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Daily briefing: Omicron was already spreading in Europe

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A health worker holds up a bottle of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is at the centre of a patent dispute that could potentially affect future public–private collaborations.Credit: Moch Farabi Wardana/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty

Moderna–NIH vaccine-patent fight

A boiling patent dispute between scientists at the biotechnology firm Moderna Therapeutics and government researchers at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) showcases the complexities of teamwork. The two groups collaborated to swiftly produce one of the world’s first successful COVID-19 vaccines, but are now in a battle over whether NIH researchers were unfairly left off the list of co-inventors on a pivotal patent application. Nature looks at four key questions about the patent spat and its potential ripple effects for collaborations between government and industry.

Nature | 7 min read

Omicron was already spreading in Europe

Omicron, the new coronavirus variant labelled as being ‘of concern’ by the World Health Organization, was present in the Netherlands before the first cases were identified in southern Africa. The Dutch health authority RIVM has reported cases dating back to 19 November, although it is not known if those people were infected outside the country. South African scientists have said they feel that they’re being punished for their advanced genomic-surveillance programme, which detected the variant and enabled other nations to respond quickly, but has resulted in travel bans that have largely target southern African nations.

CBS | 5 min read

Black holes on a collision course

A newly discovered pair of supermassive black holes is closer to Earth than any known so far. The two are only 1,600 light years apart, so astronomers predict they will smash together in a mere 250 million years. One sits at the centre of the galaxy NGC 7727, with the other just off to the side. Many more off-centre black holes could be hiding throughout the Universe, say astronomers — in which case, the cosmos might contain up to 30% more of the celestial objects than previously thought.

New Scientist | 3 min read

Reference: Astronomy & Astrophysics paper

Features & opinion

Fauci on 40 years of progress against AIDS

On World AIDS Day, US public-health leader Anthony Fauci reflects on four decades of studying HIV, and what lessons can be drawn for the COVID-19 pandemic. The fight against HIV reveals the importance of using available treatments and strategies for prevention, while searching for better ones, and considering equity, education and outreach, he says. “There are many similarities that sadden me,” writes Fauci. “How hard some patient groups need to fight for recognition; how misinformation and denialism can promote illness and death; how slowly interventions reach vulnerable populations; how easy it can be to overlook patient inputs when setting research priorities.”

Nature | 5 min read

Omicron co-discoverer on COVID and HIV

African nations need to tackle HIV and COVID-19 together to minimize the risk to human life and limit the emergence of coronavirus variants, argue four South African scientists, including Tulio de Oliveira, the co-discoverer of the Omicron variant. Failure to get COVID-19 vaccines to nations with high rates of uncontrolled advanced HIV puts people living with that virus at even greater risk, and could drive the emergence of coronavirus variants. De Oliveira and his co-authors argue that world leaders need to commit to vaccine equity between countries, and devote more of their resources and attention to the interactions between COVID-19 and HIV, to combat both diseases more effectively.

Nature | 10 min read

Image of the week

The ‘Tristan Otto’ Tyrannosaurus rex skull that was examined by researchers.

The Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed ‘Tristan Otto’ had an infection in its jaw — probably the bone disease tumefactive osteomyelitis, say scientists. Researchers used a computed tomography (CT) scanner and an X-ray technique called dual-energy CT to demonstrate that the fossil — one of only two original T. rex skeletons in Europe — could be analysed without damaging it. (Cosmos | 4 min read)RSNA and Charlie Hamm, M.D.

Quote of the day

“The order of co-first authors provided here was decided through a mushroom picking competition around the Sognsvann lake, Oslo, Norway.”

Jaime Castro-Mondragon, Rafael Riudavets-Puig and Ieva Rauluseviciute share joint first-author credit in a recent paper. (Nucleic Acids Research | 1 min read, or 24 min if you want to learn all about JASPAR, the open-access database of transcription factor binding profiles)


We have had tough COVID times round my house this week, made slightly better by the news that Canada is releasing 22.7 million kilograms of maple syrup from its strategic reserve. I’ll be consuming at least a few barrels; good to know that there will be enough for everyone.

Make my day even sweeter by telling me what you think of this newsletter. Please send your feedback — whether positive or critical — to

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty, Anne Marie Conlon and Anna Nowogrodzki.

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