Joe Palca | WAMC

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.

The first results from a large efficacy study of a new kind of COVID-19 vaccine are now out, and they are good. Very good.

According to Novavax, the vaccine's manufacturer, it had a 100% efficacy against the original strain of the coronavirus and 93% efficacy against more worrisome variants that have subsequently appeared.

The emergence of new and more infectious variants of the coronavirus has raised a troubling question: Will the current crop of COVID-19 vaccine prevent these variants from causing disease?

A study out Wednesday in the journal Nature suggests the answer is yes.

Updated June 7, 2021 at 2:08 PM ET

Jupiter's moon Ganymede had a visitor from Earth on Monday. NASA's Juno spacecraft zoomed by in the afternoon, just 645 miles above the surface of the solar system's largest moon.

It's the first time a probe has made a close-up visit to Ganymede since the Galileo mission flew by in 2000.

A new kind of COVID-19 vaccine could be available as soon as this summer.

It's what's known as a protein subunit vaccine. It works somewhat differently from the current crop of vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. but is based on a well-understood technology and doesn't require special refrigeration.

It's the rare individual who actually looks forward to getting jabbed with a needle, even if what's in the needle can protect them from a serious disease such as COVID-19.

But several teams around the world are working on a way to inject a vaccine without the ouch. The trick is to make the needles small. Really small. So small they don't interact with the nerve endings that signal pain.

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Typically, if you get a COVID-19 vaccine that requires two doses, you should get two of the same vaccine. Two Pfizer shots, or two Moderna shots. Not one and then the other.

But in the future, that could change, either by necessity or by design.

This idea of using two types of vaccines isn't a new concept. It's known as heterologous vaccination, although there's a more colloquial term.

It took many months and tens of thousands of volunteers to gather the data showing that the current crop of COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

But what if new vaccines are needed to deal with dangerous variants of the coronavirus? Waiting months is not an attractive option.

So researchers are trying to come up with tests that can be performed using a blood sample that will determine not only whether a vaccine will work but also for how long.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After making the first powered flight on another world, NASA's Mars 2020 mission has managed another key first that could pave the way for future astronauts by making breathable oxygen out of the wispy Martian air.

Updated April 19, 2021 at 7:29 AM ET

Orville and Wilbur would be proud.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter has made the first powered flight on another planet, more than 117 years after the Wright brothers' historic flight on this planet.

The flight itself was modest. The 4-pound helicopter rose 10 feet in the air, hovered briefly and returned to the Martian surface. An image taken from the craft showed Ingenuity's shadow on the surface, and another from the Perseverance rover showed an airborne Ingenuity.

I've spent 30 years trying to make complicated science understandable. Explaining how vaccines work can be especially tricky. Explaining the new technology used in COVID-19 vaccines can be trickier still.

So my heart filled with joy and delight when I saw Vick Krishna's TikTok explaining how the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna work. So simple. So straightforward. So well done.

Researchers in England are deliberately exposing volunteers to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The goal is to speed up the development of new vaccines and treatments.

But exposing people to a potentially fatal disease with no particularly effective therapy strikes some as unnecessary, if not unethical.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

All this month, we've been spotlighting community organizations across the country that are shaping Black history for the future. And we end this series with a look at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, BAJI for short, a nonprofit group that tries to advocate for the millions of Black migrant families who live in the United States and many more in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America who seek sanctuary here. Nana Gyamfi is executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and joins us now. Ms. Gyamfi, thanks so much for being here.

It's taken seven months, and more than 300 million miles to get there, but Hope is on track to arrive at Mars tomorrow.

It's the first ever interplanetary mission from the United Arab Emirates and "Hope" is the name of the SUV-sized spacecraft that is scheduled to orbit Mars and study the Martian atmosphere.

The biotech company Novavax says its COVID-19 vaccine is 89% effective at preventing the illness, according to an interim analysis of a large study conducted in the U.K.

The results come from a clinical trial involving more than 15,000 volunteers, of whom more than a quarter were older than 65.

The company says 62 cases of COVID-19 were seen in the study. Fifty-six occurred in the group that got placebo; six were seen in people who received the vaccine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest data from a Phase 3 efficacy study of Russia's vaccine.

China and Russia are vying for a role in ending the global coronavirus pandemic.

Both countries have produced vaccines that they intend to sell to countries that can't afford the ones being used in the United States.

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Only a vaccine will save America from the COVID -19 pandemic. At least that's the opinion of nearly all public health officials.

Obviously, vaccine manufacturers are critical to any vaccine campaign. But there's another group that plays a less obvious but still crucial role in making sure vaccines do what they're intended: mathematicians.

Even if the Biden administration releases all available doses of the two authorized COVID-19 vaccines, for a while at least, supplies will remain limited. How best to use that limited supply is a question mathematicians can help answer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For a scientist, few things are sweeter than data from an experiment that confirms a theoretical prediction.

Frequently, however, scientists don't live long enough to savor that reward. Take Albert Einstein's prediction about gravitational waves. Einstein postulated their existence in 1916, but they weren't detected until a hundred years later, long after the great physicist had died.

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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And joining us now with more is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

News today from Harvard's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research may help solve a problem that future COVID-19 manufacturers are sure to face: how to make sure that new and potentially better vaccines actually work without doing extremely large and expensive studies.

Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers show that a certain class of antibodies in a monkey's blood predicted protection from COVID-19. If that hold true for humans, a relative simple blood test may show whether an experimental vaccine is working.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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.

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