09/04/2020

How Do You Solve The Problem Of Vaccine Distribution?

11:18 minutes

a first responder getting a covid test nose swab
Credit: Raimond Spekking/Wikimedia Commons

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.


When a COVID-19 vaccine finally becomes available, who should get it first? This week, two groups offered different proposals about how to roll out a vaccination program. First, an advisory panel, led by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said initial doses should be made available to healthcare workers and first responders. Later in the week, a group of 19 medical ethicists argued in the journal Science that their global model—which would prioritize people with comorbidities—is more ethical than any of the alternatives.

Amy Nordrum, editor for the MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to hash out the pros and cons of each. Plus, an update on Space X’s starlink satellite constellation and Amazon’s budding drone delivery service.

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Contradicting multiple expert opinions about when a COVID-19 vaccine should be available, the CDC told states they should be prepared to distribute a vaccine by the politically advantageous date of November 1, two days before the elections. When a COVID-19 vaccine finally becomes available, who should get it first?

Researchers are starting to think ahead because, well, they don’t have an easy answer. For example, this week, two groups released proposals. One prioritized first responders and health care workers. The other said giving it to people with known comorbidities was the most ethical option.

Here to give us a rundown on those proposals and other science stories of the week is Amy Nordrum, editor for MIT Technology Review. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So experts don’t expect the coronavirus vaccine anytime in the near future, but people are starting to plan ahead for how one will get distributed when it does become available. Amy, can you give us a rough outline of the two plans proposed this week?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, certainly. I mean, it’s a very important question, and the two groups that put their proposals out this week are thinking about that question very differently. So one proposal came from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. It laid out a four-phased approach, with medical workers being the first to get the vaccine, as well as elderly people living in nursing homes and those with pre-existing conditions who might be at higher risk. And then later on in phase two, that would include groups of people like teachers, people living in prisons, people living in homeless shelters.

And then later in the week, a group of medical ethicists, 19 from around the world, put out a different three-phased model in a paper in science. They said a vaccine shouldn’t necessarily go to health care workers and the elderly in certain countries first but should be distributed globally based primarily on how many premature deaths it would avoid. So they wanted to look at the total population around the world and get the vaccine to those people at highest risk of death or permanent damage, no matter which country they live in.

So there’s clearly different ways to think about this approach, even among the experts.

IRA FLATOW: Could there be two plans at once, two different plans?

AMY NORDRUM: There certainly could be. There could be as many plans as governments or organizations decide to pursue. There is one global organization called Kovacs right now. It’s an alliance between the World Health Organization and a group called The Gavi Alliance that’s really trying to spearhead a global effort to help with vaccine distribution around the world.

Dozens of countries have signed up for that, but the US is not planning to be a part of that, at least not at this time. So it very well could be a patchwork approach, where different governments and organizations decide how they want to roll it out for themselves.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s going to be like we have with the states now on their own. When the vaccines come out, the states will be still on their own without any central guidance?

AMY NORDRUM: It could be that. In the US, it could be a state-by-state decision. I mean, it could be a more federal organized approach. But it’s not clear at this time, and there’s still a lot of conversations around. I don’t think these are going to be the only two proposals that come out around this question. I think we’ll expect to see others and that discussion will definitely continue.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, no one’s coordinating this effort then?

AMY NORDRUM: Not right now. I mean, the Kovacs Alliance with the World Health Organization, and The Gavi Alliance is probably the best leading effort in that regard, but there’s big players like the US that haven’t signed up for that. So there’s not really a central, global effort at this stage.

IRA FLATOW: OK let’s move on to a story that is kind of really interesting because I’m a physics geek, and I like these things. There was a discovery made by the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Now I remember when a LIGO announcement would have been front-page news. Remember when that happened?

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: And now, it’s sort of buried under the virus headlines. Tell us about what the scientists discovered.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I guess LIGO, on average, is detecting gravitational waves about once a week now. So it has become a more common thing. But this week, they reported a particularly interesting detection. They recorded evidence of a merger between two black holes.

And one of these holes was surprisingly large. It was so large, in fact, that they don’t think it could have been formed in the typical manner that black holes are formed, which is by a star collapsing. They think it might have been formed by two other black holes merging and becoming this larger one, and it’s the first black hole of its size that they’ve been able to directly detect.

IRA FLATOW: So this is the biggest black hole ever detected is what you’re saying?

AMY NORDRUM: You know, there are bigger black holes. It’s sort of in the middle range. So we’ve actually detected smaller and larger black holes but none in the middle range, and that’s important because we don’t really know how the biggest black holes have formed.

And one theory is that they might form through a bunch of mergers of smaller black holes. But if that were the case, you might expect to find black holes in this middle range. And until now, we haven’t actually directly detected one. So in its range, it is the first to be detected.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m going to call it the “Goldilocks Black Hole” then.

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS] That’s perfect.

IRA FLATOW: Right in the middle.

[LAUGHTER]

Does this violate anything, any of the laws that we know about black holes or is it just interesting because it’s just in the middle range?

AMY NORDRUM: It’s not surprising. We’ve seen black hole mergers before. This is the first that we’ve detected involving black holes of this size. So the merging isn’t surprising. LIGO actually, the first detection of gravitational waves it ever made was from a black hole merger. But the size is what’s important here. The bigger one was about 85 times as massive as the sun.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I can imagine the kind of gravity wave that must have given off.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, quite a sight for LIGO.

IRA FLATOW: Right, really. Let’s go on to other space news. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, added another 60 starling satellites to its network this week as part of its years-long project to offer global internet service. Give us a little update on that if you will.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, on Thursday, SpaceX launched 60 more of these starling satellites into low-Earth orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, successful mission. The company has now put more than 600 of these StarLink satellites into orbit. It’s building up a huge constellation with the goal of delivering global broadband internet service to anyone anywhere around the world.

It will start service in North America and then continue on from there. And it’s been launching satellites into orbit for years now, and the company has now said that sometime this year, some people in the Northern US should be able to sign up for a public beta internet service from them. So they’re starting to move on to making the an actual commercial product.

IRA FLATOW: So a beta internet service, what does that look like? Will we just be able to open our laptops, see StarLink listed as an available Wi-Fi network?

AMY NORDRUM: You would have to use user terminal that the company would provide. It’s unclear whether the customer would buy it or whether that would come when you sign up for internet service. It’s a device that kind of looks like a tiny satellite dish that you would put in your home or outside of your home, and then you’d be able to connect to kind of like a router to these satellites.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re reinventing the satellite dish in some sort of way.

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. And the company has said that the speeds will be comparable to what’s available now through a broadband service through fiber optic cables, so I think sometimes we think of satellite internet service as being extremely slow, and the company is saying that’s not the modern version that they’re going to provide. It will be as fast as anything else that you’d sign up for.

IRA FLATOW: You know, amateur astronomers have been pushing back on all these thousands and thousands of satellites that are going to be up there because they sort of spoil the view at night, don’t they?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, the company, I mean, they’ve put more than 600 into orbit already, but they have actually permission to launch as many as 12,000. So that is a lot of extra traffic and low-Earth orbit that wasn’t there before.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of big companies taking on huge challenges, the FAA has given Amazon approval to deliver packages via drones. Now we know that Amazon has been working on this for some time, why has it taken so long to get approval?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, Amazon’s been working on it for years. They’re not the first company to get approval. So UPS and Google have also received FAA permission to do the same thing– investigate package delivery by drones. And you know, none of this means that these companies will start tomorrow. There’s still several steps that would need to be completed. The FAA hasn’t really spelled out exactly how drones should operate in cities and neighborhoods for a delivery service.

So even though this was a big step for Amazon, there’s a lot of regulations and figuring out what it means in terms of air traffic control and identifying drones in the air. A lot of these details are still being worked through. So this will allow Amazon to start doing limited tests of drone delivery service with customers, although the company hasn’t said kind of when or where those tests will begin.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I would imagine they would test it in a more sparsely populated neighborhood than in a big city because who knows where they could land if they miss a spot by a little bit?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, you’ve seen other drone delivery services test around the world, and often rural areas is the best place to begin these tests and also could be you know where it makes the most sense to start because it takes longer to travel– longer distances there, and package delivery through the air might make more sense from a commercial perspective as well.

IRA FLATOW: We all know the old Euclidean axiom– the distance between two lines, the shortest distance is a straight line, right?

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. That’s what they have in mind for this, so we’ll see how soon it happens.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the last thing. Scientists have discovered something cool about sea anemones, one of my favorite topics because they used to have them in my aquarium.

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS] Yes, I do have some interesting news about sea anemones. These are the animals that clownfish loved to hide inside. They have these tentacles that wave around in the water. Some anemones have 10 or 12 tentacles. Some have 24. Scientists didn’t really know why certain anemones had more tentacles than others.

But as it turns out, the more a sea anemone eats, the more tentacles it grows. And this is kind of unusual for an animal because tentacles are appendages, so it would be like me are you growing an extra arm when we eat more. And it’s the first time, to their knowledge, that there’s an animal that grows more appendages based on how much it eats.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because we’re used to plants, that you feed a plant, it gets healthier, it puts out more shoots or stalks, it grows. But you’re talking about animals here.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah in this sense, the anemone is definitely acting much more like a plant in that regard than an animal as we traditionally think of it.

IRA FLATOW: Must make the clownfish happier, I’m guessing.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I didn’t try that in my aquarium, but if I had one, I would try that. I’d watch for it. Thank you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, editor for MIT Technology Review.

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