Today's Liberal News

Katherine J. Wu

Calling Omicron ‘Mild’ Is Wishful Thinking

For weeks, the watchword on Omicron in much of America has been some form of phew. A flurry of reports has encouraged a relatively rosy view of the variant, compared with some of its predecessors. Omicron appears to somewhat spare the lungs. Infected laboratory mice and hamsters seem to handily fight it off. Proportionally, fewer of the people who catch it wind up hospitalized or dead. All of this has allowed a deceptively reassuring narrative to take root and grow: Omicron is mild.

COVID Isolation Is a Lot Like … Muffin Baking

If you’re trapped in COVID isolation right now, you’re making muffins. If that’s literally true, good for you, and I can recommend these. But I’m talking metaphorically. Right now, the infection you’re nursing, and the contagious risk it carries, is—hear me out—raw batter in an oven. You really, really don’t want to remove it too soon.Yes, we are in crisis right now. The pandemic’s been raging for two years, and I am talking about muffins.

America’s COVID Rules Are a Dumpster Fire

On Tuesday, the CDC officially dropped the detailed, 1,800-word version of its new isolation guidance for people who have been infected by the coronavirus. So far, the best way I’ve got to sum it up is this: Hunker down for five days instead of the typical 10, then do what you want. ¯_(ツ)_/¯Okay, sorry, that’s overly simplistic.

Should I Just Get Omicron Over With?

For the past two years, Marie, a 30-something student in New York, had the right idea about COVID-19: She didn’t want to get it. Then, in the middle of December, as the antibody-dodging Omicron swept through her state, the coronavirus found her all the same. But Marie’s three vaccines helped keep her illness short and manageable.

Our Relationship With COVID Vaccines Is Just Getting Started

Walter Barker has, since the fall of 2020, had five doses of COVID-19 vaccine. He’s already starting to ponder when he might need a sixth.Barker, a 38-year-old office worker in New York, received his first two doses a year ago, as part of an AstraZeneca vaccine trial. But the shots, which haven’t been authorized by the FDA, couldn’t get him into some venues. Sick of having to test every time he went to a Yankees game, Barker nabbed a pair of Moderna injections in the spring.

Omicron Is Our Past Pandemic Mistakes on Fast-Forward

With Omicron, everything is sped up. The new variant is spreading fast and far. At a time when Delta was already sprinting around the country, Omicron not only caught up but overtook it, jumping from an estimated 13 to 73 percent of U.S. cases in a single week. We have less time to make decisions and less room to course-correct when they are wrong. Whereas we had months to prepare for Delta in the U.S., we’ve had only weeks for Omicron.

T Cells Might Be Our Bodies’ Best Shot Against Omicron

Killer T cells, as their name might imply, are not known for their mercy. When these immunological assassins happen upon a cell that’s been hijacked by a virus, their first instinct is to butcher. The killer T punches holes in the compromised cell and pumps in toxins to destroy it from the inside out. The cell shrinks and collapses; its perforated surface erupts in bubbles and boils, which slough away until little is left but fragmentary mush.

Our First Preview of How Vaccines Will Fare Against Omicron

And there it is, the first trickle of data to confirm it. In the eyes of vaccinated immune systems, Omicron looks like a big old weirdo—but also, a kind of familiar one. That’s the verdict served up by several preliminary studies and press releases out this week, describing how well antibodies, isolated from the blood of vaccinated people, recognize and sequester the new variant in a lab.

Omicron Won’t Ruin Your Booster

If it doesn’t happen with this variant, it’ll happen with the next one, or maybe the next. Some version of this coronavirus is bound to flummox our vaccines. In the past two years, SARS-CoV-2 has hopscotched across the globe, rejiggering its genome to better coexist with us. The latest coronavirus contender, Omicron, has more than 50 mutations, making it the most heavily altered coronavirus variant of concern that researchers have identified to date.

We Know Almost Nothing About the Omicron Variant

As fall dips into winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the coronavirus has served up the holiday gift that no one, absolutely no one, asked for: a new variant of concern, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organization on Friday.Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, was first detected in Botswana and South Africa earlier this month, and very little is known about it so far. But the variant is moving fast.

We Know Almost Nothing About the Omicron Variant

As fall dips into winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the coronavirus has served up the holiday gift that no one, absolutely no one, asked for: a new variant of concern, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organization on Friday.Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, was first detected in Botswana and South Africa earlier this month, and very little is known about it so far. But the variant is moving fast.

Climate Change Might Be Driving Albatrosses to Divorce

Albatrosses do not fall in love the way humans do.When the birds couple up, it’s almost always for keeps. Their lives start lonely—albatross parents lay only one egg at a time, and may leave their offspring unattended for days—and at just a few months old, each juvenile embarks on an epic solo voyage at sea. They fly for months and months and months, learning what it is to be a bird.

Birds Fake Their Own Death to Scare Off Intruders

In the spring of 2019, the biologist Tore Slagsvold headed into the forests outside Oslo to stage a series of tiny crime scenes. He didn’t need bullets, or bootprints, or even bodies or blood; only a handful of plush, white feathers.Slagsvold’s audience was avian—the region’s blue tits and pied flycatchers. And with any luck, his faux, fluffy evidence was going to scare the bejesus out of them.

The One Thanksgiving Necessity America Forgot to Stock

A couple weeks ago at my local CVS, I spied them in the wild for the very first time—Abbott BinaxNOWs, currently America’s most sought-after rapid, at-home coronavirus test, piled neatly behind the counter.With the fall and winter holidays on the way, I figured it was a good opportunity to stock up. But after I asked for a few tests to cover my multi-person household, the pharmacist plucked just a single box off the stack.

Parents Still Have a Thanksgiving Problem

For many, many months now, 7-year-old Alain Bell has been keeping a very ambitious list of the things he wants to do after he gets his COVID-19 shots: travel (to Disneyworld or Australia, ideally); play more competitive basketball; go to “any restaurants that have french fries, which are my favorite food,” he told me over the phone.These are very good kid goals, and they are, at last, in sight.

Five Big Questions About COVID Vaccines for Kids

Some good news finally—finally—appears to be on the horizon for roughly 28 million of the United States’ youngest residents. On the heels of an advisory meeting convened yesterday, the FDA is likely on the cusp of green-lighting a kid-size dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for Americans ages 5 to 11, a move that’s been months in the making.

Do You Even Lift, Embryo?

Some cuckoos are born assassins. Within a day or two of hatching, the infant birds—still blind, pink, and featherless—will start to evict the other residents of their nest, hurling them over the edge and to their death.Technically, the evictions they carry out are from living quarters that aren’t even their own. The cuckoos are parasites, strategically placed by their mother into the abode of another species so they can mooch their way through adolescence.

No One Will Stop You From Getting Whatever Booster You Want

Mixing and matching vaccine brands is officially on the table in the United States. But that option might soon be billed as the B-list choice.Last night, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave the green light for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots, the long-awaited follow-up to a similar recommendation given to the Pfizer formulation last month.

The Good Part About ‘Waning’ Immunity

In early March, Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, celebrated a milestone: hitting the point of full vaccination, two weeks after getting his second Pfizer shot. Since then, he’s been watching the number of coronavirus antibodies in his blood slowly but surely decline.

Nine Pandemic Words That Almost No One Gets Right

One of the best and toughest parts of being a science writer is acting as a kind of jargon liaison. Weird, obscure, aggressively multisyllabic words appear in scientific discourse; I, wielding nothing but a Google Doc, a cellphone, and the Powers of the Internet™, wrest these terms from their academic hidey-holes and try to pin them down with some endearing yet accurate analogy.

Timing Is Everything for Merck’s COVID Pill

Two years into the pandemic, we’ve gotten a lot better at tackling the coronavirus at the extremes of infection. We have preventives—including masks, distancing, ventilation, and our MVP vaccines—that can be deployed in advance of a viral encounter. We have regimens of last resort: drugs, such as dexamethasone, that do their best, lifesaving work in hospitals with trained health-care workers, in patients whose disease has already turned severe.

Sea Slugs Can Be Solar-Powered

Studying sea slugs in the group Sacoglossa can mean being on the receiving end of some very imaginative emails. Sidney K. Pierce, of the University of South Florida, retired a few years ago. “But to this day,” he told me, “I get questions from little kids in their science classes” who have stumbled upon the marvelous mollusks—and want to know if they could help “end world hunger.”The answer, Pierce assured me, is no.

CDC Director: ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ to Get Your Booster

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here. For some of us, booster shots have finally arrived. But they’ve charted quite a meandering course to get here. First, last month, President Joe Biden announced that most Americans would be able to nab third doses of mRNA vaccines eight months after their second shots.

Six Rules That Will Define Our Second Pandemic Winter

For nearly two years now, Americans have lived with SARS-CoV-2. We know it better than we once did. We know that it can set off both acute and chronic illness, that it spreads best indoors, that masks help block it, that our vaccines are powerful against it. We know that we can live with it—that we’re going to have to live with it—but that it can and will exact a heavy toll.Still, this virus has the capacity to surprise us, especially if we’re not paying attention.

Sorry, a Coronavirus Infection Might Not Be Enough to Protect You

Immune cells can learn the vagaries of a particular infectious disease in two main ways. The first is bona fide infection, and it’s a lot like being schooled in a war zone, where any lesson in protection might come at a terrible cost. Vaccines, by contrast, safely introduce immune cells to only the harmless mimic of a microbe, the immunological equivalent of training guards to recognize invaders before they ever show their face.

We’re Asking the Impossible of Vaccines

In 1846, the Danish physician Peter Ludvig Panum traveled to the Faroe Islands in search of measles. The rocky archipelago, which sits some 200 miles north of Scotland, had been slammed with an outbreak, and Panum was dispatched by his government to investigate.

The Wrong Way to Test Yourself for the Coronavirus

In mid-June, Joanna Dreifus hit a pandemic milestone. The final member of her household—her teenage son—reached the point of full vaccination. “We had about two weeks where I thought, Phew, we’re okay,” Dreifus, a special-needs-education consultant in New York City, told me. Then the Delta variant took over. By July Fourth weekend, murmurs of post-vaccination infections, though uncommon, were starting to trickle into her social-media feeds.

Hummingbirds Have an Easy Way to Fool Harassers

Jay Falk has some choice words for white-necked jacobins, the iridescent, blue-tinged hummingbirds he spent much of graduate school chasing through the Central American tropics. They’re “the show-off jerks of the hummingbird community,” he told me.Falk, a biologist at the University of Washington, is deeply fond of the birds, who are gorgeous and clever and sassy. Sometimes, they’re brave enough to flit right up to him and inspect what he’s holding in his hand.

Is That Wasp Nest … Glowing?

On a muggy spring night in 2016, the chemist Bernd Schöllhorn was tromping alone through a forest in northern Vietnam. Into the inky darkness, he raised a black light—and saw an extraordinarily bright shape winking at him in eerie shades of yellowish green.“I thought it was somebody else,” Schöllhorn, a researcher at the University of Paris, told me. But when he cut his own light, the stranger’s torch instantly extinguished as well.

The Coronavirus Could Get Worse

If evolution is a numbers game, the coronavirus is especially good at playing it. Over the past year and a half, it’s copied itself quickly and sloppily in hundreds of millions of hosts, and hit upon a glut of genetic jackpots that further facilitate its spread. Delta, the hyper-contagious variant that has swept the globe in recent months, is undoubtedly one of the virus’s most daring moves to date.