Issue 102

Goodbye, hello, and moth cells

Dec. 31, 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.

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Goodbye, 2020. Let the door hit you on your way out.

Friend, your reading this newsletter means that you have reached the end of the 366 (give or take a 100,000) days of 2020. I’m proud of you for it, and I guarantee that if you look back on this time, you’re proud of something you did, too. Maybe you baked a really great cake, maybe you read a book you really loved, maybe you created something. Maybe you just made it. It all counts.

If you REALLY can’t think of anything off the top of your head, I’m telling you now that you’ve made me feel really happy and honored for reading this newsletter—so thank you! I’m wishing you a peaceful transition into 2021.

Speaking of which…

Say hello to Age

Next year, every two weeks I’m going to send you Age, an originally reported newsletter on aging research. It may highlight of a paper I’ve read recently, bits of a conversation I’ve had with a researcher, or it may be something else. The goal of Age is to answer the question, “What does time to do life?” and hopefully shed to some insight on what we can learn from that.

You don’t have to do anything to sign up, and Scrap Facts will still find your inbox once a month. All will remain free of charge—the best thing you can do to support me is hype me up and get your friends to subscribe!

And finally a true scrap fact, the last Covid-19 vaccine candidate to reach phase 3 clinical trials uses moth cells as manufacturing plants.

Found while reporting: What is the Novavax vaccine, and how does it work?

Novavax, a late-blooming company even by biotech standards, is on its last leg: For 20 years, the Cambridge-based company has been working on vaccines, but none have made it out of clinical trials. This week, it caught a big break: its Covid-19 vaccine that made it to phase 3 trials here in the US.

According to Science Magazine, Novavax makes its vaccine with cells from a fall armyworm moth. Scientists infect these cells with a genetically edited virus, which tricks the moth cells into producing a lab-grown version of the spike protein found on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This manufactured spike protein, plus an ingredient called an adjuvant which works like a hypeman for your immune system, make up the vaccine.

Why moth cells? No idea—but it’s the same technique the company’s employed while developing its flu vaccine for older adults (which is also in phase 3 trials).

For those of you keeping track, this subunit vaccine is the only one that has made it through phase 3 clinical trials. Pfizer/BioNtech’s and Moderna’s vaccines are both mRNA vaccines (a new platform), and AstraZeneca’s and Janssen’s vaccines both use genetically modified adenovirus for a recombinant vector vaccine. Two of the vaccines in late-stage trials in China from Sinopharm and Sinovac use a killed virus; another one from Sinovac licenses out BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine; and a fourth from CanSino is another recombinant vector vaccine. Interestingly, for all those different vaccine platforms, they all target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein…which may affect the way the virus mutates in the future. But let’s not worry about that now!

Other stuff you may have missed:

I interviewed Atul Gawande about resiliency. At the end of the conversation, he told me his dream dataset would be diaries of everyone’s life, because all the other surveys we collect are clearly missing why people behave the way they do. He also recommended Ted Chiang’s Exhalation—it’s a collection of short science fiction, which he says brought out some of the tangled realities of living through an uncontrolled pandemic.

Even more of your genuine vaccine questions answered:

There is no such thing as a stupid question about Covid-19 vaccines; in fact, you arguably should have questions about any drug that you and ~7 billion of your closest friends will receive one day. We at Quartz are committed to giving you researched, calm answers to all of these questions in ways that will hopefully make you feel a little more assured.

Lab space is the hottest commercial real estate. This kind of specialized workplace has thrived while other offices have become ghost towns.

A tale of two vaccines. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are super similar—but the companies building them show the evolving business models of pharma companies.

The first Covid-19 vaccines have launched us into a new era of pharmaceuticals. Nanoparticles like the ones used in mRNA vaccines could make the Magic School Bus a reality.

The pandemic can’t stop sunrises. We don’t have New Year’s parties this year, but you can still ring in another trip around the sun with a little tranquil beauty.

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.