Behind The FDA’s Decision To Vaccinate Kids Under 12
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.
This week, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids under 12 was officially recommended by the CDC, after a unanimous vote from its independent advisory committee and the FDA’s authorization based on safety and efficacy data.
In their analysis, the FDA said the benefits of the vaccine “clearly outweigh” the risks. The risks, which were referenced in a cost-benefit examination of the data, included circumstances that popped up in the study that were unrelated to getting the vaccine (like a broken arm and an accidentally swallowed penny that occurred during the observational period).
As parents around the U.S. race to find appointments, Ira talks to science journalist Maggie Koerth about the safety data and what’s next for parents of young kids, including those under 5.
They also discuss a NASA test of a system to defend the planet from killer asteroids, a new prediction that climate change will change the availability of food crops within the next ten years, and other science news headlines.
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Ira Flatow and the Staff and Board of Science Friday
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. Today marks another milestone in our three decades of this program. Well, actually, two milestones. First, we’re back live on the air for the first time in 18 months, broadcasting from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. But an even bigger deal is that it’s our birthday. Yay!
As of November 8, Science Friday has been on the air for 30 years now, and we’ve got one heck of a highlight reel to show for it. We’ll listen to that a bit later in the hour. But first, many children and their parents were anxiously awaiting this week for CDC approval of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for children ages five to 11.
IRA FLATOW: That was the sound at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut when the announcement came out Tuesday night from the CDC. Eight-year-old friends Addison Woodman and Caitlin Cronin were in that group of kids, some of the first in the country to get the vaccine, and they had advice for other young people.
SPEAKER: I think getting your cavity filled hurts more than the shot. I just got my cavity filled. It hurts way more than getting a shot for 30 seconds.
IRA FLATOW: Seven-year-old Karim Umair, who was first in line for the shot, had this message.
KARIM UMAIR: Don’t be afraid. It’s for the sake of the world. So I say, don’t be afraid, and just do it.
IRA FLATOW: His voice is courtesy reporter Nicole Leonard at Connecticut Public Radio. Here to talk more about the pediatric vaccine approval, and other recent science stories, Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight. She’s based in Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi, thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you, as always. Now, we have vaccines available for another age group, so that’s great. It sounds like some long-awaited good news for parents and children.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, it absolutely is. In fact, as soon as I get off the phone with you guys, I am taking my kids in to get their shots.
IRA FLATOW: You’re kidding. Really? Wow.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: How did that feel? How did it feel?
MAGGIE KOERTH: It feels really, really good. It feels relieving, and it feels like we’re going to be able to have a little bit more normal of our lives back.
IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific to hear. Can you give us an idea of how they decided, why they decided to do the kid shots now?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Sure can. So I think one of the things that was most interesting to me about this is that, this decision was based on the results of Pfizer’s clinical trial. But it was also based on this independent, FDA analysis that really looked at the cost-benefit balance. So they were considering both that Pfizer finding, that its vaccine is 91% effective at preventing COVID 19 in kids ages 5 to 11, alongside both of the risks of severe illness, and the risks of this mild, rare, vaccine side effect that caused heart inflammation in particularly young men.
Pfizer’s data included no instances of that heart inflammation in kids 5 to 11, and that’s despite it probably occurring an estimated 71.5 cases per million 16 and 17-year-old boys vaccinated. But the FDA concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweighed those risks. Even if the number of kids hospitalized for heart inflammation exceeded the number of kids hospitalized for COVID, getting vaccinated would still be worth it, because being hospitalized for this heart inflammation is just that much less risky than ending up hospitalized for COVID.
IRA FLATOW: So they did the cost-benefit analysis, and now parents can make appointments for their kids. Is it that simple?
MAGGIE KOERTH: I mean, it depends on where you are. I had a little bit of trouble trying to track some things down here, and kind of got lucky with one of the state vaccine clinics. But even as I was kind of going through that, times were disappearing as I was in the process of trying to snag one. Which honestly, I kind of take as a good feeling. People are wanting to get this, and that’s wonderful.
IRA FLATOW: Sounds like when the original vaccine came out, that’s what was happening. Let’s move on to another topic, climate change. As we’ve mentioned, the international COP26 climate change summit is on in Glasgow right now. But back at home, some bad news about agriculture in the coming decade. Tell us about that.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so there’s a new climate modeling study that’s researchers at NASA did that found that the impacts of climate change could hit global agriculture way earlier than previously predicted. So the same team did modeling back in 2014, and they had, at the time, found that global corn yields would continue rising just by less through the end of this century. But this new projection is showing yields falling by more than 20% in that same time frame. And meanwhile, some equatorial regions that are really heavily corn-dependent, places like Central America for instance, they could see yields of corn falling within the next 10 to 20 years.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s just due to climate change.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So this is– the change between those two different projections has to do with better crop models than we used to have, but it’s also about the fact that these trends and warming and rainfall are happening faster than we previously expected them to, and those changes are going to end up affecting different regions and different crops in different ways. So while corn is really losing productivity, the same model is also predicting that wheat production in higher latitudes will increase, at least for a little while, as rising temperatures make that plant more viable further North.
IRA FLATOW: Isn’t that interesting? And of course, this will all translate to hunger and food insecurity in some places. It’s not just an abstract, now.
MAGGIE KOERTH: No, no, not at all. Especially not for equatorial regions, tropical regions of the world that are going to be heating up beyond the point that their staple crops can stand a lot faster.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s move on to some more uplifting news. And it’s kind of interesting. NASA news. NASA is about to test our ability to deflect dangerous asteroids from Earth. I’ve seen the movie a few times on this one.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right, yeah, yeah. It is the year 2021, and humans are testing our abilities to successfully divert a killer asteroid by intentionally crashing something into it. And I absolutely love this system, because it’s both wildly futuristic, and also very like, Og hits thing with rock. But in this case, Og hitting the thing with an unmanned spacecraft.
So this spacecraft, the DART craft, is going to launch later this month. It will not be colliding with its intended target for about a year. That target is an asteroid called Dimorphos, and it’s not a threat to Earth in any way, but it is something that is in near enough Earth orbit that we can observe it with Earth-based telescopes, and be able to measure how much we successfully budged it over after our spacecraft rams into it at 15,000 miles an hour.
IRA FLATOW: But ramming into it– the aim of it is not to split it up into parts, right?
MAGGIE KOERTH: No, the aim is just to shove it over.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, so let’s launch rocket, bump asteroid, see what happens.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Kind of, yeah. Yeah. And for context, this asteroid is about the size of the Statue of Liberty, or maybe the Pyramids of Giza, and the spacecraft itself is about the size of a fridge.
IRA FLATOW: So there’s no worry here about the asteroids hitting the Earth more than we already worry about that. So it’s not going to increase that chance.
MAGGIE KOERTH: No, there’s no reason to worry about that any more than we already do. One of the interesting things that I learned doing this research on this piece was that the last significant impact in 100 years that we’ve had happened in 2013, and that was when an asteroid the size of a small building burned up in the sky above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. So it kind of gives you an idea of how big an asteroid has to be before we even worry about it, when an asteroid the size of a building is just a really cool dashcam video.
IRA FLATOW: No Tunguska here.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right.
IRA FLATOW: So we don’t have to worry about that. And your next story is about whales. And what’s interesting about it is that we know they’re big, we know they eat a lot, but it turns out they eat a lot of a lot.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. So just, side note before we get into this, I had not processed fully until this week that blue whales are bigger than the biggest dinosaurs were, which is just wild. And part of–
IRA FLATOW: We’ve got to get you out to the American Museum of Natural History, here.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Apparently we do. I don’t know how that hadn’t stuck in my brain yet after all these years, but oh my gosh. And this is really all about how much it takes to feed a creature like that, which is lots and lots and lots, especially because its food is this very, very tiny crustacean called a krill. And scientists had assumed that because many of these giant whales were killed by humans over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, that krill populations would be just exploding, because we had so many fewer of their predators.
But that didn’t happen. And now researchers think it’s because of this really interesting food cycle loop, where the lack of iron-rich whale poop, which fed the phytoplankton, which fed the krill, means that even though there are fewer giant whales eating krill, there’s not enough whale poop to sustain higher krill populations without them.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So what this research is really saying, then, is that the whaling industry disrupted the entire ocean ecosystem? All that poop that did not get turned back into krill?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Exactly. Yeah, these cycles are much more complex than we give them credit for.
IRA FLATOW: You know, conservationists get flak sometimes for focusing maybe more on whales than other less, charismatic animals, but maybe they’re into something here, if there’s so much of that these whales eating and pooping can affect.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right, yeah. It’s not just the whales. It’s also about like these tiny creatures that– some of which we can’t even see really with the naked eye.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And we got just about a minute for your last story. It’s really interesting. Hydrogels. Tell us, what is a hydrogel?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, it’s a stretchy, water-absorbing material that could replace damaged human tissues and things like knee joints. They have been imperfect in the past, kind of too brittle, and they lose elasticity over time. But now there are some researchers at Harvard who think they figured out how to make one that’s stronger and longer-lasting, and they did it by basically changing the microscopic structure of these materials from something that looks like fish netting, to something that looks a lot more like interwoven fabric.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, I’ve been following high aerogels for years. We used to call them “aerogel solid smoke,” because they’re so lightweight, right? And sort of–
MAGGIE KOERTH: Ooh, cool.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So we’ve got all kinds of stuff we can do with this that we don’t know about yet, right?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right, yeah. I mean, the kind of thing people talk about it a lot is as a replacement for knee joints, or all these human tissues. And this stuff is strong enough that it can lift small weights, and so that’s a really big advance in what these things can do.
IRA FLATOW: Maggie, always great to have you.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s great to be back.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you again. But Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight. She joined us live from Minneapolis.
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.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.