Daily briefing: A radical proposal to infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines

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A view of four pincer fragments from crabs

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (Cancer pagurus)João Zilhão

A pile of ancient kitchen rubbish shows Neanderthals had a highly varied diet. Digging in a seaside cave in Portugal, researchers found bones of seals, dolphins and many types of fish, including sharks. The 86,000- to 106,000-year-old remains contribute to showing how Neanderthals’ behaviour — and perhaps their cognitive abilities — were not too different from those of their contemporary modern humans. The cave was so cramped that only a maximum of three people could work inside at any given time. “I was in the fetal position every single day,” says archaeologist Filipa Rodrigues, a coauthor of the study.

New York Times | 4 min read

Reference: Science paper

Love it or hate it, the H-index has become one of the most widely used metrics for measuring the productivity and impact of researchers. Jorge Hirsch, who invented it back in 2005, recently admitted that, although he considers the H-index to be among the best objective measures of scientific achievement, it can “fail spectacularly and have severe unintended negative consequences”.

Nature Index | 5 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

A still from a Twitter video in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces he has tested positive for coronavirus

TWITTER/@BorisJohnson/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

• UK prime minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus, as has the health secretary, Matt Hancock. Both politicians say their symptoms are mild and they will continue working — remotely — on the country’s response to the rising number of infections and deaths. Prince Charles tested positive for the virus earlier this week. (BBC | 27 min read)

• The British government says that, within days, it will begin large-scale serological testing that will show whether a person has been previously infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The ‘finger-prick’ tests will be available to buy from Amazon and pharmacies, and can be performed at home. If the roll-out goes ahead as planned, the country could become the first to implement at-home testing on this scale. Many questions remain unanswered: how accurate the tests will be, who will make them and how they can be manufactured in sufficient amounts. (Nature | Continuously updated)

• A radical proposal to infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines could dramatically speed up research. A ‘human challenge’ study would involve exposing perhaps 100 healthy young people to the virus and seeing whether those who get the vaccine escape infection. Bioethicist Nir Eyal, who co-authored a provocative preprint proposing such a study, tells Nature how the study could be done safely and ethically. Participants, he argues, might even be better off for it. (Nature | 6 min read)

• The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that it will temporarily suspend its enforcement of environmental laws because of the outbreak. “During this extraordinary time, EPA believes that it is more important for facilities to ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting,” said an EPA spokesperson. (The Hill | 6 min read)

• As we approach the three-month mark since the COVID-19 outbreak began, it’s worth taking a breath to catch up on what we know and the many questions that still need to be answered. From tests to immunity, STAT does a quick round-up of the state of play. (STAT | 11 min read)

Read the latest coronavirus news, continuously updated on Nature.

85,996

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States — which now overtakes China as the country with the ighest number of confirmed cases. (Nature | Continuously updated)

Notable quotable

COVID-19 will take a huge toll on lives, livelihoods and the economy if social distancing is not maintained, says health-security researcher Tom Inglesby. Move the slider on this simplified interactive graph from The New York Times to understand the effect on infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Features & opinion

Scientists affected by the shutdowns outline the tools they are using to run their research groups remotely, and share their tips for building a virtual lab remotely. “You can look at it in two ways: there’s either very little you can do from home, or a lot you can do,” says Federica Di Nicolantonio, who studies the epigenetics of colorectal cancer and mesothelioma in Italy.

Nature | 10 min read

A paper just published in Science claims to have falsified earlier hints of dark matter. But ‘not so fast’, says another group that has analysed the same data set — regions in the Milky Way mapped by a European Space Agency X-ray telescope. It is the latest chapter in a saga that started in 2014, when researchers saw X-ray emissions from other galaxies peaking at an energy of 3.5 kiloelectronvolts. Some attributed this to the decay of a novel elementary particle called a sterile neutrino, a candidate for the mysterious dark matter that appears to hold galaxies together.

Science | 6 min read

Reference: Science paper

Andrew Robinson’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes a lively history of smell, practical solutions for climate change and big cats on the prowl.

Nature | 3 min read

This week, the coronavirus-free Nature Podcast investigates an ultra-fast electrical switch and an algorithm that calculates the amount of blood pumped by the heart beat by beat.

Nature’s new coronavirus podcast, Coronapod, examines why hospitals in New York are preparing to infuse patients with the antibody-rich blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Nature Podcast | 16 min listen

Coronapod | 26 min listen

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Where I work

Robin Bell with the IcePod at her offices at Lamont Observatory.

Robin Bell is a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York.Credit: Beth Perkins for Nature

This is the Ice Pod — stripped so you can see its guts — an instrument built by geophysicist Robin Bell and her team to fit in the military planes that take them to Antarctica and Greenland. “Often, groups of researchers study just ice, rock or the ocean,” says Bell. “The Ice Pod lets us look at the solid Earth, the ice and the ocean at the same time.”

Quote of the day

Former EPA analyst of clean-air policy Kathy Kaufman explains why, in some cases, scientists have included supporting data in new rules that roll back environmental regulations that make the orders vulnerable to legal challenges. (The New York Times)

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