Science

Coronavirus News Roundup, March 27–April 2


The items below are highlights from the free newsletter, “Smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.” To receive newsletter issues daily in your inbox, sign up here.

About 30 percent of the U.S. now has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, I’ve read in various places. So, questions about the experience of getting vaccinated are circulating widely (and this is now a common conversation topic, according to Caroline Mimbs Nyce’s 3/31/21 newsletter for The Atlantic). Here’s an answer to a persistent vaccine question about side effects: it’s OK if you don’t have side effects or a noticeable reaction to your COVID-19 vaccination. Your immune system is still responding (invisibly to you) to the vaccine and should provide you with strong protection from COVID-19 once you wait out the two weeks after your final dose, writes Stephani Sutherland for Scientific American (4/1/21).

The Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose COVID-19 vaccine is even more effective in children ages 12 to 15 than it is in adults, per the two companies, reports Apoorva Mandavilli at The New York Times (3/31/21). The companies’ results, based on studies of 2,260 adolescents, have yet to be reviewed by outside experts for flaws and shortcomings. Children who received the vaccine in a recent experiment had no COVID-19 symptoms, produced high levels of antibodies, and experienced no serious side effects, the story states. “Vaccinations could begin before the start of the next academic year for middle school and high school students, and for elementary school children not long after,” Mandavilli writes. The companies also have started to test their COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, the story states. If all goes well, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be available for children under 12 early next year, Mandavilli reports.

A 3/26/21 post by Katelyn Jetelina at Your Local Epidemiologist emphasizes that people should get a COVID-19 vaccine even if they have previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2. The reason: research finds that vaccinated people make more neutralizing antibodies than do infected patients, Jetelina writes. The finding suggests that the immune response one gets from the vaccine will last longer than the response or protection you get if you survive a SARS-CoV-2 infection, the post states.

In the same post, Jetelina, who also works at the University of Texas Health Science Center, writes that she has updated her chart comparing several COVID-19 vaccines — those made by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax (3/26/21). The chart, located about 2/3 of the way down the page, compares the vaccines along dimensions such as overall effectiveness in large-scale human studies (Phase 3 clinical trials) and in the “real world” (based on data from initial U.S. roll-out), effectiveness against variants including the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2 that’s prevalent in the UK and U.S., status of studies in children, and protection from severe disease, from hospitalization due to COVID-19 and from death from COVID-19 (note that the pediatric trial information and other information might now be slightly out of date). The chart includes information about updated data released by vaccine maker AstraZeneca regarding some results from its large-scale human studies in the U.S. The update came after an independent data and safety review board’s queries prompted the drug-maker to release figures which decreased the effectiveness of the vaccine at preventing COVID-19 in the human studies from 79% to 76%.

Testing for SARS-CoV-2 may no longer be widely discussed by people in the U.S., but vaccines alone will not be enough to entirely prevent the spread of the virus, reports Emily Anthes for The New York Times (3/26/21). Testing will remain crucial to this effort, and screening programs are starting to ramp up at re-opening schools and offices, the story states. Testing also will be important to determining how well the COVID-19 vaccines protect against variants of SARS-CoV-2, according to a University of Wisconsin, Madison, virologist quoted in the piece.

Sports fans who wish to view professional games, tournaments, and matches in person will benefit by looking into each venue’s public-health requirements before showing up at the gate, suggests a 3/20/21 piece by Jeff Z. Klein for The New York Times. Mask-wearing, testing, vaccination, distancing, and capacity rules and requirements will vary greatly from facility to facility and from region to region. Protocols will be tougher in New York and California, for example, than they will be in parts of Texas, the story suggests. Some New York venues will require attendees to present evidence of vaccination or of a negative test taken within 72 hours of an event.

The evolution of new variants for SARS-CoV-2 might be clustering into a set of similar combinations of mutations, writes University of Pittsburgh evolutionary biologist Vaughn Cooper in a 3/24/21 essay at Scientific American. More than a dozen variants have been identified, with some thought to have a higher potential for spreading faster than SARS-CoV-2 “classic” or to carry a higher risk for more severe COVID-19 or death. “While most mutations are one-offs that go extinct, some establish new lineages that become more frequent as the virus succeeds in replicating and infecting many people,” Cooper writes. Work at Cooper’s lab reveals that lineages are converging on the same mutations over time, he writes. “One way to envision this type of convergent evolution is a game of Tetris, where a limited number of building blocks can be assembled in different ways, in different combinations, to achieve the same winning structures,” Cooper writes. The essay ends with Cooper speculating that “the virus is beginning to run out of new, major adaptations,” but he also warns that if infections continue to remain numerous, more mutations will occur. “This is why stopping new infections is key,” he writes.

You might enjoy “A pandemic college essay that probably won’t get you into Brown,” by Michael Ian Black for The New Yorker (3/29/21).


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