Travel Bans Do Little To Slow Spread Of Omicron

10:18 minutes

a purple and yellow roller suitcase in an airport with an airplane in the background
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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.

After South African researchers first detected the new COVID-19 variant Omicron last week, it’s already been found in dozens of countries around the world, including in the United States. Travel restrictions imposed by the Biden administration and others have done little to slow its spread. Instead, experts say that increasing global vaccination rates is critical to stopping future troubling mutations from occurring and spreading. 

In other news, scientists are re-testing a foundational piece of science, the Miller-Urey experiment, first conducted in 1952, which simulated how life on Earth could have originated. Scientists are questioning their old assumptions that the glass container in the original experiment was inert. 

Joining Ira to talk through these and other big science stories of the week is Sophie Bushwick, Technology editor at Scientific American.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Coming up later this hour, we’ll talk with consumer advocate Ralph Nader about the history and future of auto safety. But first, it’s been a little more than a week since we first heard about the omicron variant of COVID, and it’s already been found in dozens of countries around the world and in several states and communities across the US despite new travel restrictions imposed by the Biden administration meant to slow its spread. Here with the details and other news of the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Welcome back, Sophie.


IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about this. A few days ago, we heard about the first US case of COVID-19 with the omicron variant. But today, we’re hearing reports of cases in different parts of the country from people who have traveled and those who have not. What do we know about the spread of this variant?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So we first found out about the first case of omicron in the US being in California, but almost immediately afterward we started hearing about more cases. There was a man from Minnesota who had traveled to New York for a convention who was then found to have omicron. So it’s very possible that he interacted with people there, and it could have spread there as well. The idea that we haven’t found people yet doesn’t mean that it’s not already here. It’s probably much more widespread than we are aware of at this point in time.

IRA FLATOW: Among the policies that the Biden administration rolled out in response was a push for insurance companies to reimburse at-home rapid tests. This is something that European countries have already been doing, haven’t they?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. European countries have rapid tests available for very cheap prices, only a few dollars. So that makes it a lot easier to do frequent testing and test yourself from home. In the US the tests are more expensive, and they’re not as accessible. So even this new push to have insurance companies reimburse people, that’s great, but getting reimbursement from an insurance company is not most people’s favorite thing to do. It’s not as convenient as it could be. So that will probably still be a slight barrier to people buying these tests, although it does make them more available to people who really want them.

IRA FLATOW: The administration has also increased travel restrictions, including from Southern Africa where the variant was first found. Is that the best policy if we clearly already have the variant spreading in the US?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It reminds me a little bit of the very beginning of the pandemic, where people were talking about travel bans. But at that point, the virus was already in the US. And that’s probably what’s happening here. Omicron, just because we haven’t had many detected cases of it yet doesn’t mean it’s not here. And so travel bans aren’t necessarily going to keep it out of the country.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie, instead of the travel ban, what would be a more effective plan?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So if we want to stop variants like omicron from arising in the first place, it’s vital to make sure that people all over the world have access to vaccines. So on the continent of Africa, it’s estimated that only about 7% of the population is fully vaccinated. And so when you’ve got a large unvaccinated population, this is an opportunity for the virus to mutate and for new variants to arise. So it’s really important that wealthy countries like the US make vaccines available to countries in Africa and other places where vaccination rates are very low.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, we’ll have more coverage as the situation warrants and also coverage on our website at sciencefriday.com. I want to move on to another story that is really dear to my heart, the Miller-Urey experiment. That’s a piece of science history that’s back in the news this week. It’s a famous experiment from 1952 that was meant to demonstrate how life on Earth could have originated, sort of what they used to call chemical evolution. Now researchers want to do it again, a redo. Sophie, remind us about that original experiment and why they want to redo this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The original experiment, they put some chemicals that represented the kind of chemicals that were available on the early Earth into this glass flask. And then they shot sparks, added in an imitation of lightning hitting those minerals. And what they found was they did end up getting organic compounds rising, including amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. So this experiment was groundbreaking in demonstrating that life could have arisen through that type of interaction on early Earth.

But the problem was that glass container that they put their materials in. A lot of science experiments use glass because it’s considered inert. It doesn’t interact with what’s inside it. But what was inside it in this case, it had a basic pH. And that means it could have leached some silica from the glass into the container, and that would have interacted and contributed.

So this new experiment tried to see how much the glass contributed. So they tried the Miller-Urey experiment with a glass flask, but also with a Teflon flask that wouldn’t interact as much with the material it was containing and with a Teflon flask that just had a little bit of glass in it. And they found that, sure enough, they got the most organic compounds when they had that glass container, which suggests the glass was contributing to that formation.

IRA FLATOW: Does this mean we change our view about chemical evolution and the early formation of life on Earth?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Not really. This is more a case of changing the conditions slightly. We’re still expecting to see the same result out of the experiment, just a more accurate idea of how life on Earth originated, but not a radical change.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something else we’ve been talking about a lot lately, and that’s battery technology as the US tries to expand renewable energy and put more electric cars on the road. But that means we’ll need more lithium. And there’s a new plan to get it domestically from power plant waste. Tell us about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Right now the US imports most of its lithium from overseas. But one side effect when you have geothermal plants– so geothermal power plant is pulling water up from deep inside the Earth. And that water, when it’s done being harvested for power, you’ve got wastewater, which still has a lot of minerals from underground, including lithium. Just one geothermal power plant in California ends up having 600,000 tons of lithium per year in its wastewater, and that would be enough to supply the entire US. The question is, can we get all that lithium out, and can we do it cheaply enough to make this process of harvesting lithium from wastewater more cost effective than importing it?

IRA FLATOW: And we get our lithium now from sources that are really not very good pollution-wise, correct?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, a lot of lithium is mined in China, and a lot of lithium mining processes produce a lot of waste. So the idea of using this water that is already wastewater and then harvesting the materials from it is really appealing.

IRA FLATOW: Our next story also has to do with electric cars, but it’s not about the batteries that power them. It’s about the microchips that run them. And we know we don’t have enough lithium for batteries or enough microprocessors– the chip shortage.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. The chip shortage has been a problem for a while now, and a lot of semiconductor manufacturers have prioritized getting chips to electronics companies and not to automakers. But a car, even a non-electric car, can have 1,000 semiconductor chips in it. And so without those chips, there’s been a lot of issues in the automaking industry. In particular, because electric vehicles use more chips than the standard car– they could use as much as twice as many– a lot of car companies are saying they’re going to have to delay their ambitious plans to roll out electric vehicles and to have a greater number of these on the road because they just don’t have enough chips for it.

IRA FLATOW: And this is also part of a plan by the Biden administration and also other technologists who’ve talked about America becoming sort of chip independent. We could produce our own chips and not rely on China or other countries.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. There has been a push for that. There is an act called the CHIPS for America Act. CHIP stands for Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors. And the idea is that you would put money into a domestic semiconductor chip industry, and we could bring some of that production to the US where it wouldn’t be subject to the same volume of supply chain issues.

IRA FLATOW: Finally, we love space news, especially when there’s the chance we’ve located a new exoplanet. And I understand that there is a new one that’s almost pure iron, actually molten iron– really hot stuff.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. This is a really cool planet that orbits its star at a distance of just a million kilometers. And it’s also tidally locked, which means the same side of the planet is always facing its star. And that side is incredibly hot. They think it’s 1,500 degrees Celsius. And so it’s got this ocean of magma on one side of the planet. And they also think that the bulk of this planet is made of iron. So it could be this molten iron planet orbiting this strange star.

IRA FLATOW: And we haven’t seen anything like this before. This is a unique exoplanet.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We actually have seen some small iron-rich planets, but the discovery of this one gives researchers another opportunity to try to figure out how do planets like this form? So some of them think it might once upon a time have been a gas giant. But because it’s so close to its star, that gas could have burnt off and left only this hot iron core behind. Or it could have been formed– like some researchers have theorized, our own mercury formed with the idea that there was a collision that helped create it.

IRA FLATOW: And I understand it really orbits quickly around its sun.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It is zipping along. It does an orbit in about eight hours. So it is a molten iron planet with a magma ocean just speeding around in space.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. This is really cool, or I guess I should say this is really hot.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] It is. It is the definition of really hot.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Sophie. It’s always great to have you.


IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American.

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