Aug 5, 2021

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week's newsletter — about the Delta variant, China's science graduates and more — is 1,539 words, a 6-minute read.

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1 big thing: The new Delta reality
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See the interactive version here. Chart: Will Chase/Axios

The dominant Delta variant's ability to efficiently infect people and rapidly grow inside a person is enabling the coronavirus to regain its footing in the United States, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: "The solution is right in front of us — get everybody vaccinated and we wouldn't even be talking about this," NIAID director Anthony Fauci tells Axios.

Driving the news: The CDC said the "war has changed" under the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which went from about 3% of all strains a few months ago to now being close to 90%, Fauci says.

  • Delta may be just as contagious or more contagious than chickenpox, smallpox, MERS, SARS, Ebola, the 1918 flu, the seasonal flu, and the common cold, per internal CDC documents the Washington Post was first to publish.

What's happening: Delta has become "an incredibly efficient spreader from human to human" that binds easier to the cell receptors in the upper airway after it enters the body, replicates more quickly and transmits more readily, Fauci says.

  • "When you look at the level of virus in the nasal pharynx of an infected person with Delta, and you compare it to the level of virus in the nasal pharynx of somebody with the Alpha variant, it's sometimes as high as 1,000 times more virus," Fauci says.
  • Julie Fischer, senior technical adviser for global health for CRDF Global, says the pandemic has "entered a new phase" where a higher vaccination rate plus more masking and social distancing in certain areas will be required to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Details: The "effective reproductive rate," or how many people are still susceptible from one infected person after taking into account the mitigating effects of immunity and vaccinations, has jumped due to the Delta variant," Fisher says.

  • It has gone from below 1 person just a couple of months ago to around 4 to 5 people in communities with 50% or lower vaccination coverage, she says.
  • Recent studies also suggest the Delta variant causes a greater degree of severe complications and hospitalizations, although more data is needed, Fauci adds.
  • There are also some indications vaccinated people may still be able to transmit the virus, but those numbers are low when you look at the overall number of vaccinated people, Fauci says. And vaccines are "doing what they're supposed to do" and "preventing you from getting seriously sick," he adds.

Between the lines: Resistance to vaccination is a serious, multifaceted problem, Fauci says, "ranging from needing a bit more information to waiting until the FDA approves to ideological differences."

  • Fauci says he's hopeful some may be encouraged to vaccinate once the FDA gives its final approval — which he hopes will happen by mid-August after the agency has completed its regular evaluation process.
  • The New York Times reported the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is expected to be approved by Labor Day.

Yes, but: The timing of Delta is particularly concerning because people are fatigued and schools are about to start, Fischer says.

  • "Delta changes the dynamic of responding to the pandemic again," Fischer says.
  • "There has been sort of a complacency in the U.S. that children are not at high risk of severe disease, but I think we're hearing from the communities where there is widespread community transmission of the Delta variant that there are [some] children becoming severely ill."

The bottom line: Some people may be disturbed by changed recommendations from the CDC, Fischer says, "but it's important for people to understand what's changed is not the tools that we have. ... What's changed is the virus."

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
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Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Coronavirus hospitalizations in the U.S. are surging to last summer's levels, per Axios' Caitlin Owens.

There are now more than 200 million known coronavirus cases in the world, per NYT.

The WHO called for a moratorium on coronavirus booster shots until at least the end of September so that poorer countries could get access to vaccines, Axios' Oriana Gonzalez reports.

"One-third of white-tailed deer in the northeastern United States have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2" indicating widespread exposure to the virus in a population of wild animals for the first time, Smriti Mallapaty reports for Nature.

3. China's STEM Ph.D. push
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Reproduced from CSET; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new report finds universities in China are producing more STEM doctoral students than those in the U.S. — and the gap is projected to only widen.

Why it matters: Creating pipelines of STEM-trained workers, including Ph.D.-level experts, is a national priority for both the U.S. and China as they compete in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology and other fields.

  • "[T]he gap in STEM Ph.D. production could undermine U.S. long-term economic and national security," the data brief from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University says.

What's happening: "The trends in China show their investments seem to be paying off in terms of the quantity and quality of graduates," says co-author Remco Zwetsloot of CSET.

By the numbers: The authors project Chinese universities will award more than 77,000 STEM Ph.D. degrees per year by 2025 versus about 40,000 in the U.S.

  • If international students studying at American institutions weren't included in the U.S. data, "Chinese STEM Ph.D. graduates would outnumber their U.S. counterparts more than 3-to-1."

Between the lines: The quality of doctoral education in China — which has been a concern in the past also appears to be improving, according to the report.

  • About 45% of Ph.D.s awarded are from the country's 42 most elite institutions (36 of which are ranked in the top 500 universities in the world) versus about 20% from local or privately administered universities where standards tend to be lower.
  • The number of students entering Ph.D. programs at universities run by China's central ministries and agencies rose about 34% — from 59,039 to 79,031 — between 2015 and 2019.
  • Caveat: These Ph.D.s aren't STEM specific, but the authors note about 80% of Chinese doctoral graduates are in science and engineering disciplines.

What to watch: "If you squint past 2025, we don’t see a reason why we should expect a slow down if [China] continues investing at the scale they have been," Zwetsloot says.

  • "If this continues, there seems to be no way the U.S. can continue competing with China on the talent front without immigration reform. It is just a numbers game," he says, adding a key question is whether international Ph.D. graduates are able to stay and work in the U.S.
  • Historically, they have. But COVID backlogs, caps on green cards for international STEM graduates, and other factors could decrease international enrollment and lower stay rates among international graduates, Zwetsloot says.
  • Opponents to reform argue American workers lose out on jobs, but research suggests foreign-born STEM workers increase opportunities, salaries and innovation.

"The only thing the U.S. has that China doesn’t seem to replicate easily is the ability to attract and retain international talent whether through universities or through the labor market," Zwetsloot says.

4. Worthy of your time

A Perseid meteor seen in 2016. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

How to watch the Perseid meteor shower (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

A plant that "cannot die" reveals its genetic secrets (Richard Sima — NYT)

A critical ocean system may be heading for collapse due to climate change, study finds (Sarah Kaplan — Washington Post)

Eternal change for no energy: A time crystal finally made real (Natalie Wolchover — Quanta)

5. Something wondrous

A fox squirrel leaps from a compliant platform. Video: Nate Hunt, UC Berkeley

Wild fox squirrels make parkour moves and split-second decisions to leap between branches, according to new research.

The big picture: Scientists want to better understand how squirrels, geckos and other animals move their limbs and assess their situations, hoping to use that knowledge to make robots more agile and adaptable.

What they did: Using peanuts as a reward, researchers trained wild fox squirrels at the University of California, Berkeley, to leap between artificial branches and platforms with varying degrees of stiffness.

  • The scientists recorded the squirrels' jumps to analyze the conditions they considered and the trade-offs they made when leaping.

What they found: The squirrels' decision to jump is influenced more by the stiffness or stability of the branch than the length of the gap, they report today in the journal Science.

  • When the researchers made the branches more flexible and increased the distance of the jump, the squirrels would at first swing over or under branches, or hang from their front legs in order to land. But within five attempts, they learned how to increase the velocity of their take-off and recalibrate their jumps.
  • The team then had the squirrels jump across longer gaps and were "totally surprised they used parkour moves" to make the jump, says lead author Nathaniel Hunt who now studies biomechanics at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
  • Bouncing off the wall allowed them to speed up or slow down and compensate for variations in their speed. The extra control point allows them to "fine-tune their trajectory as they come in for the landing," Hunt says.

What's next: Hunt says the team hopes to better understand high-performance leaping and landing by studying how the spine flexes, how feet attach to branches, and how the brain's hippocampus makes decisions about the body's own capabilities.

  • "Squirrels are not always perfect leapers. They make mistakes, but they recover," he says. "I think it is a good strategy for animals or robots to not rely on perfect movement but to have a repertoire of recovery movements to compensate for your own errors."