Jun 4, 2020

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading Axios Science.

  • Across every field of science and throughout history, we see racism, discrimination and underrepresentation. Science is a crucial arena for striving for equality — in how it is practiced and by whom, in how it informs policy and in the distribution of its fruits.
  • We'll continue to look at these long-standing issues in this newsletter, and I want to hear your feedback. Hit reply or email me at alison@axios.com. Eileen is at eileen@axios.com.

This week's newsletter is 1,688 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: A virus for the long haul

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The sought-after state of herd immunity — in which widespread outbreaks are prevented because enough people in a community are immune to a disease — is complicated by open questions about the effectiveness of a future vaccine and how COVID-19 spreads, Eileen Drage O'Reilly and I write.

Why it matters: Unless a sufficient level of immunity is achieved in the population, the coronavirus could circulate indefinitely and potentially flare up as future outbreaks.

"When it comes to an infectious disease, herd immunity is essential to stopping its spread and ceasing to be a major health problem."
— Amesh Adalja, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Where it stands: The magic number often cited is a minimum of 60% of the population would need to have immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

  • Right now, antibody studies indicate the world isn't close to that threshold, the NYT reports.
  • In hard-hit New York, for example, a recent study found 19.9% of people tested have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. (Though even that is debated by researchers.)
  • And in Sweden, which took (controversial) relaxed measures in controlling the coronavirus, just 7.3% of Stockholm's population developed antibodies by April.

The catch: Antibodies are only meaningful to herd immunity if they provide lasting protection from a virus after someone is infected or vaccinated.

  • But with the novel coronavirus, it's unknown how much immunity a person has after being infected — and for how long.

"There is not a consensus for what herd immunity looks like for this disease," says Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

  • Sarah Cobey, associate professor at the University of Chicago, agrees and tells Axios that herd immunity may require more than 60%.
  • But some researchers have suggested that because different populations seem to be more susceptible to the disease, herd immunity may be achieved at lower levels.

In order for a vaccine to bring herd immunity, both its efficacy and the percentage of people immunized would have to be high, Hotez says.

  • He and his colleagues estimate a COVID-19 vaccine would have to have an efficacy of 70% to prevent or extinguish an epidemic, without social distancing and other measures, according to a recent preprint study.

Vaccinating large swathes of the population — the other pillar — may be challenging.

  • Recent polls find between about 50% and 70% of Americans say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it became available.
  • Still, Adalja points out that as opposed to a highly contagious disease like the measles — which requires over 90% herd immunity — small pockets of anti-vax resistance likely won't stymie efforts to contain COVID-19.

Yes, but: Concern over anti-vaxxers is growing. Joe Smyser, CEO of the Public Good Projects, tracks the anti-vaccination movement.

  • In a press conference last week, he said anti-vax messages on social media have tripled since the pandemic started.

What to watch: Over time, the virus could settle into a regular seasonal pattern not so different from the coronaviruses that cause the common cold, recent research by Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch suggests.

  • In the near term, that could set up the virus for future outbreaks, like those seen with measles, or, if it evolves, the emergence of another strain of the virus that humans have never encountered.
  • Eventually, it's possible that as at least part of the population becomes immune, the effects of the virus could become milder, the Washington Post reports.
2. Pandemic re-emphasizes need for universal flu vaccine

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The quest for a universal flu vaccine in the U.S. is making “promising” progress, with the possibility of having one ready in five years, Eileen reports.

Why it matters: Just because we're battling a coronavirus pandemic right now, doesn't mean a deadly influenza pandemic isn't waiting around the corner. Experts are aiming to create a vaccine that could target a broader array of flu strains in an effort to prepare for future pandemics.

Background: Currently, seasonal flu vaccines (and some treatments) are the only options available to combat influenza, which has multiple strains that can mutate quickly, killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.

  • Because the current main method of producing these vaccines requires that decisions about which strains to target be made roughly six months prior to the season's start, their effectiveness ranges from 10% to 70% every year.

What's happening: Multiple possible universal flu vaccines are in development, with some in trials now.

  • There's been success in mapping the flu virus to find better, more conserved parts of the virus that don't mutate as quickly and can be targeted by the vaccines, particularly using new technologies, Adalja of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security says.
  • John Mascola, director of the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), says the VRC is currently focused on attacking those targets through vaccines that use nanoparticles to allow the size, shape and other properties to be more precisely controlled. These vaccines tend to be more safe and effective.
  • The VRC is working on different types of vaccines, targeting the whole hemagglutinin protein on the virus or just the stem or stalk of that protein that doesn’t change as much, he said. “If we could teach the immune system to generate antibodies to the stalk, that response could be a broader response, a more universal response, than the current licensed vaccines.”

The latest: While trials of universal flu vaccines are ongoing and they don’t have published results, Mascola says early human data is showing a vaccine focused on the stem is safe, well-tolerated and generated a “robust immune response.”

  • Adalja says the current vaccines under development aren’t “truly universal” because they don’t cover 100% of the strains, but he adds that they cover a broader range than current vaccines and “look promising.”

The big picture: While the current pandemic has focused attention on the novel coronavirus, it also has re-upped interest in pandemic preparedness, particularly against a possible novel influenza strain, Cobey of the University of Chicago says.

Read the full story.

3. Black birders and the barriers they face

Jason Ward birding. Photo: Mike Fernandez/National Audubon Society

A weeklong campaign is highlighting the work of birders, conservationists and scientists who are black — and raising awareness about racism in the outdoors.

Why it matters: “Birding and having a relationship with the outdoors is something that everyone should be a part of it. But when it comes to black people in America, our relationship with the outdoors is complicated, it just is,” says Jason Ward, a co-founder of Black Birders Week.

Background: Last month, Christian Cooper, a bird-watcher who is African American, asked a white woman in Central Park to put her dog on a leash. She responded by calling the police and saying an African American man was threatening her life.

  • After the incident, members of the BlackAFInSTEM group chat rallied around the birders in the group, says Ward.
  • What quickly emerged was Black Birders Week — a series of Q&As, livestream discussions and other events taking place online this week to celebrate and encourage scientists and naturalists who are black and to call attention to the challenges they face.

Black bird-watchers say they're often threatened or intimidated in the outdoors and face prejudice and racism while doing field research.

There is omission: Advertising for outdoor clothes and off-road vehicles rarely features black people, says Ward.

  • “We’re not seeing ourselves in these spaces, so we then think we aren’t welcome in these spaces.”

There is suspicion: Ward, who hosts the video series "Birds of North America," recalls being followed by a police officer from one area to another in a favorite birding spot and says while birding he makes gestures with his binoculars “to make clear what I am doing.”

  • "When we do decide to explore or venture into these spaces, people question what we’re up to."

What's next: Against the backdrop of a broader national conversation about racism, Black Birders Week is also a protest "for the existence of black people in the natural space, in the birder space, in the explorer space," Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, who helped organize Black Birders Week, tells The Verge.

The bottom line: Altogether, the result is an underrepresentation of people who are black in birding.

  • Ward says diversity in the birding community can be better supported by consistent educational outreach to communities and having representation within organizations and professional science societies.

Go deeper: What you should know about black birders (Jacqueline Scott — The Conversation)

4. Worthy of your time

Thousands who got COVID-19 in March are still sick (Ed Yong — The Atlantic)

  • The "long-haulers" are "trapped in a statistical limbo, uncounted and thus overlooked," Yong writes.

The pandemic is challenging China’s breakneck race to the top of science (David Cyranoski — Nature News)

  • It could slow China's momentum in the sciences by reducing funding for research and causing fewer students to study abroad, Cyranoski writes.

How to read a scientific paper (Carl Zimmer — NYT)

  • This history and how-to guide to scientific literature is an important read in a pandemic era of urgency and high expectations of answers from science.

An ancient city is about to have its “soundscape” recorded (The Economist)

  • The research at Teotihuacan using replicas of instruments discovered there is part of a trend in archaeology that has unearthed how ancient civilizations may have been designed with sound in mind.
5. Something wondrous

Deimos. Image: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Mars' moon Deimos is a little tilted (2 degrees, to be exact). That may be because of a rocky ring around the Red Planet billions of years ago, according to research presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The big picture: The new research shows just how little we understand about the history of one of the closest, most well-studied planets in our solar system.

Why it matters: Understanding more about how Mars' moons came to be could help scientists piece together the history of our solar system on a wider scale and learn more about distant planets orbiting other stars light-years away.

What's happening: Mars' other, larger moon Phobos is being pulled toward the planet by its gravity, and it may eventually be pulled apart, creating a ring.

  • The researchers from the SETI Institute and Purdue University propose that process is part of a cycle of moon and ring creation that repeats over time.

The tilt of Deimos may be explained by this cyclical process.

  • The gravity of celestial bodies influences one another in passing, and the theory suggests a moon being pushed out by a ring around Mars may have created Deimos' tilt and pushed it farther from the Red Planet.
  • Because Deimos is billions of years old and Phobos a celestially young 200 million, SETI researcher Matija Cuk and colleagues suggest Phobos had a "grandparent" 3 billion years ago that gave Deimos its tilt.
Alison Snyder