05/22/2020

A Small COVID-19 Vaccine Trial Shows Promise

11:49 minutes

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.


The story is also a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.


Early this week, the pharmaceutical company Moderna announced potentially big news: a candidate vaccine for Covid-19 had successfully produced significant amounts of antibodies in eight human subjects in a Phase 1 clinical trial. Whether this vaccine or one like it will eventually be an effective tool for mass vaccination requires much further research, says Vox reporter Umair Irfan, but it’s a positive first step.

Irfan talks to Ira about the vaccine trial, plus other new scientific research, including locusts encroaching on East Africa and the Middle East and South Asia—just as planting season gets started. Plus, four decades of data make a strong case for the connection between climate change and more intense hurricanes.


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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Just a quick note before we get started, as we have switched to recording our show, we miss you. Yeah, you. We miss talking to you and we want you to say hello. Talk to us on Science Friday VoxPop app on Twitter. Or you can even email us, scifri@sciencefriday.com.

And now, all over the country, states that shut down to slow coronavirus transmission are now reopening. And in many states, the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to rise. But for everyone holding their breath for a coronavirus vaccine, one company working on a candidate reported good news this week– antibodies. Yes, a small number of human participants in a phase I clinical trial produced antibodies when injected with the vaccine. Here to tell us the latest in the quest for a COVID vaccine and other short subjects in science is Umair Irfan, reporter for Vox based in Washington, DC. Welcome back.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: OK, can we start with this vaccine candidate? Exactly what can we celebrate, and may it be too soon to celebrate?

UMAIR IRFAN: It may be a little too soon to celebrate, but it is still good news. This is from a company called Moderna. And what they’ve developed is a vaccine that uses mRNA. In this case, it uses a small chunk of genetic material. And that uses the cells internal machinery to produce a fragment of the virus. And then the immune system can then use that for target practice, as a sort of a warm up to dealing with the real virus if it does ever infect. And this company reported this week that, in a clinical trial that it has underway, they reported that eight patients who were treated with this vaccine generated antibodies at the same level as people who were naturally infected and recovered from the virus. So it showed that they could generate a pretty strong response with this vaccine.

IRA FLATOW: Now let’s talk about the not-so-good news, which maybe it’s not quite ready for prime time yet.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And this was out of a trial of about 45 patients. They haven’t quite tested everyone else yet. And yeah, it’s still very early. Now, scientists say that the pace of progress has been unprecedented. Remember, this is a virus that we’ve just basically got the information from in January, and they’re already testing a vaccine to it. But it still needs a lot more testing.

MRNA vaccines, we haven’t used one yet. There hasn’t been one that has been approved for human use, and so it requires a lot more safety and efficacy testing before it’s ready for prime time. All that said, some animal model tests show that it has been able to generate antibodies in those models. And so scientists are optimistic, but the results have to be demonstrated before it can actually be used.

IRA FLATOW: And we don’t know quite yet if the antibodies are we are going to actually protect us from the coronavirus.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. We don’t really have a good sense of that right now. There is an expectation that it will, based on our experience with other coronaviruses, that antibodies and having recovered from the virus can protect you against future infection. But that’s not a guarantee right now. And that requires further testing to validate.

IRA FLATOW: You talked about it being an mRNA vaccine. But that’s different from the normal flu vaccine, right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. Most vaccines typically use either a weakened form of the virus or a fragment of the virus. And with an mRNA vaccine, you’re using a piece of genetic material. And what the advantage of doing that is that you can program that genetic material to produce whatever it is you want, so you can iterate much faster. And because, rather than injecting a piece of the virus, you’re just injecting a piece of genetic material, the idea is it could potentially be safer too. Because what the trick with a vaccine is, you want to be able to trigger an immune response strong enough that the body will provide protection against a future infection.

But you don’t want the body to overreact either. And so threading that needle is a little bit difficult. And with an mRNA vaccine, the idea is, because you’re using the body’s own machinery to produce a chunk of the virus, it’ll be less likely to overreact, but more likely to actually generate a strong response.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s talk about another issue in this pandemic. We have spent a lot of time talking about some of the unforeseen consequences, and one of them is an organ shortage. I would never have expected that. What’s going on here.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, it turns out that a lot of people under these lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are traveling a lot less. And a consequence of that is that people are getting into fewer accidents. In the United States, it turns out that traffic accidents account for about 33% of organ donations, the single largest source. And with much less traffic on the road, there are much fewer organs being available for donation. The United Network for Organ Sharing reported that, between March and April, deaths from traffic accidents were down 23% compared to the year before.

But accidents in general are down too. Looking at deaths from all other accidents, they’re also down 21%. Another consequence of stay-at-home orders and some of the restrictions we’re seeing at hospitals is that patients are staying home for illnesses rather than going to get treatment. And so patients that would otherwise die at a hospital are now dying at home. And that means that the organs they have don’t get harvested or they’re not viable by the time they are treated or by the time they are actually taken in by the health care system. And so that means, overall, there are fewer organs coming in.

IRA FLATOW: Well, is there any way to make up for this shortage?

UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, the simple ways to increase the pool of donors that are available, and so that just means more people opting into organ donation systems. But other than that, I mean, you can’t really hope for accidents, I think. There’s really just no other way around it, that this is the main way we get organs. And there’s really no easy way to solve this shortage.

IRA FLATOW: One of the stories that felt like good news out of this pandemic, there’s been a steep drop in pollution and carbon dioxide emissions as people stay home. But you’ve got some bad news for us about this.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. It turns out the dividend for air pollution hasn’t been as large as we thought. And it could rebound in a pretty bad way. NPR reported this week that they did an analysis looking at different cities where the stay-at-home orders went into effect. And while traffic in some areas fell by about 40%, ground level ozone, which is an important pollutant that can lead to heart and lung difficulties, declined by only about 15% in some of those areas, which shows that you didn’t see a steep drop in pollution as you would have expected.

And part of that is because, while people are driving less, there’s still a lot of commercial traffic. Trucking and shipping is still going on in a lot of these industrial areas. There are still facilities like refineries and petroleum facilities that are still generating a lot of air pollution that are still going ahead. And it just shows how difficult it is to reduce air pollution.

And then there was another study that came out this week that looked at China in areas where lockdowns were lifted. And they found that pollution rebounded, not only back to where it was from before the lockdowns were implemented, but actually even higher. And that just shows just how difficult it is to ratchet down pollution. Part of the reason for that in China was that the government started relaxing some of its environmental controls to try to get the economy restarted again. And you can see just that these gains that we’ve seen in terms of air quality can be quite fleeting.

IRA FLATOW: On the other side of the world, the climate seems to be driving a locust problem.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, this is a huge swarm of locusts, likes that these countries have not seen in decades. This is mainly in East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. These are insects that form swarms of up to billions of insects per square kilometer. And they can completely devour crops wherever they land. And because they’re mobile, they fly in the air, they can cover 100 miles in a day. So that makes them a big threat to food security.

Now, the climate factor behind it is that, in 2019, we saw a phenomenon called the Indian Ocean dipole at its largest strength that we’ve seen pretty much on record. In 2019, it was very warm on the western side near Africa and very cool on the eastern side. In places where it’s cool, there’s less evaporation and less moisture. And so that actually led to drought in Australia, which helped fuel the massive fires we saw earlier this year.

But then in the western part, in Africa and around the Arabian Peninsula, there was torrential rainfall. And that helped mobilize more locusts because it created more vegetation that the young grasshoppers could eat. And then as they aggregated, they had a population explosion. Every generation of these locusts can grow 20-fold. And suddenly they undergo this swarming transition and start devouring crops and posing this huge threat.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s not just a simple remedy to just throw some pesticide at the locusts.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. A key factor in controlling these locusts is trying to anticipate them. And scientists are now using climate variables to try to get ahead of where they can expect these locusts to emerge. They’re using satellite data to identify potential green zones where vegetation is emerging and blooming in high volumes. And they’re also trying to identify where these locusts are, first in their larval stage or in their nymph stage, where they’re not as mobile, where they haven’t matured before they start flying. And that’s where they’re trying to target pesticides.

IRA FLATOW: All right, and let’s move on to hurricane season. It’s starting for the year, and just in time for new data attributing climate change to more intense hurricanes, right? This has been a prediction of climate change models.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And the timing couldn’t be better. We just had Tropical Storm Arthur just fizzle out in the Atlantic. And Cyclone Amphan is making landfall in India and Bangladesh. But yeah, that’s one of the interesting findings of this study, published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They found that there is actually a statistically significant trend between warming and the intensity of storms. Since looking at data going back to 1979, particularly satellite images, they said that the likelihood of a hurricane developing into category 3 or higher, basically with sustained winds of 110 miles an hour or more, has increased by about 8% every decade since the 1979 threshold. So this kind of comports what they were projecting, but now they actually have the numbers to back up that projection.

IRA FLATOW: Give me some fun good news. I hear there’s something good about humpback whales.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Kirsten Thompson, a marine ecologist at the University of Exeter, wrote this interesting article in Time magazine this week, just pointing out that humpback whales have made a huge recovery in their populations. Now, humpback whales they’re a very remarkable animal. They’re very large, but they’re also some of the longest distance migrating mammals in the world. And so they’re an important part of different ecosystems along different coastlines all over the world.

And because of protections that were put in place– basically the ban on commercial whaling in 1986– their populations have rebounded basically back to where they were before whaling. And that’s great news. Because while, one, it’s good for the ecology, for the environment there, because they’re an important part of the ecosystem, but it also turns out whales themselves are important reservoirs of carbon.

Their biomass, because they’re such large animals, each whale can store up to 33 metric tons of carbon dioxide. And Thompson estimated that just one population of humpback whales, the ones that breed off the coast of Brazil, among them they store about 800,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. And so that’s on par with a small country’s annual emissions.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

UMAIR IRFAN: And so it’s kind of remarkable how much of an environmental impact that these whales could potentially have.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s our message for the weekend to take home with us– whales as carbon sinks. Thank you, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: That was a great story. Umair Irfan, a reporter for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

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