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.
Today's Liberal News
Katherine J. Wu
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cuttlefish, with their blimp-shaped bodies and eight squiggly arms, don’t age like people do. Sexual maturity tends to come late for them—about three-quarters of the way through their two-year lives, the rough equivalent of a human hitting puberty in their 60s. The geriatric cephalopods will then spend several weeks on an absolute bender, coupling up with as many partners as they can.
This is, in some ways, a mea culpa.For the past year or so, I’ve been reporting on the COVID-19 vaccines, a job that’s required me to convey, again and again, how inoculations work to boost immunity and why. The shots are new, and immunology is complex. So I, like so many others in journalism and science, turned to analogies to help make the ideas of disease prevention and public health tangible.
Two and a half weeks ago, as the next school year approached, a pediatric cardiologist from Louisiana headed into the Georgia mountains with her husband, their three young children, and their extended family. It was, in many ways, a fairly pandemic-sanctioned vacation: All nine adults in attendance were fully vaccinated. The group spent most of the trip outdoors, biking, swimming, and hiking.
Let’s start with what harvestmen are not. They are not men, nor do they harvest; they probably get their name from the time of year they’re commonly spotted, in late summer or early fall. Though eight-legged, they are not spiders, but they are part of the broader arachnid group, which also includes ticks and mites. And despite some truly slanderous rumors, they are not venomous and pose absolutely no threat to us who walk upright.
America’s split with masks turned out to be a brief hiatus. After getting their shots in the spring and early summer, many people figured they could dump their face coverings for good—a sentiment the CDC crystallized in May, when the agency gave fully immunized people its blessing to largely dispense with masking, indoors and out.
I’ve spent the past few days feeling unusually itchy, mostly thanks to the mosquitoes thriving here on the humid East Coast. A bit of my niggling urge to scratch, though, can be attributed to videos of mosquitoes, including one uploaded to YouTube by someone who thought it would “look cool to record” the insects guzzling his blood. No bugs touched my body as I watched the mosquitoes’ spindly legs tap-dance over his skin, their needle-like mouthparts piercing his flesh.
A new dichotomy has begun dogging the pandemic discourse. With the rise of the über-transmissible Delta variant, experts are saying you’re either going to get vaccinated, or going to get the coronavirus.For some people—a decent number of us, actually—it’s going to be both.Coronavirus infections are happening among vaccinated people. They’re going to keep happening as long as the virus is with us, and we’re nowhere close to beating it.
Humans run the animal kingdom’s only criminal courts. We alone bicker over the difference between murder and manslaughter, and plumb the ethical depths of intent. Other animals still kill their own kind, but whether they do so deliberately, with any semblance of malevolence or premeditation, is up for debate—mostly because we don’t have any real way to tell.
For starters, you need to know that a fish tongue is not like a human tongue. Our tongues are flexible, muscular, and magnificently mobile; they help us speak, suck, swallow, whistle, lick, taste, and tease our friends. Fish tongues—properly called basihyals—don’t do a lot of those things. They are, in their most basic form, just flat stubs of bone, perhaps topped with a scant pad of soft tissue, that protrude from the base of the mouth.
On the scruffy shrublands of the Iberian Peninsula, where the summers are parched and sweltering, it doesn’t take much for a spark to catch. The wildfires burn hot and fast, stripping the soil of its characteristic brush like a close shave. What’s left behind is withered and black, and the air stays stifling for weeks.It’s all a bit bleak, but the Algerian sand racer, a burrowing, long-tailed lizard, has struck a tentative truce with the flames.