Today we bring you the fourth episode in a new podcast series: COVID, Quickly. Every two weeks, Scientific American’s senior health editors Tanya Lewis and Josh Fischman catch you up on the essential developments in the pandemic: from vaccines to new variants and everything in between.
Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a biweekly Scientific American podcast series.
Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.
Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis
Fischman: This I’m Josh Fischman
Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors. Today we’re talking about when we’ll know if vaccines are safe for kids ...
Fischman:Why Biden’s claim that “everyone is eligible” for vaccines isn’t good enough ...
Lewis: And how a tiny country proved rapid testing can stop COVID spread.
Fischman: States all over the country just announced people 16 and up can sign up for vaccines. But what a lot of folks want to know is if kids under 16 can get a shot. Tanya, when will kids be able to get one, and should they?
Lewis: Several companies are currently testing their vaccines in kids, as Scientific American contributor Melinda Wenner Moyer recently reported. Pfizer just announced results showing its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing COVID symptoms in 12- to 15-year-olds. Moderna has been testing its vaccine in 12- to 16-year-olds. Both companies have now begun testing their vaccines in children aged six months to 11 years. And Johnson & Johnson announced plans to test its vaccine in children and adolescents as well.
We know that kids in general are less likely to get very sick from COVID. But they can still spread the virus to others and can, in rare cases, become severely ill. So vaccinating kids is definitely important.
Fischman: Then why are we only vaccinating kids now?
Lewis: Companies wanted to make sure their vaccines were safe in adults first before testing them in kids. They want to be certain it doesn’t cause a harmful immune response to the disease, which is what happened with a dengue vaccine in the Philippines. They also want to get the dosing right. But COVID vaccines could be available to kids aged 12 to 16 this summer, for five- to 11-year-olds by early next year, and for babies and toddlers some time after that.
Tuesday President Joe Biden said everyone in the U.S. will be eligible for a vaccine on April 19. But Josh, you don’t think that’s good enough.
Fischman: It’s not. Being eligible isn’t the same thing as actually getting an appointment for a shot. The White House is saying we can all get in a “virtual line” now. Biden said “no more confusing rules.” Well, eligibility rules have not been that confusing.
The big mess has been finding an appointment for a shot even when you are eligible. States have Web sites, counties have Web sites, CVS, Walmart, local hospitals—hop from one to the other, and they keep telling you there are no slots. Then appointments get released in the wee morning hours. And if you don’t grab one at 5 A.M., they are gone.
The reality is that if you sign on to this “virtual line” and wait for the Magic Vaccine Genie to hand you an appointment, you may not get one. You have to get very active and hunt through all the different sites yourself.
Lewis: So have you got a solution in mind?
Fischman: If there was one centralized place where you could sign up for an appointment, even if it is two months from now, you’d know that you’re getting your shot. Everyone knew in the fall that we’d have to vaccinate 300 million people. Yes, that’s hard. And it’s great we’re getting more doses out there. But a reservation system for those doses isn’t that hard. Nobody in the Biden administration has explained why we are staying with this haphazard system.
People, just regular folks, have come to the rescue here. Vaccine Hunter Facebook groups have sprung up in every state. They have dedicated volunteers helping people make appointments and alerting you when a batch of local slots open up. There are amazing people helping their neighbors. You can find lists of these groups at Vaccinehunter.org.
So sure, get in the virtual line. But don’t just stand there. If you’re eligible for the shot, ask for help and make the effort to get one.
Because people are still getting infected—rates are going up in several states—we still need COVID testing. Why is that so important, and could new kinds of testing help?
Lewis: That’s right—even though millions of people are getting vaccinated in the U.S. every day, the pandemic is far from over. Cases have stopped declining in many states and are starting to tick up again as a result of more contagious variants and relaxing of restrictions.
That’s why it’s so important to keep testing people. I recently interviewed Martin Pavelka, a top epidemiologist in Slovakia, where they rolled out a mass testing program using so-called rapid antigen tests. These are cheaper and simpler to use than PCR tests, albeit slightly less accurate. Slovakia found that rapid testing the majority of its population, in combination with a brief shutdown, helped reduce the prevalence of COVID by nearly 60 percent late last year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just authorized several rapid antigen tests that you can get over-the-counter. People can use these at home or in other settings and get results in half an hour or less. These tests could be an important part of getting the country back to normal—whatever that means!
Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us.
Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out SciAm.com for updated and in-depth COVID news.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]