Issue 101

Vax facts

Dec. 6, 2020

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each issue, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

Alright friends—let’s talk Covid-19 vaccines.

Here’s a primer on all the different ways vaccines work to trick our bodies into making protective antibodies.

  • You’ll notice that historically, the best vaccines (meaning the ones that generate the strongest antibody response) have been weakened or killed viruses. Given how dangerous and new SARS-CoV-2 is, most vaccine manufacturers aren’t using a live virus.

  • Most vaccines have been targeting the spike protein on SARS-CoV-2. Essentially, that’s the virus’ ~signature lewk~ to distinguish it from others for our immune cells.

The three vaccine candidates that have so far generated the most preliminary data from late stage clinical trials are AstraZeneca/Oxford, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Moderna. They’ve only released press releases so far, which don’t present as high a standard of evidence as transparent, peer-reviewed scientific papers.

  • AstraZeneca’s vaccine is a viral vector vaccine: It takes a virus that infects chimps and has replaced the inner bits with genetic code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The chimp virus can’t make us sick, but should behave enough like a virus to dupe our immune systems into springing into action.

  • Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccine uses mRNA. This is a new kind of vaccine that uses the same form of genetic material our cells translate into the proteins that keep us alive every day. This mRNA slips into our cell membranes through a tiny fat bubble, and codes for the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Our bodies make the protein, which spooks immune cells into making antibodies against it.

Right now, we only know about these vaccine’s efficacy—which is how well they work in a controlled clinical trial. Pfizer and Moderna’s candidates prevent 90% or more cases of Covid-19! AstraZeneca’s candidate prevents ~70%, but there are a lot of questions about their study design.

Assuming each of these candidates get regulatory authorization for widespread use, these countries have already pre-ordered enough to vaccinate their entire populations:

Here’s what we don’t know and why, and how that may play a role in the way the pandemic eventually gets under control:

We don’t know how long it’ll be before life can go back to normal, even with a vaccine.

  • We don’t know any of these candidates’ real-world effectiveness—it may be lower than their efficacy. Life isn’t as clean and neat as a clinical trial.

  • We don’t know if the vaccine stops viral transmission; it should, but we have no data on that so far.

  • We don’t know how well the vaccine will work in extremely vulnerable populations, like the elderly; surprisingly Pfizer’s vaccine candidate seems to work well in these populations, who normally don’t produce strong antibody responses to vaccines.

  • All public health decisions about going back to “normal”—having large gatherings, traveling, not wearing masks—hinge on metrics like community spread and hospitalization rates, not how many people have gotten vaccines.

We don’t know how vaccines are going to be distributed equitably, which is essential to ending the pandemic:

  • AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the cheapest and needs the least amount of specialized storage equipment; it’ll be the most likely to get distributed in poorer countries; Pfizer/BioNTech’s and Moderna’s require cold storage; Pfizer has built specialized freezers to ship their vaccines, but many rural areas won’t have the freezers to actually store them.

  • The UK is taking a completely centralized approach to distributing vaccines, which ensures that everyone who needs one will get one, regardless of their ability to pay.

  • The US has a much more decentralized approach to healthcare in general, and it’ll be up to individual states to figure out how they want to distribute vaccines. There likely will never be a federal plan to distribute or mandate any kind of vaccines.

There’s a lot happening quickly in this space. You can follow me on Twitter for updates between newsletters.

We’ve got more in common with kelp than you may think— including aging.

Found while reporting: What kelp can teach us about thriving amid uncertainty.

For our cells, time causes distinct changes. Each time they replicate, the ends of their DNA shrink just a little; after a certain point, they know not to divide any more, and they die off. It’s a built-in anti-cancer defense mechanism.

You’d think that all life has the same kind of response to time, but that’s not the case! Most plants don’t actually age—their cells keep going and going and going, regardless of how many times they’ve divided in the past. In theory, they could be immortal, but environmental stressors can still kill them.

Kelp, however much it looks like a plant, is not actually one—it’s an algae. And one whose cells age and eventually stop replicating, just like ours. It’s got a full life cycle which begins with sexual reproduction. For all the differences between us land-dwelling animals and a sea-dwelling algae, we enter and leave the world quite similarly.

Kelp has got a lot of other cool qualities, too—which is why you may want to consider taking a leaf out of its book (heh) to feel more rooted this year.

You’ve probably noticed that instead of twice a month, I’ve been coming to your inbox with an omnibus of information one a month. In the new year, I’m going to be back bi-weekly, but with a twist: Every issue on the first Sunday of the month will keep this format, but a second issue on the third Sunday of the month I’ll bring you facts about research in aging.

Other work you may have missed:

There are two potential kinds of markets for magic mushrooms. Fungi won the US elections in a major way.

People in India are the most willing to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Survey results suggest that the highest portion of people in India would strongly or somewhat agree to getting a jab as soon as possible.

Covid has changed the way we eat. Long live the drive-thru, baby.

Here’s how the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can regain the public’s trust. Depoliticizing is key.

Traveling for the holidays comes with enormous privilege. You don’t have to feel guilty for traveling (as long as you can safely), but you do have to acknowledge it.

The casual runner will save the future of marathons. I unlocked the life goal of getting to run a trail race for Quartz, as part of my reporting on the future of marathons after Covid. This was taken at Fountainhead Regional Park in Virginia on Nov. 22 during the last EX2 Backyard Burn race of the year. The course was 10 miles, and I placed second* in my age group.

*Out of three. Still counts.

Photo by Swim Bike Run Photography.

Need a laugh? Check out Washington Improv Theaters’ People of the District. I was a guest on Nov. 6; the 40-min show had me laughing out loud.

That’s all for now—stay curious, friend ❤️

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.