Daily briefing: COVID-19 reinfections raise immunity questions

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Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson

Paul Milgrom (left) and Robert Wilson share the 2020 Nobel prize in economic sciences for improvements to auction theory and invention of new auction formats.Credit: Elena Zhukova for the Stanford Graduate School of Business

This year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded to two scientists who work on an ancient form of transaction that has acquired new complexity and urgency in the modern age: the auction. Insights into auction theory made by Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson have found applications ranging from the pricing of government bonds to the licensing of radio-spectrum bands. “These two not only did foundational work themselves, but also inspired cohorts of younger researchers,” says economist Diane Coyle.

Milgrom has given a Nobel-acceptance speech before: in 1996, he was a stand-in for William Vickery, who died three days after the announcement of his prize for laying the foundations of auction theory in the 1960s.

Nature | 4 min read

Johnson & Johnson has paused enrolment in its COVID-19-vaccine trial because of “an unexplained illness in a study participant”. It’s not known whether the person received the vaccine or a placebo. The phase III study aims to look for proof of efficacy and safety in 60,000 people. Pauses are par for the course in such large trials, say scientists. The trial of a vaccine candidate from the University of Oxford, UK, and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has been on hold in the United States since 8 September, although it has restarted in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

STAT | 7 min read

The biochemical process of metabolism could have formed easily from just two simple organic compounds reacting in water. The foundational chemical process known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, the citric-acid cycle or the Krebs cycle, whether it’s breaking down food into energy or transforming carbon dioxide into fats and sugars, is at the heart of much of modern biology. Researchers found that the two small compounds glyoxylate and pyruvate reacted at moderate temperatures and acidity levels to make a range of compounds relevant to the TCA cycle. “Basically, we looked at what small molecules would have been available and what would be their chemistry,” said origins-of-life researcher Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy. “We were following rather than leading the chemistry,” added chemist Greg Springsteen.

Quanta | 7 min read

Reference: Nature Chemistry paper

Argentina’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights maintains a publicly available database of people with outstanding arrest warrants — including children. In Buenos Aires, the database is powering a live facial-recognition system that is used at the city’s train stations. “It’s completely outrageous,” says Hye Jung Han, a children’s-rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, who led the research. The data are riddled with errors and the system has led to numerous false arrests, reports MIT Technology Review.

MIT Technology Review | 6 min read

Very rare cases in which a person has caught COVID-19 twice are raising questions about how immunity might work for the disease. A new paper highlights one such incident in a 25-year-old man in Nevada. Genetic analysis showed that he was infected with different variants of the virus. Four other reinfections have been recorded in Hong Kong, Belgium, Ecuador and the Netherlands. Go deeper with Nature’s in-depth look at how reinfections contribute to our understanding of long-term immunity to COVID-19 and the prospects for a vaccine.

MIT Technology Review | 3 min read & Nature | 7 min read, from September

Reference: The Lancet paper

Features & opinion

African Americans have had the highest overall cancer death rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States for more than four decades, note cancer researchers Kilan Ashad-Bishop, Danielle Twum, Kaela Makins and Jaye Gardiner. Many innovations in cancer medicine would have been impossible without the voluntary and involuntary contributions of Black people. And minority racial and ethnic groups are severely underrepresented in cancer clinical trials and in the workforce. Given these facts, the authors call for fair opportunities for Black people in cancer research, prevention and treatment. “Our approach to improving cancer research and treatment must be as diverse as the multifaceted nature of the causes of health disparities among Black people,” they write.

Nature Research Cancer Community blog | 4 min read

Part of #BlackinCancerWeek on the Nature Research Cancer Community blog and elsewhere.

Laboratories, departments and institutions should work to alleviate the burden faced by researchers at risk of harassment or misconduct in the field, write ecologists Amelia-Juliette Demery and Monique Pipkin. They outline flexible, safe fieldwork strategies that can be tailored to individuals, supervisors and institutions — all accompanied by enlightening illustrations by ecologist Callie Chappell.

Nature Ecology & Evolution | 4 min read

Read more: Racism and harassment are common in field research — scientists are speaking up (Nature | 6 min read, from August)

Astronauts are preparing to install a brand-new toilet on the International Space Station — the US$23-million Universal Waste Management System. Compared with the old version, it’s smaller, lighter, easier to maintain and better suited to the way many women defecate. NASA engineers call the issue “dual ops”, and I’ll let you click through if you want tasteful details on why it was an important problem to solve for astronauts.

The Atlantic | 7 min read

Quote of the day

The Nobel Prize committee couldn’t reach economist Paul Milgrom to tell him he’d won, so his neighbour (and fellow winner) Robert Wilson knocked on his door in the middle of the night — all caught on Milgrom’s video doorbell. (Stanford Twitter post)

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