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Pigs in China are widely infected with a virus that has the potential to trigger a pandemic

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Nature Briefing

Hello Nature readers,
Today we read about a swine-flu strain with human pandemic potential found in pigs, ponder whether cosmic rays explain the handedness of life, and learn that quantum computers work better when no one’s around.

Deforestation of hillsides in Guatemala.
Habitat destruction is one of the main drivers of species loss. (Robin Moore/National Geographic)

Speaking in the name of nature

Earlier this month, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema was appointed executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. She is the first woman from Africa to lead the intergovernmental body, and will oversee the creation of a global biodiversity agreement for the next decade. Mrema spoke to Nature about how the coronavirus pandemic has influenced negotiations, and the challenges ahead. “One could say that I have been appointed at a bad time for biodiversity, considering that the whole world is just emerging from, or still in, lockdown,” she says. “But at the same time, I see it as a major opportunity, as biodiversity is being discussed more than ever before.”

Nature | 6 min read

Pigs in China carry risky swine-flu strain

Scientists carrying out routine monitoring of influenza strains in China have found that pigs are widely infected with a virus with the potential to trigger a pandemic. The strain, called G4, is a genetic blend of three lineages. These include the H1N1 virus that caused the 2009 pandemic, suggesting that it might be able to adapt for human-to-human transmission. Antibody tests showed that more than 4% of humans surveyed had been exposed to G4. In its current form, the virus is not considered dangerous, but scientists warn that, given the unpredictability of influenza viruses, a vaccine should be developed. “We need to be vigilant about other infectious disease threats even as COVID is going on because viruses have no interest in whether we’re already having another pandemic,” says evolutionary biologist Martha Nelson.

Science | 6 min read
Reference: PNAS paper

A cosmic origin for the handedness of life

Nineteenth-century biologist Louis Pasteur speculated that life’s preference for using certain organic molecules but not their mirror-image counterparts is “one of the links between life on Earth and the cosmos”. Now, two astrophysicists have a new interpretation of that connection. They say that the never-ending bombardment of Earth by cosmic rays could have led to DNA that is unerringly right-handed and amino acids that are nearly always left-handed. Cosmic rays that hit the upper atmosphere produce new particles, some of which are endowed with a preferred handedness caused by the weak nuclear force, the only fundamental force known to distinguish left from right. Over eons, that asymmetry could have trickled down to organic matter.

Quanta | 6 min read
Reference: Astrophysical Journal Letters paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Sterile bottles and ampoules on the dispensing line.

The state of the vaccination race

The race to develop a vaccine has been going on for almost six months. Who’s in the lead? Chemistry World offers a plain-language update on the vaccine pipeline. Its pick for leader is US biotech company Moderna’s messenger RNA-based vaccine. But it would be the first RNA vaccine for any disease to ever make it to market.
Chemistry World | 8 min read

How to decide who gets the vaccine

Organizations including the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are debating the thorny problem of who should be the focus of the first waves of vaccinations for COVID-19. Young and healthy people — who are least at risk themselves, but might tolerate a vaccine better than older people, creating a ring of protection? Or maybe pregnant women, in whom the risk to mother and baby must be carefully weighed? Or perhaps priority should be given to people from specific ethnic groups, who are dying at a disproportionate rate? “These are tough decisions, because everybody can make a case for why somebody should be ahead of somebody else in line,” says vaccine specialist Bruce Gellin. “Nobody’s going to debate health care workers and first responders — people who are putting themselves at risk for others and keeping things moving. After that is when it gets complicated.”
Science | 6 min read

Doctors flag fevers and rashes among children

Two studies have revealed the progress of multisystem inflammation syndrome, a dangerous side effect of COVID-19 that occurs in children and looks similar to a condition called Kawasaki’s disease. Of the nearly 300 children in the studies, 6 died. On the whole, children seem to be less susceptible to COVID-19 than are adults, and to experience milder symptoms if they do fall ill. But the researchers recommend that carers look out for fevers and rashes in children who have recently had COVID-19, or who live in areas with a lot of infections.
STAT | 5 min read
Reference: The New England Journal of Medicine paper 1 & paper 2

Notable quotable

“Oh my goodness, this is one of us.”

Physician Luis Lobon recognized his colleague, hospital worker Marie Deus, when he treated her for COVID-19. She was the first employee to die of the disease at the hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked. The moving story of her life and death weaves together how racial inequality and job insecurity contribute to the risk for many front-line workers. (STAT | 18 min read)

Features & opinion

How to put the fun into virtual conferences

Organizing a virtual conference changed how sustainability researchers Christina Bidmon, Cristyn Meath and René Bohnsack think about academic exchange. “When COVID-19 hit, we optimistically thought, ‘We will take our conference virtual’,” they write. “In the process, we’ve found that, instead of thinking of online conferences as replacements-by-necessity for physical conferences that should resemble the ‘real thing’, we should try to accept them as an entirely different model of academic exchange.” They share their tips for using a conference platform, helping participants mingle and maintaining the fun factor.

Nature | 4 min read

To improve quantum computers, keep away

Christopher Monroe and his team spent three years setting up their quantum computer to be operated remotely. When the COVID–19 pandemic struck, those efforts paid off in an unexpected way: quantum computers work best without humans walking around the lab and producing vibrations or temperature fluctuations. Their machine “has kept running — all day, every day”, Monroe writes. “And the data have been excellent because the campus has been a ghost town.” The bigger lesson is that a remote mode of operation could hasten the development of these potentially revolutionary machines, Monroe says.

Nature | 4 min read

Infographic of the week

Keep it cool. Graphic showing heat removal from cylindrical and pouch batteries and cooling methods for packs of batteries.
From electric vehicles to smart grids, the path to a greener future is paved with lithium-ion batteries — lots of them. That means we need better ways to keep them cool. But the task has been hindered by a lack of a standard way to judge their thermal performance. Five engineers propose the cell cooling coefficient, a measure for the rate of heat removal from battery packs that gives manufacturers a simple way to compare products. (Nature | 8 min read) ()

Sure, I’ve baked some lockdown bread. I’ve even made jam. But conservation biologist William Sutherland cooked an entire Babylonian meal from a recipe chiselled on a tablet in 1750 BC — the oldest known cookbook in the world.

Share your favourite old family recipe — or any feedback on this newsletter — with me at

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by David Cyranoski and Davide Castelvecchi

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