ESA is recruiting the first astronauts with disabilities

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A health0care worker administers a vaccination through a car window to an older man

Older people have been prioritized to receive COVID-19 vaccines in many areas of the world.Credit: Michael Ciaglo/Getty

It is clear that coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective. But as more are rolled out, researchers are learning about the extent and nature of side effects.

• The two messenger-RNA (mRNA) vaccines, made by Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech, seem to cause similar reactions. A significant portion of people experience non-serious reactions, such a sore arm or a headache. That proportion is larger than the one for the annual flu shot — perhaps because the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines generate a particularly strong immune response.

• A tiny number of people have experienced severe allergic reactions to the vaccines. These are extremely rare and no one has died. Fewer than five people per million doses administered of the Moderna or Pfizer–BioNTech experienced anaphylactic reactions. That is based on self-reported data from health-care workers and vaccinated individuals. For the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine, 30 cases of anaphylaxis have been confirmed so far, out of a little more than 3 million administered doses.

• Some researchers have had their eye on polyethylene glycol (PEG) as the anaphylaxis-causing agent in the mRNA vaccines. More research is needed.

• No deaths have been directly attributed to a COVID-19 jab. But it’s very hard to definitively link a death that happens days or weeks after the vaccine — especially among recipients who are very old or have serious health conditions.

• Safety data for some other widely used shots, such as the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine or the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, are harder to come by.

Nature | 8 min read

The European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting astronauts — including, for the first time, people with restricted growth, a leg-length difference or a lower-limb deficiency. The agency says it must first scope out what kind of safety and technical support such an individual would need. Eventually it hopes to send someone with a disability to space, who will have a role like any other astronaut. “We did not evolve to go to space, so when it comes to space travel, we are all disabled,” says ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. “What brings us from being disabled to go to space to being able to go to space is just technology.”

BBC | 5 min read

Reference: ESA Parastronaut Feasibility Project

Reported COVID-19 infections in India have dropped from a record-breaking high of nearly 100,000 cases per day in September to around 10,000 cases per day now. Many explanations have been suggested, but the most likely are that cases are being missed because testing is patchy and many people have only mild symptoms, and that public-health interventions, such as mask-wearing, are working. “There’s nothing unusual about infections dropping in India. There’s no miracle here,” says virologist Shahid Jameel.

BBC | 6 min read

Features & opinion

Scientists in Japan are enlisting an army of citizens to explore how thunderstorms create gamma rays. This form of radiation is more commonly associated with extreme cosmic environments, such as black holes. To capture and track the puzzling events, a team is installing a network of detectors around schools, temples and homes in Kanazawa, Japan. The city’s storms are unusually low and powerful — hovering at just a kilometre in height — which allows the radiation to reach the ground. To make gamma rays, storms must accelerate electrons to close to the speed of light; understanding the source of the radiation could help scientists to shed light on the centuries-old question of what initiates lightning.

Nature | 14 min read

Art-minded scientists and science-minded artists offer their top tips for collaborations that create captivating art and challenge entrenched ideas. “A partnership has to start with trust and respect,” says scientific sculptor and marine biologist Fernanda Oyarzún. “Each person needs to be humble about what they know. The overarching goal is the process of creating something new together — and the resulting exchange and reshaping of ideas.”

If you’re a scientist, would you consider collaborating with an artist? Or maybe you already have? Please take our poll (about halfway down the article).

Nature | 13 min read

International-relations and environmental-policy scholar Maria Ivanova has studied the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for decades. “Once, like many academics, I advocated that governments should ‘upgrade’ it to an agency on the scale of the World Health Organization,” she writes. “I am now convinced that UNEP should be small and nimble, a smart scaffold to bring together others with interrelated duties.” She explains how the UNEP can stop trying to be all things to all people — the ‘UN Everything Programme’ — and return to its roots as a resource that makes other agencies more effective.

Nature | 5 min read

The history of the metric system reassures us that the world can work together, writes measurement scientist Martin Milton, at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France. In 1875, Germany and France — which had been at war less than 5 years earlier — led the way for 17 nations to agree to the standard and the founding of the bureau. Today, the organization is “is a perfect and magnificent example of a work of peace”, in the words of the president of the Académie des Sciences, Philippe Taquet, in 2014.

Nature Physics | 4 min read

Quote of the day

Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, who received her award in 2020 during pandemic travel restrictions, compares notes with 2018 Nobel prizewinner Frances Arnold. (C&EN podcast | 30 min listen)

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