FDA Approves COVID Vaccines For Kids Under Five
Parents of young kids may finally breathe a big sigh of relief.
On Friday the FDA granted emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines for kids under the age of five. The agency approved a two-dose regimen from biotech firm Moderna and three-dose regimen from Pfizer. Small children could begin getting vaccinated as early as next week.
Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins Ira to talk about COVID vaccines for little kids, the largest forest fire in New Mexico’s history and a google engineer who claims an AI chatbot is sentient and more.
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Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about the potential ramifications of an overturn of Roe v. Wade on in vitro fertilization, and we’ll be answering your questions live on the air so, give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us @SciFri.
But first, big news on the COVID vaccine front, where parents and caregivers of young kids may finally breathe a big sigh of relief. The FDA has approved COVID-19 vaccines for kids under the age of 5. Today, the FDA granted emergency use authorization for the vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna. Joining me now to unpack this latest vaccine news and talk about other top science stories this week is my guest, Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox based in Washington. Welcome back to Science Friday, Umair.
UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me back.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about these newly approved vaccines for young kids and infants. Tell us about that.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, so this has been a long time coming. And that’s largely because adults were, frankly, a higher priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, very young children have faced lower risk from the disease, but that low risk is not zero. We’ve had close to 400 children up to the age of four die from COVID-19 in the United States.
And so this is still an important gap. There’s about 18 million children, and now finally the regulators say that they have enough data. But it required the manufacturers to sort of tweak their formulation because a lot of immunologists will tell you, kids are not little adults. And so they had to retest these vaccines at lower doses to make sure that they didn’t cause more severe side effects.
So the Pfizer vaccine is actually administered as three doses at 1/10 of the adult dose for children under 5, whereas the Moderna vaccine is administered at 1/4 of the adult dose over 2 doses.
IRA FLATOW: And how soon could these be available?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, now that the FDA has approved it, the Centers for Disease Control has to put out its guidelines. But very likely, it could be as soon as Tuesday, because Monday is a federal holiday. And White House advisors have said that states around the country and other local health departments have already begun to preorder these vaccines, and so they could be available right away. And regulators and health officials say that over the next few weeks, just about any parent who wants to get their child vaccinated will be able to do so.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s certainly good news for them. And it’s important for little kids to get vaccinated, right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. You know, I mentioned that kids can still get sick and die from this disease, but also kids play an important role in transmission. As kids are going to be going back to school and interacting with each other, they can spread the disease to each other and then also spread it to other family members. So the more people that we get vaccinated and that are closed off as routes of transmission, the less likely it is that we will see more major outbreaks, and we will also lower the risk of other more dangerous variants coming to fruition.
IRA FLATOW: It has taken quite some time, has it not, to get these vaccines to kids under 5? Why is that?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, you know, I mean– again, because adults are at greater risk, the priority was trying to get older people vaccinated. But it’s also trickier to vaccinate and do just clinical research in general on young children. I mean, babies are nonverbal, so how do you get notice about side effects or any kind of complications that they’re experiencing?
And similarly, parents are much more reluctant to enter their young children into clinical trials, and so it’s a much narrower, much more finicky pool of subjects that you have to study, and you have to be a lot more careful working with children. And so researchers have had to really be delicate in conducting these trials. And it’s taken a long time to get this information to the point where they think that this is safe and effective.
IRA FLATOW: Good point. Let’s talk about vaccines, a different one. This next story is about another vaccine that’s been around a little longer than the one for COVID, and I’m talking, of course, the flu shot. Now it appears that researchers in Australia looked at how exercise influences immune response to the flu shot, that right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. I read this piece by Belinda Smith at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and she wrote about this study that looked at 550 adults between the ages of 18 and 87. And researchers studied their immune response to the influenza shot, specifically looking at their antibodies. These are the proteins your immune system uses to target the virus.
Now, they found that looking at younger adults between 18 and 35, they found that young adults tend to have higher baseline levels of antibodies, so exercise didn’t seem to have as big an effect on them. But as people get older, their immune systems sort of get weaker over time, and it turns out exercise actually gives you a pretty substantial boost. And the researchers found that those who met the WHO, the World Health Organization’s recommended amount of weekly physical activity, they were more likely to quadruple their antibody levels in their blood compared to people who were inactive.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So of course, we want to know why that is. Do we or the researchers know why?
UMAIR IRFAN: No, and that’s not quite clear yet. This is sort of an association study. We don’t know what the mechanism is. It could be that your body is stressed by exercise, the tiny tears you get when you lift weights or the strain on your lungs from running, that might prime your body to be more ready to produce antibodies and other kinds of immune response, but it could also be that the kind of people that get more exercise are generally healthier to begin with and have a much more robust immune system, so that’s going to take a while to tease out. But what they did find is that the type of exercise does matter, that strength and resistance training led to a higher immune response than, say, 45 minutes on an exercise bike. So this is just a general vote of confidence for getting a lot of exercise and its role in public health.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s pivot now away from vaccines and viruses to wildfires. The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history is raging at this moment, but it was partially ignited on purpose. What’s going on there?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right, yeah. My colleague Neel Dhanesha just wrote a piece about this on Vox and yeah, this was a result of two deliberately ignited prescribed burns. And these fires basically ran out of control. They merged and have converged to become the largest fire in New Mexico’s history, larger than about 320,000 acres.
But the logic there was that by conducting these controlled burns, forest managers are hoping to reduce the risk of major dangerous wildfires, because fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. And as humans have suppressed them for generations, that’s actually increased the risk of dangerous fires. And so the thinking is that by having these deliberate fires periodically, we can mitigate that risk over time. But the risk is not zero, even when you’re doing these controlled burns. And as average temperatures rise, as drought conditions continue to be severe– there’s a massive drought across the Western United States– the window for conducting these burns safely is shrinking. And so there’s sort of a tension here, that we need fires to help mitigate the risk, but the opportunities we have for conducting them are also shrinking.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I imagine they’ll be looking carefully into what happened.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. The US Forest Service put a pause on all prescribed burns right now, but other forest managers throughout the country are worried that we’re going to miss the opportunity to conduct controlled burns and other parts of the country where the risks may be lower and the benefits may be larger. So there’s a huge trade off here.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they’re not thinking of doing away with the burns, but how to do them more carefully, what happened here.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, exactly. And so they’re talking to local officials. And one of the more interesting things that developments we’ve seen is the use of Indigenous burning practices. So the Native Americans who have lived in these areas have often conducted prescribed burns on their own for cultural reasons, and there’s been this push to bring that knowledge back to land managers and also to help reconcile with some of the historical injustices those people have faced.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move to more of a nature, interesting nature story. It’s one about changing climate wreaking havoc on the natural world, and I’m talking about a story about how a warming climate has altered the genes, altered the genes of the purple crowned fairy wrens in Australia. And if you don’t know what these are, I urge you to Google them. The purple crowned fairy wrens, they’re beautiful, but the genes are being altered by climate change?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yes and yes. I mean, indeed these are gorgeous birds, and it would be a tragedy to lose them. I read about this in a piece by Mickey Perkins at The Age. And so these researchers in Australia, they studied these birds over 17 years. And they were looking specifically at a segment of their DNA called telomeres. So these are kind of like extensions of DNA at the ends of strands. Think of like the aglets at the end of shoelaces.
And generally, they’re very long early in life. And over the life of time of an organism, they shrink. So they sort of are sort of a proxy for aging. If telomeres get too short, there’s too many genetic mistakes as an organism replicates, and that leads to aging. But what these researchers found is that periods of hot, dry weather led these birds to be born with much shorter telomeres. So effectively, they were genetically aging at a much faster pace.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
UMAIR IRFAN: And now the researchers project that as average temperatures continue to rise and as parts of the world become more arid, this will start to have a genetic consequence in this bird population and lead to more declines.
IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting, sort of an epigenetic thing going on there. OK, I want to see if I can get to our last story, and maybe a bonus one we can throw in before we run out of time, because this is a bit of a wild ride. A Google engineer believes that the AI chatbot LaMDA is sentient. What’s going on there?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Nitasha Tiku at The Washington Post wrote a profile of this engineer. His name is Blake Lemoine. And he has been interacting with this chatbot for the past few months, and internally raised concerns that he believes that this is sentient.
But that sparked a huge disagreement within the company. Google researchers looked into it and their team, the other researchers there concluded that they weren’t true, or actually that the chatbot wasn’t sentient. And because of that disagreement, they put Lemoine on paid administrative leave and then he decided to go public with this information and try to raise this alarm bell to the general public to say that essentially we may have something that may be conscious in a way that we may have never created before.
IRA FLATOW: And many other researchers are wading into this, right, into the debate.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Some researchers disagree but about whether or not this specific chatbot was sentient, but a lot of them are saying that this is an important warning sign, that the tipping point for an AI that is self-aware maybe closer than we realize, and we really need to start coming up with answers to hard questions now, like how do you even determine that it’s sentient? What are your obligations to it? What if you’re wrong?
And then who gets to make all these decisions? Is this a product, if something is alive, of a private company like Google? Does the public have an interest in keeping something like this going? I mean, it’s hard to say, but we need to answer them now.
IRA FLATOW: But yeah, and putting the kibosh on talking about it, I thought that was very unusual because I think if a tenured professor at a university had said this, we’d still be talking about it.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. I mean, I think it also shows the tension. I think Google realizes the implications of what might happen if they have some software that may have a public interest. And so I think that there is that tension there, that when you have a private company that has something that can have huge social consequences, you really need to start thinking about that.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let me see if I can squeeze my last topic in there, because I love it. As temperatures are soaring in Texas, renewable energy has filled in the gaps to prop up the stressed power grid. Tell us about that.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, this is particularly true in Texas, which you may know, has a sort of an isolated grid from the rest of the country, so they really need to generate all their own power that they need. And you may remember the blackouts we had first year. And so people were worried that that would happen this summer because there was a lot of outages on the grid, and that this summer is supposed to be really hot. But even though Texas faced a heat wave this week and record power demand, it turns out renewable energy actually came to the rescue. So this Sunday, which had a record heat energy demand, renewable energy, wind and solar, provided close to 40% of the electricity on Texas’s power grid.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, isn’t that amazing? Where all that oil comes from, they relied on all that power, all that–
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, I mean, Texas is the largest wind energy producer in the country, so people kind of miss that part of the story, too, sometimes.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, great story, Umair. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.
We have to take a break. And when we come back, we’ll be talking about the impact of Roe v. Wade, overturning of IVF, and the science behind fertility. We’re going to talk about it. Our number is 844-724-8255. If you’d like to join the discussion, please, 844-724-8255. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.