08/20/2021

Why The Delta Variant Will Make More Kids Sick

11:53 minutes

black kid wearing mask stands in front of brick wall with a backpack on
Credit: Shutterstock

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 cases of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 continue to spike around the U.S., children are one of the hardest-hit groups. As children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccination, they and other unvaccinated groups are facing the highest rates of infection and hospitalization of the entire pandemic

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control announced Wednesday that adults in the general population would be eligible for a third booster shot of their mRNA vaccine beginning eight months after their first dose. While the CDC cited concern about rising breakthrough cases in vaccinated adults, some epidemiologists have objected that the data does not support more vaccines for most already-vaccinated adults.

MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum walks through these stories, plus a new human trial for mRNA vaccines against HIV, how historic drought in the West will mean the first-ever limits on farmers’ use of water next year, a promising experiment in fusion energy generation, and why the core of Saturn may be more liquid than solid.


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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

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

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, in for Ira Flatow. The Delta variant of COVID-19 is continuing to sprint through unvaccinated populations across the US. And as the cases surge, younger people make up a big chunk of those new cases and the brunt of the hospitalizations.

Many schools have already opened in both Florida and Texas have already reported tens of thousands of students now quarantining because of a COVID exposure. And with vaccines still unavailable to under twelve’s and many states trying to forbid schools to require masks, the pandemic is already the worst it’s ever been for children under 18.

Here to talk more about this toll is Amy Nordrum, an editor for the MIT Technology Review. She’s based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Welcome back to the show, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi John. Thanks, it’s great to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So there is a lot going on with this ongoing spike of COVID-19 cases, but as I said kids are especially having a rough time of it. Maybe you can just fill us in. How bad is it right now?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so every state has seen a rise in new COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant. And in states with low vaccination rates, places like Louisiana, and Mississippi, and Florida, they are now having their worst outbreaks yet of the pandemic.

And so people younger than 50 who are less likely to be vaccinated than older people are now being hospitalized for COVID-19 at higher rates than ever before. That’s also true of kids, because as you said there’s no vaccine approved for kids under 12. So that’s millions of unvaccinated people. Although their overall risk of hospitalization or death for kids and younger people is still relatively low, it’s definitely clear that Delta is hitting these groups much harder than the original coronavirus strain.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And schools of course are either opened across America, or they’re just about to open. We have governors in several states, including in Texas and Florida, that are trying to prevent schools from requiring masks. Does it seem possible that we can see even more cases in kids coming up later on this fall once school gets back into session?

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. I mean, that’s a major concern. Obviously if the school year is beginning or has already begun, places that have opened without requiring masks have already seen some big outbreaks among students and teachers. Thousands of students, in some cases, needing to quarantine. Eight states have banned schools from requiring students to wear masks, which is only going to make this problem worse.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Do we have any sense as to when we could see a vaccine for kids under 12?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, the vaccines are being tested right now in kids and in babies. And Pfizer, which is already authorized for kids 12 and older, is seeking authorization for kids under 12 maybe as soon as next month. Moderna is not yet authorized for any teens, but it is also planning to seek authorization for everybody under 18 by the end of this year or possibly early next year. So it will still be a while, but hopefully soon.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now in the meantime, the CDC said Wednesday that adults in the general population might be able to start getting booster vaccines about eight months after their last doses. Now the data so far has been pretty glowing on the efficacy of these vaccines in preventing severe illness. So tell us more about why these boosters right now?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, the surgeon general said this is because health officials are starting to see some data that shows the vaccine’s ability to protect people against mild and moderate disease is decreasing over time. So there are a couple of studies that this was based on, including one in New York that suggested the vaccine’s effectiveness went from about 92% to 80% in about two and a half months.

And other studies have reported different amounts of change in the vaccine’s effectiveness over time but followed that same downward trend. But this was kind of a controversial statement for the administration to make for two reasons. And one is that the plan to provide boosters hasn’t yet been approved by the CDC or the FDA and would need to be approved in order for that to actually happen.

And the second reason is that some scientists are saying the call is a bit premature, since the vaccines are still protecting people from the most severe forms of the disease. Boosters aren’t yet needed for most people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ve also heard from the World Health Organization that rich nations like the US need to really wait for any booster shots until more people around the world have access to vaccines. So what happened to that guidance?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, it’s still out there. I mean, the World Health Organization has discouraged rich nations from offering booster shots until more people in poor countries can have their first shot. And there’s still dozens of countries where barely anyone has been vaccinated.

So that is a major concern. I mean, the Biden administration has pointed to the many, many doses that the US has donated and sent abroad as an answer to that. But you know, that guidance hasn’t changed from the World Health Organization.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So maybe we can move on to a vaccine story that everyone’s going to feel pretty good about. It’s an mRNA vaccine for HIV that’s getting a clinical trial. This seems like really good news.

AMY NORDRUM: It is it’s really exciting to see. So Moderna, the same company that has developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines that people have been getting, is also developing mRNA based vaccines for other diseases that might be helped by this new technology. And so it is beginning a phase 1 trial for one of its HIV vaccines this week. And has also got other things in the pipeline for Zika, the flu, and a variety of other diseases based on mRNA technology.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Interesting. Moving on. We’ve been following with some of our state of science partners, the historic shortage of water in the Southwest, specifically in the Colorado River Basin. This region’s been in a long drought and now some of the lakes that are fed by the Colorado River, like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at historic lows. How bad has it gotten?

AMY NORDRUM: It’s really bad. On Monday the US government actually declared a water shortage for the first time ever on the Colorado River at Lake Mead, which is one of the country’s biggest reservoirs along with Lake Powell. And they’re both only about one third full right now.

So as a result of that water shortage declared on Monday, several states in the Southwest, including Arizona and Nevada, are going to have to cut back on how much water they can draw from the river beginning next year.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And cutting back on drawing water from the river means everything from drinking water to water that goes into agriculture to grow crops.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, farmers will definitely be the ones most affected by these cuts, and the cuts are more severe in Arizona than in elsewhere. So the agricultural sector in Arizona is particularly concerned about what this means for the plants and crops they would have otherwise planted.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And I’ve read a bit about the fact that this region of the US is essentially entering into an era in which these low water levels are just the regular part of life. This is sort of where we are for some time. Is there a sense as to how long this drought period could last?

AMY NORDRUM: It’s hard to say. I mean, I think your instinct is probably right there and it is a concern. I mean, Arizona’s agricultural sector provides a lot of leafy greens and lettuce in the winter for the rest of the country. So there could be long term effects that impact sectors such as that cause agriculture to have to shift or change in different ways to adapt to this new normal.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now there are some big energy news this week. In some ways, it may be a small little breakthrough but it is providing some excitement. A lab is getting closer to nuclear fusion reactions that could be used to generate power. Now we’ve been hearing, Amy, about fusion for a very long time. Are we getting closer to actually generating power from it?

AMY NORDRUM: This is a step in that direction. So the US National Ignition Facility in California did get closer than they’ve ever been before to achieving fusion, a special kind of reaction that could essentially produce limitless renewable energy. So earlier this month researchers there used a laser to initiate a reaction that reached 70% of ignition, which is the point at which the reaction itself would produce more energy than it took to create it. And that’s a big jump. That’s actually eight times higher than what they had previously been able to achieve.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So eight times higher than what they’d previously been able to achieve. But before we start getting excited about this as the next wave in energy production, maybe you can explain just how far that puts us away from fusion being a viable source of renewable energy.

AMY NORDRUM: I mean, it’s a long ways away is the answer. First of all, they’ve only done this once. They will need to repeat this experiment and see if they can do it again. And even if they can’t do it in their lab, it’s a whole different process to figure out how to actually build a commercial reactor that could sustain this reaction over time and use it to generate energy for homes and businesses. And there are some companies and large international projects working on this, but it’s likely still years, probably decades away.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Amy, what do we know about this experiment that caused this fusion reaction? This is really cool. Maybe you can explain what they did.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s a really complex experiment that will take months to replicate. And it involves shining 192 lasers at a tiny capsule containing two different kinds of hydrogen. The goal is for the reaction to actually create more energy than the laser delivers, by causing the nuclei of these sort of atoms to combine. And with this experiment they got about 70% of the way there which is a big deal, because prior to that they’d been stuck at around 3%. And then got to 10%. So this was a big jump than what they’d achieved previously.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s a huge jump. I mean, it’s not to where they need to be, but to 70% from three or 10% is actually something that’s pretty remarkable.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, and they’ve been making some tweaks to the experiment. So one is to the capsule that they used to hold the hydrogen. They have a whole team dedicated just to building that thing, and it’s actually made out of artificially grown diamonds that are formed into a certain shape that wouldn’t actually occur in nature. But diamonds can have defects, and that can affect the experiments results. So they’ve been working on eliminating those these last few years.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So I guess now I understand exactly why it takes so long to replicate an experiment like this. This is not easy stuff to put together.

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly, you could not do it in your backyard or your basement, for sure.

[LAUGHING]

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now I want to finish up with a fun story. We of course love space stories here, and we’ve got some fun insights this week into the planet Saturn. Specifically, the gas giant may not have a solid core after all. So how do we know this?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, the prevailing theory about gas giants for a long time was that they had this rocky solid core at their center. But as Neil Patel wrote for us this week, there’s a new study out that suggests that might not be the case. And researchers from Caltech who published it actually looked at little ripples in the rings around Saturn and used those to figure out what kind of core would actually cause those ripples to occur.

So what they came up with was that Saturn’s core isn’t solid. It’s actually a big slushy mix of ice, and some rocks, and helium, and hydrogen. And the whole thing is much bigger than what scientists would have thought of as the core. So now they’re thinking that this might also apply to some of the other gas giants in our solar system, like Jupiter and Neptune.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the core is much bigger, it’s sloshy, stuff’s moving around in there. So that’s really interesting. It’s interesting that this could be what other gas giant planets look like. I do have to ask though, these ripples that they saw, we hadn’t noticed these ripples in the rings of Saturn before?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, they were actually collected by NASA’s Cassini probe, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and spent more than a decade exploring Saturn. And actually ended its mission in 2017 by diving into the planet’s atmosphere where it was destroyed. So the data for this isn’t necessarily new, but it’s the analysis and the modeling to actually figure out what this means for the planet’s core that was what was original here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So if we do find out that the core of these gas giants like Saturn is different, what does this tell us? This actually seems to be a little bit of a breakthrough in the way we understand how these planets work, these giant planets.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. I mean, it could speak to the formation of these planets and how that process came together. There’s a kind of structure to this core even though it’s not a hard core, there’s still denser ices and rocks and liquids toward the center and lighter stuff like hydrogen and helium gas around that closer to the surface. So the order of those materials and the way that they’re mixed might tell us something about the planet’s evolution that we wouldn’t have otherwise known.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Very cool. That’s a good way to end our news roundup. Thanks again, Amy. I really appreciate it.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks John, great to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Amy Nordrum is an editor for the MIT Technology Review.

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Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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