As the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spike around the U.S., there are scientists working not on variant-specific boosters, but on a vaccine that might cover every possible strain, past and future.
Called universal vaccines, they require a fundamentally different approach from a shot that would target Delta, Omicron, or any other variant. Instead, a universal vaccine would need to train the body to respond to something every variant has in common—or to fill in the blanks of any possible mutations.
Vox senior science reporter Umair Irfan reports on the difficult path and ongoing work toward such a vaccine, and why the immune system’s T cells and B cells, more than neutralizing antibodies, will dictate our long-term future with the virus.
Plus how an undersea eruption near Tonga was one of the most documented volcanic explosions in history, new research assesses the vast toll of global antibiotic resistance, and more stories from the week.
New Research Links Epstein-Barr Virus to Multiple Sclerosis
A group of scientists at Harvard University says they have made a major breakthrough in understanding multiple sclerosis. For years, they have been testing out a hypothesis that the Epstein-Barr virus causes multiple sclerosis, a chronic and incurable disease of the nervous system. (Epstein-Barr is the contagious virus responsible for mononucleosis.)
Researchers analyzed a dataset of 10 million active-duty military members. They found that service members who contracted the Epstein-Barr virus were 32 times more likely to later be diagnosed with MS. The research was published in the journal Science.
Ira is joined by Dr. Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, Massachusetts, to discuss his team’s research and its broader implications.
Saliva Sharing Might Help Kids Identify Their Closest Relationships
How do little kids understand who has a close relationship with them? One of the clues they use to figure it out is by noticing who they’re swapping saliva with. The closest bonds are with the people who are giving them kisses, sharing their forks, and wiping their drool. Those are the findings of a recent study published in the journal Science.
Ira is joined by Ashley Thomas, the study’s lead author and a post doctoral fellow in the brain and cognitive sciences department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Big Agriculture Schools Face Increasing Donor Conflicts Of Interest
A major donor to the University of Illinois wondered what the heck was up. Robb Fraley, a top Monsanto executive at the time, emailed the dean of the agriculture college in 2018 complaining about a professor saying publicly that one of his company’s flagship products was causing widespread damage to crops. Monsanto was also a major donor. Fraley accused the professor of being “biased” and “prone to exaggeration.”
U of I officials had spent years courting Fraley, and they had listened to him before when he’d complained about a lack of progress on an endowed chair he’d funded. But the 2018 episode highlights potentially thorny situations for public universities, which have cultivated powerful agricultural corporations as donors while public funding has stagnated. Dicamba posed a particularly critical issue to Fraley. After all, he was as responsible as anyone for leading modern agriculture into using lab-designed seeds that could withstand spraying from weedkillers. That Monsanto-branded Roundup Ready pairing of biotechnology with glyphosate herbicide revolutionized grain farming around the world.
When glyphosate lost its punch — after weeds grew resistant to Roundup — Monsanto shifted to teaming different genetically modified seeds with the dicamba herbicide. But farmers who’d not adopted the new genetically engineered seeds started complaining about “dicamba drift” and of seeing their crops perish from the effects of the herbicide migrating to their fields. So when U of I weed scientist Aaron Hager spoke about a controversy as big as any in commercial agriculture in ways that didn’t sit well with Fraley, the university benefactor let the school know about his displeasure.
Growing Plants—And Providing Solar Energy
Food is one of our most basic needs. As the population of the world grows, we’re going to need to grow more of it within the same amount of space. The United Nations estimates the world’s population will grow by 2 billion people between now and 2050.
Access to fresh food is already a problem in many countries, and will likely get worse with more mouths to feed. This is where the concept of agrivoltaics could create a massive change. This farming setup mixes water, energy, and plant growth all in one space. Solar panels collect energy from the sun’s rays; underneath those panels is where the plants grow. The setup takes less water than the traditional way of farming, all-in-all creating a more sustainable way to grow food and create energy.
Joining Ira to talk about the promise of agrivoltaics is Dr. Chad Higgins, associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon.