Is it sometimes ok to jump the vaccine queue?
What happened in Seattle was a repeat of what happened a few weeks earlier, when a freezer in a northern California hospital containing 830 doses of the Moderna covid-19 vaccine malfunctioned and the medical staff decided the best move to make would be to inject every dose into anyone available, regardless of their priority status.
In the aftermath of the late-night scramble to get vaccinated, I felt a strange mix of relief and guilt. I was relieved to be one step safer to the people around me in the community, all the while acknowledging that my social privilege, access to technology, and vehicle had given me a major advantage. If an incident like this happens again, which it very well may, given how sensitive these vaccines are, will those in line be more people like me: those with connections to healthcare workers, and who can drop whatever they’re doing and rush to a hospital?
Stephanie Morain, a medical ethicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says that even though we are better using doses than letting them go to waste, there are ways to use them to ensure that vaccine allocation doesn’t exacerbate these issues of privilege and access.
Some vaccination sites across the country have set up formal registration systems. “Community members can put themselves in a queue, and distribution is prioritized not by those who happen to know the nurse who is on shift that day, but instead based on the formalized criteria,” she says. “The latter, to me, is more ethically justifiable.”
Although what happened in the late-night scramble for a vaccine in Seattle was symbolic of many failures in the vaccine rollout, it showed us that when there’s a will, there’s a way. Doses were set to expire, and the community had to respond. Nurses and other frontline workers rallied to the call for volunteers to distribute vaccines almost immediately.
Toward the end of the night as the doses dwindled, one healthcare worker at UW Northwest said that she saw younger folks in line give up their spots to those who were older. By 3:30 a.m. on January 29, no doses went to waste. The circle of protection expanded.
Wudan Yan is a freelance journalist in Seattle.
The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics
What are chemical pollutants doing to our bodies? It’s a timely question given that last week, people in Philadelphia cleared grocery shelves of bottled water after a toxic leak from a chemical plant spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for 14 million people. And it was only last month that a train carrying a suite of other hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals.
There’s no doubt that we are polluting the planet. In order to find out how these pollutants might be affecting our own bodies, we need to work out how we are exposed to them. Which chemicals are we inhaling, eating, and digesting? And how much? The field of exposomics, which seeks to study our exposure to pollutants, among other factors, could help to give us some much-needed answers. Read the full story.
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+ The toxic chemicals all around us. Meet Nicolette Bugher, a researcher working to expose the poisons lurking in our environment and discover what they mean for human health. Read the full story.
+ Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes. Professor Kristala Jones Prather is helping to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. Read the full story.
+ Microplastics are messing with the microbiomes of seabirds. The next step is to work out what this might mean for their health—and ours. Read the full story.
The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects
People are gathering in virtual spaces to relax, and even sleep, with their headsets on. VR sleep rooms are becoming popular among people who suffer from insomnia or loneliness, offering cozy enclaves where strangers can safely find relaxation and company—most of the time.
Each VR sleep room is created to induce calm. Some imitate beaches and campsites with bonfires, while others re-create hotel rooms or cabins. Soundtracks vary from relaxing beats to nature sounds to absolute silence, while lighting can range from neon disco balls to pitch-black darkness.
The opportunity to sleep in groups can be particularly appealing to isolated or lonely people who want to feel less alone, and safe enough to fall asleep. The trouble is, what if the experience doesn’t make you feel that way? Read the full story.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting.
But as we knock out the easy climate wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)