Can COVID-19 response help with climate's health burden?

In today’s newsletter, a glance at Mercury; the hunt for alien life; time for flu shots; and using face-recognition … on grizzlies?

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Science newsletter that was originally sent out on September 8, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor

Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists and government officials have gotten sage advice from a group of people who were already battling a massive threat to public health: climate scientists. From piles of sometimes contradictory evidence to rampant misinformation to mind-boggling denials of established facts, the issues that have plagued COVID-19 researchers and policymakers are starkly like those that have influenced the climate crisis. The pandemic has also laid bare similar issues with equity, access to healthcare, intergovernmental squabbling, and reluctance to embrace solutions that might harm the bottom line.

But while the state of things may seem bleak right now, we actually have a lot to celebrate with COVID-19, in part because the pandemic spurred people to act urgently and drove a lot of innovation. Now mRNA vaccines are not only keeping people out of hospitals, they hold potential for combating a host of other diseases. More people are saying they will embrace masks as an effective way to prevent respiratory illness beyond COVID-19. And governments and institutions are investigating ways to improve healthcare infrastructure.

So why can’t we learn a few things from COVID-19 to get serious about tackling climate change? That’s what the editors of more than 200 medical journals are asking this week in an article co-published across their pages. “Many governments met the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic with unprecedented funding. The environmental crisis demands a similar emergency response,” the editors write.

And yes, they add, “the science is unequivocal” that climate change is a huge risk to public health. Extreme heat already threatens the health of about 30 percent of the world’s population, according to a 2017 study. Shifting climate zones mean that tropical diseases—many carried by my personal archnemeses, mosquitoes—are pushing into higher latitudes, threatening even more people with ailments such as dengue fever, malaria, Zika, and valley fever. Droughts are making crops harder to grow and less nutritious, while floods create stagnant waters that can carry all sorts of icky infectious agents. Heck, climate change has even been implicated in making seasonal allergies worse. (Pictured above, a flooded Louisiana neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Ida; below, an aerial view of dry cracked earth in a California almond orchard.)

The global response to COVID-19 has not been perfect. But it has shown the world what’s possible when people come together with the resources and the willpower to overcome a deadly challenge. And as the journal authors write: “Despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with Covid-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions.” All our lives depend on it.

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TODAY IN A MINUTE

Deadly—and life-saving: Drugs to lower blood pressure. Powerful non-opioid painkillers. Such advances in health come from venom in snakes, spiders, or plants—and show the promise of intense research into the area. Venom is “both the supervillain and the superhero,” chemist Mandë Holford, a specialist in venomous snails, tells Nat Geo. (Pictured above, researchers draw venom from a scorpion.)

Animal dewormer update
: Doctors are concerned that Americans taking an unproven drug for COVID-19 are sickening themselves—and the public should instead focus on getting vaccinated and masking up. Some people, unable to get prescriptions for themselves, may have taken doses of ivermectin intended for heavier animals such as horses. People ingesting such doses are likely to be poisoned, heath virologist Michael Teng tells Nat Geo. Poison control calls are way up.

Trouble in flight: A red warning light went off during the Virgin Galactic rocket’s ascent to the edge of space in July. The FAA is investigating what happened on that brief flight, which landed fine but also had veered out of approved airspace. “Not only was the ship’s trajectory endangering the mission, it was also imperiling the ship’s chances of staying inside its mandated airspace,” the New Yorker reports.

Time for a flu shot: Nearly every American six months and older should get a flu shot starting now, before flu cases are expected to rise at the end of October. Getting a COVID-19 booster, too? No problem. The CDC now says it’s fine to get the flu shot at the same time as the booster, NPR reports. As with many other vaccines, a jab is no guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it should reduce the severity if you do.

INSTAGRAM OF THE DAY

Otherworldly: This single-exposure photograph of the Milky Way, liked by nearly 400,000 readers on our Instagram page, was taken at California's Mono Lake. These limestone towers and islands of tufa were formed by the buildup of carbonate minerals in water. Mono Lake has no outlet, making the trapped water alkaline and salty. But the lake has an unusually productive ecosystem, including strange bacteria—they've been analyzed by astrobiologists studying the possibility of life in other worlds and in such extreme conditions.

Related: The lake where super-hairy flies can ‘breathe’ underwater

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THE BIG TAKEAWAY

BearID: Grizzlies often have been hard to track because they lack distinguishable markings. However, new software adapted from human face-recognition technology claims to have a high success rate at doing the same for the bears, according to an article in the October issue of National Geographic. Yes, it’s called BearID (pictured above) and uses deep-learning algorithms.

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THE NIGHT SKIES

Another glance at Mercury: Look to the very low western sky after sunset today for a whisker-thin crescent moon posing with the elusive planet Mercury. The tiny planet can be spotted to the moon’s lower left (illustrated above). How far apart are they? They’re separated in your view by the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. But be quick, because Mercury will set just minutes after sunset. Tomorrow night, the moon will glide toward the low southwest sky, “near” superbright Venus and the blue star Spica, about 250 light-years away. By Sunday night the first-quarter moon will be sitting in Scorpius, paired with the constellation’s brightest star, Antares. — Andrew Fazekas

Top stars: Your guide to the best of autumn’s night skies

IN A FEW WORDS

THE LAST GLIMPSE

Aliens, we’re watching: The first-ever scoop of a Mars rock sample for return to Earth is seen as a major step in the hunt toward alien life. Monday’s collection by the Perseverance rover (the first sample of which is shown above) is “going to change everything for Mars science," planetary scientist Nina Lanza tells Nat Geo. Of course, we’ll have to be patient to collect the evidence. A mission to fetch the rocks isn’t scheduled to launch before 2026, Maya Wei-Haas reports.

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Today’s newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard and Monica Williams, and Jen Tse has selected the photos. Have a link or an idea to share? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading, and keep discovering.

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