More Boosters, For More People

12:08 minutes

This week, an FDA advisory committee met to pore over data and debate the role of COVID vaccine boosters. And on Thursday, they voted to recommend Moderna boosters for older Americans, as well as people in certain at-risk groups. This recommendation came just a few weeks after the FDA authorized a Pfizer booster for similar individuals.   

The recommendations of the panel regarding boosters for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, as well as the idea of mixing and matching different vaccine and booster types, will now go to FDA officials. The CDC will also weigh in.

Amy Nordrum, commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about the vaccine meeting and other topics from the week in science—including the FDA authorization of an e-cigarette, efforts to map the brain, mysterious radio signals from space, and a mission to explore asteroids near Jupiter. 

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, an FDA advisory committee voted to recommend Moderna boosters for older Americans and people in certain at-risk groups. This comes just a few weeks after the FDA authorized a Pfizer booster for similar groups but still leaves open the question of what boosters J&J recipients should get. Here to talk more about that and other selected short subjects in science is Amy Nordrum, an editor for the MIT Technology Review. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you, Ira. Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about this. I know that today all eyes are on the FDA advisory committee again, what’s going on out there?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. There are still tens of millions of Americans who are unvaccinated, so getting them vaccinated is still obviously a major focus for public health officials. We’re also now in the stage of the pandemic where there’s this question about whether those who are vaccinated should get a booster to stay well-protected against COVID, and if so, do they need to get the same shot that they got when they were first vaccinated or can you kind of mix and match? Like if you originally got two shots from Pfizer, could you then get a booster from Moderna?

So this week we got some new data from the National Institutes of Health on that question, and their data and study seem to show that mixing and matching is probably fine. So anyone who got an mRNA vaccine originally will have similar levels of protection no matter whether they get the booster from Pfizer or from Moderna. But for those who originally received the J&J vaccine, which was just one shot, the NIH study found that they might have even better protection if they get a booster from Moderna or Pfizer versus getting one from J&J. So people who received one of those companies’ boosters had higher antibody levels than those who got a J&J second dose. So the FDA advisory panel that’s been meeting yesterday and today is going to be hearing a presentation on these mix and match results and thinking about this new data as it decides what to recommend moving forward.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Kind of confusing to a lot of us. You know, well do I do this or don’t I do this?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Yes, the data is still preliminary. It hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed. And it was just one study, a pretty small one too. And the advisory panel isn’t really voting on this question today of the mix and match but even if they were, it could very well be that they decide we don’t have enough data on this question quite yet.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any reason to expect that the FDA would not follow the recommendations of the advisory panel?

AMY NORDRUM: Sure that can definitely happen. I mean, the advisory panel doesn’t make the rules, it just advises. So it would still then be up to the FDA and the CDC as to how to interpret this and what to do moving forward. And the CDC is actually having a committee meeting next week on this same question of mixing and matching and what to do about boosters. So we could have more clarity and hopefully an answer on this pretty soon.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to other FDA news. I know there was action this week with regard to e-cigarettes, what’s going on here?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. E-cigarettes have been sold in the US for years, and for a while, the FDA was pretty hands-off with these products but they’ve gotten a lot of scrutiny, particularly from public health groups worried that some of the flavors that e-cigarette makers were putting out, stuff like bubblegum, and fruity flavors, were going to appeal to teenagers and maybe hook them on nicotine even though they wouldn’t ever have gotten started on regular cigarettes.

On the other hand, some adult smokers have switched over to e-cigarettes and since they produce water vapor instead of cigarette smoke, they’re generally considered to be safer than smoking cigarettes. So the FDA has told e-cigarette manufacturers they have to apply to have their products that were already on the market authorized by the agency. So that the agency can kind of weigh the risks and benefits to public health of each product.

And they’ve been going through all these applications, they’ve rejected millions of them already, particularly for flavored products that might really appeal to teenagers. But this week it did grant its first authorization for a tobacco flavored e-cigarette. And Katherine Foley wrote a really good piece on this for Politico, just about how much confusion there is around why this particular product got approved and so many others haven’t, and then how the FDA is going to regulate this industry moving forward.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because some people say if I want to get off the habit, I need to wean myself off regular cigarettes, so maybe e-cigarettes are the way to go?

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. That’s the argument for them and this company that’s what they’re saying their product will primarily be used for. And the FDA has said even though we’ve authorized this one product, we’re going to be monitoring that company’s advertising, making sure that they’re not targeting minors and that teenagers aren’t getting hooked on their products because they could revoke it if that happens.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on. We reported last week on the discovery of specialized face recognition cells in monkeys and by extension, probably in people, and there’s more news this week on an effort to map the brain. I mean, it’s going like crazy. Tell us about it.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, the brain, as you know, is a very complicated organ. There are thought to be like a thousand different types of cells in the brain and we don’t really know what they all are or how they work together to make our brain function. So for years, scientists all around the world have been working on some really big research projects to try and help us understand that better.

And this week we heard from one of those groups, they published 17 new papers all at once, made a big splash in the journal Nature describing their work so far. And their mission has really been focused on trying to identify all the different kinds of cells in the brain and make what they’re calling a kind of census or an atlas of these. So they started with one specific part of a mouse’s brain and its motor cortex, and that’s what the papers this week mostly describe.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s only really a small part of the brain that they’ve looked at?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s slow work. It’s slow going for sure. So really they’ve only mapped like 1% of a mouse’s brain at this point. And once they finish the mouse’s brain, they’re hoping to do that by 2023 but then they want to move on and do the same thing for the human brain. And the idea is if you do this for different species you might be able to see similarities and differences and understand better how different kinds of brains evolve. But it’s definitely taking some time.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so they really want to get down on the cellular level and watch the circuitry working?

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. Yeah, being able to see kind of the anatomy of each cell and its components, even on a molecular level how these cells interact with each other and communicate.

IRA FLATOW: You have some sad news this week about Florida’s manatees. Boy, they have been under attack ever since I can remember, for decades, either from motorboats hitting them with their propellers, and gashes. And now it’s even worse, more bad news?

AMY NORDRUM: It’s true. Yes, it’s been a really tough year for Florida’s manatees, actually the deadliest year on record for them. So the state has lost 10% of its manatee population just this year, almost 1,000 manatees have died so far.

And as you said, there’s a number of different reasons why. The Miami Herald had a nice editorial kind of explaining some of them. One major reason is that manatees eat seagrass, they eat hundreds of pounds of it a day, and there just hasn’t been as much of that around because of pollution from agriculture and septic systems along the coast. So a lot of the manatees are actually starving to death.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, Wow. I mean, are they on the Endangered– they’re not on the Endangered Species list, are they?

AMY NORDRUM: No. They were for a long time but they got taken off a couple of years ago. It was a pretty controversial decision. They were changed from endangered to threatened but there is an effort now to get them back on. So some lawmakers in Florida are trying to introduce a bill to Congress to really quickly get them back on the Endangered Species list and we’ll see if that actually happens.

IRA FLATOW: They are such gentle animals. I have– for a TV show I did years ago, I was snorkeling with them and this 2,000-pound manatee knew I was there, and just kindly moved away when I came swimming by. Oh, they’re just wonderful animals. And some uplifting news now, I understand astronomers have heard some strange radio signals. Wow, tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: This is kind of a weird one. So this week astronomers announced they detected new radio waves coming from somewhere within the Milky Way that didn’t really fit the patterns they’d expect from any kind of objects that they know about. And these waves were behaving in ways that are really hard for them to explain, like switching off and on at random or dialing up or down in intensity. So this has created a big question for them about what exactly is out there emitting these radio waves. And right now they really, really don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know which part of the universe they’re coming from?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s around the center of the Milky Way. But we don’t know much more about them. They’ve been able to detect them on a number of different occasions over time. So it’s not just a one-off instance but they haven’t yet been able to kind of hone in on what the possible source of it might be.

IRA FLATOW: So this is not like a pulsar, which has a very clock-like on, off, signal sweeping pass through. This is something sort of random?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it seems to be. I mean, they thought about oh, maybe it’s a pulsar, or maybe it’s a solar flare from a star. There’s also these things called fast radio bursts, which I know you’ve talked about on the show, it’s like a series of signals that are coming from somewhere in space and repeating or just happening as a one-off event. But of all the things that they’ve considered and they looked at a lot of possibilities, this signal still seems different since it’s changing so much.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. We always discover so much stuff going on out in the universe. We have no idea what it is. Well, we don’t know what 96% of the universe is made out of anyhow with the dark energy and dark matter, throw this in with that there.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s look ahead to the weekend. There’s a planned launch for a mission called Lucy. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, this is happening early tomorrow morning. The rocket has been rolled out to the launch pad in Cape Canaveral in Florida and the weather is looking good and it’s all ready to go. So this is a NASA mission. It will be sending a spacecraft out to Jupiter’s orbit where there are two huge bunches of asteroids that are orbiting the sun along with Jupiter. So they follow the same route around the sun. And this NASA mission launches tomorrow is going to be the first to go out and really take a close look at these asteroid clusters. So it’s going to really spend the next 12 years exploring eight asteroids in particular.

And Ashley Strickland wrote a really nice piece about this mission for CNN with a lot of good info. And scientists think that these asteroids are leftover bits of material from when the solar system first formed. So they’re hoping to get a better sense from studying them about how that happened and what exactly they’re made of.

IRA FLATOW: Besides just having a lot of fun flying around the asteroids, can you give us some details on what the mission is trying to study?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, scientists have described these asteroids almost like fossils. So really understanding how they formed and what they’re made of could help us know what the solar system was like 4.5 billion years ago when it formed. And they’re also going to be taking a look at things like do these asteroids have moons or craters? And craters can really help you tell how old they are and when these asteroids formed.

IRA FLATOW: So they think these asteroids were sort of, as you say, remnants from the formation of our solar system and just leftover pieces?

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. Yeah, they’re kind of like a time capsule in a way of what early activity might have happened in our solar system. And so maybe by taking a closer look at them we can kind of learn about how our own planet and others have formed.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because we’ve had missions to sort of land on space bodies, none of these– Lucy is not going to land on any of these and take a sample or something and bring it back?

AMY NORDRUM: No, it’s just going to be cruising by them. But it is kind of interesting because it’s also going to be making a few trips back closer to Earth, that it can use Earth’s gravity to actually reposition itself out where it needs to be by Jupiter, which is a pretty unusual aspect of this mission. Usually, a spacecraft will just kind of go out and stay close to where it’s investigating.

IRA FLATOW: All of this allows me to say we can end with Lucy’s in the sky above Jupiter.


IRA FLATOW: So thank you, NASA for that opportunity. Thank you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, editor for the MIT Technology Review. We have to take a break and when we come back a look inside a research institute for indigenous benefit run by indigenous scientists, stay with us. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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