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Joe Palca

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

Palca began his journalism career in television in 1982, working as a health producer for the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. In 1986, he left television for a seven-year stint as a print journalist, first as the Washington news editor for Nature, and then as a senior correspondent for Science Magazine.

In October 2009, Palca took a six-month leave from NPR to become science writer in residence at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Palca has won numerous awards, including the National Academies Communications Award, the Science-in-Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers, the American Chemical Society's James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Prize, and the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Writing. In 2019, Palca was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in journalism.

With Flora Lichtman, Palca is the co-author of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us (Wiley, 2011).

He comes to journalism from a science background, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he worked on human sleep physiology.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pfizer is ready to ask the Food and Drug Administration to authorize emergency use of the company's COVID-19 vaccine, after an updated analysis of the clinical trial data found the vaccine to be 95% effective.

A second COVID-19 vaccine now also appears highly effective in preventing illness following exposure to the virus that causes the disease.

The biotech company Moderna Inc. said Monday that its experimental vaccine was 94.5% effective in preventing disease, according to an analysis of its clinical trial.

The news comes a week after Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine was more than 90% effective.

Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET

Pfizer's experimental COVID-19 vaccine appears to be working. The vaccine was found to be more than 90% effective, according to clinical results released by the company Monday.

That news comes from an interim analysis of a study involving 43,538 volunteers, 42% of whom had "diverse backgrounds."

Historically, tobacco plants are responsible for their share of illness and death. Now they may help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two biotech companies are using the tobacco plant, Nicotiana benthamiana, as bio-factories to produce a key protein from the coronavirus that can be used in a vaccine.

Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed program, has sketched out the timetable for when he thinks a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready, at least for some people living in the United States.

And Election Day doesn't figure into his forecast.

He made his predictions during an online symposium organized by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington on Tuesday.

President Trump's medical team announced on Sunday that it had decided to treat the president with dexamethasone.

It was a decision that struck some doctors and COVID-19 specialists as surprising, given the fact that Dr. Sean Conley, the president's doctor, gave a fairly upbeat assessment of his patient's condition. Typically, only hospitalized COVID-19 patients in need of oxygen are given the drug.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, now let's work through what treatments the president is getting and what they tell us with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning.

White House physician Sean Conley says that President Trump was doing "very well" and that the symptoms he had are resolving and improving.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Updated at 7:00 a.m. ET

More than 100,000 people are taking part in studies to see if one or more COVID-19 vaccine candidates actually work.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca announced Saturday that its COVID-19 vaccine studies have resumed in the United Kingdom, though not yet in the United States. The vaccine trials had been placed on hold around the world earlier in the week after a U.K. participant in one of the studies developed a neurological illness.

Scientists and engineers in California are building a unique camera for a unique telescope.

The Rubin Observatory telescope going up on Cerro Pachón in north-central Chile can capture an unusually large swath of sky in a single image.

The camera capable of capturing those images has to be enormous. The one researchers are building at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., certainly is.

Several vaccines are currently in large-scale studies to see if they can prevent COVID-19, and more are on the way.

The primary goal of a COVID-19 vaccine is to keep people from getting very sick and dying. But there's another goal — to prevent the spread of the disease — and it's not clear most vaccine candidates currently under development can do that.

Some scientists think they can solve that problem by delivering a vaccine as a nasal spray.

There are many approaches to making a vaccine against COVID-19. Some use genetic material from the coronavirus, some use synthetic proteins that mimic viral proteins and some use disabled versions of the virus itself.

But before any of these approaches can generate the antibodies to the coronavirus that scientists say are essential to protecting people from getting sick, the immune system has to be primed to make those antibodies.

That's the job of something called an adjuvant.

The COVID-19 vaccine candidate made by the U.S. biotech company Moderna and developed in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health starts its final phase of testing Monday.

If you're planning a trip to Mars, now is the time to go.

For a month or so, Earth and Mars line up in a way that makes it possible to go from one to the other. Miss that window, and you have to wait two years for the next opportunity. The United Arab Emirates, China and the United States all have missions scheduled for launch in July.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni knows the dangers of infectious disease outbreaks. He was director of the National Institutes of Health in 2005 when bird flu appeared poised to become more infectious to humans. Fortunately, that pandemic never materialized, but he says it served as a warning of what was to come.

Zerhouni has been a member of the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and head of global research and development for the pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

Approximately 200 COVID-19 vaccines are being actively developed. All vaccines have one main goal: to prepare a person's immune system to fight off an invading organism should the body encounter it.

It turns out, cows may play an important role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SAB Biotherapeutics is in the business of making what are known as polyclonal antibodies. These are a collection of different antibodies that a body makes to ward off a specific invading organism.

The company has made polyclonal antibodies to treat influenza and MERS. Now it's making them with the aim of treating or even preventing COVID-19. To make them, SAB uses cows.

A low-cost anti-inflammatory drug appears to reduce the risk of death in patients with COVID-19.

The drug is called dexamethasone. It's been used for decades to treat conditions such as arthritis and asthma. Because patients with advanced COVID-19 disease can have severe lung inflammation, scientists wanted to see if dexamethasone could treat that condition.

It was one of the drugs studied in a large clinical trial in the United Kingdom known as RECOVERY, or Randomized Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy.

Right now, there is only one drug shown by rigorous scientific testing to be helpful for treating COVID-19. That drug is the antiviral medication called remdesivir, made by Gilead Sciences. But remdesivir's proven benefits are modest: reducing hospital stays from 15 to 11 days.

Once upon a time, developing a new vaccine was a step-by-step process that went from concept, to design, to tests in humans, to regulatory approval, to manufacturing.

It was a process that could take a decade or more.

But the urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine has radically changed all that. Now, the hope is the entire process can be completed in a year or less.

Taking hydroxychloroquine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 does not protect someone from getting the disease.

That's the conclusion of a study published Wednesday involving 821 participants. All had direct exposure to a COVID-19 patient, either because they lived with one, or were a health care provider or first responder.

Updated at 10:20 p.m. ET

President Trump on Monday revealed to reporters that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine and zinc to protect against the coronavirus.

"I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this," the president told reporters, volunteering the information at the end of a roundtable with restaurant owners.

Trump said he asked his doctor about taking it after hearing from people who had done so. "Here's my evidence — I get a lot of positive calls about it," he said.

A vaccine manufacturer is reporting preliminary data suggesting its COVID-19 vaccine is safe, and appears to be eliciting in test subjects the kind of immune response capable of preventing disease.

Moderna, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., developed the vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The results reported Monday come from an initial analysis of a Phase I study primarily designed to see if the vaccine is safe.

Most health experts agree that the need for a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is clear.

"To return to a semblance of previous normality, the development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is an absolute necessity" is how a perspective in Science magazine puts it.

Most public health experts agree that widespread testing will be needed to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control. But for now, most coronavirus tests require specialized laboratories and high-tech equipment to process them.

Researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT hope to change that with a simpler test that could conceivably be done in someone's kitchen.

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has begun testing a new coronavirus vaccine in the United States. The initial trial will involve 360 volunteers, and the first subjects have already received injections.

The vaccine was developed in a partnership between Pfizer and the German biotech company BioNTech. In addition to the U.S. trials, there will be some 200 patients enrolled in trials in Germany.

A panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommends against doctors using a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for the treatment of COVID-19 patients because of potential toxicities.

"The combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin was associated with QTc prolongation in patients with COVID-19," the panel said.

QTc prolongation increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.

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