Photograph by Hans Pennik, AP Photo
Photograph by Hans Pennik, AP Photo
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The 2 steps to defeat COVID-19

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

There wasn’t much to do as a kid on the now-defunct Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Base housing was pretty sparse, and the most fun to be had involved the few trees worth climbing. One activity was splashing barefoot through puddles in the stretch of concrete between us and the Delaware River. My mom nearly scared me half to death pulling me away, her shaky voice warning me of the dangers of contracting polio from the dirty water.

My parents were born before the invention of the first polio vaccine in the 1950s, and I was frolicking around before the World Health Organization formally launched its polio eradication campaign in the late 1980s. Today, two time-tested vaccines have brought polio in check, with just 33 new cases reported as of 2018, according to the WHO. All told, vaccines made my childhood safe from measles, mumps, tetanus, diphtheria, and a host of other ailments. So you can bet that when a proven vaccine finally comes ready for COVID-19, I will be there, sleeve rolled up in anticipation.

As of this writing, more than 150 candidate vaccines are in the pipeline, with seven already in the late stages of clinical trials. The drugs run the gamut from tried and true technologies that use a weakened virus to stimulate an immune response, to cutting-edge versions that use snippets of viral genes to do the job. (Pictured above, a volunteer gets an injection as part of a study for a possible vaccine.)

However, as Amy McKeever reports, vaccines take time to properly test and scale up. The fastest approved vaccine (for the mumps) took a whopping four years to go from inception to commercialization.

While today’s established vaccines are safe and effective, rushing out a new one is not without risks, points out Roxanne Khamsi. In the 1970s, a hastily developed flu vaccine caused 25 deaths, and medical experts today worry that pushing out a COVID-19 vaccine too soon could mean we settle for one with limited effectiveness at the cost of a better option down the road.

That’s not even getting into ethical questions about how much a vaccine will cost, which influences who can access it, and whether any vaccine for this virus will work for the elderly—the age group most at risk of dying from the disease. The rush to get a vaccine to market has even exacerbated problems with vaccine hesitancy, prompting many smart, well-educated people to say they would distrust a roll-out and avoid getting the shot. If the first vaccine we get does end up having problems, that will only make matters worse.

I’m as eager as anyone else to put COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror and start the hard work of building our post-pandemic future. But I’ve found that when driving (and editing), speed causes accidents, so I hope scientists will take the time to get this one right, for all our sakes.

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Today in a minute

Beirut: A combination of factors led to Tuesday’s deadly explosion in the Lebanese capital. Officials say welding in the port district accidentally sparked fireworks, which in turn set off a massive cache of ammonium nitrate that had been stored for years in a government warehouse. Apart from the human toll, the blast destroyed the silo holding 85 percent of the nation’s grain, political analyst Faysal Itani writes for the New York Times. The ruined port cannot receive more wheat, the basis for Lebanon’s daily bread.

What about these promising vaccines? Here is a look at seven of the most-mentioned vaccines that are in late-stage trials and beyond. Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever notes that the top vaccine may be another of the 150 vaccines in development. The United States has pledged to have 300 million vaccines by the end of January; the World Health Organization is shooting for two billion vaccines by the end of 2021.

What about TB? The lockdowns and supply-chain disruptions caused from COVID-19 threaten progress against tuberculosis, which kills 1.5 million people each year. There are indications that TB, malaria, and HIV, which have trended downward over the past decade, may be rebounding, the New York Times reports. “COVID-19 risks derailing all our efforts and taking us back to where we were 20 years ago,” Pedro L. Alonso, director of the World Health Organization’s global malaria program, tells the Times.

Should schools reopen? Summer camps provide a troubling model, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko reports. Eighty percent of overnight camps and 40 percent of day camps did not even open this summer. Mask-wearing and other protocols were in place for others, but that did not stop the tide of COVID-19. One Georgia camp saw 260 of its 597 campers and staff test positive. The coronavirus struck one of the first schools to reopen in the first hours of the first day last week, sending officials scrambling to trace and isolate the scores of students and staff the pupil had come in contact with. “It’s not safe,” one Arizona school superintendent told the Washington Post. “There’s no way it can be safe.”

Giving their all: Imagine two organisms having such trouble finding a mate that when they do, they merge bodies—permanently. The process, in anglerfish, is known as underwater sexual parasitism. But, um, how? Well, Wired reports, one disables its immune system so that its tissues will not reject those of the other. The now-single body shares respiratory and digestive systems.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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lluring, and deadly: The water is so clear that a diver appears to be levitating. This image, from one of Florida's nearly 1,000 springs, shows the spell that these underwater caverns can cast upon even the most experienced divers. The downside: Divers can fail to run a guideline to lead them back to the surface, or have mechanical problems, experts say. At least 10 enthusiasts have been killed in one west-central Florida sinkhole since 1981.

Related: The dangerous allure of cave diving

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This week in the night sky

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Moon meets Mars, meteors: Watch for the waning moon to pay a visit with Mars late Saturday and early Sunday. The red planet will appear dramatically close to our moon, closing the gap between them until they are less than a degree apart in the dawn southern sky. The apparent separation between the two worlds will be small enough that you can cover it with just your outstretched thumb. Throughout this week, you can also watch the Perseid meteor shower ramp up. Meteors will radiate from the namesake constellation, Perseus, which will be rising in the northeast late at night. The annual sky show officially peaks Tuesday and Wednesday, but skywatchers can see the uptick of shooting stars leading up to these dates. — Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

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Pandemic + clutter: Home too cluttered? Maybe that’s why you liked, before COVID-19, going to an office or to coffee shops to work. If you’re stuck at home now, neurologist Hannah McLane knows there are natural distractions, so she practices mindfulness to get prioritized work done. Limit noise if you can. And understand brains are different. While neatness helps most people focus, clutter stimulates others, Rebecca Renner writes for Nat Geo. Pictured above, Albert Einstein's office in Princeton, taken hours after Einstein's death in 1955.

In a few words

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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.

The last glimpse

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Beyond masks and gloves: How do researchers stay safe in handling some of the world’s most infectious agents? In “high containment” labs, the workers use specialized tools with great care to detect pathogens and diagnose diseases, or to unravel the molecular structure of microbes. In the latest issue of National Geographic, photographer Laszlo Vegh takes us to such a lab in Hungary. Vegh photographed the image above through a technician’s face shield and past its respirator mask valve.

Subscriber exclusive: How the pros handle dangerous microbes

Correction: In last week’s newsletter, we gave an incorrect date for the launch of the last Ernest Shackleton mission to Antarctica. His ship was completed in 1912, but the voyage didn’t set sail until 1914. Thanks to reader Roff Smith for catching the mistake.
This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Have an idea or a link? Send it our way at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.