The Daily Dose: Mixed reviews for COVID-19 vaccines; How old are our thumbs?

The Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has shown considerable effectiveness in Phase III clinical trials. According to the Associated Press, “J&J said Friday that in the U.S. and seven other countries, the single-shot vaccine was 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe illness, and much more protective — 85% — against the most serious symptoms. There was some geographic variation. The vaccine worked better in the U.S. — 72% effective against moderate to severe COVID-19 – compared to 57% in South Africa, where it was up against an easier-to-spread mutated virus.” The vaccine’s effectiveness is lower than the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Novavax versions. However, there are a few variables that may have affected it against those, including the presence of new virus variants and a greater number of infections at the time the study was conducted. The fact that the J&J vaccine requires only one dose is still a pretty big deal, especially considering the shortages plaguing the two dose versions.

Over in Europe, it looks like the AstraZeneca vaccine will start being distributed in the near future. The only problem is that one group of adults may not be getting it. Per the AP, “Germany’s health minister said he expects the European Union’s drug regulator to authorize a coronavirus vaccine made by AstraZeneca on Friday, but it may not be recommended for older adults because of insufficient data.” That is far from ideal since “older adults” are the ones who need the protection the most.

Yet another potential COVID-19 vaccine has shown promising results. The only problem is its performance against the new strains of SARS-CoV-2 that have emerged. According to Reuters, “The biotech firm Novavax has unveiled that its experimental vaccine is effective against rapidly spreading variants of the coronavirus. But its data bring good news and bad news: although the vaccine was more than 85% effective against a COVID-19 variant identified in the United Kingdom, it was less than 50% effective against a worrying lineage called 501Y.V2, which was detected in South Africa and is spreading around the world.” The Brazilian variant shares many similarities to the South African strain so vaccine efficacy should be expected to drop there. Worrying news.

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The pandemic continues to wreak havoc on all sectors of society. “Japan’s Olympic sponsors are scaling back advertising campaigns and delaying marketing events for this year’s Summer Games, concerned that public sentiment toward the event is souring amid a fresh wave of COVID-19… That uncertainty over the Olympics marks a fresh blow to domestic sponsors, including many of Japan’s biggest companies, such as Canon Inc and Japan Airlines Co Ltd, who have collectively pitched in more than $3 billion to support the event.” The economic blow cancelling the Olympics would inflict on Japan is hard to gauge but it would certainly be devastating. That’s without even mentioning national pride as it would be a concession that Japan had failed to control COVID-19 within its borders.

It’s well known how important our opposable thumbs are to our existence. Much less is known about when they first appeared. One problem that has hampered researchers is the fact that ancient thumb fossils do not have any muscle attached to them. Now, it appears they’ve devised a workaround. According to Science, “To analyze ancient thumbs on their own terms, paleoanthropologists at the University of Tübingen digitized the fossil thumb bones from a variety of ancient hominins, a group that includes all species in our own genus, Homo, as well as other very closely related species. The researchers looked at bones from two early modern humans and four Neanderthals from the past 100,000 years, and the diminutive, cave-dwelling H. naledi (from about 250,000 to 300,000 years ago). They also looked at a sister genus to Homo called the Australopithecines, which included Australopithecus afarensis, A. africanus, and A. sediba.” Researchers then used 3D imaging technology to reconstruct the muscle associated with the thumb. They estimated that our thumbs appeared roughly 2 million years ago.

A few months ago, a team of researchers reported the presence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. This, they concluded, is proof that there may be some form of alien life on the planet. Now, as happens often in the scientific community, other researchers are saying not-so-fast. Their own research indicates that phosphine may not actually be present. Per Nature, “In one study, Meadows and her colleagues analysed data from one of the telescopes used to make the phosphine claim — and could not detect the gas’s spectral signature. In the other, the scientists calculated how gases would behave in Venus’s atmosphere — and concluded that what the original team thought was phosphine is actually sulfur dioxide (SO2), a gas that is common on Venus and is not a sign of possible life.” So much for that. At least until the next study hits the pre-print servers, that is.

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.

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