Issue 93

Molecular catfishing, hospital blood supplies, and the importance of fart jokes

May 17, 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 week, 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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The many Covid-19 vaccines in the pipeline have their own ways of duping our immune systems.

Found while reporting: We’ll need extraordinary measures to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.

Vaccines are biological catfish. They have to trick your B-cells, a type of immune cell, to make antibodies—something they normally do only if there’s an infection present. But the whole point of vaccines is that there is no infection actually present.

Vaccine developers can go about this trickery in a couple of ways—each requiring their own set of specialized equipment. To explain, I’d like you to pretend that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a cartoonish villain. Like Yzma, from The Emperor’s New Groove:


Weakened or inactivated virus vaccines
take copies of virus itself, but physically or genetically modify it so it’s harmless. This would be like making replicas of Yzma but disarming her, like taking Kronk (her muscle man) away, or robbing her of her magical potions and capabilities. She’s suddenly just a little old lady that can’t do your body any harm, but she’s threatening enough that B-cells make defenses against her.

Subunit vaccines replicate a signature part of the virus. For SARS-CoV-2, that’s the S-protein it uses to enter our cells. For Yzma, it’s the purple and blue peacock-like piece on the back of her dress. They essentially tell B-cells, “If you see anyone wearing this peacock piece, they’re an infection.” The piece on its own can’t hurt the body, of course, but it’s still enough to get the B-cells into action.

Virus-like particle vaccines are a type of subunit vaccines, but take a slightly different approach: They mimic the virus’ outer shell, or Yzma’s purple dress and black cape. Like other subunit vaccines, they communicate that anyone with this particular covering is Bad News we need antibody defenses against.

Viral vector vaccines use another virus, like a genetically modified measles virus. This modified virus can sneak into our cells, but then replicate new genetic information that codes for a specific signature protein of another virus—like the S-protein of SARS-CoV-2, or Yzma’s signature peacock piece. Antibodies then learn to build up defenses against the signature protein, and anything else that has it.

Nucleic acid vaccines also sneak in genetic information that codes for a virus’ signature protein, but use our own cells to make it. It’d be like placing the instructions to make Yzma’s peacock piece on kitchen counter, or spamming your Instagram pages with ads about how cool Yzma’s piece is, and how easy it is to make on your own. Either way, your B-cells take the hint and still rev up their defenses against them—even though you made the threatening bit yourself, technically. No nucleic acid vaccines have ever been approved—but there’s a first time for everything.

Right now, the landscape of Covid-19 vaccines in the pipeline looks like this:

Each of these approaches to vaccines, called platforms, have to be made with their own, hyper-specialized equipment. Normally, it takes years to build up factories with this equipment. Realistically, existing manufacturing plants will have to repurpose their equipment for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, whenever one is ready. But this is the best case scenario because that way, there’d be a diverse supply chain that could meet the needs of billions of people globally.

US hospitals may be on the verge of a blood shortage.

Found while reporting: Why hospitals fear a critical blood shortage as the US reopens.

Blood supply and demand is a funny thing. Even though many blood banks were worried that there would be a shortage of blood (a concern with any kind of major disaster, like hurricanes or mass shootings), they couldn’t stock up on donations. This is because blood and its various components have limited shelf-lives.

If donations couldn’t be used in the specific timeframe, they’d be wasted.

Blood donation centers try to only collect what they need. And even though many people generously donated at the beginning of lockdowns here in the US, some had to actually shut their doors or turn donations away, because they didn’t want to over-collect. Hospitals didn’t need as much blood as they typically do because elective surgeries were postponed, and car crashes were down because fewer people have been driving.

But now, some hospitals have opened back up again for surgeries or other procedures that may require transfusions. And centers haven’t been able to collect their usual numbers of donations. Several of the folks I spoke with for this story were worried that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with increasing hospital demand for blood.

This is in part because most centers are trying to keep more space between donors to reduce any possible spread of infection. (All blood centers only collect from healthy donors anyway, but just in case.) This means fewer people can come in at a time. More significantly, however, blood drives at offices or high schools and universities have been cancelled. Blood drives bring in between a quarter and nearly half of all donations, depending on the center.

If you can, please consider looking up your nearest independent blood center or Red Cross location to make an appointment in the next couple of weeks!

We need moments of joy to get through the hardest times in our lives.

Found while reporting: Finding moments of joy is the key to staying resilient.

In the last month, I came to my own mental crash as a result of constant reminders of a global situation that can feel hopeless. I took a few days off, felt refreshed, and came back to work excited to start reporting again. But then, last week, we had more awful news at my place of work. I still have my job, but so many of my wonderful, talented coworkers—so many of whom have been featured in this newsletter—have lost theirs. It sucks.

I’ve been thinking about happiness recently, and how in a lot of ways, that feeling of contentment feels so out reach right now. For a lot of reasons, we don’t feel secure or at peace, which are requisites happiness.

But joy, on the other hand, is still very much within our reach. Unlike happiness, joy is fleeting. It’s any kind of moment of pure delight or wonder. It can be silly—like taking time to see who can make the best fart noises by blowing raspberries—or it can be unbelievably tranquil, like catching the sunrise one early morning. Just any kind of moment that provides you a bit of escapism from the reality weighing on us.

Joy can tend to feel inappropriate, because it contradicts the gravity of a lot of situations. It also feels childlike, because it often comes from something so simple, and not all all complex like the majority of the problems adults face.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and writer, is a champion of joy. Joy is something that acts like a reset button for our our sympathetic nervous systems, which kick into gear when feel threatened. Stress responses are supposed to be temporarily, but for many of us, they’ve become prolonged. Experiencing moments of joy, she told me, allow our bodies a temporarily respite from stress, which helps us endure it in the long run. Holocaust survivors have said that humor—a form of joy—helped them make it through their horrific treatment.

Joy isn’t a replacement for happiness, and it’s certainly not the solution for the grief, financial stress, or loneliness many of us are feeling right now. But it’s what we’ve got. So, look for these moments when you can: smell homemade tacos, share dumb memes with friends, watch well-written sitcoms, read an incredible books, take a deep breath outside or through an open window, away from technology.
You can do this. I believe in you. ❤️

Animals of the week: Pets

With so many of us home for the foreseeable future, a lot of us in the United States have had the same thought: Now is finally the time to get that rescue cat or dog we’ve always wanted.

Counterintuitively, overall pet adoption hasn’t gone up. While there were initial spikes at first, it seems like overall adoption has gone down because shelters haven’t been able to stay open to take in new animals to rescue.

We got on this train, too.

This is Penelope. Or Lil Peen, Peener, Queen Peen, or OPTIMUS PEEN. These nicknames are silly and bring us joy. And it’s not like she answers anyway. She’s a cat.

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

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