A Spike In Winter COVID Cases Begins

11:48 minutes

The United States reached a grim milestone this week: 800,000 total deaths from COVID-19.

A winter spike in COVID cases is beginning across the country. And Omicron is making up an increasing share of new cases. Early data shows that the new variant is likely more transmissible than previous ones.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to discuss this and other science news this week is Rachel Feltman, Executive Editor of Popular Science and host of the podcast, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. They also discuss cracks in the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica and a new species of millipede with 1,036 legs. 

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Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is Science Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky sitting in for Ira Flatow. Coming up in just a bit, a look ahead to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. But first, this week, we have reached a grim milestone in the United States– 800,000 total deaths from COVID-19. We’re already starting to see the beginning of a winter spike in COVID cases across the country.

And omicron is making up an increasing share of these new cases. Early data show the new variant is likely more transmissible than previous ones. Here with some details and some other news of the week is Rachel Feltman, executive editor of popular science and the host of the podcast, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. She’s joining us from Jersey City, New Jersey. Rachel, welcome back to the show.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thank you so much for having me, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So in the past couple of weeks, we have seen a dramatic uptick in COVID cases and hospitalizations. Nearly 70,000 COVID patients are currently hospitalized nationwide. That’s up about 21% from just two weeks ago. Now, we saw a winter wave coming for sure. But did we expect it to be this severe so soon?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, you know, I think, unfortunately, there are a lot of public health experts who are not surprised to see a variant as transmissible as omicron. But of course, this is not what we were hoping for with the availability of vaccination. And as you said, there is evidence that omicron is more transmissible than delta.

Right now in the US, we have omicron and delta both leading this surge, both driving it. But it does seem like omicron may overtake delta because, according to public health experts in the UK, for example, if omicron gets into a household, it’s three times more likely to spread within members of that household than delta was. And delta was already more transmissible than the initial coronavirus variant that caused the outbreak.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s very transmissible, and that’s leading to this increase in hospitalizations, but we do have some new research out from South Africa. And It’s showing that there’s actually a lower hospitalization rate from this variant. So is there some thought that even though it’s much more transmissible, that it’s landing people in the hospital just a little bit less?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, that’s precisely it. So in South Africa, which was the first country to sound the alarm on omicron due to their really rigorous testing, they’re finding that hospitalization rates are much lower than they were for that nation’s last wave with delta. But scientists have cautioned that other countries may have a different experience. South Africa’s population is quite young compared with many developed nations.

And between 70% and 80% of citizens there are thought to have had a prior COVID-19 infection based on antibody surveys. So that may not be the model that a country like the US is going to follow. Initial evidence does suggest that most people who are vaccinated will have more mild COVID with omicron than they would have in that initial wave of the pandemic, where no one was vaccinated.

But I think with that high transmission, what’s important to remember is that in all likelihood, by the time you realize you have COVID, you will have given it to several other people. And we are not entirely out of the woods at all when it comes to severe illness, especially when you factor in how little we know about long haul symptoms.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So there’s still a lot that we don’t know. But there has been some new data, at least preliminary data, about vaccine efficacy against omicron. So what is the latest this week?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Sure, so the latest this week is South African scientists have said that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are 33% effective against omicron. So that is down from protection against previous strains. It used to be 80% protection. But it also offers 70% protection against death and hospitalization, down from 95% for previous strains. So something that I saw from a few public health experts that I find really helpful, is that you should kind of mentally remove one dose from your vaccine regimen.

So if you previously were what we would have called fully vaccinated with two doses, you now have about as much protection against omicron as you did when you had one dose of the vaccine. And if you’re boosted, you have about as much protection as you did when you were, quote unquote, “fully vaccinated.” So that does mean that the definition of fully vaccinated is probably going to change from a regulatory standpoint, though it hasn’t yet. And it means you absolutely should get boosted. And of course if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, you really, really should.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But it really does mean that those boosters are so very important. There’s some other vaccine news this week, though, and it’s something that you’ve been reporting on. And it’s pretty good news, actually. A Canadian biotech company called Medicago and a British pharmaceutical company that we know well, GlaxoSmithKline, have developed a new COVID vaccine that’s in the final stages of clinical trials. It’s made from plants, and it could actually really help. Maybe you can tell us more about it.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so Philip Kiefer at PopSci reported on this for us. And this vaccine has been through a phase III trial successfully. And it’s made from plants, which we just think is so cool. Like so many other successful vaccines on the market, the idea is to make SARS-CoV2 like proteins without the virus itself. So you’re giving the immune system something it can be trained to recognize without actually having something dangerous to fight off. mRNA vaccines use the human body’s cellular machinery to build those proteins.

And in this vaccine, instead, it’s plants that do that protein building work. You start with something called an Agrobacterium, which is a bacterium that can transfer DNA to plant cells. And you give them a genetic sequence that creates the COVID spike protein. Then you kind of make like a slurry, and you literally sort of bathe this plant, which is this tobacco-like species that has a very weak immune system, leaves it very vulnerable to this Agrobacterium, and as you let the leaves soak up the bacteria, it takes in these instructions and starts producing the protein.

So after some amount of time, they’re able to harvest this. They have to sort of clean it up to get it ready for a vaccine. It’s not like it goes directly from the plant bacteria into your arm. But it produces a pretty stable vaccine that can be stored at refrigerator temperatures. And of course, vaccines like that are very important for getting COVID shots and other vaccines in the future into more rural areas, more disparate areas, et cetera.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, the vaccine problem around the world. That cold chain problem is such a big one. This could really help. Well, let’s turn from some news about COVID to some– I guess I have to say, some pretty scary news again about the climate. Scientists have found more cracks on the ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. And that’s the glacier that has been referred to as the doomsday glacier. Maybe you can just explain what’s going on and how concerned we should be about the effect of sea level rise here.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so this is based on new satellite imagery. And experts are saying that the ice shelf that keeps the Thwaites Glacier together may be falling apart. And the Thwaites Glacier is known as a doomsday glacier because it’s around the size of the state of Florida. And it already shed something like 50 billion tons of ice every year. So even without crumbling to pieces, it already causes about 4% of the annual global sea level rise. And if it completely crumbled into the sea, it could raise water levels by several feet.

So on the one hand, this isn’t surprising. Warming waters are causing lots of ice shelves to crack. We’re seeing lots of cleaving of big ice shelves and glaciers. And there’s really nothing we can do to stop it at this point. It is a geological process that is out of our hands.

But the good news, if there is any, is that this won’t be like a Day After Tomorrow style doomsday scenario. The results will be relatively slow moving from a human perspective. It will take decades for the resulting sea level rise to happen. But in geological terms, this is a fast-moving disaster. We’re watching this happen in a way that would not be possible without human climate change.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But of course, one of the things that we need to do to stop that human climate change is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And we actually have some good news this week about how, when we do reduce our use of fossil fuels, there’s actually some good impacts. This story, Rachel, doesn’t necessarily have to do with climate change. But it does have to do with human health. What can you tell us?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so Kate Bagley reported on this for us at PopSci. And I like it because it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around this glacier that we can’t do anything about in the next few decades will drastically change the Earth’s landscape. It’s easier to wrap your head around cars pollute the air, and that makes the air dirty. And when the air is cleaner, humans are healthier. So scientists calculated the excess deaths in the US due to air pollution from cars, trucks, and other vehicles. And they found it fell from nearly 30,000 excess deaths in 2008 to just under 20,000 in 2017.

They also on that had the per mile vehicle emissions stayed the same during that period, the excess deaths in 2017 would have actually been much higher than they were in 2008. They might have hit nearly 50,000. That’s due to an aging population that’s more vulnerable to pollution effects, as well as a rise in SUVs and pickup trucks.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So we’ve got to make sure we get to some weird animal news this week. And this, Rachel, counts as the weirdest thing I learned this week, right? So scientists have discovered a new species of millipede. And it has 1,306 legs. It’s the first millipede to actually live up to its name. Maybe you can tell us about this creature and where they found it.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, the first true millipede. For listeners who don’t know, the name comes from Latin for thousand feet. And until now, the largest one, the leggiest one ever found, alive or extinct, had just around 750. So this new species is called Eumillipes persephone, named after the queen of the underworld, which is very appropriate because it was found in Australia living 200 feet underground, which was surprisingly deep for a millipede. A few experts were like, wow, I guess we need to be looking even deeper than we thought for these leggy millipedes.

And while the largest specimen collected was just four inches long, she did have that record breaking number of legs that was 1,306. And because many millipedes shed their skin and grow new body segments as they age, it’s actually very likely that older, longer members of the species exist somewhere down below. And we just have to keep looking for them.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Keep looking for them and all of their legs.


JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s all the time we have. I want to thank my guest, Rachel Feltman, executive editor of Popular Science and host of the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. Thanks so much, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me.

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About Shoshannah Buxbaum

Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

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Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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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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