trial results found that the vaccines do not trigger an adequate immune response. The company will focus on its two experimental COVID treatments instead.
Coronavirus research highlights: 1-minute reads
- Immune cells ‘remember’ COVID for at least half a year: The immune system remembers how to make antibodies that can fend off the new coronavirus for at least six months after the initial infection. (Reference: Nature paper)
- The unsung viral feature that could lead to more COVID treatments: Most of the neutralizing antibodies that researchers have studied target a region of the coronvirus’s spike protein called the receptor-binding domain (RBD). But previous research has identified neutralizing antibodies that act against other portions of spike — particularly a region called the N-terminal domain (NTD). Now, a study of the blood of people who had recovered from COVID-19 indicates that antibodies that recognize the NTD could be as potent at blocking infection as were antibodies that recognize the RBD. (Reference: bioRxiv preprint — not yet peer reviewed)
Features & opinion
Theoretical physicist Akito Arima, who simplified nuclear physics and revamped Japan’s science, has died, aged 90. He published numerous books of haiku poetry, and said that the craft helped him to unravel thorny physics problems. “I write a haiku,” he said, “then I can suddenly find the heart of a secret of nature.”
Biomedical scientist Vladimira Foteva didn’t imagine she would be working with physicists at an Australian particle accelerator when she began her PhD programme, but the experience taught her the value of collaboration across disciplines. “Light-years away from my research experience and comfort zone, this was the perfect opportunity to learn some basic truths about scientific investigation,” says Foteva.
Uncertainty and ambiguity can widen our focus and bolster working memory. But a lot depends on whether we can view uncertainty as a challenge, rather than a threat. “Uncertainty can be informative… it points us in the direction of what we do not know,” says social psychologist Sander van der Linden.
Quote of the day
Physician Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was content to be ‘the skunk at the picnic’ under the administration of former US President Donald Trump. (The New York Times | 12 min read)
On Friday, our avian explorer traversed the steep hillside trees of Viñales Valley in Cuba. Did you find Leif Penguinson? When you’re ready, here’s the answer.
Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Nicky Phillip and Quirin Schiermeier