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New Scientist Australian Edition 23-Jan-21

New Scientist covers the latest developments in science and technology that will impact your world. New Scientist employs and commissions the best writers in their fields from all over the world. Our editorial team provide cutting-edge news, award-winning features and reports, written in concise and clear language that puts discoveries and advances in the context of everyday life today and in the future.

New Scientist Ltd
51 Issues

in this issue

1 min
elsewhere on new scientist

Virtual events The search for extraterrestrial life As part of our Big Thinkers series, astrophysicist Avi Loeb of Harvard University discusses tentative clues to the possible presence of aliens in our solar system – interstellar object ‘Oumuamua and hints of life in the clouds of Venus. Join us on 11 February 2021 from 6pm GMT. Tickets are available now. newscientist.com/events Podcasts Weekly How risky is the UK’s strategy to delay the time between coronavirus vaccines? Plus: the superconductor breakthrough that could bring an energy revolution, coral restoration on the Great Barrier Reef, and cannibalistic megalodon sharks. NEW Escape pod Our fabulous new podcast series won’t be mentioning any nasty viruses. Instead, it will offer escapism and inspiration to brighten up your day. In episode one, we will take to the oceans to explore self-awareness and theory of mind in…

2 min
time to adapt

JUST one month ago, the world was already struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Now the challenge has become even harder. The emergence of new variants with different properties has changed the rules of engagement. That the coronavirus should evolve isn’t surprising – this is what viruses do. Scientists have been sequencing the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus since it began spreading out of Wuhan in China, recording the mutations that naturally accumulate as more and more people become infected and pass it on. This virus evolves mercifully slowly. Until recently, the genetic changes we saw were of little consequence to us, but that has begun to change. Now the virus has picked up mutations that allow it to spread more easily and, in some cases, that could help it evade…

3 min
origins of covid-19

THE World Health Organization’s scientific mission to explore the origins of the coronavirus has only been under way for a few days, but has already been the subject of clashes between the US and China over the investigation’s access to people and evidence. The first of the 13 scientists arrived in Wuhan on 14 January, after visa issues delayed an original 5 January start date. Led by Peter Ben Embarek at the WHO, the team is currently in quarantine for 14 days in a hotel and talking with Chinese officials, including those at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control. Members of the mission have said they are having daily covid-19 tests and are being “treated very well”. The polite language contrasts with the verbal sparring between the US and Chinese governments in recent days. The…

6 min
the coronavirus evolves

THE rise and spread of new variants of the coronavirus are seen as ushering in a dangerous new phase of the covid-19 pandemic. But from the virus’s perspective, nothing has changed. It is just doing what comes naturally to viruses: evolving. It is now well-established that SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus with a large and unusually stable RNA genome, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change at all. Unlike most other RNA viruses, which are among the most mutation-prone biological entities in the world, SARS-CoV-2’s genome changes very slowly. This is largely because it has a proofreading function that is efficient at eliminating errors during replication, a major source of the genetic variation that we call evolution. “There’s not masses of evolution occurring, this is a very slow-evolving virus,” says David Robertson at…

2 min
what are the new coronavirus variants?

THERE are tens of thousands of variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that differ from each other by at least one mutation, according to sequencing studies that track its spread and monitor how it is evolving. Many of these variants die out, but others spread and acquire further mutations. Overall, though, the coronavirus hasn’t changed much. Any two SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses from anywhere in the world will usually differ by fewer than 30 mutations, and they are all still regarded as one strain. In early December, scientists looking for reasons for a rapid growth of case numbers in Kent in south-east England, noticed that one variant, now known as B.1.1.7, was spreading faster than others. The evidence that it is more transmissible is growing ever stronger. This variant is spreading faster than different variants in…

5 min
will vaccines work on new variants?

SOON after vaccination began in many countries, reports of faster-spreading coronavirus variants triggered fears that vaccines might not protect against them. The good news is that initial studies suggest that the existing shots will still work, although they might be slightly less effective against two variants, one that emerged in South Africa and one from Brazil. “I am optimistic that current vaccines will remain quite useful,” says Jesse Bloom at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “But I do expect that eventually it will be necessary to update vaccines to account for viral evolution.” Antibodies are our main defence against viruses. When we get infected by a new virus, our immune system starts producing a range of antibodies that bind to various parts of viral proteins. Not all antibodies are equal.…