Issue 104

Immunity vigilantes, lagging vaccination rates, and an effective double-masking strategy

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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B-cells break all the rules in biology.

Found while reporting this obsession email on the immune system.

Generally speaking, pathogens like viruses and bacteria can evolve a lot faster than we do. They’re constantly reproducing, which gives them a chance to introduce mutations which may make them better at infecting us.

We, of course, evolve very slowly. Ordinarily, this would mean that we wouldn’t have time to evolve new defenses against these pathogens. But, we’ve got a trick up our sleeves (er, in our bloodstreams): Vigilante adaptive immune cells.

B-cells, which produce antibodies that glob onto pathogens to prevent them from invading our cells, break all the rules of biology to keep pace with pathogens. Usually, the last thing you want to do as a cell is mutate or break your double-stranded DNA on purpose. That can cause cancer down the line.

But B-cells do just that to avoid an even more dangerous, imminent threat of an infectious disease. It’s “basically an accelerated evolutionary process, or like natural selection happening in miniature,” Kevin Bonham, a researcher with a doctorate in immunology, who studies microbiology at Wellesley College, told me. When threats are that big, there are no rules.

A breakdown of who’s getting vaccinated in the US by race/ethnicity.

Found while reporting: Why many US Latinos aren’t getting Covid-19 vaccines.

In the first month that Covid-19 vaccines were available in the US, it was mostly non-Hispanic White people getting the shots.

These data only represent about half of all vaccinations during that time period; healthcare providers didn’t always collect demographic information.

But it speaks to a much larger problem at hand: Minorities, who have been most harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are getting protection from it the slowest. It’s not only an issue of access—though that’s a clear part of it. And there’s not one solution to public health experts can point to.

It’s going to take a nuanced approach to reach minorities at the community level. The first step is understanding broadly why these disparities exist. I took a look into the historical and present circumstances that are affecting Latino populations in the US.

First, there’s a history of neglect by the US government, which often left some people out of benefits they were entitled to. Second, the Trump administration intimidated documented and undocumented immigrants to the point where they felt severe distrust of any governmental figures. And third, misinformation on encrypted social media like WhatsApp runs wild in limited-English proficiency circles.

Building trust in any community takes time, but public health officials have to start somewhere. It’s not just for the sake of this pandemic on our hands; it’s any future public health crisis that comes our way, too.

Bonus: Vaccines won’t eradicate the pandemic—and that’s okay. Science journalists (myself included) and healthcare providers have been writing all kinds of warnings about the dangers of assuming that vaccines will fix everything. It’s understandably made a lot of readers frustrated; this was the thing we were holding out

PSA: More masks isn’t always better.

Found while reporting: Why don’t we have an ideal mask yet?

As SARS-CoV-2 variants continue to spread, it’s not a bad idea to increase the filtration your mask provides. In fact, shortly after I wrote the above article, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines to recommend wearing two masks.

There’s one catch, though: both your masks, whatever they’re made of, should still be breathable when over your nose and mouth.

If they aren’t, that means that air and water droplets aren’t actually being filtered through them, which is the whole purpose of wearing a mask in the first place. Instead, the air you’re taking in comes from gaps around the bridge of your nose or under your cheeks.

One quick way to check if your double masks are too thick is to go outside with glasses or sunglasses on. Some fogging from escaped air is inevitable, but your glasses shouldn’t steam up entirely. If they are, it’s a sign that a lot of air is coming out from gaps over your nose, which can be addressed with a mask that has a metal band on the top.

✨ Do you have Covid-19 vaccine questions that are still unanswered? I got ya—tune in at 11 am US eastern on Wednesday, March 3 to hear a conversation with me and Panagis Galiatsatos, a critical care pulmonologist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. It’s free! Register here:

Other stuff you may have missed:

Pfizer took a big bet on their six-dose vaccine vials. Without the right syringes, though, most healthcare providers won’t be able to extract all the doses possible.

In addition to the above story, I talked about it with Arirang News in South Korea.

All you need to know about the SARS-CoV-2 variants. In case you weren’t sold on double masking before.

Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine prevents severe Covid-19 cases, even if it doesn’t block illness entirely—and that’s a key way to end the pandemic. This story was written before the single-dose jab got authorized on Saturday night, and carries even more relevance now.

The tech and ethics behind the fertility business: Watch the recap of the Kavli Conversation with MIT Tech Review’s Antonio Regalado and Dr. Norbert Gleicher.

I hope you enjoy these screenshots; I think they are very funny.

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

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Top image by Rachel Couch; headshot by Matt Anzur.