Dec 10, 2020

Axios Science

This week's Axios Science — on herd immunity hurdles, quantum computing in the cloud and more — is 1,355 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The hurdles to herd immunity

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Once 75%–80% of people get vaccinated against the coronavirus, there should be strong enough herd immunity that we can return to normal activities, NIAID director Anthony Fauci told Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

Driving the news: The FDA is meeting with outside experts today as the agency considers granting an emergency use authorization to Pfizer-BioNTech for their COVID-19 vaccine. A similar meeting is slated for next week to discuss a vaccine developed by Moderna.

The big picture: Fauci and several public health experts say mass vaccination faces hurdles that must be addressed, including:

1. Sustain current public health measures, like mask wearing and social distancing, while the vaccines are rolled out and distributed.

  • "You can't give them up completely until you get such a level of herd immunity that the virus has no place to go, " Fauci told Axios in an interview last week.

2. Determine logistics and an equitable distribution of vaccines. Several of the vaccines have strict cold-chain requirements that require planning, and there's concern the most vulnerable may not get access quickly.

  • The biggest challenge is how "to get the vaccine to the American public state by state, county by county, block by block, arm by arm, in a country as large and diverse as ours," Michael Fraser, of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told a Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security webinar Wednesday. He added it will depend on individual mayors and state/county officials.

3. Address misinformation. "We need strong scientific communicators" to explain the terminology and what people should expect, Julie Fischer, senior technical adviser for global health at CRDF Global, tells Axios.

  • Polls vary on the number of Americans who say they plan to get vaccinated, but it appears around one-third say they will not get one. Many don't trust social media information on the vaccines, but their trust in personal doctors tends to remain high — and health officials hope this will be one route to combat misinformation.

4. Explain the science behind vaccines, particularly mRNA ones. "Even though this is a new technology, it's actually a huge improvement on the old, crude ways of making vaccines," Fischer says.

  • But public health officials need to better explain how mRNA vaccines briefly teach the body to produce an immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and then the body breaks down and eliminates the RNA, and does this without affecting the person's DNA, she says.
  • Plus, every doctor and researcher has been "actively searching for adverse effects" that would contraindicate offering the vaccine to healthy people, which they have not found, Fischer adds.

5. Continue gathering scientific data about remaining unknowns in a transparent way.

  • While the vaccines appear to prevent severe illness, it remains unknown if a vaccinated person might still be able to transmit the disease, Fischer says. As data is collected, we should be able to determine if they provide "sterilizing immunity" that prevents infection or "effective or practice immunity," which means a person is protected against severe disease but could still be a carrier.
  • "We know reinfection occurs because there are documented cases. What we don't know, is the extent of it," Fauci told Axios.
  • Close to 14 million people in the U.S. have been infected, so Fauci said he'd expect to see a lot more reinfection if it was happening.

The bottom line: "For everyone who has been struggling with the real uncertainty of when this all ends and we can go back to the beforetimes, we have an actual light at the end of what has seemed to be a very, very long tunnel," Fischer says.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
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Data: The COVID Tracking Project, Census Bureau; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The Midwest and Great Plains regions, parts of which have already struggled with overwhelmed hospitals, continue to lead the U.S. with the densest concentration of coronavirus cases, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon write.

The U.K. began administering Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine to people aged 80 and over, per Axios' Rebecca Falconer.

The UAE approved a vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm, saying it was 86% effective according to preliminary results, but scientists say the "announcement was lacking in data and other critical details," Sui-Lee Wee reports for the NYT.

Published data from phase III trials of a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca suggest it is moderately effective at preventing infection.

  • Yes, but: There are open questions about the dosing regimen and the vaccine's efficacy among older adults.
3. Quantum computing's growing advantage

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Quantum computing is taking its first steps from the lab to the real world, my colleague Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: The modern world has been built on the back of extraordinary advances in computing power, but as that progress slows, quantum computers could take up the baton, bringing computing into a new era — and providing massive rewards to the companies and countries that lead the way.

Driving the news: In a paper published in Science last week, a team of researchers in China harnessed the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics to perform computations in minutes that would have taken billions of years using conventional machines.

  • The research — which used photonic quantum computers, a different approach than many others in the field represents what the team claims is the first definitive demonstration of "quantum advantage," solving a problem that would have been essentially impossible with classical computers.

The catch: Last year, a team from Google built a quantum computer that they claimed achieved "quantum supremacy," performing computations in minutes that would have taken the most powerful supercomputers 10,000 years.

  • Unlike the Chinese team, Google's quantum computer was programmable. That would be a criticism of the [team in China's] paper," says Christian Weedbrook, CEO of the quantum-computing startup Xanadu.
  • But Google's claims have been contested by others in the quantum computing field, who argued that with a better algorithm, a classical supercomputer could have performed the computations faster than the company's quantum computer.

Be smart: This back-and-forth — and the fact that the field can't agree on whether to call these achievements "quantum advantage" or "quantum supremacy" — underscores the fact that quantum computing is still a nascent technology.

Yes, but: There are growing signs the progress made in the lab on quantum computing is beginning to transfer into meaningful commercial products, especially in cloud computing.

  • Earlier this week Xanadu announced a partnership with AWS that will bring its open-source quantum software library PennyLane to the cloud computing giant, a sign of what Weedbrook calls "validation of the commercial applications for quantum."

Read the entire story.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The golden age of space-sample returns (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Mount Everest is more than 2 feet taller, China and Nepal announce (Freddie Wilkinson — National Geographic)

RNA interference comes of age (Diana Kwon — The Scientist)

How the first life on Earth survived its biggest threat — water (Michael Marshall — Nature News)

5. Something wondrous

Capillary condensation keeps sandcastles in place and children happy. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A phenomenon found in nature and throughout industry adheres to an equation laid out almost 150 years ago — even at the scale of individual atoms, researchers report this week.

The big picture: Capillary condensation occurs when a vapor confined in a porous material condenses to a liquid under normal, ambient conditions.

  • It affects friction, adhesion, lubrication and other processes key to pharmaceutical, microelectronics and other industries, Nobel laureate Andre Geim and his colleagues write in Nature.

How it works: When two surfaces touch each other, microscopic cavities form in which water spontaneously condenses under ambient humidity, Geim explains in an email.

  • The phenomenon plays a role in friction by creating a microscopic layer of liquid and when "a porous material absorbs liquid water and corrodes it from inside, even if there is no liquid water on external surfaces and they are completely dry."

What they did: The researchers studied the phenomenon at the smallest scales by creating atomic-scale capillaries from narrow strips of graphene placed between two atomically flat crystals.

  • "Such cracks were previously impossible to make in any controllable way to conduct proper, quantitative analysis," Geim says.

Background: Nearly 150 years ago, Lord Kelvin laid out an equation to describe condensation in the tiniest of spaces.

  • Kelvin expected his theory would break down when a vapor was confined to spaces the size of individual molecules.
  • But, Geim says, "our work shows that [Kelvin's] theory works even at this tiniest of scales."

"The old equation turned out to work well," Qian Yang, a co-author of the study, said in a press release. "A bit disappointing but also exciting to finally solve the century-old mystery."