Nature’s 10: ten people who helped shape science in 2020

A COVID vaccine developer, an Arctic voyager and a prime minister are some of the people behind the year’s big research stories.

The Nature’s 10 list explores key developments in science this year and some of the people who played important parts in these milestones. Along with their colleagues, these individuals helped to make amazing discoveries and brought attention to crucial issues. Nature’s 10 is not an award or a ranking. The selection is compiled by Nature’s editors to highlight key events in science through the compelling stories of those involved.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: Warning the world

On 15 April, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), found himself in a political windstorm. The day before, US President Donald Trump had said that he would halt funding to the WHO, pending a review of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its dealings with China.

But instead of reacting publicly to Trump’s accusations of ‘mismanagement’ and ‘cover-ups’, Tedros described the United States as a “generous friend” and emphasized the agency’s desire to serve every country and every partner during the pandemic.

“Because we were very alarmed by the geopolitical tensions between major powers, we advocated from the outset for global solidarity,” says Tedros in an e-mail to Nature.

For almost 73 years, the WHO has served as the world’s smoke alarm for emerging health threats, collecting intelligence on hundreds of disease outbreaks and advising nations on their responses — sometimes working directly with local health agencies on the ground.

Tedros became the organization’s first director-general from Africa in 2017, following a troubled response by the WHO to a major Ebola outbreak. With a background in public health, epidemiology and foreign affairs, Tedros promised to create an agency that could move swiftly to address the next crisis.

He has won over many public-health researchers and practitioners with his empathy, approachability and hard work. “He leads by really rolling up his sleeves and showing an example to others,” says Lawrence Gostin, a researcher of public-health law at Georgetown University in Washington DC. When Ebola emerged again in 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tedros visited the country multiple times, at great personal risk. The WHO and local health responders worked to contain the spread and vaccinate some 300,000 people during a period of active conflict.

But COVID-19 has really tested the WHO’s ability to manage a fast-moving global pandemic.

On 31 December, the agency picked up news reports about cases of viral pneumonia of unknown provenance in Wuhan, China. It requested more details from Chinese authorities and alerted its networks. By 27 January, Tedros was on a plane to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing; three days later, he declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, obliging WHO member states to respond to the threat.

Some researchers say that Tedros was too generous in his public praise of China and that he should have been more forthright about information that China kept from the agency, for example about the first documented cases. There was “a real lack of willingness to be even just a little bit tougher with the Chinese authorities in the public eye”, says Suerie Moon, a political scientist at the Graduate Institute Geneva in Switzerland.

Public deference to China opened Tedros and the agency up to unsubstantiated criticisms of being biased, including those from the Trump administration, says Moon.

Researchers also say that the agency took a conservative approach in reviewing the limited scientific evidence. This meant that it was slow to confirm human-to-human transmission in China, for example, and to recognize the role of people who don’t show symptoms in spreading the virus. The emergency could have been declared earlier, says Dale Fisher, an infectious-diseases physician at the National University of Singapore.

The WHO rejects the suggestion that it was late to warn the world. “We rang the alarm bell loud and clear from the moment we received the first reports,” says Tedros.

Researchers add that more transparency, and a quicker response, might not have swayed the course of the pandemic. Even after the WHO declared an emergency, many countries were still reluctant to introduce public-health measures, says Fisher. And China might not have responded well to a tougher Tedros, say researchers.

In July, the United States — the WHO’s largest government donor — formally notified the agency of its plans to withdraw from it in 2021. US president-elect Joe Biden has promised to cancel the withdrawal after taking office in January.

But even with US contributions, the WHO is severely underfunded for the work it does, says Kelley Lee, a researcher who studies global health at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. The crisis has exposed, once again, the WHO’s vulnerabilities as an institution beholden to member states for funding, and the challenges for a leader trying to navigate treacherous political waters.

Tedros says his focus remains on the COVID-19 “end game” — ensuring that all countries enjoy the same access to vaccines. As the world enters that stage, and the political headwinds that might ensue, Tedros promises to “just put my head down and power through”.

Verena Mohaupt: Polar patroller

There was no way to retreat when they spotted the polar bear. Verena Mohaupt and a handful of colleagues were trapped on a floating chunk of sea ice while the bear gazed at them, sniffing the air. It was a dangerous sign.

“That’s when everything kicks in,” Mohaupt says,“ and you focus on what’s important.” As a colleague fired a flare into the sky as a warning shot, Mohaupt radioed their research vessel a few kilometres away. Luckily, the ship’s helicopter arrived quickly and Mohaupt didn’t have to use the rifle that was slung over her shoulder.

Keeping a lookout for bears was a regular duty for Mohaupt, the logistics coordinator for a year-long mission known as the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) — the largest Arctic research expedition in history. The project began in late 2019, when an icebreaker from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven steered into a massive ice floe in the Siberian Arctic and became frozen in place. Over the next year, the ship and a rotating cast of roughly 300 scientists drifted with the ice to gather unprecedented data on climate change. Led by atmospheric scientist Markus Rex of the AWI, the expedition collected measurements that will help modellers better forecast how warming will transform the region — and the rest of the globe — in the coming decades.

For months, the expedition operated in constant darkness while polar bears roamed nearby, storms rocked the ship and the ice shifted and cracked. Then, when the Sun returned, the ice began to melt, creating a safety hazard and a logistical nightmare for researchers who needed to keep their instruments from sinking.

Tasked with the security of the mission, Mohaupt designed an extensive training course for the participants in which they learnt how to ward off the hazards of the Arctic. They jumped into a Norwegian fjord in their survival suits and climbed out of the frigid waters using only their ice picks. They learnt how to escape from a crashed helicopter. And they discussed the psychological effects of being far from home. Mohaupt brought knitting equipment, an accordion and a yoga mat for her own sanity — although she felt well prepared for the isolation, having done two 18-month stints as a station manager for a French–German research base on Svalbard in Norway.

Mohaupt didn’t plan on a career in polar logistics, but says she has always been drawn to the north — even while studying biophysics at university. That background in science helped her work closely with each research group to ensure that they had the necessary equipment for their investigations. Her logistics team also included members who would act as polar-bear guards while the researchers were out on the ice.

“For many people, if a bear comes around, your first thought is ‘freak-out — there’s a bear right there’,” says Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who co-led the expedition. “But the logistics team stepped in and managed that situation in such a smooth way that I think it really helped to create this feeling of overall safety out there.”

Mohaupt’s biggest concern throughout the mission was the cold, and her team worked closely with researchers to keep them out of danger. Beyond the extensive early training they provided for the scientists, Mohaupt and her colleagues always packed an extra thermos of tea or hot chocolate for anyone going out on the ice. With all of these precautions, there was only one severe case of frostbite over the year-long mission. “They were there to make sure that we were protected,” says Allison Fong, an AWI biologist and co-leader of MOSAiC’s ecosystem team. “Verena is certainly the champion of that.”

Gonzalo Moratorio: Coronavirus hunter

Fame came quickly for Gonzalo Moratorio during the COVID-19 pandemic. People recognize him on the streets of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. They buy him a beer every now and then when he goes to a bar. They even approach him on the water, whenever he goes out surfing with friends. And they thank him.

They are grateful because Moratorio helped Uruguay dodge the worst consequences of the pandemic. Moratorio, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute and the University of the Republic, both in Montevideo, and his colleagues designed a coronavirus test and a national programme for administering it that has helped to keep COVID-19 cases at bay as outbreaks have swept through Latin America — including Uruguay’s closest neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay continues to record one of the world’s lowest death tolls — only 87 people by 10 December.

“We’re some sort of outlier,” he says. “We’re buying time. And all the time we buy will be precious until drugs or vaccines arrive.”

Moratorio was excited to start the year as head of his own laboratory for the first time, having completed a postdoc in Paris in 2018. He was planning to study how viruses mutate and how to make them less harmful. But in the first days of March, he and other Pasteur researchers from across the Americas met online to discuss what to do about the rapidly growing coronavirus outbreak.

Some researchers weren’t terribly worried. Carlos Batthyány, a pharmacologist who leads the Pasteur Institute of Montevideo, told his colleagues that he thought Uruguay would be largely spared by the pandemic. “I wasn’t very convinced of the impact it would have,” he says.

His confidence made sense. Uruguay — a country with universal health care, a robust epidemiological surveillance system and a relatively small population, of 3.5 million — has mostly evaded yellow fever, Zika and other infectious diseases that have plagued its neighbours.

But Moratorio understood the risk. “Gonzalo dashed out of the meeting and got to work,” says Batthyány. “When he’s convinced that something needs to be done, he knocks down mountains. He’s a Don Quixote in that way.”

Moratorio saw that the way to avoid spiralling outbreaks was to test widely and to isolate positive cases. But it wasn’t long before global demand for commercial diagnostic kits surged. He and his long-time collaborator, virologist Pilar Moreno, knew that the resulting shortage would make it impossible for Uruguay to procure tests and reagents. “It was at that point that we realized that we had to somehow become independent,” says Moreno.

On 13 March, the country confirmed the first COVID-19 cases and declared a health emergency. The government shut down businesses and schools, announced restrictions on flights and border crossings and asked people to isolate themselves. By then, Moratorio, Moreno and their lab members had developed their own test, which uses the gold-standard technique polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect molecular signatures unique to SARS-CoV-2.

Within a few weeks, the researchers had transformed their test into a simple and efficient kit, with just three tubes, and taking up only one well in a PCR machine. And with the help of the Ministry of Public Health, they trained and created a national network of COVID-19 diagnostic labs.

By the end of May, Uruguay was performing more than 800 tests per day, and about half of the kits were produced domestically. Today, that number is around 5,000 — of which about 30% use Moratorio’s assay. The speed and coordination of Uruguay’s response was impressive, says Zulma Cucunubá, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London. “Let’s just say one feels envious that Uruguay achieved that very early.”

Life in Uruguay has mostly gone back to normal. Schools and restaurants have reopened, and many people are back at work. Even Moratorio and his team have slowly returned to their original research. But he remains alert. “Let’s hope it lasts,” he says. “My fear is that we won’t be able to contain this at some point.”

Adi Utarini: Mosquito commander

As the COVID-19 coronavirus swept the world this year, Adi Utarini was focused on battling a different deadly infection: dengue fever. In August, her team reported a big victory that could point the way towards defeating this disease — which afflicts up to 400 million people per year — and possibly others carried by mosquitoes, too.

Utarini and her colleagues have managed to cut cases of dengue fever by 77% in parts of a large Indonesian city by releasing mosquitoes that had been modified to stop them from transmitting the virus. Epidemiologists hailed the result as staggering — and a long-sought win against a virus that has plagued many countries, especially lower-income nations in Asia, Africa and South America.

“It was a very big relief,” says Utarini, a public-health researcher at Gadjah Mada University (GMU) in Yogyakarta — where the trial took place — and the study’s lead scientist in Indonesia.

The project was the first randomized controlled trial — the gold standard in clinical research — of a completely new approach to controlling dengue. The technique breeds Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit the dengue, Zika and chikungunya viruses, such that they carry a bacterium called Wolbachia. The bacterium subdues the viruses and prevents the mosquitoes from passing them on to humans. Eggs from the modified mosquitoes are then placed around the city, often in people’s homes. Small trials in Australia and Vietnam had produced tantalizing results. But Yogyakarta, a dense city of nearly 400,000 people with high rates of dengue transmission, provided a much bigger stage for a trial.

It was also an important test of whether Utarini’s team could get buy-in from the community that would host the mosquitoes. “That was what was so successful about the team that Adi led,” says Oliver Brady, a virus modeller who studies dengue at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The team used media announcements, wall paintings, face-to-face meetings and even a short-film competition to inform the community about the technology and to answer people’s questions about the trial. More often than not, community members were keen to be in the treatment areas.

Work on the Yogyakarta trial started in 2011, but the team faced some problems getting government agreement. Utarini, an experienced public-health researcher who had worked on tuberculosis and malaria, was recruited in 2013 to help. She negotiated with several government ministries, winning regulatory approval soon after.

When the findings were revealed, the community was “very enthusiastic”, she says. “Even before the final results, we already had requests from the community asking, ‘When can you do it in my area?’,” says Utarini. “It’s a dream come true.”

Colleagues agree that Utarini — whom they describe as quiet but persuasive — has been a key part of the study’s success. Adi — or Prof Uut as she is known to many — has provided the “glue to hold things together” during the complex trial, says Scott O’Neill, director of the World Mosquito Program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which developed the mosquito technology and joins with local researchers to deploy and test it. “Adi and her group have executed this really high-quality trial that gives us the best proof of this technology,” he says.

Wolbachia mosquitoes are now being released across Yogyakarta and, for the first time, dengue researchers are contemplating the idea that they could eliminate the virus from a city — or perhaps even a country. “People describe it as vaccinating the land,” says Brady.

But Utarini’s triumphant year has also been touched by tragedy. In March, her husband, a pharmacologist, died of COVID-19. In difficult times, she has turned to her other passions — piano playing and cycling. “Whenever I have unsolved problems, I try to get ideas through that.”

When it comes to dengue, she is optimistic. “I believe in this technology,” says Utarini. “Maybe there is finally a light in the dark.”

Kathrin Jansen: Vaccine leader

Kathrin Jansen knew she was taking a big risk. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, vaccines based on messenger RNA were an unproven technology. No firm had managed to win approval to use one in humans before. But with the death count mounting around the globe in March, Jansen went all in on the new vaccine platform.

As head of vaccine research and development at US drug firm Pfizer, Jansen led a whirlwind, record-setting effort to show that the company’s COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective in people. Her team managed that feat in just 210 days, from the beginning of testing in April to the completion of phase III clinical trials in November.

Thousands of scientists across the world, from academia and industry, have been involved in developing and trialling dozens of preventive vaccines to combat the new coronavirus. And several companies have reported developing effective vaccines, a list that will grow as more trials are completed.

Managing a 650-person operation — often through Zoom calls from her New York City apartment — Jansen has spent the past year troubleshooting clinical issues with the COVID-19 vaccine trials, sorting out manufacturing logistics around cold-storage requirements and, most recently, navigating regulatory affairs on the next steps for vaccine roll-out.

The work paid off. On 2 December, health authorities in the United Kingdom approved the company’s vaccine for emergency use, paving the way for mass inoculation. It was the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved on the basis of phase-III trial data; approvals from other countries soon followed.

The success is in large part due to Jansen, says Uğur Şahin, co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech, Pfizer’s partner on the vaccine, based in Mainz, Germany. “She is relentless,” he says, but also “extremely data-driven”, with a scientific curiosity and an openness to divergent opinions. “She is diligent,” Şahin says, “and she listens.”

“She’s absolutely fearless as a scientist,” adds Edward Scolnick, former head of Merck Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania, where Jansen worked from 1992 to 2004. “She has complete confidence that she can technically and intellectually solve any problem that might get in the way of a project like that.”

Jansen has a track record of taking on nasty pathogens under challenging circumstances. While at Merck, she initiated a project to tackle human papillomavirus (HPV) — a sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer — even as many colleagues told her the research was a waste of time and money. That effort ultimately yielded the world’s first HPV vaccine, Gardasil, which is expected to save millions of lives through cancer prevention.

Jansen worked on anthrax and smallpox vaccines at a now-defunct company called VaxGen, before joining Wyeth, which later became Pfizer after the firms merged. There, she improved the company’s pneumococcal vaccine, nearly doubling the number of bacterial strains covered, from 7 to 13 — and slashing rates of pneumonia, bloodstream infections and meningitis in the process. The resulting product, Prevnar 13, is now the world’s top-selling vaccine. Gardasil ranks as number two. In 2021, sales of the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine could eclipse both combined.

But Jansen doesn’t flout her many accomplishments, says Scolnick: “She is extremely down to earth.”

Şahin says the intensity of the vaccine collaboration bonded the two of them like soldiers in battle. On a Sunday in early November, just before researchers at Pfizer and BioNTech would learn whether their vaccine candidate had succeeded at preventing cases of severe COVID-19 in its pivotal clinical test, Jansen called Şahin to take stock of everything they had achieved together.

“She said, ‘Regardless of what the data tell us, I wanted to let you know it was always a pleasure to work together’,” Şahin recalls. “Luckily, it was not the end of the collaboration.”

Later that day, they would learn that the vaccine was more than 90% effective. Jansen got teary eyed. She enjoyed a glass of champagne with her husband. Then it was back to work doing what she has done for the past 30 years: trying to immunize the world against another deadly pathogen.

Zhang Yongzhen: Genome sharer

The international scientific battle against COVID-19 began on the morning of 11 January in Shanghai. That was when virologist Zhang Yongzhen, after days of hesitation, agreed to post online the genome of the virus that was causing pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China.

His sharing showed the world that this was a new coronavirus, and similar to the one that caused the deadly 2003 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Researchers immediately pored over the genome to investigate the virus’s key proteinsproduce diagnostic tests and design vaccines. “That was the most important day in the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Linfa Wang, a virologist at Duke–National University of Singapore Medical School.

But releasing the sequence was not a straightforward matter. Zhang’s laboratory at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center received a sample of the pathogen on 3 January. On the same day, the Chinese government circulated an order forbidding local authorities and labs from publishing information about the virus. After 40 hours of work, at 2 a.m. on 5 January, team member Chen Yan-Mei alerted Zhang that the virus was related to SARS. Later that day, Zhang notified Shanghai’s municipal health authority of the threat and uploaded the data to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a sequence repository run by the US National Institutes of Health.

He then waited for the NCBI to process the upload and send it back for him to review. Over the next few days, he submitted a paper to Nature about the genome and visited Wuhan, where he got first-hand accounts from physicians about the effects of the virus. An editor at Nature urged him to post the sequence. And on 11 January, as Zhang was about to take off on a flight to Beijing, long-time collaborator Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, called him and asked him to release the data online.

Zhang asked Holmes for a minute to think, but the flight attendant was telling him to hang up. He reflected on the grim conversations he’d had in Wuhan. “It was getting serious,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Eddie, I authorize you to release the data.’” Holmes posted it on the website, and Zhang asked the NCBI to release the genome. Holmes says the team had held off because of the government order, but Zhang says he wasn’t aware of the edict at the time. He does say, however, that he realized some health officials might be angry if he posted the sequence online.

Within two days, Thailand had used the genome to confirm that the virus had crossed the border, and US researchers were using it to design a coronavirus vaccine. But Zhang’s team had received a government ‘rectification’ order and was temporarily unable to study the virus. Some media outlets reported that his team was being punished. Zhang disputes that. He says visiting officials correctly told his lab to update its biosafety protocols after he had moved equipment during construction work. “We were not shut down,” he says: he still worked on influenza, and the team had resumed coronavirus sequencing by the end of January.

He also sees China’s hesitancy to release data as borne of caution not to get things wrong — remembering that in 2003, a prominent Chinese scientist had mistakenly judged SARS to be caused by a bacterium. “I don’t think China’s central government wanted to control information,” he says. “It’s just that some experts lack the experience to make the right decision.

Zhang still marvels at how quickly SARS-CoV-2 was identified. In 2003, scientists took several months to pin down the SARS coronavirus as the cause. Next-generation sequencing technology has made the difference, and Zhang has been one of the most prolific at applying it; he and Holmes have reported thousands of new RNA viruses. Zhang has established a network of labs in China to try to monitor emerging viruses. He hopes to predict and fend off outbreaks before they start.

Although he didn’t manage that for SARS-CoV-2, he is proud of the recognition he’s received from scientists all over the world for his data sharing. “They say, ‘January 11 was a turning point for understanding that this is serious. It was a turning point for China. It was a turning point for the world.’”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: A force in physics

It has been a busy year for cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. She won two new grants, hired her first postdoctoral researcher and began co-directing a group that is mapping out the next two decades of research using astrophysical observations to study dark matter. She also finished her first book, started another, wrote a monthly column for New Scientist magazine, published two chapters in books in the field of education research and guided two graduate students through their first publications in their PhD programmes. She did this while entering her second year as a tenure-track professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

But that wasn’t all. In early June, she and other scientists organized the Strike for Black Lives, a high-profile online campaign to demand that institutions confront racism in science and anti-Black racism throughout society. The idea grew out of an online chat she was having with Brian Nord, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. At about the same time, Brittany Kamai, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, e-mailed Prescod-Weinstein to tell her about her own plan to call for a shutdown as a way to push for change. The volunteer effort grew, and the two teams coordinated to get the word out.

“I was really tired of business as usual continuing in the physics community,” says Prescod-Weinstein.

The scale of the response was unprecedented, says Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist at American University in Washington DC who often uses her professional Twitter profile to champion inclusion in science. “It is something I NEVER thought I would see in my lifetime,” she wrote in an e-mail to Nature. It was a moment of reorientation for many white scientists, says Nord. “I saw several colleagues transition to a point where they saw racial justice in STEM as part of their responsibility.”

The movement achieved such attention in part because of the accomplished scientists who signed on, and Prescod-Weinstein is no exception. Her passion for science and mathematics was clear early on. Inspired by A Brief History of Time, the 1991 documentary about Stephen Hawking directed by Errol Morris, Prescod-Weinstein decided at a young age that she wanted a career in physics.

She studied physics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and astronomy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, then went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Waterloo and Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada and a fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, among other appointments. She is now a member of the physics and astronomy department at the University of New Hampshire, making her probably the first Black woman to hold a tenure-track position in theoretical cosmology or particle theory in the United States. She also has an appointment in the women’s and gender studies department there.

As she pursued her work on the physics of the early Universe, eventually studying dark matter and hypothetical particles called axions, she found she was almost always the only Black physicist in any room. So she has often had to fight to justify her place in the field. Guided by her own experiences and a sense of duty to the next generation of physicists, she has continually called out racism and sexism in science. “The consequences of staying silent were not liveable,” she says.

The June call for a strike and shutdown came after the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others, many in interactions with police. Their deaths “are just a few examples of the violence and racism that Black people live with every day — and have for centuries — in the US, Canada, and around the world”, according to a call to action by Particles for Justice, a group of physicists who have previously spoken out about sexism in science. Prescod-Weinstein takes pains to point out that neither she nor anyone else was in charge of Particles for Justice — it was a truly collective effort, a “family”, she says.

“As physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities,” said Particles for Justice.

The groups also challenged scientific institutions to commit to taking action to make their organizations more inclusive and actively anti-racist, using the social-media hashtags #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia and #StrikeForBlackLives.

By the day of the event, 10 June, major academic groups with, collectively, hundreds of thousands of members had pledged to join the strike. Among them were the American Geophysical Union, the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society. Publishers joined in, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science. (Nature also announced that it would use the day to reflect and craft measures to eliminate anti‑Black racism.)

Prescod-Weinstein’s work spans astrophysics and particle theory. For instance, she is interested in how axions could influence the formation of galaxies and other structures. She’s also beginning to use astrophysical observations to explore what the properties of axions might be and whether the particles could be the Universe’s dark matter, which researchers have been hunting for decades. “My interest in them goes beyond the dark matter question just to the question of do they exist, if they exist, and how do they behave?” she says.

She has already collected a string of accolades in recognition of her work and another will come next year: the American Physical Society is honouring Prescod-Weinstein for her work in cosmology and particle physics and for her efforts to increase inclusivity in physics. And next March will bring the publication of her first book, The Disordered Cosmos, about physics and astronomy, and the issues of access and identity in scientific spaces.

Her work across these different spheres is hardly done. Although many took 10 June to produce statements on how they plan to improve conditions for Black academics, the only statement that matters will be the actions they take. “The revolution did not happen that day, but it is my hope that maybe we planted some seeds for people to radically rethink what is necessary in order to save Black lives,” says Prescod‑Weinstein.

Li Lanjuan: Lockdown architect

On 18 January, China’s highest administrative body sent Li Lanjuan and other experts to Wuhan to size up its viral outbreak. A few days later, the 73-year-old epidemiologist at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou called for Wuhan — population 11 million — to be locked down immediately. “If the infection continues to spread, other provinces will also lose control, like Wuhan. China’s economy and society will suffer seriously,” she said in a 22 January interview on Chinese state television.

Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert at China’s Guangzhou Medical University, who led the team in Wuhan, had already announced that the virus could spread between people. The warnings from Li and Zhong helped to prompt decisive action.

On 23 January, all transport was blocked in and out of Wuhan, and people were ordered to stay at home. Travel plans for Chinese New Year, which began on 25 January, were cancelled. At the time, the lockdown struck many as an over-reaction; it lasted for 76 days and was aggressively enforced. Some residents were unable to get medical care, and complained they had been left to die.

But the plan worked. “It clearly led to excellent epidemic control within China and aversion of a far more catastrophic epidemic in the country,” says epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Modellers estimated that it delayed the epidemic’s spread through China by 3–5 days, giving other regions time to prepare. And the number of exported cases dropped by 80% for a few weeks.

Locking down a city of 11 million people to stop infections escaping was unique, says Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “I don’t think there are precedents for this.”

Li stayed in Wuhan to help care for people with COVID-19, and became a state-endorsed symbol of selfless doctors in the crisis. She was often pictured in her medical garb, and referred to as “Grandma Li” on social media. Chinese media recounted how Li was born into a poor family in Zhejiang and became one of the nation’s ‘barefoot doctors’, who helped implement basic disease prevention measures and treat illnesses. She was recruited to the provincial medical university and later specialized in hepatitis. In 2003, as director of Zhejiang’s health department, she ordered the quarantining of thousands of contacts of people who had contracted severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS): a controversial decision later seen as key to containing the virus.

Li’s status meant that politicians were prepared to listen when she advised a city-wide lockdown. Her story contrasts with that of another doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang. In late December, the ophthalmologist shared with friends his concerns about SARS-like cases at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was admonished by city police for spreading false rumours, but then caught COVID-19 and gave media interviews calling for more transparency. He died on 7 February. Many researchers have criticized China’s attempts to silence whistle-blowers such as Li Wenliang, and its reluctance to publicly admit the full extent of rising case numbers.

China ultimately took decisive action, but other nations weren’t so bold. “Many countries seem to have forgotten basic principles of epidemic control or had advisers without the requisite knowledge, who were fumbling around and learning on the hop. But not China,” says MacIntyre.

Jacinda Ardern: Crisis leader

On 14 March, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stepped up to a lectern armed with graphs and a difficult message for her nation. At the time, just six people in the country — all linked to overseas travel — had tested positive for the coronavirus responsible for the newly declared pandemic. But she announced a series of strict measures to slow the outbreak, including two weeks’ self-isolation for everyone arriving in New Zealand, closure of sea ports to cruise ships and restrictions on travel to vulnerable Pacific neighbours. “I make no apology,” she said. “We must go hard, and we must go early. We must do everything we can to protect the health of New Zealanders.” Less than two weeks later, New Zealand entered a nationwide lockdown.

At a time of global anxiety and trepidation, Ardern has drawn international praise for leading her nation with compassion and decisive action. She unified the country of 5 million behind unprecedented measures that have made New Zealand a rare success story in the pandemic. The island nation has now twice stamped out community outbreaks of COVID-19, limiting cases to just over 2,000 and deaths to 25.

Few countries have fared so well in their COVID-19 response. The death toll in the United States, for example, is more than 170 times higher, when adjusted for population size.

Specialists say that New Zealand has benefited from its isolation and small size. But even with those advantages, few leaders have navigated the scientific uncertainties as deftly as Ardern, says management expert Michaela Kerrissey from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. As other leaders fell prey to the natural inclination to delay acting until more information was available, Ardern led a swift response, says Kerrissey.

At daily press briefings, with the nation’s director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield at her side, Ardern spoke candidly to her people. “She came up with these very transparent statements” about rising case numbers and why burdensome lockdowns were necessary, says Kerrissey. “The degree of empathy and honesty with which she’s communicated has been, I think, pretty unique and powerful,” she says.

Ardern was keen to understand the scientific details, such as how genomics was being used to track outbreaks, or how the virus was evolving, says biochemist Juliet Gerrard, the prime minister’s chief science adviser. “That depth of understanding enabled her to communicate very complex and changing evidence,” says Gerrard.

The government has faced some criticism over inadequate community surveillance and testing of staff and travellers at quarantine facilities, which led to an outbreak and lockdown in the nation’s largest city, Auckland, in August. And in June, New Zealand’s economy plunged into the steepest recession on record, with unemployment rising by one-third by September.

Still, an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders heeded their prime minister’s advice when restrictions were imposed, and opinion polls have consistently showed upwards of 80% support for the government’s actions, including the lockdowns. In October, the progressive leader was re-elected with a majority government, the first time a political party has governed with a majority since 1996.

Ardern has been guided by science on other issues, too. Compared with her predecessors, Ardern has made more effort to address climate change and has made that issue a priority, according to economist Rebecca Burdon, who heads Climate Resource, a climate-change-policy advisory agency in Melbourne, Australia.

Last year, New Zealand passed the Zero Carbon Act, enshrining in law a commitment to pursue net-zero emissions by 2050. Only a handful of other nations have enacted similar legislation.

Ardern’s government has committed roughly 20% of its gross domestic product towards responding to COVID-19 — more than most other countries. Yet she faces a huge challenge in reviving an economy that is heavily dependent on international tourism while also keeping New Zealand safe from the virus that is running rampant through many other nations.

Anthony Fauci: Science’s defender

In his more than 40-year career as an infectious-disease researcher, Anthony Fauci has been hailed as a hero and damned as a murderer. His most dedicated fans have created baseball cards and bobble-head dolls in his likeness, whereas others have issued death threats and harassed his children.

As head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, Fauci has guided six presidents and an anxious nation through fears of bioweapon attacks and outbreaks of HIV, Ebola and Zika. Now, his role advising the government and communicating to the public during the coronavirus pandemic has made him the nation’s doctor. He has offered guidance on the US response to the outbreak, often in conflict with the wishes of President Donald Trump, and he has made time to treat individuals with COVID-19 and HIV in the clinic. “Seeing the patient really gives you a different feel for what the disease is,” says Fauci, who works 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the politicization of the public-health response to it — has forced Fauci to go far beyond anything he’s done before, says epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “He has been a very key part of trying to help the public understand what the science means and what we can do about it — and that includes, of course, our elected leaders,” says Osterholm.

Those efforts were met with resistance, but Fauci is no stranger to friction.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic, in 1988, playwright Larry Kramer called Fauci a “murderer” and an “incompetent idiot” on the cover of the San Francisco Examinermagazine. Kramer and other AIDS activists felt that the NIAID’s clinical trials for HIV drugs were moving at a glacial pace while thousands of people were dying. When a group gathered outside his office to protest, Fauci invited some in for a chat. Over time, he built a relationship with them that would lead to changes in the way people with AIDS got access to experimental drugs. It was a revolutionary approach at a time when people with a disease had little say in the science aimed at treating them. “That was a tough period,” he says. “There were many scientists who thought that I was caving in”.

Warm but blunt, with a pronounced Brooklyn accent, he has often worked well with political leaders. Former US president George H. W. Bush called him a hero for his work on AIDS, and Fauci worked with his son, former president George W. Bush, to design the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a global programme to provide treatment for people with HIV. But this year, his staid and steady advocacy for public-health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 earned him stiff criticisms from President Donald Trump and others who were eager to play down the severity of the pandemic and get the US economy restarted.

Trump has suggested that he might fire the scientist, and a stream of vitriol has poured from some of the president’s followers. Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, said that he would like to see Fauci’s head on a pike outside the White House. Fauci now has federal guards overseeing his security.

The threats made him “more pissed off than afraid”, he says. “I’m out there trying to give a public-health message to save people’s lives.”

But some researchers were also frustrated with Fauci’s public performance. He often stood next to Trump during press briefings as the president repeatedly misrepresented the severity of the pandemic. Although Fauci sometimes contradicted Trump, he did not directly confront the president.

Such briefings stopped in April. Fauci has since become more outspoken, says Mark Harrington, executive director of Treatment Action Group, a New York City think tank that focuses on the treatment and prevention of AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis C virus. “He’s been speaking truth to power for the last few months in a way that none of the other people in the task force or federal government have been doing,” Harrington says. Fauci, who turns 80 in December, has no plans to retire soon. He has agreed to stay on at the NIAID and to serve as president-elect Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. Osterholm says he expects Fauci to continue to have an active role in front of the cameras.

But Harrington is looking forward to the day when Fauci can focus his attention again on other pressing concerns, such as HIV and hepatitis C. “He needs to be able to do his day job,” he says. “It’s a big job.”

  • Ones to watch in 2021
    • Marion KoopmansErasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, the NetherlandsThis virologist is part of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
    • Zhang RongqiaoChina National Space AdministrationThe chief designer of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission will be working to successfully carry out his nation’s first exploration of the red planet.
    • Karen MigaUniversity of California, Santa CruzThis biologist co-leads the Telomere-to-Telomore (T2T) consortium that is working to produce the first truly complete sequence of the human genome.
    • Rochelle WalenskyHarvard Medical School, Boston, MassachusettsUS President-elect Joe Biden has selected this infectious-disease specialist to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • Jane GreavesCardiff University, UKThis astronomer will follow up her team’s observation of phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere, a potential sign of life on that planet.

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