How America Is Preparing For Another Pandemic Winter
The weather is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and the world is approaching the two year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like last year, experts are wary that a winter surge in cases could happen again this year, even with the protection of vaccinations.
The Biden administration is trying to get ahead of this possibility, especially as the Omicron variant looms. A new plan prioritizing booster shots and testing has been released to get the country through another pandemic winter.
Joining Ira to break down this and other science news of the week is Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox based in Washington, D.C. They also discuss the latest information on the Omicron variant’s virulence and genetic sequencing, and take a look at the complicated world of conserving the rarest marine mammal, the vaquita.
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Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Did you enjoy that little buzz from your coffee or tea today? Well, if you did, you’re using a plant-based chemical– caffeine– to alter your consciousness. Our love affair with caffeine is just one of the person-plant relationships author Michael Pollan looks at in his latest book, This Is Your Mind on Plants. And he is my guest this hour.
First, though, Umair Irfan is going to join us with the latest news. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on this hour. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox in Washington, welcome to Science Friday.
UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me back.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Walk us through this winter COVID-19 plan that President Biden has talked about.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. The White House is gearing up for what might be another winter surge. And they’re trying to get ahead of it with this multi-pronged plan. And the key components of it are going to be shots, testing, treatment, and outreach. And that’s particularly crucial as the omicron variant takes root.
IRA FLATOW: And what has he actually talked about? You talked about– well, he actually talked about a pathway. What’s our pathway through the winter?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the key thing is to get people vaccinated. In the US right now, there are still about 30% of Americans who remain unvaccinated. And if you’re not vaccinated, the goal is to get people vaccinated. And if you have been vaccinated and it’s been more than six months since your course of treatment, then you should be getting a booster.
And the FDA just this week expanded the eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine boosters to 16- and 17-year-olds. And so the goal is to get people individually as protected as possible. Then after that, we want to increase testing for the virus, especially as we’re trying to get ahead of this new variant that might be more transmissible.
And so the Biden administration just recently purchased a whole bunch of these rapid tests. And they’re distributing them around the country. They’re also issuing new guidance for health insurance companies to make sure that they’re still paying for testing services as well. And we’re trying to make those tests more accessible all as part of a strategy to try to figure out where this virus is. And they’re also putting together these strike teams so if there is an outbreak, they can send additional medical personnel to help hospitals cope with a surge in patients, and help administer treatments, and do contact tracing.
IRA FLATOW: About 30% of Americans remain unvaccinated. Is this plan any different than the outreach that’s already been happening?
UMAIR IRFAN: That’s one of the main criticisms here. It’s really hard to change the playbook. And a lot of the people that are not vaccinated are not vaccinated for political reasons. In fact, a lot of research seems to show that people– it’s not just hesitancy. It’s active refusal. And a lot of that falls along political lines. And it’s really hard to change people’s minds on that front. But, you know, they’re still trying to convince some of the holdouts to get on board. But the strategy there hasn’t really changed all that much.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, of course, the availability of tests has been a problem for a lot of people. Do we see things changing enough under this plan?
UMAIR IRFAN: That’s key. By buying these millions of tests and distributing them, they should be more accessible. You can still buy them at pharmacies right now. But they cost about $10 a test. And for people who need to take tests a lot– really frequently– that might still be too much. And so there’s still work being done on trying to bring the cost down, making them freely accessible, particularly for people in high-exposure settings like schools, hospitals, and prisons, to make sure people can get tested basically daily to try to make sure that they catch outbreaks right at the outset so they can start treatment and isolation.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move into some other COVID news. The omicron variant is, as we’ve said, looming in the background for a lot of us. But we’re kind of in limbo right now because there’s a lot we still don’t know about it. What do we know so far about how current vaccines work against this variant?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, Pfizer and BioNTech this week– they developed the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine– they posted some early results about how well their vaccine works against omicron. And they found that the initial two-dose vaccine doesn’t really hold up that well. They found that there was a very significant reduction in protection from antibodies against this variant. But the critical finding was also that a third dose, a booster shot, ramps that protection right back up. And so it’s very critical, according to these results, to get boosted to help deal with the omicron variant.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. There was a report out of San Diego this week that a person tested positive for the variant. And this person was double-vaccinated and boosted. Is this cause for concern?
UMAIR IRFAN: It is definitely cause for concern but perhaps not yet alarm, because what we’ve been seeing so far with many of the cases, especially with these breakthrough infections, is that they’ve been fairly mild. The people are not getting very severely ill. And this kind of lines up with a lot of the information we’re seeing coming out of South Africa, where they first identified this variant, that a lot of the cases and breakthroughs have been not that severe, very fortunately.
But health researchers that I’ve talked to said that we should still be cautious because this variant does appear to be more transmissible. So while it may lead to less severe disease, if more people overall get infected, that could lead to a larger health burden than we may realize.
IRA FLATOW: And we still don’t know how virulent omicron is, do we?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. We still need to wait a few more weeks, basically, to get that data in the real world to just see exactly what the outcomes are, because some of the initial cases are among younger people, who are generally healthier. Once this moves into older adults or people with weakened immune systems, we may see a very different picture.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move into something really interesting, a story that reminds us that sometimes happy coincidences happen in science too. And I’m talking about new research has found that chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease was decreased by using, what, Viagra?
UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right, Viagra, this drug that itself was also formed by a happy accident. It’s known by the name sildenafil as well. It was initially developed as a blood pressure drug. And it’s later found that it could also treat erectile dysfunction. So a group of researchers actually looked at insurance claims from more than 7 million patients. And they found that they saw an association of a 69% reduction in Alzheimer’s disease among Viagra users.
IRA FLATOW: And how did they figure this out?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, they looked at these insurance claims. And the key thing about the study is, of course, that this is a correlational study. They don’t quite know what the mechanism is here. And the researchers say that they still need to do a randomized controlled trial to figure out exactly what is the effect. There could be some other confounding factors. Like, if you’re using Viagra, odds are you may have good social relationships. And that might be a key factor in reducing Alzheimer’s risk. Or you may be generally healthier in other ways. And so it’s not quite clear.
But what’s also exciting about this is that we don’t really have a good idea of what causes Alzheimer’s disease to begin with. There’s a lot of different theories about it. And so there’s the amyloid hypothesis about these protein plaques. But since Viagra acts on blood vessels, there could be something involving blood circulation as well.
IRA FLATOW: Ah. And Alzheimer’s is a disease nobody wants. So this seems potentially like a huge deal, isn’t it?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Earlier this year, the FDA made a controversial approval of another drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease from this company called Biogen. And the FDA’S own advisors actually said that they shouldn’t approve it because the effect was so low and that that drug cost about $60,000 per patient.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
UMAIR IRFAN: But it shows you that Alzheimer’s disease is a very devastating disease. It causes neurodegeneration. It destroys people’s ability to function on their own. And so they’re saying that the glimmer of hope, even with a very expensive and maybe not that effective drug, is worthwhile. So seeing an effect like this with Viagra, with a drug that’s already approved, could be quite promising in terms of coming up with better therapies in the future.
IRA FLATOW: Terrific. Let’s move into a story about the rarest marine mammal, the vaquita. I have to admit, I don’t know a lot about this creature– where do they live and how many are there. Fill us in on this, please.
UMAIR IRFAN: Sure. My colleague Benji Jones went to look for the vaquita. And that’s Spanish for “little cow.” They’re very adorable. They look like something of a cross between dolphins and pandas. And they live in this very narrow area in the Baja Peninsula and the Gulf– inside Mexico.
And there may be fewer than 20 left, which is why you don’t hear all that much about them. And conservationists have been struggling even to find them and just get a good count on their numbers. And of course, because they are the most endangered species of marine mammal, conservationists say that this is a really important case study. If they can pull off a recovery, there’s a lot we can learn for other animals. But if we don’t pull this off, then this could be a very sad, cautionary tale.
IRA FLATOW: This seems like a really great example about how conservation is not always straightforward, right? It can be complicated.
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, right, because one of the concerns here is that these vaquitas are threatened by local fishermen. And these are not big commercial fishing operations. Many of these are from local fishing villages that are counting on fishing for subsistence. And so they need to be able to harvest their catch from the ocean but do it in a way that perhaps doesn’t harm the vaquita.
And so there are some approaches, like technologies, like using better gill nets that can help the vaquita escape, or using a better census, and trying to identify where these mammals are, and trying to encourage fishermen to avoid them, and coming up with incentives. But they’re also– because they’re poor, they’re facing a lot of economic pressure, particularly for another endangered species in that area called the totoaba, which has use in Southeast Asian and East Asian traditional medicine. And so there’s this international market pressure for doing more fishing in this area. And so conservationists have to work with local fishermen and other economic constraints to try to actually salvage the species.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s end with a story– sort of a meta story– about the actual science of science experiments. It turns out that there’s a replication problem, right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. We’ve talked a lot about this replication crisis in social sciences and a lot of these behavioral sciences. But also in hard sciences there have been some issues with trying to reproduce old experiments. And so the Center for Open Science decided to examine research in cancer from 2010 to 2012, looking at about 50 studies and 23 experiments. And by trying to reproduce those studies, they found that about 59% of those findings could not be replicated. And of those that they could replicate, they found that the effect was about 85% smaller.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Well, that sounds really something we need to keep track of. Thank you, Umair, for taking time to be with us today.
UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure, Ira. Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is staff writer for Vox based in Washington, DC. We have to take a break. And when we come back, our ongoing relationship with plants that can alter your mind. Remember I told you that Michael Pollan is going to join us? Well, he’s going to be here with us.
And we’d like you to join in that conversation. You can give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. And, of course, you can tweet us @SciFri. Michael is the author of a new book– This Is Your Mind on Plants. And wait till he talks about his experience trying to grow some of these in his backyard.
It will be the 20th year, the 20th anniversary, that Michael Pollan has joined us. We were looking back into our archives, and we found out he was back in 1991– 2001. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.