09/25/2020

The Race For A COVID-19 Vaccine Heats Up

11:38 minutes

a person with gloves on administers a shot in someone's shoulder
Credit: Master Sgt. Carlotta Holley, via Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

This story is 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.


Half a year after COVID-19 began to devastate the U.S., the race for a vaccine is getting heated. This week, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine became the fourth American contender to enter the final stage of clinical trials. Companies are working at warp speed to get a vaccine finalized, which has been a flashpoint for critics who worry a rushed vetting process will compromise vaccine efficacy. 

Joining Ira to talk about this and other latest science stories from the week is Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic in Washington, D.C.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Zhang

Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic, based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about Indigenous methods of wildfire management, and we’ll talk with director Ric Burns about his new biography of Oliver Sacks. But first, the race for the COVID-19 vaccine is heating up. Just this week, Johnson & Johnson announced its vaccine is entering a final stage of clinical trials, making it the fourth US company to do so. So what does this mean for when an actual vaccine makes it to a major muscle of mine?

Here with me to talk about this and other news from the week is Sarah Zhang, Staff Writer at The Atlantic in Washington, DC. Welcome back to Science Friday.

SARAH ZHANG: Hi, Ira. Good to talk to you.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, let’s start with what’s going on with a COVID-19 vaccine. What does it mean that four vaccines are in phase III trials?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, so phase III trials are the last step before final approval. And so these are really large trials that have tens of thousands of people. From the protocols that have been released, these trials will probably take a few months themselves, so it’ll probably take a few more months before we really know any of these vaccines are effective and safe. But after that, state and local health departments are preparing for what they’ve called the largest, most complex vaccination program they’ve ever had to do in their history.

And that has to do one, with just the sheer scale of trying to vaccinate hundreds of millions of Americans, and second has to do with the particular characteristics of some of the leading vaccine candidates, especially the two that are furthest along in clinical trials. So they use a new technology that is just both new, and also the vaccines themselves are extremely physically fragile, which means that they just have to be kept at really low freezer temperatures, as low as negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

IRA FLATOW: Isn’t that going to be a problem if you have to keep a vaccine at negative 94 Fahrenheit? How do you move it around?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. This is what people are trying to figure out right now. They’re trying to draw up plans for this right now. So if you are a large hospital in a city, you probably have a deep freezer that can go down to negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. So Pfizer, who makes a vaccine that needs to be kept this cold, they’ve actually been working on making these what they call thermal shippers, which are these pizza box size boxes of vaccines that can ship them out in dry ice, and hopefully keep them for 10 days or so.

One of the issues, and this is one of those things that is going to sound small until you really delve into details, is that these boxes hold, at a minimum, about 1,000 doses of vaccine. And again, this is fine if you’re a large hospital in a large city. But if you’re trying to think about vaccinating all of the doctors at rural clinics in a large state, now you’re getting into, well, how do I distribute these really cold vaccines across a really large state? So in North Dakota, for example, the health department told me that they are literally thinking about buying a dry ice machine and then physically driving these vaccines around the state at first.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s what my next question was. You’d need a lot of dry ice if you think about it nationally. If you’re going to distribute all of this, is there going to be a shortage of dry ice?

SARAH ZHANG: I had the exact same question. So there is actually a current shortage of dry ice, because dry ice is actually a byproduct of ethanol production. So it’s made through the off-gas when you make gasoline. So there hasn’t been a lot of driving over the past few months, or there’s been less driving than usual because of the lockdown, so there’s been a little bit less dry ice than unusual. The industry tells me that they think that they have capacity to ramp up production by the time a vaccine actually comes around, so hopefully that’s the case.

IRA FLATOW: Hopefully. OK, we’ll keep watching that. Let’s move on to a COVID-19 adjacent story. And this is really interesting, a lockdown has actually changed the bird song for some birds in California?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. So these are sparrows in and around San Francisco. So I think when we first started sheltering in place, I remember people saying, hey, are you hearing more birds? Are the birds louder? So a bunch of scientists in San Francisco actually went out and quantified this, and they did find that their songs did changed. They were actually quieter, and that’s because there was less traffic around.

And the other change it made is that traffic is usually this low rumbling sound, so without traffic, birds didn’t have to try to sing higher, higher pitch, to talk over the traffic the way you might try to talk really loudly at a party when there’s a lot of background noise. So these birds were actually singing differently based on old recordings they did. This was how they sang back in the 1970s when the city was less loud.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really cool. I wonder whether when COVID is over and traffic comes back, whether these bird songs are going to change their tune again.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, I hope that they’re recording their songs right now. I think what we saw is that birds can change their songs fairly quickly and adapt to their environment. And if I were to guess, I think they’d do that again once we start driving cars, and going outside, and [INAUDIBLE] back up.

IRA FLATOW: They seem very flexible. Let’s stay in California for this next story, but move to climate change-related news, and that is about the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, signing an executive order that will ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035. That sounds like a pretty big deal.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, it is a pretty big deal. California has historically been a real leader in car emissions. In the past, for example, they’ve set car emission standards that have been stricter than the rest of the country. And what ends up happening is that if you’re a car manufacturer, you don’t want to make one car for California and then one car for the rest of the country.

So they end up following California’s stricter regulations. California is also the world’s fifth largest economy, so whatever they do tends to have a lot of sway. And this is a big deal for California to jump out in front of this in the US. But if you look at the larger global context, several other countries in Europe, as well as China and India, have also set similar goals of phasing out gas-powered cars in the next decade or two.

IRA FLATOW: Now, does this seem like it’s related at all to the terrible wildfire season that the state has been going through this year?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, it’s a good question. So Governor Newsom, when he signed the executive order, did, in fact, mention the fact that wildfires have been all over California this year. And actually, these natural disasters, it’s not just California. It’s also the rest of the country.

We are in a hurricane season where we have gone through an entire alphabet and are now back to the Greek alphabet. So I think all throughout the country you’re seeing these disasters that are being amplified by climate change. And obviously, car emissions is a big factor in carbon output.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we’ve already seen the Trump administration push back against California car regulations before. I’m imagining we might see this even on a larger scale, considering the size of the effort that Gavin Newsom is talking about.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. I think we can expect that too. The stricter car emissions I was talking about earlier from California, those are being challenged in court. So I think we can expect that this phase-out of gas-powered cars is probably also going to be something the courts will look at.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on to a story from the other side of the world, and that’s about researchers in Iran found something interesting in the desert. What did they find?

SARAH ZHANG: They found shrimp. And you might be wondering, what are shrimp doing in a desert? Don’t they need water? So this is a new species of fairy shrimp. And what happens is the desert, obviously, there’s usually no water, it’s very dry, but when it rains, sometimes you get these large lakes of water that show up.

And this is when these tiny dried eggs of this shrimp that may have been sitting there for maybe decades, this is when they hatch. And they come out, and they’re these small, feathery little crustaceans. And they swim around, and then they mate, and then they die. And their eggs will hopefully hatch again when it rains again.

IRA FLATOW: Can you eat them? I mean, are they harvesting them for food?

SARAH ZHANG: I don’t think they’re– I don’t know if they’re that tasty. We call them fairy shrimp, but they’re actually not that closely related to the shrimp and prawns that we buy at the grocery store and that we eat. But they are remarkable. They look almost insect-like.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if there can be so much life in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, shrimp growing there, I imagine shrimp are pretty hardy, it can find other places to grow in hostile climates.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah. Well, they do have a very strange life cycle. They live in, as you say, this desert in Iran, which is one of the hottest spots in the world. It can get as high as 160 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the scientists who was interviewed about his discovery, he was just talking about how hard it was to work in this desert, and these shrimp survive there. And the reason they actually even discovered the shrimp was that it was just so hot, and they found this body water and started wading in, and that’s when they noticed all these little white creatures around their legs.

IRA FLATOW: That is a hot, cool story–

SARAH ZHANG: Indeed.

IRA FLATOW: –if I can phrase it that way. One last story. Unfortunately, we’re not getting the Tokyo Olympics this summer, but still a world record for diving has been smashed by a whale. Are we talking about a double somersault with a half twist on this here?

SARAH ZHANG: We don’t know, but I can tell you how long it was. So this is a beaked whale which was recorded to have been underwater for three hours and 42 minutes, which is just remarkable, because whales are also mammals. They also need oxygen. So they’re somehow swimming underwater for almost four hours without needing to breathe.

So this is a species called the beaked whale which spends a lot of its time underwater. So they are a mysterious and enigmatic creature. And this is one of the first times we’ve had a large-scale study of how often and how long these whales dive. And most of them are not spending almost four hours underwater. Most of the time it’s only oh, half an hour to 2 and 1/2 hours. But it seems to have gone on as long as three hours and 42 minutes.

IRA FLATOW: That’s one of the great mysteries about mammals that live in the ocean and other animals like seals is how they can hold their breath for so long and survive underwater for hours and what’s going on inside their bodies that we can’t do.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. So there are some theories. One is that maybe these whales are able to shunt blood away from their guts and their organs to their brains and their muscles so that they’re not wasting oxygen in parts of their bodies they’re not using. Also, their muscles might be slightly different. They might be better at tolerating the toxins that would normally build up if we weren’t breathing for a while.

But the real answer is we don’t know. These whales, we don’t see them very often. They don’t come up to the surface very often. But they’re somehow managing to survive without having to breathe for three hours and 42 minutes.

IRA FLATOW: I’d love to see one. I’d love to see how they know how to do this. Thank you very much.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, great to be here. Good to talk to you.

IRA FLATOW: Great stuff, Sarah. Sarah Zhang, Staff Writer at The Atlantic in Washington, DC.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is an assistant producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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