A Coronavirus Vaccine Passes First Test Phase In The US
This story is 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.
As the pandemic continues, many have been racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. But the timeline to reach one has been uncertain. Now, some are beginning to undergo clinical trials. The National Institutes of Health completed a phase one trial of a vaccine created by the company Moderna, which vaccine showed to produce an immune response. The results were published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. Science writer Annalee Newitz talks about the state of COVID-19 vaccines and other science headlines from the week.
Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of The Future of Another Timeline and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’re going to talk about back to school, what it might look like for K through 12 students this fall. Some districts are releasing their plans, and they all look a little bit different.
But first, one big question about this pandemic is how long will it take to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. There are lots of candidates and clinical trials happening. The National Institutes of Health is running a trial, created by the company Moderna. The results were published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. Here to give us an update on that vaccine trial and other science headlines from the week is Annalee Newitz, science writer and author based out of San Francisco. Welcome back.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey, thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. This vaccine has been tested in people, and passed through phase one trials. So please, tell us what that means.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: So what that means is that the vaccine was tested on a small group. In this case, it was 45 people of different ages, and it showed that it is not only safe, it’s not causing any disastrous side effects, but it’s also efficacious. It’s creating antibodies in the people who have taken it.
So that means that Moderna is hoping to quickly move into a phase three trial, and that means that it’ll be a much bigger trial on lots of people and hoping to find out that it works once we have a bigger population taking it.
IRA FLATOW: Are they skipping phase two, going right to phase three?
ANNALEE NEWITZ: So oftentimes, phase one and two get kind of squished together, and so what we’re seeing here is a speeded up version of a typical set of trials. So phase one and two are designed to determine, as I said, a safety and efficaciousness. And so now in phase three, we try to see how it fares in a big population. They’re hoping to have that phase three trial done in October, but that seems like a very early deadline. So it may take a bit longer than that.
IRA FLATOW: And this is just one of many vaccine clinical trials out there, right?
ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. There’s a lot of other vaccines. There’s about 150 vaccines in trial right now, and there’s a couple of others that are already ready for phase three trials. There’s the Oxford vaccine, which has also gotten a lot of attention, which also has demonstrated efficaciousness. It can create antibodies and an immune response in people who’ve taken it. So we’re keeping a close eye on that vaccine as well.
IRA FLATOW: Just because it creates the antibodies, do we know if it’s going to have a lasting effect?
ANNALEE NEWITZ: That is the big question that researchers are trying to figure out right now, because what we’ve seen is that people who’ve been infected with COVID-19 don’t always develop antibodies. And so that’s raising a lot of questions about whether these kinds of vaccines will last for a long time, or will they be more like a flu vaccine, which lasts for a few months, and then you get it renewed every year.
IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on to your next story, the Trump administration sidestepping the Center for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to COVID-19 hospital data. Just explain that. What’s going on there?
ANNALEE NEWITZ: What is going on there? So it’s a little bit unclear. The Trump administration announced this week that they would be asking hospitals, who normally report all of their data on infectious disease to the CDC, to instead report it directly to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC. Right now we’re not sure who they’re going to be reporting it to, what system they’re going to use, is this going to be part of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force or something else.
The presidential administration is saying that the CDC is just moving too slowly, and so they need to do this other end run around their data gathering techniques. The CDC, of course, is saying that this is going to be a total nightmare, because they already have a whole network of hospitals who know how to report to the CDC and have a system. Suddenly now all of that will be thrown into disarray, and it’s unclear whether the data that we get will be recent or robust. And so we’re just trying to–
IRA FLATOW: Or accurate.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Or accurate. And this is coming in the wake of the President tangling with the CDC last week over reopening schools. The CDC recommended that schools not reopen. The presidential administration wants them to reopen. There’s been this tug of war in news headlines, and so some people who are watching this unfold believe this is just part of the presidential administration trying to put pressure on the CDC to do what the Trump administration wants.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another study that looked at the risk COVID-19 and vaping and smoking it. Wow, this one did not sound very good.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: No, this is a really interesting study that came out of the University of California at San Francisco, my home institution. And they did a study on a very understudied group during this pandemic, which is young people ages 18 to 25, and they got a large sample. And what they found was that young people who smoke or vape are– have a one in three chance of developing a very severe case of COVID-19, one that may require a ventilator or simply cause a very long-term sickness.
And this is in comparison to people in the same age group who do not smoke or vape, and they have a one in six chance of developing a severe case. So we’re talking– this doubles your chances basically. And the way that they measured this was by asking participants whether they had smoked or vaped in the last month, so this is not just people who are heavy, heavy smokers. It’s people who smoked within the last month have a much higher risk of developing a severe case.
IRA FLATOW: That is very troubling.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. So don’t vape, kids.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, goodness. Let’s talk about your next story, one of– something that’s a little more– a little change of pace let’s call it. And this is one of our favorite topics, fossilized proof.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so you take it from here, because you’ll do a better job at it than I will be asking about.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is a study that I love, because first of all, it allows us to learn the scientific term for fossilized poop, which is coprolite or plural, coprolites. And it also is a story about how careful researchers are before making really big, new claims.
So the poop in question is some human poop that was found in the Paisley Caves in Oregon’s high desert, so in central Oregon. And the poop is from human beings, and it’s 12,000 years old. It was buried in a cesspit in the back of a cave where presumably humans were camping out.
And several years ago, scientists sequenced the DNA in the poop to make sure that it was human, because when you poop, some of your cells come off in your poop. So it can show up 12,000 years later. But the thing is that this poop is extremely old. It could have been contaminated by other materials at the site, so this new study looked at lipids in this– in these turds to see how much they may have absorbed from the site around them. So just to make sure that these human– these fragments of human DNA that they found really came from the poop and not from something else or maybe even from the researchers.
And what they discovered is, indeed, there had not been a lot of transfer of lipids between the site and the poop, so poop had integrity. The DNA really is from people. And the exciting part about this is that it adds to a really complicated story about how immigrants populated the Americas.
Many years ago, it was believed that humans from a group called the Clovis people came over the Bering land bridge and populated the Americas that way. , But 12,000 years ago, that passageway would have been ice-locked. You couldn’t have made it. So these people who came and pooped in that cave had to have come over the ocean, along the Pacific coast, and then traveled to the interior of the continent along waterways. And Oregon’s high desert did in fact used to be a very lush, green area full of lakes and rivers.
So that’s probably how these folks got there and made their makeshift toilet in the back of that cave. So it’s a great story about poop and science and how we all got here and who the ancestors are of today’s indigenous Americans.
IRA FLATOW: We have done stories about coprolite and scientists studying and looking for poop, and it’s always fascinating that how they would know where to look first of all, and how you identify it as, “Hey, it’s not just some mud sitting on the floor or old piece of who knows what.” The training it must take to say, “I’m a coprolite–
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Keep spotting.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’m a coprolite specialist. This is what I do.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: It’s very valuable, especially in archaeology. And in this case, the people who used the Paisley Caves made it easy by digging a toilet in the back of the cave and just leaving it all in there real nice for us to find.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, the mind could wonder. Let’s move on to another really interesting story, and that is scientists found remnants of medieval glass making in Nigeria from 1,000 years ago. Now I know glass making is older than 1,000 years, so there must be some time element that’s important here.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: These are– this is actually about probably about 900 years old, and what’s really interesting about this discovery is that, until now, scientists believe that the glass that they found in sub-Saharan Africa all came from elsewhere. And what that suggested was that the people living in this region were able to trade for glass, but didn’t have the technology yet to make it on their own.
But the discovery of this workshop confirms what many people working on the ground had hypothesized for a long time, which is that a lot of these beautiful beads that we see in the region, and they really are incredible. They’re these deep blues, and some of them are striped. Some of them are this incredible shiny red. These were all made locally in Nigeria with local materials that can be chemically identified. In this case, they were made with local snail shells and sand that came from that region, and in the workshop they found half-made glass beads. So this really changes our understanding of the development of the civilisation in sub-Saharan Africa and shows that they weren’t just bringing in these high-status goods, these beautiful beads. They were producing them and trading them in a lot of different places. So it’s a story about technology, but also about how these trade networks formed.
IRA FLATOW: Always interesting stuff, Annalee.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yep, I love beads and poop.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Annalee Newitz is a science writer and author based out of San Francisco. We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about what back to school, what the pandemic might mean for making plans and what this fall might look like. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.