Weighing COVID-19 Vaccinations For Teens
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.
Federal officials are reporting that the Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 by early next week—just as Canada became the first country to do so on Wednesday of this week. Pfizer has said they will seek out emergency authorization for even younger kids by the fall. But as most countries still lag far behind the United States in vaccine access for adults, public health officials are questioning the ethics of prioritizing American teens over adults from other countries.
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Maggie Koerth is a senior science reporter with FiveThirtyEight.com. She’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, answering evolving COVID-19 questions and a crossword puzzle solving computer program that beats human competitors. But first, even as the US approaches a third of adults fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in other countries. We’ve talked about India, where health care systems are verging on collapse. But cases are also rising in Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere.
To address the disparity of vaccine access between rich and poor nations, the Biden administration announced this week it would support waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. This would allow countries to manufacture their own. Some, like the US, Great Britain, and the European Union, have objected in the past to waiving patent rights, so negotiations remain ahead for the World Trade Organization.
Later in the hour, in our conversation with virologist Angela Rasmussen, we will talk more about why waiving the patent restrictions alone may not be enough. But first, Pfizer announced today it will seek full authorization from the FDA for their COVID-19 vaccine. And earlier this week, Pfizer announced that it would also seek emergency authorization for use of their vaccine in children 12 to 15 years old. Here to tell us more about that, plus other stories from the week, is FiveThirtyEight senior science reporter Maggie Koerth. She joins us from Minneapolis. Hey, welcome back, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi. Thanks for having me here.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. You know, many parents and grandparents of adolescents find this news very exciting. They would love to see that age range for Pfizer vaccine expanded, right?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, very much. I am a parent of a seven and five-year-old, and I am very excited because it means we’re getting a little bit closer to my kids getting something.
IRA FLATOW: So that means we should expect, then, if this is successful for this age group, that of course, right down the line, we might go even younger.
MAGGIE KOERTH: What is sort of happening in the news right now is we’re in this kind of like weird, news about news that hasn’t happened yet thing going on, where a lot of outlets are reporting that the FDA is planning on giving Pfizer that EUA for the 12 to 15 age group soon, but we don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen. Could be any day at this point. Some have said next week. Others, this week. Others, next month. But we do know that Pfizer has also said that they are going to be submitting for the EUA for the two to 11 age group as early as September.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s good news for a lot of people. But there are some public health experts who have suggested that younger kids should not be such a high priority, because there are other countries still struggling to vaccinate their adults. I mean, are we going to an ethical debate here?
MAGGIE KOERTH: I think we’re definitely in a weird ethical debate space. Kids are extremely low risk. But it’s not no risk, and a vaccine would help protect them. It’ll also help reduce transmission through the community, especially in that 10-plus age group that is a lot more susceptible to catching and transmitting the virus than younger kids are.
But you know, there is a finite supply of this stuff. I think it’s a really difficult ethical space to try to figure out how you’re going to get that stuff allocated. I don’t know that there is a good political way to ask parents to give up shots that they would give to their children to give to across the ocean. It’s a tough space to be in, I think. And it’s one that the COVAX program was sort of intended to avoid, but that didn’t work out the way that we wanted it to.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a continuing, evolving problem that we have been watching. And we’ll be continuing to discuss that. Let’s move on to some worrying new climate change models that have come out recently, looking at ice melt and sea level rise perhaps faster than we thought they would be.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so there’s new modeling of the sea level rise under various climate change scenarios. And as you say, it is not very comforting. It is interesting, though, because we’ve got these two different studies that come to different conclusions about what’s happening with the Antarctic ice sheet.
So this is like the largest mass of ice on planet Earth, and some 3 trillion tons of it has melted away since the early 1990s, largely as a result of rising temperatures in the air and in the water. A lot of scientists are worried that continued or accelerating melting of that ice sheet could mean big sea level rises around the world. So this week, two different teams published papers that used computer simulations to kind of look at what that might look like. Madeleine Stone has a great story about this at National Geographic. And you had one group that was showing that if we overshoot the Paris treaty and we hit this 3-degree Celsius climate warming scenario– which is actually pretty likely right now– that this one ice sheet alone, this Antarctic ice sheet, could add 6 inches of sea level rise by 2100.
IRA FLATOW: That is really scary when you consider all the low-lying areas around the coastlines around the world. I guess even– it doesn’t really matter if all the projections align exactly with each other. The direction, right, is the most important issue here?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. Yeah, so the other model was a little bit different, right? So this other model was predicting that 1.5 degrees of warming, which we’re basically locked into, could result in 5 inches of sea level rise by 2100, and a 3-degree increase would actually be twice that. That model isn’t really predicting that melting to be coming from Antarctica. It’s sort of seeing that there’d be more of a balance between increased snowfall and melting there.
But the thing about this is that it’s really about looking at probabilities, right? And so it’s not about the specific numbers so much as it is the non-numerical message behind it, which in this case is that we are probably going to be stuck with some level of coastal flooding. And it’s only going to get worse the less we do to stop the temperature from rising.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Your next two stories are, well, things falling from space. How about we group them that way? A Chinese rocket that could fall back to Earth any time now– what the heck is happening there?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, your stuff falling from space update. So there’s good news and bad news to both of these things. The good news is that this actual thing that is going to fall from space is probably going to be OK.
We’re talking about part of a Chinese Long March rocket that was used to put a piece of China’s new space station into orbit last month. It’s unmanned. And the country didn’t make plans for retrieving it in a controlled way. So it’s been just sort of circling in a temporary orbit, with the idea that it was just going to fall back to Earth. And it’s probably going to do that this weekend.
There are ways that that could be bad. The last time a rocket like this was allowed to break up on reentry, it ended up shedding, like, long metal poles that damaged some buildings over the Ivory Coast. Most people sort of think that it’s not really likely to cause major problems. Nobody knows exactly where it’s going to land, but most of the Earth is ocean, so there’s a pretty good chance that it hits the water. And even if it doesn’t, an astrophysicist told The Guardian that it’s not going to be like a house dropping onto you. It’s more like the equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles.
It’s not great, though. And scientists are actually kind of upset that China really made no plan here beyond, like, well, it’ll fall back to Earth. It’s just better news than you might think.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. No Wizard of Oz moment here with the house come crashing down on you.
MAGGIE KOERTH: No.
IRA FLATOW: And the other thing falling from space is a hypothetical thing, a hypothetical asteroid, right?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes. Yeah, NASA ran kind of like a war game to see what we could do if an asteroid were ever headed straight for us. And they lost to the asteroid. They lost. In the game, the scientists had just six months to stop this hypothetical asteroid. And what they found was that that’s not enough time to design and launch a rocket that can do anything to deflect or alter trajectory.
So based on current technology, they figured out that they’re going to need at least two years notice, and ideally five, to do anything about an asteroid headed toward Earth. Which is better, though, still, than you might think, because the whole point of this exercise was building up disaster resilience. You know, it’s produced this plan to build a rapid response rocket team, and that’s in addition to other systems we already have in place. There’s a program that’s building rockets that can change the course of asteroids, and a new satellite that’s going to be launching in a few years to spot them well in advance. And those rockets are actually can be doing a test run towards the end of the year.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, no kidding. Because you know, one of the things we don’t want to do is blow up the asteroid, right? We just sort of want to move it.
MAGGIE KOERTH: More like nudge, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: And we’ll move from falling to fallout– how’s that for a segue– at Chernobyl. You know, when I saw this headline, I thought to myself, of course, we get to deal with this too now.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Of course.
IRA FLATOW: Explain what’s going on there.
MAGGIE KOERTH: So it’s been 35 years since the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. But scientists are watching nuclear reactions wink to life again in some of these melted piles of radioactive waste that are deep inside this abandoned power plant. Richard Stone at Science quoted an expert who sort of compared it to embers burning in the bottom of an old barbecue grill.
And the problem is that all of this is stuff that ran out of the reactor core when it melted. It’s uranium fuel rods, cladding, graphite control rods, the sand they dumped on it. All of this stuff formed like a lava ooze that flowed into the basement rooms of the power plant and hardened.
And these materials have given scientists trouble before. The roof that– the sarcophagus that they put over the power plant years and years ago tended to leak. And when water would get in, water can slow down particle movement enough that it becomes easier for them to hit and split the nucleus of atoms. So the ooze would set off small reactions. The scientists would sort of have to go in and treat them with a neutron-absorbing chemical.
So this is something that’s been going on for a long time. But they thought they’d fixed it, because they built this new shell in 2016 that stopped the leaks. But now the nuclear reactions are coming back, and the scientists are not sure why, just that drying out that radioactive material seems to be causing the same kinds of reactions that making it wet did. They don’t know what the mechanism is for that. And some of those new reactions are happening in spots that are completely inaccessible, so you can’t just go in and dump the chemical on them again.
So the good news to this is that there is still some time to work on this. This is slow moving. And the scientists think they have a couple of years to figure out what the problem is and fix it. That’s good news. It is also nice to hear that– what these researchers were telling Stone at Science is that if the reactions did lead to an explosion, they believed it would be contained within that new shell that was built. And the main downside would be that the inside of that shell would just be filled with radioactive dust.
IRA FLATOW: Well, at least I hope people are not freaking out just hearing something about Chernobyl again. So that good news is a bit of reassurance, for whatever that’s worth. Thank you, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH: You are welcome. Happy to end on an upbeat, positive note.
IRA FLATOW: One of these days, we’ll have an all-good news roundup from you. How about that?
MAGGIE KOERTH: That would be amazing, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight in Minneapolis.