Finally, An Ebola Vaccine

12:00 minutes

A person vaccinating another.
The EU has approved an Ebola vaccine. Credit: UC Rusal Photo Gallery/CC BY 2.0

The decades-long goal to develop an Ebola vaccine has finally been achieved. An agency of the European Union has approved the vaccine, called Ervebo, which has already been used on a trial basis in the current epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of 100,000 people vaccinated there, only three percent developed the disease. Science writer Ryan Mandelbaum of Gizmodo joins Ira in this segment to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science, like a new dark matter detection method; mysterious oxygen spikes on Mars; why the Nile River is—literally—a window into the underworld; and meet “Arrokoth,” the space object formerly known as Ultima Thule/MU69. 

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, broadcasting from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Later in the hour, the EPA put out a proposal that the agency says will strengthen transparency in the science studies they use to make policies and regulations, but researchers say it could take the science out of the process. We’ll get to that later. But first, finally, the world has an Ebola vaccine.

The vaccine, developed by Merck, has been used on hundreds of thousands of people in the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it’s shown enough promise that European regulators say it’s ready for market. Joining me now to talk about that, and other selected short subjects in science, is Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo in New York. Good to have you back.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s great to be here, Ira. I’m sitting in your seat here in New York office.

IRA FLATOW: Keeping it warm for me. All right. Let’s talk about this. This is great news, an approved Ebola vaccine.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so this is obviously something that very exciting. Of the 100,000 people who were vaccinated in trials, only 3% developed Ebola from back in results released by the WHO in April, so this is important. I mean, five years ago, the Ebola outbreak killed over 10,000 people, so it’s quite bad. So it’s great to actually see a vaccine coming to market.

IRA FLATOW: And so it’s already been used on a trial basis, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes, that’s correct. There was the trial, and then– sorry, I’m so whoo. So, yeah, I mean, it’s been very exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So we’ll wait for it to come out and get ready for everybody else.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So it’s going to be available in mid 2020, but I think it’s important to note that vaccines are only part of the problem, if there’s other subtypes of Ebola, the local communities might be resistant to the vaccine, so we’re sort of– we have to wait for this to play out to see really how it’s accepted in the communities.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. OK. Let’s move on to something I know you love, and I think we share that love, and that weird physics stories. And this week, you have one about detecting dark matter using antimatter.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Whoa. Poof. Mind blown.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: My headline for this story was, Could Antimatter Be the Portal Into the Dark Universe?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, dee, dee, dee doo. Tell us what you mean by that.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so you might know, dark matter makes up most of the mass of the universe. It kind of builds the universe’s scaffolding, but we’ve never seen it directly. And so, right now, scientists at CERN have this experiment. It’s performing precision measurements on antimatter protons, which is the antimatter partner of the proton. So it’s the antimatter version of the proton. And what they’re looking to see is whether the antimatter protons are wobbling a little bit differently than they expect, as well as differently from regular protons, and that, they hope, might be the signature of axions, which is this dark matter candidate, this light dark matter particle.

IRA FLATOW: So how can they prove this? Is there any way to test this out?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, what they do is they actually, this is surprising to some people. There’s an antimatter factory at CERN. It’s called the antimatter proton decelerate, and they actually produce antimatter. They slow it down, and then they trap it in these magnetic traps, so that they could then, sort of, probe it and perform high precision measurements on it.

IRA FLATOW: I saw the movie where they trapped something.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I don’t know if the movie was quite as good as CERN was at, sort of, explaining what was going on.

IRA FLATOW: So how hard is it to make antimatter? Isn’t it hard enough to make it on its own? Why use that to detect the dark matter?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You know, I have spoken on the show before that, right now, it’s just really tough for the dark matter search, because the most popular candidates for dark matter have not been seen yet, despite lots of effort. And so they’re kind of going into these a little more niche, a little stranger candidates for dark matter, the axion being one of them. And the hope here is that maybe dark matter interacts differently with the antimatter matter than it does with regular matter and what that would actually do is potentially provide an explanation as to why there’s so much more matter than antimatter matter in the universe.

IRA FLATOW: That’s because a lot of the explanations are just not holding up, and they have to find new physics, new ideas.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. There’s just a lot of work that’s yet to be done. And we, so far, of the work that’s been done has not revealed anything fruitful, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Your next story is about mysterious oxygen on Mars.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So do you remember last year, the mysterious methane on Mars?

IRA FLATOW: Ah, yes, methane. The mysterious methane story, yes.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So it’s almost like a sequel to that. Curiosity is sitting in the Gale Crater right now on Mars, And it’s been sampling the gas in the Martian atmosphere as the seasons change. And so today, or not today, this past week, they’ve released five years of Earth data, just three years of Mars data, collecting these gases changing over the seasons. And there’s way too much oxygen in the Martian spring and summer and not enough oxygen in the winter, so what’s going on?

IRA FLATOW: So is this as mysterious as the methane, because they had an explanation they thought might explain it. Do they have an explanation for the oxygen?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: This is about as mysterious as the methane. So they’ve got a couple. I mean, people have thrown out ideas. You know, maybe, there is carbon dioxide that is breaking up into oxygen or water. H2O is breaking up into oxygen. But if it was water, it would require way more water than they know about on Mars. If it was carbon dioxide, then it would be carbon dioxide decays way too slowly to explain it. And so they’re just kind of stuck, and they don’t know what’s going on. So they’re just hoping that other scientists join the hunt and figure out the mysterious source and sink for the oxygen on Mars.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, we’d all love to believe, I’m sure, as the scientists do, that these are signals of either present life or past life.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You know, I’m not going to tell you that it’s alien, Ira, but I’m not telling you it’s not aliens.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m not talking about intelligent aliens. I’m talking about rudimentary kind of stuff we might find that at the bottom of our oceans living, possibly, on Mars.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure, sure, sure. Yeah, maybe. Who knows?

IRA FLATOW: OK. You reported, moving on, on another story this week about the Nile River being a portal to the underworld.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s the headline that I came up with, but I do think this one is really cool. So there’s this debate about the Nile River, about how old it is. So some theories say that it’s 5 to 6 million years old, that it originally flowed west, and then tectonic action pushed it north. There’s another theory that it is 30 million years old. So scientists have modeled this 30 million year old theory, and basically came up with that it would perfectly match this strange mantle conduction, the mantle being the layer beneath the crust, that the Nile River might be tracing the behavior of the mantle, and have been doing so over the past 30 million years.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So is that the reason why it flows the way it does?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. So what might be happening is that the mantle would be pushing up land, sort of near the Ethiopian plateau, and pushing down land near the mouth of the Nile in the Mediterranean. And it would have started doing this, perhaps, 40 to 30 million years ago, and then continued doing so, and the Nile would have just continued to trace it. And, actually, this is mainly based on modeling, but there is some scientific evidence here. For example, there seems to be rocks at the mouth of the Nile that are 30 million years old, that sort of match these volcanic rocks at the Ethiopian plateau. So it’s a theory.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have any idea why it has taken so long? We’ve known about the Nile, and we’re pretty good geologists, has it taken so long to dig to discover this, I guess, is what I’m asking.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: The paper says that it is simply difficult to figure out how rivers are formed in the face of all of the different factors, climate, things like that. I mean, of course, there’s rivers that cut through canyons, and you can age them that way. But there’s a lot of other factors that can sort of provide confounding elements.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It’s always fascinating, just when we think we know stuff, something comes up.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Finally, we’ve talked about this show before about that snowman shaped object in the Kuiper Belt, known as MU69, or some call it Ultima Thule, you know? And now, it’s got an official new name, right? It’s been just– tell us about that name.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: The name is Arrokoth. It’s awesome.

IRA FLATOW: I need some music, I think,–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Dun, dun, dun.

IRA FLATOW: –to make it dramatic. That’s right, dun, dun. Spell that for us.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Arrokoth is spelled A-R-R-O-K-O-T-H. And so the story here is that it’s not that it’s gotten a new name, it’s that it never got an official name. So Ultima Thule was a result of a sort of a poll. It was one of many propositions when this object was first chosen to be the next mission piece for New Horizons. So we have Ultima Thule won. So Ultima Thule won, but people weren’t so jazzed with this name, because it’s got Roman origins, meaning sort of a distant, cold place.

But it also has this unsavory connotation, that was actually first mentioned by Meghan Bartels, a science writer, who was originally at Newsweek and now at space.com. And so she found, basically, that neo-Nazis and Nazis were a fan of this name, Ultima Thule, and that it had some unsavory connotations. But Arrokoth, now the official name that is recognized, it’s a much better name. It’s actually a word meaning “from the sky”, from the Powhatan Nation, the Powhatan Nation in Virginia, and it’s actually quite a great name. I mean, I’m very happy with it.

IRA FLATOW: Was there a contest naming it, or did they just decide, you know, let’s go look for a better name?


RYAN MANDELBAUM: So this one was actually done in– I believe it was suggested, at first, by a professor, who is a member of the Pawhatan Nation, and then, in consultation with the nation’s Elder’a and representatives, was selected as the name. And so that for the Pawhatan Nation, it’s actually they use the Chesepeake Bay, traditionally, and so now, Hubble, as well as Johns Hopkins, where New Horizons, and a lot of this work has been done, is also in Maryland. And so it’s sort of a match up there.

IRA FLATOW: So they really did take into cultural concerns about Native Americans on this?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. I mean, it’s representation, obviously, which is great. It doesn’t negate all of the bad things that have been done to native people in all of history. And hopefully, this is a sign of more work that needs to be done. But, I mean, at least for now, we’ve got something. And that something it’s a pretty awesome sounding name. I mean, you got to admit that Arrokoth really cool.

IRA FLATOW: I’m waiting for the TV series to follow up about this one. Some new Star Trek episode, they’ll be going to some planet they’ve renamed, or they’ll be going to this object and landing on it, or something.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. And, I mean, just generally, this object, it’s really amazing. And it’s cool that the object has such a great name. Because I don’t know if you know much about the Kuiper Belt, I’m sure you do, is just that these are objects that are pristine, in the words of astrophysicists. They really preserve a history of the solar system from its most ancient times. They’ve been unaltered by the forces of nature that made Earth look the way it does. It’s very cool.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Ryan. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo in New York. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to take a break, and we’ll get to look at the EPA’s new proposal, what critics say could take the science out of the decision making process there. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

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