New, More Protective COVID Vaccines Are On The Way
Earlier this week, the FDA approved brand new COVID-19 vaccines from both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech that are designed to better protect people from the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants. At the same time, the U.S. is scaling back free testing and precautionary measures, putting more pressure on vaccines. Casey Crownhart, a climate and technology reporter at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about COVID updates and other science news of the week.
They also discuss how the U.S. is bracing for a record-breaking heatwave, the devastating floods in Pakistan, how the city of Jackson, MI ended up without running water, why Greenland’s “zombie ice” is causing concern, a massive investment in solar power, and a clue as to how the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza.
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Casey Crownhart is a climate reporter for MIT Technology Review in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, how the alien in the sci-fi thriller Nope was inspired by real sea creatures. And despite our fears, why we wouldn’t want a world without wasps. But first, there have been big developments on the COVID front, with updates about Omicron infections, testing, and a brand-new booster.
Here, with these and other science stories of the week, is Casey Crownhart, Climate and Technology Reporter at the MIT Technology Review. Casey is based in New York.
Welcome to Science Friday.
CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much, Ira. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s talk about a surprising new study about Omicron infections, about whether people knew they were infected.
CASEY CROWNHART: There was the study that just came out, where researchers followed a group of health care workers and patients at this hospital in California. And they found that, of the people that they tested regularly– they were taking blood samples– of about 200 people who had antibodies to the COVID virus in their blood, about half of those people weren’t aware that they had any recent COVID infection.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Why is this important to know?
CASEY CROWNHART: Especially with these new variants, we’re seeing more people either not have any symptoms at all or have really mild symptoms– that you might just think, oh, I have a headache or I have a little cold. But it really is a COVID infection. And so I think that that’s just becoming more common.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So people should be testing more, then, is what you’re saying?
CASEY CROWNHART: That’s ideal, yeah. So if you are feeling a little bit under the weather or had a recent exposure, it is still a good idea to be taking those rapid tests, if you can get them.
IRA FLATOW: And there’s bad news in that. The government is stopping those free at-home testing programs as of today, right?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So last Friday, the White House announced that they would be stopping the free testing program, where they’ve been sending out tests. And the last day to place orders is today.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. This sounds counterproductive to saying you want to get tested more often.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So unfortunately, they said that they just haven’t gotten enough funding from Congress to keep the program going. And there are other places for people to get tests– private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid. But as far as that stash that the government has, they say that they’re going to try and preserve what little they have for a fall and winter surge coming up.
IRA FLATOW: I see. And speaking of a fallen winter surge, there’s a brand new COVID vaccine out, right?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. So we’ve got new boosters that were authorized by the FDA this week– one from Moderna and one from Pfizer– kind of the big players in vaccines that a lot of people have gotten. And these are a little bit different. They’re called bivalent booster shots. And so that just means that there are two strains in the shots, both the original strain of COVID and the new Omicron variants that a lot of people are catching.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And I’m signing up today. I’m going to get one today.
CASEY CROWNHART: That’s exciting.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s hope that the vaccine helps contain the winter surge we’re expecting. But it’s probably not enough, right?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So that’s the tough thing. And we’ve known that for a little while– that vaccines are really good at preventing the worst effects of COVID– death and extreme illness– but they’re just really not that great at slowing down transmission anymore. And some experts say that even these bivalent booster shots probably won’t be enough to really stop people from catching and spreading mild cases of COVID.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to climate news, where we’re seeing incredible stories– regions across the globe are facing climate emergencies. Focusing on Pakistan especially, much of it is literally underwater.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So it’s been just really tough scenes to watch from Pakistan this week. The country has had a really, really wet summer and monsoon season. They’ve seen about three times as much average rainfall this year, from June to August, as they would in a normal year. But it really came to a head this past weekend. There was really extreme flooding. And now, about a third of the country’s under water.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And disasters like this are only getting worse. We’re seeing so many more mentions of them, aren’t we?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. And so researchers are still a little bit hesitant to say this is just because of climate change. But we know that a lot of the things that led to this flooding are becoming worse because of climate change. There was a lot of glacier melt in the country earlier this year. And we know that rising temperatures lead to more melting ice. And the monsoon season is also getting stronger. And we know that a lot of rising temperatures and more extreme rainfall is also because of climate change.
So we are seeing more disasters like this, and we are going to continue to.
IRA FLATOW: It is tragic. Are we seeing that countries, though, are stepping in to help Pakistan?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So there is some aid that’s starting to filter into the country. But the damages here are just about absolutely devastating. Over a million homes have been destroyed. And the Pakistan government says that it’s going to take about $10 billion to rebuild. It’s just there’s a huge need. The UN and Pakistan are still asking for more aid from countries. And it’s just going to be a long rebuilding process.
IRA FLATOW: So the big emitters are not paying for damages that climate change causes to the smaller ones. They’re not just moving in very quickly?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. You really hit the nail on the head there– that a lot of people when disasters like this come up, they point to the fact that countries like the US have done the majority of emissions for greenhouse gases and countries like Pakistan just haven’t. And so they’re still calling for climate aid, climate reparations. But we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another water story, but this is one that has a water shortage. And we covered this story last year, but it’s still a problem. And I’m talking about what’s going on in Jackson, Mississippi. Fill us in on the latest about what’s happening there.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So like you mentioned, Jackson’s water system has been just plagued with troubles for a long time. But it’s become a new emergency. This past weekend they actually also saw some torrential rain and flooding. And that really just brought the issue to a head. And the whole city has pretty much not had water from the taps for the past week or so.
IRA FLATOW: This just popped up into national significance, because we saw all that flooding. But the water problems in Jackson have been– well, they’ve been around for a long time.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. So a lot of people are pointing to the fact that Jackson is a majority Black city, and they’ve just been underfunded for a long time. And it’s really a case where you can point to and see environmental racism in effect. And it’s going to take a lot to really fix this. The city says they need about $1 billion just to fix the current problems. And then they’re going to need billions more for longer-term fixes.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of water, something a little more unusual– and I’m talking about something called zombie ice. What is it? How is it related to climate change? I see the TV series already coming up here.
CASEY CROWNHART: The Zombie Ice? Yes. So this is an unfortunately scary story. There was this new research came out this week that shows that Greenland’s melting ice sheet is going to eventually raise global sea levels by about 10.6 inches.
IRA FLATOW: Wow! 10.6 inches?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. And that’s globally. So that’s about twice as much as people thought before this study came out. And the reason, like you mentioned, is something that the researchers are calling zombie ice. Which is ice that hasn’t melted, but it’s ice that they’re expecting to melt. One of the researchers called it– to the Associated Press– one foot in the grave.
IRA FLATOW: That’s– I hate to say it– but to get attention to climate change, you’ve got to call something zombie something, right? And then people will pay attention to it.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. It did definitely feel a little bit like that– that everybody was really seized on this idea. But you know it’s unfortunately just one of those stories that shows how wild some of these challenges that we’re facing with climate change is. Even if we’re cutting emissions, a lot of these issues are kind of already baked in to how much temperatures have already risen.
IRA FLATOW: But there is some good news about climate change– or combating it. And that is about new investments in solar energy. Talk about that.
CASEY CROWNHART: We saw this week that this company called First Solar– and they’re the largest solar manufacturer in the US– they announced that they are investing about $1,000,000,000 in a new factory in the Southeast as well as expanding their capacity in Ohio. And this is a big deal because the US doesn’t really make a lot of solar panels. But we’re seeing that this, and some other announcements coming out, that more people are starting to build up that manufacturing capacity.
IRA FLATOW: Does the new Inflation Reduction Act play into this by encouraging these kinds of things?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So this announcement was probably in the works for a while. But the CEO, in his statement about this investment, did call out the Inflation Reduction Act by name. And so we will likely see a lot more investments and announcements like these, because manufacturers are getting really good credits in the Inflation Reduction Act. They get paid for every solar panel that they’re making. This is a really big climate bill that could help the US solar manufacturing get a lot more competitive.
IRA FLATOW: From what I hear, though, the same thing is happening with battery production.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. So many battery announcements the past few weeks. Toyota, Ford– a lot of vehicle manufacturers are announcing that they’re getting huge, huge new battery factories up and running. So it’s going to be a really exciting time to see how this plays out.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because the car makers are going to get a huge credit for building cars in the States, building electric cars.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: So you’ve got to have batteries for them.
Let’s wrap things up with one more story that helps answer one of the great mysteries of all time. And that is how the Pyramids of Giza were built. What’s the current thinking? What’s the new thinking?
CASEY CROWNHART: I love this story. So for a long time, scientists thought that there needed to be some sort of river or water in order to help build the Pyramids, to move those giant bricks around. But they weren’t really sure how that would have been possible, because the Nile today is miles away from where the Pyramids are. But there were these documents– or these papyrus fragments– that mentioned rivers being used to transport the bricks.
These researchers went looking for evidence of where the river used to be. And they drilled down into the soil and found evidence of plants going back thousands and thousands of years, and were able to figure out that there did used to be a branch of the Nile River that went right by the Pyramids.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So no one’s in denial about de Nile.
I got to sneak that in somehow. So what’s left to solving the mystery, then, of the Pyramids?
CASEY CROWNHART: There’s a surprising amount of things we don’t know about the Pyramids. So one story that is still ongoing is there are giant voids in some of the Pyramids. These might be rooms. We just don’t really a lot about how the Pyramids were constructed, what exactly was going on there, and even what’s in there today. So there’s still a lot to figure out.
IRA FLATOW: And one more thing– a reminder, right? Keep your fingers crossed. Tomorrow, NASA is going to try launching Artemis to the Moon again. Are you excited, Casey?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, I’m really excited to watch this launch. It’s going to be tomorrow afternoon, hopefully. They should be able to take off and send Artemis 1 up to orbit the Moon.
IRA FLATOW: I just hope those 100,000 people who missed it last time might get to see it again. Maybe there’s a lot of hotel rooms that were filled up.
Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me. It was so fun.
IRA FLATOW: Casey Crownhart is a Climate and Technology Reporter at the MIT Technology Review. Casey is based in New York.
Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.