FDA Convenes Panel On COVID Boosters And New Vaccines

12:11 minutes

group of vaccine bottles in a lab
Credit: Shutterstock

This week, the FDA convened a panel of independent experts to discuss COVID-19 boosters and possible variant-specific vaccines. This comes after last week’s authorization of a second booster for people over the age of 50, and some immunocompromised people. 

Ira talks with Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, about the latest on boosters and other science news of the week including a new particle measurement that might shift our understanding of physics, fish who can do math and why Mars has two different speeds of sound

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’re taking your questions about spring gardening. Whether you’re in your first round of planting or still getting the soil ready, we’ve got answers to your questions. And we’re back in the studio live taking your calls. Our number 1-844-724-8255 or 844-SCI-TALK.

But first, earlier this week, the FDA convened a panel of experts to discuss the best use of COVID-19 boosters and the possibility of variant-specific vaccines. This comes after last week’s authorization of a second booster for people over the age of 50 and others who are immunocompromised. Joining me to talk about this and other science news of the week is Maggie Koerth, Senior Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight based in good old Minneapolis. Welcome back. Maggie, nice to have you.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Nice to be here. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this meeting after their meeting this week. Did the FDA panel come up with any new recommendations on booster timing or new vaccine production?

MAGGIE KOERTH: No. I mean, some of the booster-timing recommendations that actually happened before the panel got together, which was something that they ended up asking the FDA about pretty early on in the meeting. And they came away with about the same level of na-na-na as they went in. This is something where both the FDA and CDC officials have said in the past that boosting everybody every four or five months is just not a good long-term strategy just on the basis of logistics and public buy-in alone.

But coming out of this meeting, it seems like there’s still not really a good plan in place for an alternative, whether that’s how we’re going to get new vaccine– or new variant-specific vaccines authorized or even how we’re going to decide in a really evidence-based way how often people need new boosters of existing vaccines.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So that meeting did not end with a concrete plan then to study?

MAGGIE KOERTH: It did not. It ended with people saying we really need a concrete plan, and we need one before next winter. But that plan has yet to materialize.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s change the pace a bit with news that’s shaking up the world of physics– some of my favorite stuff. This week, scientists announced that the W boson particle is a little heavier than originally believed. I mean, before we begin, I think we need to explain what a W boson particle is. Don’t we?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, it is one of the fundamental particles that particle physics really studies these things where they go around crashing protons into one another and seeing what kinds of particles come out of that mix. These are the things that just sort of make up all of reality. But they’re really too tiny to even see until you have an opportunity to crash bigger things together and see what comes out. And W protons are one– W bosons, rather, are one of those particles.

So what these researchers were looking at was actually the data produced by proton collisions that happened over a decade ago. And they’ve been trying to better quantify the particles that happen when you smash these protons together. And this process has actually allowed them to get more precise in their measurements of fundamental particles than ever has happened before. And the result is that they found that this one particle, the W boson, was 0.1% too heavy.


MAGGIE KOERTH: 0.1% too heavy.

IRA FLATOW: Is that a big deal?

MAGGIE KOERTH: It is if you are a physicist because it is heavier than the standard model of physics predicted it should be. So this is a big deal because the standard model is kind of this framework that physics has been working off for more than 40. Years you can think of it as like a rough draft of a map, and the particle physicists are like explorers who are trying to verify that all these tiny details of the coastline really do match up with the way the map suggests they should.

And up until now, it has. But this 0.1% difference in mass is like finding a bay where you would have expected a peninsula to be. So if this measurement is correct, it means that the standard model is wrong, and the scientists are going to have to create themselves a new, different map.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It always seems like we’re getting more information that shows that the standard model isn’t exactly perfect.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Exactly. And that is a really big deal. I mean, there’s definitely some physicists who stand to lose some bets here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And look for new theories of physics. I always like it when that happens when they’re looking for new kinds of stuff and new physics, which we love. Then, we can talk about it.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s continue with this theme of upending what we thought we knew because there is a really interesting story about humans. Humans might have arrived on the American continent earlier than previously recorded. Please tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So this is something that has been playing out over the last 20, 25 years or so. When I was a child and really for a very long time, the majority of scientists would say that people first came to this continent about 13,000 years ago and that they got here traveling over a land bridge between Asia and North America. But both Native Americans and other scientists have been pushing back on this idea for decades. And in recent years, there’s been a number of new archaeological finds that provided increasingly strong evidence that old consensus was wrong.

Now, a lot of these finds are things that are debatable. They’re cracked animal bones that could represent food cooked by humans or could just be some cracked animal bones. There’s stone tools that could be stone tools or could just be really convenient looking rocks. So those have been questioned by scientists who still want to kind of believe in this relatively late discovery of America.

But there’s this new find. And this new find is a big deal. It’s human footprints, which kind of take away all of the ambiguity. And they’ve been found in what was once the banks of ancient wetlands at what is now White Sands National Park in New Mexico. So the researchers who found these fossilized tracks have dated them using several techniques, including radiocarbon dating the fossilized plants that got squished under these ancient people’s feet, which I just love as a concept in and of itself.

IRA FLATOW: Especially when you think it was in what’s a desert now.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. Exactly. Yeah, and you’re smooshing like water plants. And these studies have turned up an age that’s between 21,000 and 23,000 years old. So if this is right, that timing would undermine both the idea of a recent peopling of the Americas. And it would undermine the method of travel because, 23,000 years ago, that land bridge was under an ice sheet.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Yeah, it’s right because majority of the scientists say that people came to the Americas 13,000 years ago, and this would then change that estimate. Right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: It absolutely would. Yeah. So this is controversial because there are archeologists that don’t necessarily think that these older dates are accurate. There’s a lot of people who want to run more dating tests on these tootsies. But depending on what happens, we are talking about something that could completely rewrite the history books.

IRA FLATOW: And what might be an alternate theory then? If we’re talking about the land bridge not being viable, what other way could they have come?

MAGGIE KOERTH: One of the most popular theories is really about following coastlines in boats. That’s something that could have easily been done in this time period. And it’s also something that would explain a lot more about how you get some of these very old dates as far south as South America, Central America. Some of these dates that are coming back at like 30,000 years old for these stone tool sites and the cracked bone sites. It’d be a lot easier and faster to get people down to those southern locations if you’re talking about coming by water along the coast.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah because the theory of people being in the Americas before 13,000 years ago used to be linked to like pseudoscience. Right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. Yeah. It did. And I think that that’s really where a lot of the controversy around this has come from is that the peopling of the Americas has a lot of pseudoscience that has cropped up about it over the years, everything from lost tribes of Israel to aliens to Thor Heyerdahl. And the idea that people were here before 13,000 years ago often got lumped into that. And it has just been in the last 25 years or so that we’ve started to see real evidence that those older– like the idea of people being here a lot longer ago isn’t pseudoscience. It’s something that you can separate out from that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and this field is changing so often. It’s really nice to come up with some new news.

MAGGIE KOERTH: It’s super is. I mean, I was in anthropology school in the early 2000s, and everything has just completely changed since then.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you’re the right person to talk about this then. And I’m sure you’re the right person to talk about some exciting news for WE Audio folks. And I’m talking about the Rover Perseverance on Mars. It sent back some new audio recordings. We have a little snippet. We’re going to play you a little snippet of the sound. It’s using its dust remover tool, and there are some Martian wind sounds in the background. So folks, put on your earphones and turn up your earbuds. It’s a little hard to hear. We may play it twice. Let’s listen to that sound.


That’s spooky.

MAGGIE KOERTH: That is. That sounds like an action movie soundtrack sound.

IRA FLATOW: It’s going to show up in a movie somewhere. So what were we listening to there?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, that is the sound of the aliens creeping up behind you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: They’re getting better at it.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that’s really interesting about these sounds is that they have showed us that the speed of sound is working really differently on Mars than it is on Earth. And this is, in some ways, something that was predicted. Scientists had guessed that the speed of sound would be slower on Mars than it is on Earth. And that’s because the Martian atmosphere is a lot thinner than ours.

And we already know that sound waves travel more slowly when they’re moving through a less dense material. So even on Earth, sound moves more slowly in our air than it does under water, for example. So it’s not a super big surprise to find that sound moves at 550 miles per hour on Mars compared to 767 miles per hour on Earth. But these recordings also showed an even weirder effect because, on Mars, higher pitched sounds are traveling faster than lower pitched ones.

IRA FLATOW: Two separate speeds of sound is what you’re saying.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Two separate speeds of sound. 537 miles per hour compared to 550.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie, great stuff as always. Thanks for taking time to be with us today, Maggie. Maggie Koerth, Senior Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis.

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