By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
In March, when our new pandemic reality became shockingly clear, it was hard to imagine that we’d have a vaccine before the year ended, considering the time it usually takes to get these drugs through clinical trials. But the past few weeks have seen astounding progress on that front, with vaccines approved for use in multiple countries, and additional promising candidates on the horizon.
This week Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York (pictured above), became the first person in the U.S. to receive a dose of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, freshly approved under an emergency authorization from the FDA. Tomorrow, the agency will review data from trials of another vaccine from Moderna, and emergency approval could follow within hours or days. Both drugs are mRNA vaccines, so named because they inject pieces of a virus’s genetic code (its messenger RNA) into the body. The injection “spurs the production of viral proteins that mimic the coronavirus, training the immune system to recognize its presence,” Amy McKeever writes for Nat Geo. Drugs that rely on mRNA technology have until now been approved only in veterinary medicine, so seeing two candidates prove safe and effective in humans is a landmark achievement.
The most pressing questions now revolve around access.
Few would argue with the recommendations from the CDC saying that health-care workers and elderly people in nursing homes should be first in line for vaccination. But supplies are limited, and the U.S. is expected to get only a fraction of the doses it needs to cover these populations in the coming months. Decisions must therefore be made at the state or local level to roll out vaccines to those most in need in each area, which means even being in a high-priority group does not guarantee access. “You can be a nurse in one city and be first in line, but drive across a state line and you’ll fall down the priority list,” Sarah Elizabeth Richards writes for Nat Geo.
Throw in logistical challenges due to the need for ultra-cold storage, add in a dash of side effects forcing staggered shots among ICU staff, sprinkle on questions about fairness and equity, and you have a recipe for many rough months ahead for most of the country. So, while the vaccine news is reason for cheer as we head into the holidays, it’s clear this is only the beginning of the end. Basic precautions such as handwashing, masks, and social distancing will be even more crucial this winter if we hope to spend next December in the warm embrace of family and friends.
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Today in a minute
Amazon’s waste: Getting a box from the world’s biggest retailer this holiday season? Inside many will be plastic “air pillows.” The nonprofit Oceana reports that the refuse of those Amazon air pillows alone would encircle the globe 500 times—and the company’s unrecovered plastic waste is the equivalent of dumping one delivery van’s worth of plastic into waterways every 70 minutes. Amazon maintains it only uses a quarter of Oceana’s estimates. But the estimates were from last year, before the pandemic fueled an e-commerce boom that has led to Amazon’s busiest holiday season, the Seattle Times reports.
Change of seasons: Changing seasons affect not only the physical structures of viruses, but also our body’s natural barriers against disease. How? In the winter in particular, the cold, dry air and lack of sunlight negatively affect our ability to stave off respiratory infections like the flu or the coronavirus, Fodor Kossakovski writes. “You’ve got all these factors that are all sort of pointing in the same direction, multiple reasons to expect respiratory viruses to be more of a challenge in the winter,” says UCLA’s Dylan Morris, who researches the ecology and evolution of viruses.
Why has this year seemed so long? Writer Shannon Stirone uses tree rings and the explosion of a star to explain our untethered sense of time this year (as we’ve been more tethered than ever). “Our memories, above all, are not about the past; they are for our future. Our brains know to do anything we can to stay alive, while also planning out the next steps,” Stirone writes in New York magazine. “Of all the things COVID-19 has taken from us, this might, abstractly, be one of the biggest sources of anguish: We’ve lost not only the present, but our sense of the future as well."
Instagram photo of the day
Rising waters in the Rift Valley: In May, Kenya’s Lake Naivasha reached its highest level since 1932. That has led to spiraling cases of human-wildlife conflict and tough times for thousands of fishermen on its shores, who are living in fear of being displaced by the flooding. Above, photographer Brian Otieno shows fishermen sorting their morning catch for sale in communities north of Nairobi.
Related: What caused the plague of locusts upon East Africa?
The night skies
For the first time sine 1623 ... Jupiter and Saturn will cross so close to each other in our sky that they will almost appear to shine as one star. The event on Monday—just after the sun sinks below the horizon—will be the closest conjunction of these two planets in nearly four centuries. This celestial snuggling has not been as easy to see since 1226. Binoculars and backyard telescopes will readily show off both planets in the same field of view and can reveal their retinue of moons, too! But don’t wait too long after sunset, as the two planets will sink below your local horizon rapidly as darkness falls.— Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Worried about space germs? Space agencies are concerned that extraterrestrial organisms will hitch a ride back to Earth on asteroid, lunar, and planetary samples. That’s why they are building highly secure labs to protect our home turf. Samples from a mission returning from Mars will be safeguarded, a former NASA research official, Scott Hubbard, tells us. “When that canister lands in 2031 in the Utah desert, it will be carried to a facility with the highest biosafety level protections.” (Pictured above, aerospace technologist Dr. Daniel H. Anderson looks at a basketball sized rock that Apollo 14 brought back from the moon.)
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Finding joy in a troubled time: Scientifically, the year has been dominated by the toll of a pandemic—and the record time in which an effective vaccine was born. In this month’s National Geographic magazine, Anne Lamott looked at the spiritual side of 2020’s end-of-year holidays, searching for little ways that we can buoy and brace ourselves for the year ahead (and even welcome it). One step is praise, even of the granular variety, she writes. “We praise the big things, the gifts of life, love, nature. But don’t forget nice windows, your books, the curated strew of stuff that hooks us into memories and people. I raise my eyes not only to the mountains and stars but to my living room beams, to the view outside the windows. I savor the fresh air when I open them; it’s the breath of the house.” (Illustrated above, a modern take on a classic miniature devotional object, often called a pocket shrine, that shelters a statuette or image.)