Supply shortages mean the one-shot Johnson & Johnson covid vaccine is no silver bullet.
That is because in the US, children under 18 make up about a quarter of the population but aren’t yet allowed to receive the shots. As well, about 30% of American adults claim they won’t get a covid-19 vaccine at all. Children and vaccine doubters together make up half the population.
By August, the three companies say, they will deliver the US enough vaccines for 400 million people, or more than the country’s population. That does not account for a fourth vaccine, manufactured by Novavax, that may also win US authorization.
“By the summer we will be in good shape. The question is how we navigate this space between now and June,” says Hotez.
The Johnson & Johnson shot joins a growing worldwide list of approved vaccines that includes the two messenger RNA vaccines, injections from AstraZeneca and Chinese manufacturers, and Russia’s “Sputnik” vaccine, all of which are in use outside the US.
People who get any of the vaccines will, on average, see their chance of dying from covid-19 plummet to near zero. That is down from an overall death rate of around 1.7% of diagnosed cases in the US—and a risk several times higher in elderly people.
The J&J shot has fewer side effects than the mRNA vaccines and has also proved effective against a highly transmissible South African variant of the virus that has accumulated numerous mutations.
The South Africa variant has alarmed researchers because it clearly decreases the effectiveness of some vaccines. A study in South Africa by AstraZeneca found its vaccine didn’t offer protection against the variant at all, causing officials to scrap a plan to distribute the shot there.
According to health minister Zweli Mkhize, South Africa is instead pivoting to the J&J vaccine, with a plan to vaccinate 80,000 health-care workers in the next two weeks.
This week, Moderna also said it would develop a shot tailored against the South African variant, and Pfizer indicated it was also preparing to counter new strains as they arise. Another strategy being contemplated to fend off variants is to give people extra booster doses of the current vaccines.
Some experts in the US continue to urge the government to adopt faster-paced vaccine schemes, like delaying second doses of the messenger RNA shots or using half doses, arguing that the more people who have “good enough” protection, the sooner the pandemic will end.
So far, though, it’s not clear what agency or official would be ready, or even legally authorized, to make that call.
“We are all scratching our heads about who could make that decision,” says Hotez. “And it all depends on how much urgency you feel. The big picture is if you know the numbers are going down, and feel they are going to stay down due to seasonality, then you have some breathing space. But if you are worried about variants, then you have a problem, and you want to vaccinate ahead of schedule.”
On NBC, Fauci said people shouldn’t wait for the best vaccine but take what’s offered. “Even one that may be somewhat less effective is still effective against severe disease, as we have seen with the J&J vaccine,” he said. “Get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.”
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”