12/11/2020

COVID-19 Vaccinations Begin In The U.K.

12:07 minutes

woman nurse giving older woman a vaccine shot, both wearing masks
90 year old Margaret Keenan, the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020, administered by nurse May Parsons at University Hospital, Coventry, England. Credit: Shutterstock

This story is 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, the U.K. began its vaccination effort against COVID-19 with Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old woman from Coventry, becoming the first U.K. resident to receive the shot. She received a first dose of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, and will require a second dose in several weeks to achieve the full effect. 

Nations around the world are racing to implement vaccination programs. The clinical use of the vaccine in the U.K. came just six days after the vaccine obtained emergency approval. This week, Canada also gave emergency approval to the Pfizer approach, and could start vaccinations next week. And the FDA is meeting this week to examine trial data and could soon approve treatments here.  

Sophie Bushwick of Scientific American joins guest host John Dankosky to talk about the vaccination effort and other stories from the week in science, including the return to Earth of asteroid material sampled by the Hayabusa2 mission, the finding that human-made stuff now outweighs all living things on Earth, and an advance in bionic eye development.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

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

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. Later this hour, it’s the one-year anniversary of Europe’s historic climate proposal. We’ll take stock of where things stand and what the US can learn.

But first, this week, the UK began its vaccination effort against COVID-19. And eyes in the US were on the FDA, which is weighing emergency approval for several vaccines. Yesterday, an outside advisory panel recommended that the Pfizer vaccine receive that emergency authorization.

In a statement today, the FDA said it would rapidly work toward finalization and issuance of an emergency use authorization. Here to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Welcome back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the first regular people– and not part of an experimental trial– got COVID vaccines in the UK this week. How’s that going so far?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So far, it does seem to be going well. Although, there was a slight hiccup with people who have allergies. So there has been a couple allergic reactions to the vaccine in people who already have severe allergies.

And so there’s now a recommendation that people with severe allergies should maybe avoid the vaccine and rely on herd immunity. But so far, the people who have had reactions have recovered. So it’s unclear. I think we’ll learn more as more people get vaccinated.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s to be expected, that there will be some side effects as we start to see more people vaccinated.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So Canada also approved that same vaccine from Pfizer. And yesterday, an FDA advisory committee voted to recommend its approval. So it seems, Sophie, like things are looking good here.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. I’m cautiously optimistic. It does seem that this particular vaccine is going to be approved in the United States, as well. And hopefully, other vaccines will follow. Because we’re just going to need a really high volume of vaccine doses and of people getting vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.

JOHN DANKOSKY: With so much attention being paid to this Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, I think people might forget that there are others out there, as well, getting developed. And we got some not-so-good vaccine news today from pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline. They announced a delay to their project after their vaccine did not appear to work well in older adults. That’s probably some other news that we will be seeing over time. Some of these drugs maybe not working as well as other, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important that we have as many options as we do– that there are a lot of different companies trying to develop these vaccines. Because some of them are not going to work. And it’s best that we don’t try to push a vaccine that’s ineffective or that has really bad side effects. So the fact that there is such a race in this field to achieve a working vaccine is good, because it gives us a wider range of options.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And we’ll be talking more about vaccine distribution in the US and some of the challenges that we’ll be facing coming up later this hour. Now, one of the big things right now before everyone’s been vaccinated is following some of the restrictions. And you’ve got a story this week about who is and who isn’t likely to comply and why. Maybe you can tell us about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So researchers surveyed about 60,000 people living in 30 countries to try to figure out, what is underlying this refusal to follow public health guidelines such as wearing a mask and keeping your distance from people? And they made a few interesting conclusions. One was that as much as we’ve been tsk-tsking this idea that young people are disregarding coronavirus rules, the fact is that this is not related to age.

One big indicator is, all of these countries, the majority of people thought that economic damage from lockdowns was something to worry about more than the risk of actually getting COVID. So that shows that one of the motivations for maybe going out and continuing life is that you have to work. And so if you want to be able to combat that, you need to make sure that people are provided for economically.

Another issue is something that we’ve seen throughout, which is that political polarization absolutely plays a role. In the United States, people who identify as conservative are more likely to flout the rules and consider that they’re not necessary. And part of that is due to political messaging from people on the conservative side of the spectrum.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So political messaging is going to be really important. And just more informational messaging– that’s one of the ways to improve compliance.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. Transparency is important, because trust in the source of the information is going to play a big role in whether people are willing to go along with it. So for people who have had a higher trust in government, they were more likely to follow the government’s rules about this.

JOHN DANKOSKY: All right, let’s turn away from Earth for a second. This week, there was a homecoming for a space capsule that was returning from an asteroid. So tell us about this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is very exciting. The Hayabusa2 mission returned a capsule this past weekend that contained samples of the asteroid Ryugu. And this is only the second time that we’ve had samples from an asteroid return.

The first time was the first Hayabusa mission. And one of the cool things that researchers are hoping to figure out from these samples has to do with the origin of a type of tiny rock called a chondrule, which these chondrules are found in meteorites and asteroids. And the question is, how did they form? And the answer could tell us how the planets in our solar system formed, as well.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And this is something that people have been studying for quite some time. One of the interesting things in the story that you brought us is almost everybody who studies these things has a different idea about where they come from, what they mean.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. And some of the ideas for how they might have formed are very cool. Like, one idea is that there may have been lightning that struck dust and fused it into these chondrules. Another idea is that there were pressure waves in this cloud of cosmic dust that kind of pushed them together.

And these are pretty small objects we’re talking about. They range from maybe a couple millimeters wide to so small that you need a microscope to see them. But they are so common in asteroids and meteorites but not in planets. So by studying them, researchers can learn more about what was going on in the early solar system. Because these objects date back about 4.5 billion years.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to talk about your next story, which is really cool. It’s about an improved bionic eye. I didn’t know that bionic eyes were so well developed.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Bionic eyes are still in their early stages. But this project is definitely a step forward, I would say. It was tested in two monkeys.

And the concept behind a bionic eye is that you can put electrodes either on the surface of or slightly in the visual cortex of the brain and use them to stimulate the brain and to make the person to whom that brain belongs “see” something. I say see in quote marks, because you don’t necessarily even actually have to have a camera to do this. You could be stimulating the electrode artificially.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So do we know what sort of shapes people would actually be able to see? Again, these are monkeys where these tests are being done. But what exactly would this vision look like?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this particular study is a new one from researchers in the Netherlands. And it involved stimulating monkeys’ brains. And actually, they could see letters.

So the monkeys were trained to recognize letters. And then the electrodes in their brains were stimulated to create the shape of those letters. And they were able to recognize it, which is very cool.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m showing my age here. But I think about the Six Million Dollar Man and his bionic eye. So maybe we’ll get there someday.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There’s bionic eye projects out there– so maybe someday in the distant future.

JOHN DANKOSKY: In the distant future. Now, we know that rest is important. But you’ve got a story about how rest might be important even if you’re artificial intelligence.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is very interesting. Researchers are trying to develop artificial intelligences, these neural networks, that actually mimic– they work similarly to the way that human brains work. So we’re not talking about all AIs here. We’re talking about a specific type of AI.

And researchers were studying it. And they found that it started hallucinating almost. It started creating these random images sort of like the way that a human being who is extremely sleep deprived might hallucinate and have an issue like this. But they could sort of reset the AI by playing a static noise through it sort of the way that deep sleep moves through the human brain. And when they did this, the AI recovered, so to speak, and functioned better again.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So that makes so much sense from a human standpoint. Of course, we need a rest if we want to function well. What do we know about why this would help AI?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: When they talk about making the AI sleep, it’s not like putting a computer to sleep. When you put your computer to sleep, it’s just turned off or paused. When they make this AI undergo a sort of artificial sleep, they’re really stimulating it but with random noise in a certain way. And so that actually tells us a little bit of something about AI that works like brains. But it also tells us about human brains, about some of the reasons that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep and to achieve this deep sleep where the brain is allowed to almost reset itself.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Always a good tip, especially around the holidays. And speaking of the holidays, one last story here. It’s always a time at which we collect a lot of stuff, stuff that comes under the Christmas tree or whatever. There’s news this week about just how much stuff we as a species have actually created. And it’s a lot, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We have created so much stuff that it now outweighs all life on Earth.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What!

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So if you take all the living biomass, all the plants, all the insects, all the humans, all the other animals and compare that– if you weigh that against all the stuff that people have made, your smartphones, your houses, your coffee mug, human stuff weighs in at about 1.1 trillion metric tons. And it’s now surpassed the weight of life.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So, how did we measure this?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So part of this is an approximation, researchers estimating how many artificial objects are on Earth and then how much they would weigh. And they compare it to how many living creatures are on Earth. And how much did they weigh?

And one of the really interesting things is just the short time period in which this has changed. So they estimate that, in about 1900, the amount of artificial stuff was equivalent to about 3% of the world’s biomass. And now, today, it’s surpassed 100%.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Because we just keep making stuff. They think that, about every week, we create stuff that weighs as much as every human on Earth.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I have to admit, whenever I saw this story, the first thing I thought of was the beginning of the animated film, WALL-E, where he’s picking up all those little blocks of garbage and just stacking them higher and higher and higher. It feels like we’re getting to that point.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We are creating a lot of trash in this way, right? Because everything that is created that comes to the end of its useful life then gets discarded. So yes, I think that picturing this sort of like the opening to WALL-E is not inaccurate. It also gives us a sense of just how much humans are changing the planet, are affecting the planet. Because we now are able to create enough stuff to outweigh life.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow. Well, we have run out of time. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Sophie. I really appreciate it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: My pleasure.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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