Vaccines & Space Voyages: 2021 In Science
We’re looking ahead to the science coming up in 2021! From the Large Hadron Collider restarting, to the USA likely rejoining the Paris climate agreement, to - hopefully - an end to the pandemic. Plus, we’re making some new year’s resolutions that are going to last...
In this episode
00:54 - Lockdown cuisine & mental health
Lockdown cuisine & mental health
Giles Yeo & Barbara Sahakian, University of Cambridge
Joining Phil Sansom on this week's programme are two scientific heavyweights: prolific neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, and food and obesity geneticist - as well as TV presenter - Giles Yeo. Phil first welcomed Giles...
Giles - Hello, I am doing very well! Thank you very much for having me on. I always love to be on the programme.
Phil - The most exciting thing that I've seen from you recently is your incredible Twitter feed, full of photos of the most amazing food! What have you been cooking?
Giles - This is what I call... well, I started this actually during the first lockdown - we're now in the third lockdown, obviously - and called it lockdown cuisine. I just know how to cook; I'm not actually a cook! So tonight for example is vegan night, tonight I'll be doing tofu, cashew nuts, and vegetables in a spicy black bean sauce with rice!
Phil - I wish I could be invited round to your house.
Giles - You're always welcome.
Phil - What does your 2021 look like scientifically?
Giles - Well, I am, as you said, someone who studies obesity. Specifically, I study how our brain controls food intake. Now until very recently, everything we know about how the brain controls food intake has come from animal models, and particular mice, right? Because we can't legally yet - or ethically for that matter - get into a human brain. However now, with a couple of technological jumps, as well as a collaboration we have set up with the MRC brain bank network within the UK, we now have access to post-mortem human samples. And so we're going to be doing single cell sequencing on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus; and this acts as the fuel sensor. We're funded to do up to about a million of these cells. And so we want to know, actually, what is there in the human hypothalamus? It's all fine to be understanding this from a mouse perspective, but they are small, they have whiskers, and a tail; we don't have whiskers and a tail, and some of us are hairier than others. And so I think we need to understand what happens in the human scenario. That's what I hope to do in 2021.
Phil - What's the point? What does that help us learn?
Giles - A lot of the drugs at the moment that are out there that are used for treating obesity target the brain. And we know they kind of work, because you go through randomised controlled trials; and we know when you inject them into animals, they actually work. But in order to fully really harness the power of these therapeutics, I think we really need to understand what neurons they're actually signaling to. What kind of receptors are on the surface? And these conclusions we're making from animal models, do they actually hold true in humans? I mean, broadly speaking, the circuitry is conserved; but is everything conserved? Are the same type of neurons that exist in mice... do they exist in the human brain? And so that's what we're interested in trying to do.
Phil - And also with us today is Barbara Sahakian. Barbara, welcome!
Barbara - Thank you very much. It's great to be here.
Phil - What does your 2021 look like?
Barbara - Because I focus on cognition, I go across a whole broad range of areas. So one study that we've got going is on understanding the effects of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on cognition, including on social and emotional cognition. Now the SSRIs, as you may know, are the drugs that we use to treat people who have depression and anxiety. And serotonin, of course, is very important in the brain because it helps us with our normal emotional mood regulation.
Phil - This sounds particularly relevant because of how hard this pandemic has been for so many people.
Barbara - Yes, I think so. Unfortunately, the number of people with anxiety and depression has gone up during this pandemic lockdown. So it is very important to know more about how these drugs affect us.
Phil - Are you looking at anything else pandemic-related? Because there's just so many different aspects and so many ways people have been hit.
Barbara - Yeah. We're very interested. With colleagues at Fudan University, we're looking at education, and what are the specific benefits that promote good education, and what are those that detract from it. And then with colleagues in Manchester and down in London, we've been looking at people before the pandemic started and then after the pandemic, and we have noticed that they have problems in actually emotional cognition and also they have higher symptoms of depression.
05:36 - Coronavirus in 2021: new variant & long COVID
Coronavirus in 2021: new variant & long COVID
Nisreen Alwan, University of Southampton
The most crucial science coming in 2021 has got to be an end to the pandemic. Right now, in January, coronavirus rates are at an all time high here in the UK, with test results suggesting over sixty thousand new infections every day - seemingly the highest rate in the world, with the USA close behind. Some are saying the UK numbers reflect a new variant of the coronavirus known as B117 that appears to be more transmissible, and has come to dominate in tested samples. As a result prime minister Boris Johnson has announced another lockdown, saying that it's specifically to contain this new variant. Public health expert Nisreen Alwan joined Phil Sansom, as well as special guests Giles Yeo and Barbara Sahakian to unpack the prime minister's reasoning...
Nisreen - The whole world is watching a disaster unfold, unfortunately, in the UK with this new variant. The answer to the question really is it's very difficult to say if it's entirely responsible for the rise. I think there is enough evidence - maybe not very strong evidence, but multiple sources of evidence pointing to one direction - that this new variant B117 is more transmissible, maybe 50 to 70% more transmissible. But the control measures weren't really working very well even before this variant was announced. These include isolation; so we were hearing reports a lot of people who needed to isolate weren’t isolating for all sorts of reasons; and also the contact tracing wasn't working very well. And also we had different measures, we had what we call the tiers, different restriction measures in different places in the UK, different behaviors also leading up to Christmas. It's very hard to disentangle and say with certainty it was entirely due to this new variant.
Phil - What about schools? Because Prime Minister Johnson also said the following:
Boris Johnson - Primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges across England must move to remote provision from tomorrow.
Phil - How much spread is there in schools? Because this has been a really fraught topic.
Nisreen - Transmission in schools is not really considered controversial anymore. COVID transmission happens in schools, and I don't think as well that this is new with just the new variants. So for example, the latest statistics we had from the Office of National Statistics point that one in thirty-three secondary school age pupils had COVID, and one in fifty of those 2-10. The other bit of evidence which is really interesting is from SAGE, which is the scientist committee advising the government. And they produce evidence looking at how much children transmit, and they found actually that children were more likely to be the index cases, and that means they're more likely to bring the infection into the home. Obviously this is evidence also based on modelling, so there are always margins of uncertainty around it, but I don't think it's controversial anymore that transmission happens. And therefore, when schools do go back at full class sizes, we need to have really good measures to control infection.
Phil - Giles, could I ask you as a geneticist, have you looked at this new variant? Do you know anything about what makes it so special? Because the coronavirus mutates all the time.
Giles - Yeah, exactly. So like all viruses - cold viruses, the HIV virus - viruses, because of their rate of replication, actually mutate all the time. I just want to point out I'm not a virologist and I'm definitely not an expert on this, but I can think of a few things through my reading, through just listening to people, that concern the scientists about why this could be real. First, this B117 variant is not a single variant; it's actually a series of different changes within the genome, the RNA genome of the virus. A couple of them - and this is the concerning thing - actually happened within the spike protein itself. Now the spike protein - this is what gives the coronavirus its crown shape - is what actually binds to the cell surface and actually gets into the cell. It's critical for the infectivity of the virus. So there was a biological plausibility for why it could be in more infectious. Secondly, I've seen some preliminary data - it's not been published yet, so we'll have to see what happens - which indicates that it could be more infectious within a petri dish.
Phil - Nisreen, could you bring some of these aspects together for me and help us sort of predict what might happen for the next few months, maybe for the next year?
Nisreen - Well we're all optimistic about having the vaccine. This is the light at the end of this terrible tunnel we are in. If the lockdown is effective enough and it really brings the infection rates down, then it's a bit of déjà vu really for us! Like we said for the first lockdown, we have to come out from it having a really good test, trace, isolate, and support system to really try and contain the infection; and then distancing, wearing the mask, and having fresh air ventilation measures. We need to have these things in place, particularly in school, they need to be prepared from now to have these effective measures; more effective than what was happening, because we can see obviously that what was in schools wasn't effective enough. The other thing about the vaccine: it's really important to understand that vaccinating a minority of the population is unlikely to end the pandemic, because if the virus continues to circulate in the majority of the population, then there's room for it to mutate further, and then potentially have mutations that would affect the effectiveness of the vaccine. Obviously the trial evidence for the vaccine tells us that the vaccine is really effective at preventing severe disease from the COVID infection. The information about whether the vaccine actually prevents transmission is still uncertain, and therefore we need to be cautious around vaccines. They are great - they prevent the vulnerable from getting it - but I think the behavioural changes that we all have to make, and the resources that the governments need to put in to make sure these behavioural changes work, need to continue for a while until most of us are vaccinated, really?
Phil - And we're going to be talking to a virological immunologist later in the program more about the vaccine. Could I ask you Nisreen, if you were optimistic versus pessimistic, what sort of timescale would you give us for the pandemic?
Nisreen - Phil, this is a very difficult question! I don't know. Hopefully if the vaccine really happens quickly and most of us get vaccinated, then maybe by the summer we'll be in a much better place, but until then we really... a lot can happen, as we've seen, in a few months, and let's hope the direction is more positive in the next few months.
Phil - You've also been looking at people who are left with Long COVID symptoms for many months after they get their infection. Since we last reported on that back in the middle of 2020, what new has emerged, and are people getting better from this long term condition?
Nisreen - That's the problem, Phil, is that we don't know how many are getting better because we're not measuring Long COVID in any kind of sensible way. We don't have stats on recovery. We do have some worrying statistics recently that also came from the ONS, the Office of National Statistics, that 1 in 10 people still have symptoms 12 weeks after the onset of infection. And we still don't know the long term effects, the extent of any organ damage. So Long COVID is a big problem and it needs much more attention, and actually at times of crisis like what we're going through now, it's very important to highlight it to people and say, "if you're a younger age and you're healthy, there is a chance that you may not be able to function for several weeks or months, and then also we don't know the long term health effects of it." So that needs to be communicated over and over.
Phil - Just quickly, Barbara, some of these long term health effects do include neurological symptoms, don't they?
Barbara - Absolutely. So there's neurological and psychiatric symptoms, and we don't really know how they're going to pan out in the long term; whether for some people, fortunately they'll get better as time goes on, but for other people it may require treatments to actually get them better. And we'll have a lot of other problems with people who haven't even got the COVID, because there's been so much anxiety and depression amongst people who have just been locked down, because we know that loneliness and isolation is not good for you. It's not good for the brain, it's not good for your wellbeing. And we also know that adolescence at school is a time when you are relying on your peers and interacting with your peers and you're becoming an adult and to miss out on a lot of that behaviour, it's very difficult and could change the way that you start to interact when you come back. And I'm particularly worried also about the very young children, because that is one where they're learning their social cognitive skills and they're learning how to interact and they are developing the theory of mind is social cognition and all these things. But if you're kind of isolated and maybe you're only with your parents and maybe your parents are having to work at home or go out to work, it's very difficult for these children to actually get socialised because there are usually mother and baby groups, so you can be in primary school or whatever, but now that school has been so disrupted. I do worry about how they're going to have this natural development.
16:29 - Large Hadron Collider to restart in 2021
Large Hadron Collider to restart in 2021
Rhodri Jones, CERN
2021 should see the re-opening of the Large Hadron Collider. This enormous particle accelerator, the largest ever built, was designed to test leading theories in particle physics; and after a recent three year shutdown it will soon be starting its third operational run. Rhodri Jones is head of the beams department at CERN, the organisation that runs the collider. He gave Phil Sansom, as well as special guest Giles Yeo, the details...
Rhodri - We've been shut down for the past two years. In fact, we're coming to the end of a two year shutdown period at the moment to upgrade and consolidate a lot of our equipment. One of the major upgrades that we've undergone is in the physics experiments themselves, where they've upgraded their detectors basically to better detect the particles that actually come out of these collisions. The other major upgrade is an upgrade of the injector complex: what we call the chain of machines that's used to accelerate particles from the hydrogen gas bottle, which is where we get all our protons from, up to nearly the speed of light by the time they come into the LHC. And then in the LHC itself, we've undergone a consolidation of our superconducting magnets; so we have around 12,000 of these big superconducting magnets, which are used basically to bend the protons in this large circle that we have, allowing them to come round and round and round again and again, to provide us with collisions for a very long time.
Phil - What's the outcome of all this? What amazing physics are you going to get once you reopen, because of this?
Rhodri - Well, the hope is that when we restart - which will now probably be in early 2022, in fact, for actual physics-taking - that we'll then have the third physics run of the LHC, which is expected to last for another three years. Now up to now we've been colliding at what we call a 13 tera electron volts. This is quite high energy, and we're hoping to push this a bit further because the LHC was, in fact, nominally designed to collide at 14 tera electron volts; so this means two proton beams of seven tera electron volts hitting each other. If we manage to reach this energy, this will be the highest energy that we've ever reached with a particle accelerator on the planet. And the hope is that by doing this we can understand physics processes to a higher degree. And if we're very lucky, we may start to see very rare events, slight changes from what we expect, which could indicate new physics. And of course this is what's driving a lot of the research that we're doing.
Phil - Teams using the Large Hadron Collider have managed to find the Higgs Boson, which was one of the aims I think of the project. So what's the next step? Are you analysing it or are you doing other work?
Rhodri - It's a combination of both. So yes, the Large Hadron Collider, one of its main aims was to see whether this Higgs Boson was there or not. We've managed to find it. Now what we're doing is basically refining our picture of the Higgs Boson, so trying to really understand it. And this is the study that's ongoing, and this is why we need these vast amounts of data to actually be able to see how the Higgs Boson interacts and the various different scenarios and conditions. And then the other thing that we're trying to do, like I said, was really look at something new or something different, and this is being done in parallel. So we're looking to see whether there are slight deviations from what we expect the physics to be at this energy, or to see whether there are rare events taking place, where we need a lot of data, and suddenly we'll see something completely unexpected. And this is of course the other thing which would then show that something is out there. We don't understand everything as it is at the moment; I think we've got this standard model of particle physics, which explains everything very, very well, but not all of it.
Phil - Back when it first opened, people were saying, "oh, they're going to open a black hole. They're going to open a parallel universe.” Do people still ask you that?
Rhodri - They do every now and again, like you've done! I think the reply often to this is that nature actually creates big bangs that are much, much, much larger than we do with the Large Hadron Collider. I mean, in the atmosphere all the time, we're getting these very high energy cosmic rays coming through, which have energies much, much higher than the LHC. I think the advantage of the LHC is that we managed to localise these collisions to a very small area. So it means that we can really analyse them, which is difficult to do when we're not sure when they're going to come or where they are going to come. So this is what we've done: we've created the lab itself to allow us to analyse these high energy collisions in an area that we can actually manage.
Phil - Giles?
Giles - How about this whole story that we got a little while back that's for a brief moment in time, neutrinos can go faster than the speed of light; what was all that about?
Rhodri - Yeah, that in the end came down to timing. Basically we created them here at CERN and they were sent down to Italy and you detect them there. And of course they're traveling at the speed of light, so it's very difficult then to actually time this in. And in the end, it was found that there was an issue with the experiment - in fact, on the Italian side - with the timing not being quite as precise as we thought it would be, which when you did the maths actually came out that the neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light. But in the end, no. Einstein is still there, and everything fits with the speed of light.
21:36 - Climate in 2021: La Niña & COP26
Climate in 2021: La Niña & COP26
Jenny Turton, Friedrich-Alexander University
Although the coronavirus is still everyone’s primary concern, 2020 saw some of the most extreme weather events ever recorded, as well as being virtually tied for hottest year on record. And the fact that we hear this almost every year nowadays gives you some idea of the accelerating state of the catastrophe. So what’s going to happen this year? Jenny Turton is an atmospheric scientist from the Institute for geography at Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany, and she discussed the subject with Phil Sansom and special guests Barbara Sahakian and Giles Yeo...
Jenny - Well, it does seem like year on year in the Arctic we're having record breaking circumstances: record sea ice levels, fastest melt, something like this. So it wouldn't surprise me if 2021 followed in the same vein. Just over September last year we had the second lowest sea ice record, so perhaps we could see another record low sea ice year. It also froze up quite slowly this year - normally it starts to freeze in about September, this year it was mid-October - so potentially it's not as thick or as solid as it normally is, and so maybe we'll have quite a lot of melting in the sea ice this year.
Phil - What about other types of extreme weather across the world? Because in 2020 we had wildfires in Brazil, and western North America, and Australia; might it be the same sort of story?
Jenny - I've been reading up on the hurricane prediction for next year, and that doesn't seem to be as extreme. They do predict that it's going to be above average; so average is around 12 storms, maybe six or seven of them are hurricanes, and I think for the next year - or this year - they're predicting around six. So we're having more than normal, I believe, but maybe not as extreme as 2020, where we had over 30 tropical storms.
Phil - And we've also got La Niña, is that correct - this weather phenomenon across the world, and the Pacific especially?
Jenny - Yeah, that's right. It started last year and I think there are thoughts that it will continue onto this year. La Niña is where you get a buildup of cold water along the coast of Chile, and then you get a lot of different weather patterns happening because of that. So typically you get slightly drier in the United States and wetter in Australia, that's kind of a big cause, but you also get... globally during La Niña it's a little bit cooler. So it was quite interesting that 2020 was still one of the hottest years even though we had a La Niña phase.
Phil - Barbara, I'm thinking of the environmentalist Naomi Klein, who talks about all the different ways there are to look away from this catastrophe because it's so painful. What psychologically do you think is behind that?
Barbara - Obviously, one thing to do is to direct your attention from something that is giving you a lot of anxiety, so some people will choose to do that. What I'm pleased about is that so many people have chosen to engage with actually trying to do something about this; themselves, and with institutions and things like that. So I think we're in a much better shape. I think it's very difficult for people to deal with uncertainty. Hugo Critchley has done some marvellous experiments showing that, with uncertainty, we get activations in areas of the brain. And we have a difficulty dealing with uncertainty and with... I was listening to the radio just the other day and they were talking about the fires that they'd had in Australia, and every time now it gets hot people begin to wonder, "oh, is it going to start up again?" So the sort of constant stress... it's almost like a chronic stress that people are under worrying about these things, and sometimes if you don't feel you have any resilience or mastery over it, the preference is to avoid dealing with it at all. But fortunately, I think many people have realised it's just time now to engage. We all have to engage. We have to do what we can do as individuals, and then we have to force governments and institutions to also do what they should do.
Phil - Jenny - ring a bell?
Jenny - Yeah, that does sound quite right. Sometimes I even find it hard to spending day after day researching these things; sometimes it's nice to distract myself with a YouTube video of a cat or something! But no, it does seem that now is the time when a lot of countries are getting on board with the climate crisis; including China, and hopefully once Joe Biden becomes president, they will rejoin - as well - the climate talks.
Phil - Here he is in fact promising to do exactly that, for the Paris agreement....
Joe Biden - First thing I would do, day one, as president: I'd rejoin the Paris climate accord, which we - Barack and I - put together...
Phil - Jenny, what does that mean? This is obviously the second biggest carbon emitting country in the world.
Jenny - Yeah, so it was quite a shock for a lot of people when Donald Trump decided to pull out, because like you say, they're the second biggest emitter ,and they had joined the Paris agreement under Barack Obama.
Phil - Could you explain exactly what the Paris agreement means?
Jenny - Yeah, the Paris agreement is a legally binding treaty that was signed by 196 countries back in 2015 with the aim of tackling climate change. Every four or five years, the countries that are in the agreement will give an update on what they have done to tackle it, and also put further targets in place to try to reduce their emissions.
Phil - And what kind of targets are we talking about, do you know?
Jenny - Well it varies depending on the country, because obviously some countries will be able to do a lot more - should do a lot more - than others. So the UK for instance: their target is to use electric cars only by 2040; and also pledge to go net zero, which means the amount of CO2 they're outputting, they will intake with something like forests or some offset projects.
Phil - As we're recording this, in fact, we've just found out that Trump has just signed a document allowing looking for oil and gas in protected Northern lands. What's going on in this area of the world, do you know?
Jenny - Well yes, I did see earlier that there was some idea that Trump might be allowing people to mine or to put in some pipelines in the Arctic. I think partially it's a long line of other things that he's already done in the environmental sector; I think there are seven agreements or important treaties that he's pulled out of or dismantled while he's been in power. So I do think that it's kind of a last ditch attempt.
Phil - We've also got a big climate change conference coming up; that was supposed to be 2020, it's now 2021, and this is going to be in Scotland. What is that going to be? Because I think people are tired of hearing commitments and resolutions, and feeling like that's just hot air.
Jenny - Yeah. So it's the COP26, and the COP stands for the Conference Of the Parties, and it's the 26th meeting. But like you say, people seem to speak a lot and not too much happens at these conferences. Almost every year people are not quite happy with the outcomes, that maybe they don't reach enough, or they don't agree enough. The hope is in the Glasgow one this year that the UK and other nations will be able to provide financial aid to developing countries to help them really tackle climate change, which they might not be able to afford and which they probably also didn't contribute largely to. And also we're hoping this time to look at efforts of how to offset CO2, so how to pull out some of the CO2 from the atmosphere that we already have there,
Phil - Those of us who aren't listening to this and are leading a country, I think we'll still probably be thinking, "is there anything I can do?" Giles, I believe that one of the best things that a single person can do is change their diet?
Giles - It is! We - particularly here in Western Europe, Australasia, and United States - we eat far too much meat. Look, I am not a diet evangelical or zealot; I eat meat. But I think it's undoubtedly true that we eat way too much meat per capita. And the problems with meat are twofold. First of all, there is deforestation in order to make sure that we can actually keep the various ruminants, and cows, and sheep, and what have you, in grass. And there's also the gases that are released by these animals in and of themselves. So actually, if we as a species are able to drop our meat intake even by 10/20% - I'm not talking about turning everyone vegetarian - the actual impact on carbon emissions would actually be enormous. Enormous.
30:29 - 2021 resolutions: how to reboot your brain
2021 resolutions: how to reboot your brain
Giles Yeo & Barbara Sahakian, University of Cambridge
Many of us are in the first few weeks of trying to keep our new year’s resolution. Special guests Giles Yeo and Barbara Sahakian had some tips for Phil Sansom on how to make them and keep them. First - has Giles made a resolution this year?
Giles - You know, I think I'm perfect. So I am not going to... no, that's not true. I do have a resolution actually, particularly since we've hit lockdown number three. It was far easier for me to maintain my exercise when I was commuting to work, because I just got up and I commuted to work. I didn't have to say, "exercise, exercise!" Whereas now when we're not commuting, I try and recreate my commute in the morning. I wake up at half six and I go cycle around like a mad person and then come back. So my resolution is to try and stick to that through lockdown.
Phil - Interesting, okay. Barbara, how about you?
Barbara - Well if I can give a plug to my paper in the Conversation, which I wrote with Christelle Langley and Jianfeng Feng: we have six ways to reboot your brain after hard year of COVID-19, according to science. And the first one would be 'be kind and helpful', because it activates your reward system. So actually making other people happy makes yourself happy, so it's a very good thing to do. The second one is 'exercise', as Giles has just told us about, so that's very good. And that's what I call an all rounder, because it's good for your physical health, it's good for your mental health, it's good for your mood, it's good for your immune system, and it helps you live longer; so it's very beneficial. And then we were talking about, of course - with Giles here - 'nutrition'. Eating well is very important, and there's been some very large studies using the UK Biobank which show that if you have cereals without a lot of sugar in them, the sort of muesli type things, it's very good for your brain; it actually affects your brain growth and it's very beneficial for your cognition. So that's something that you can do. And then 'keeping socially connected', because it's so easy, especially with this pandemic and the lockdowns, to get isolated and to feel lonely, and that's very bad for you. So it's important, and we found that people who do keep socially connected have less depression. And then 'learn something new'; It's very important that we have lifelong learning and keep our brains active throughout our life, and drive that neurocircuitry that's in there for... includes important areas like the hippocampus, and that we know is very important for you. And finally 'sleep properly'. Have good quality and quantity of sleep. And that's great for the immune system; it's great for getting rid of toxics in the brain; and it's very important for your creativity and thinking.
Phil - These sound like resolutions that you could probably keep to as well. We've asked our listeners, via Twitter, how long they managed to stick to their new year's resolutions. And what we've found is that, of those who said, "yes, I even bother keeping it at all," about the same number said that they kept their resolution for many months as the people who did it for only a few weeks; and actually the same number only managed a few days. Is that about what you expect, and are people making resolutions that are doomed to fail - like me, a skeptic, thinks?
Barbara - I agree with you. It's partially, what are these resolutions? They have to be realistic. If you're going to suddenly do something really dramatic, it might be better to do it in small steps. But the ones that I mentioned, which would be very beneficial for people, are easy to achieve; they're not that difficult. So I think that's a good thing to do. And I think a lot of it is really just deciding that every day, if you try to do a bit of what you've suggested you're going to do, eventually it will become a regular habit for you. You won't even need to think about it; you'll just do it.
Phil - This is relevant especially for your subject Giles, because the top three - according to a recent YouGov poll, actually - the top three resolutions that people made last year were all diet or exercise related. Are people making unsustainable versions of those, and is Barbara's advice... does that apply to food and diet as well?
Giles - Oh doubtedly it does, because it's either going to be "eat less sugar"... "eat less sugar" is fine, right, but if you're going to say, "I'm going to give up sugar forever" - okay, how realistic is that going to be? "I'm going to lose 12 stone." Yeah, but you were ten stone to begin with! I don't know how realistic that is. And so I think it's all about making realistic suggestions. Barbara suggestions are fantastic, because "eat more muesli," I can do that. And I think the other thing is, particularly when you're thinking about diet or when you're thinking about weight, think about what you're trying to do. And I think too many of us think about weight per se, because we're interested in how we're looking, rather than health. So I think if we're thinking about, "I'm going to try and improve my health this year," I think that should be achievable; rather than just saying, "I want to lose all this weight". I wish I could look like Brad Pitt, but I'm not going to be able to look like Brad Pitt because of my genes and many other things.
Phil - You did say that you were perfect on the other hand Giles.
Giles - I did, I did say I'm perfect, that's me. But yeah, I agree with Barbara about being realistic and picking things that are going to be sustainable.
36:05 - COVID vaccines: efficacy questions & delayed boosters
COVID vaccines: efficacy questions & delayed boosters
Zania Stamataki, University of Birmingham
The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University have been administered to patients in the UK, and now over 15 countries worldwide have begun administering various vaccines to their citizens. But there are still open questions about how they work and how quickly they can get distributed. Phil Sansom, alongside special guest Giles Yeo, got the picture from viral immunologist Zania Stamataki...
Zania - Well, aren't we fortunate. We've got over 200 vaccines in development, a handful already approved in different parts of the world. The data from clinical trials are pouring in and guess what? The vaccines work. We now need to get the logistics right, to protect our vulnerable and then the rest of us. And it's important to note of course that while vaccinated, although we are protected, we may still transmit the virus to others.
Phil - This Oxford vaccine - can you remind us, what exactly is it?
Zania - The Oxford vaccine has used a harmless chimpanzee virus to infect our cells and pass on a message, the genetic information, so that we can make coronavirus spike protein ourselves. This stimulates our immune system and we prepare our defenses, which takes a couple of weeks to happen. And after that, our body's ready, and if infected with the coronavirus, our immune system can stop it in its tracks before we get COVID.
Phil - We've got a question for you about it as well, from listener James who asks: "Can you explain the Oxford COVID vaccine approval by MRHA, the UK regulator and what new data is now available since their," and I quote from him, "horrendous first reporting in early December? Seems as though the UK population is being offered a 62% minimally effective solution to me." What is he talking about and what is your opinion?
Zania - Well first of all, we need to separate the vaccine effectiveness from efficacy data. Efficacy is the 62% number that your listener was quoting. And he's talking about the outcomes of clinical trials that are very short and contain a small number of people. Now don't get me wrong, the vaccine has been given to thousands and thousands of people before the clinical trials concluded, but only a small proportion of these people have become infected. So we are getting data back from a small amount of people. Now the Oxford vaccine was given to people in two different doses; some of them showed 62% efficacy in that arm of the trial; others that received a lower dose at the beginning of the trial showed up to 90-odd percent efficacy, which is all very good. But let's remind ourselves that the FDA had said that they will approve any vaccine with efficacy above 50%. And for flu vaccinations, we accept vaccines from 20 to 60% efficacy every year. So the Oxford vaccine we expect to be highly effective, and the effectiveness data is going to change as the vaccine is rolled out and we get data from real life people.
Phil - What would you say to someone who said, “no, I want the Pfizer vaccine, that one's got a higher number. That looks better to me."
Zania - We can't really make that decision based on the data that we have because we haven't compared vaccinations side-by-side, and as scientists, that's how we make comparisons: we get the same population, we vaccinate them with the same preparations, and then we expose them to the disease and we get data back. So this has not happened. And what I can say to people that are worrying about which vaccine is going to be more effective is, I would personally accept any vaccine that was given to me that was approved by MHRA - and I'll be grateful for it as well! I think a vaccine that is approved, that works, is tremendous news. We, as a population, are going to respond differently; but if the vaccine works, take it.
Phil - Giles, I'd like to ask you actually about some of the people who don't share this kind of trust, because am I right that it actually overlaps in strange ways with diet?
Giles - It does actually. I interact on social media and otherwise with diet evangelicals, who believe one diet versus the other; so they are crazy low carbers, for example, like extreme low carbers, people who are on carnivore diets and what have you. And I have found - anecdotally I want to point out, I didn't do a study - that the Venn diagram of diet evangelicals and anti-vaxxers, or anti-COVID, or anti-maskers, actually overlap quite a lot. Why might this be the case? I think underlying it is probably: there's a lot of pseudoscience that actually goes into either camps, and also a lot of going on to Instagram influencers, and social media influencers and seeing what people have to say. I think there is also an element of “I want to live natural. I want to live real. I don't want to inject something created in a lab!” Look, this is entirely, obviously nonsense, particularly since they're probably taking paracetamol or ibuprofen for their headache. But I think there's probably a little bit of that as well. And there is also another group of people who have been calling COVID a ‘diet related illness’. Now clearly our metabolic state, living with obesity or type two diabetes, increases the chances of us suffering severely from COVID infection; but COVID infection is an infectious disease, it's not a diet related disease. So it's very interesting just to see this swimming around out in the dark net of social media.
Phil - Zania, there are other concerns arising that I'd like to address with you. People are a little bit worried about the UK delaying the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine to people who've received the first one; the manufacturer said three weeks, the UK is saying could be more like months. What's behind that, and is that scientifically sound?
Zania - Well as scientists that work in the lab, we get very nervous when we deviate from a protocol. And Pfizer has only tested their vaccine with a booster within the three weeks, like you said. The Oxford vaccine was tested with later booster jabs too. Now we know however from experience that vaccination boosters continue to work well after several weeks. In the UK we have an urgent public health need, with one in 50 of us currently infected, and we are losing around 900 people a day to COVID. This decision was made to save more lives. But it is important for us to gather data to inform future vaccination protocols for different patient groups.
Phil - One other thing from listener Richard who asks: "What I'd like to know is, what are the risks of developing a serious disease if you catch COVID on the same day as having the first dose of a vaccine? Is there any reduction in your risk of serious disease?"
Zania - Within the day that you are vaccinated, you have not had enough time to generate protective immune responses. As a rule of thumb, you calculate about a week until your responses start to kick off. And then beyond that up to two weeks, when you're mounting decent memory cells, that will protect you from re-infection. So within the first couple of weeks, I would say, take utmost care. You are not protected yet - and this is in your little pamphlet as well that you receive when you become vaccinated - so it takes a little while for the immune system to develop immunity. And this is the whole idea behind vaccination: by getting our jab, we are giving our immune system a sort of stimulation early on so that when we come into contact with the real thing we'll be good to jump to it.
Phil - Zania, if I can ask you to make some predictions for me, how long do you see this pandemic lasting?
Zania - Well it depends on ourselves, really. It depends on our personal behaviour. You do need the vaccine to generate immunity for a population, so that we can protect each other for a long period of time. But if you keep to the rules, as they have been advised to: mask yourself so that you can protect others from infection if you are asymptomatic; keep your distance, so you don't catch the virus yourself; wash your hands; avoid touching your face, like I do all the time without realising - I've become so used to my sanitiser now because I just can't stop touching my face! If you stick to the rules you can protect yourself. And in fact we know from countries around the world that have been very, very strict at sticking to the rules, that they can control infection. And this way, when you have outbreaks that are small, they can quash them very, very quickly. So it is possible for us to have good news, even in the absence of vaccination; but for us to eradicate the virus as a problem, we do need to vaccinate ourselves.
45:04 - Space in 2021: rovers & a new space telescope
Space in 2021: rovers & a new space telescope
Luke Daly, University of Glasgow
2021 is set to be a jam-packed year for space science. Phil Sansom - and special guests Giles Yeo and Barbara Sahakian - heard from planetary scientist Luke Daly...
Luke - There's a number of missions that are very exciting in that regard, though having said that one of the key missions in my head for 2021 will be the NASA Perseverance rover, and its companion helicopter Ingenuity. They'll be landing on Mars in February of this year.
Phil - What is that doing?
Luke - It's doing a whole bunch of things. Any mission to Mars is searching for evidence of life on Mars, looking for environments that could support life in Mars' past when it was hotter and wetter, all looking for biosignatures: organic compounds and molecules that are sort of the ‘smoking gun’ for past life or modern life on Mars, if any. But it's also got an auxiliary aim, and that is to drill some rock samples from the Jezero crater, cache them away safely, and leave them on the surface of Mars to then be brought back to earth through later missions.
Phil - Here's actually a clip of Chris Smith describing the Perseverance Rover on our show last year...
Chris - It weighs about a ton, it's powered by a plutonium thermoelectric generator, and it even has its own drone. This is like a super yacht with a helicopter on the back.
Phil - It's a bit of a monster here! Is this a first, bringing back this sample, then?
Luke - Absolutely, it'll be the first time we've ever done this. The only samples we have from Mars are meteorites, which is where some large asteroids smacked into the red planet, blasted the rocks off the surface, and sent them spinning on their way to us. Bringing back samples from Mars is a titanic undertaking, and it's been in the pipeline and in the hearts and minds of planetary scientists for as long as I've been alive - and probably a lot longer. And it's really exciting that after all that work and all that effort, Perseverance is the beginning of this Mars sample return campaign.
Phil - When are you going to get the bit of rock back?
Luke - So at the end of a very long campaign, which Perseverance is the beginning; there's going to be an orbiter and lander and ascent vehicle; a mothership to go collect the samples Perseverance cashed, launch them up into a low-earth orbit, capture them with the mothership and send them on their way back to earth. And obviously that all takes time. Not all those missions have been greenlit yet - I really hope they are - and so I've been told anywhere between 2028 and 2032.
Phil - Oh my god! That's a long time.
Luke - That's a long time. It's over a decade. But what heartens me is there's actual physical numbers now. All through my career Mars sample return has always been a decade away, always been a decade away, always been a decade away. Now it's a decade away with actual numbers, and a mission on the ground on Mars caching samples. So we're really excited that this is actually going to happen now.
Phil - Barbara, do you ever get this in your field - you wait a decade for your samples, your data to come back in?
Barbara - I have to say this is really look ahead planning. Obviously you have to have very strong frontal lobe functionality for people who go into this area! I would like to have some studies that do that, because actually it would be wonderful to have the finances to do these longer term studies that go on for a very long time. But what I try to do in my own research is have some studies that are relatively brief in the sense that they go on for a year or two years, and then other studies that may be more three to five year studies; for my own personality and motivation, that's very good to get some short-term gain, as well as look ahead to some longer term very interesting findings.
Phil - How about you Giles? How's your patience?
Giles - I don't see patients personally, I'm a reductionist - I look at coloured liquids. But with that being said, we do take advantage of other people who have done long standing studies. So in particular, we are currently doing a study with a group in Bristol called ALSPAC, Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents And Children. And these are kids born between 1990 and 1992, so we now have this rich longitudinal data. Clearly we're interested in growth and rates of obesity, et cetera, et cetera. And so those are the kind of studies which clearly has taken a long time to put together, close to 30 years now, that we can take advantage of. I don't know if I'd want to set one up myself, I'd have to say!
Phil - Well talking of projects that do take a long time, there's another one that's going up in 2021 that's been in the works for a while. Luke, can you tell us about the James Webb space telescope?
Luke - Yeah, the James Webb is another one that astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmologists have been looking forward to for decades now, certainly longer than I've been in science. It's essentially the mother of all space telescopes. It dwarfs Hubble by six times, so it's mirror is six times bigger. And what it's able to do is essentially look back right to the dawn of our universe, looking at the first galaxies and the first stars that formed right on the edge of what we can see, to really help us understand how our universe came into being, how the first galaxies formed. But also kind of close to home, it can look into our local neighborhood and our galaxy, into the galactic core where stars are forming right now, and the planetary systems around them are starting to coalesce and come together, to really get a handle on how planets form and planetary systems form. There's a long list actually, I won't go through them all; but one of the really cool things it can do is look at and measure the atmospheres of planets around other star systems. So again, looking into habitable worlds: do any star systems or planets, exoplanets, show signs of life or show signs of habitability? By looking at and being able to catch the light that passes from the star, through the atmosphere, kind of like a really distant sunrise, and see how that light is changed by passing through that planet's atmosphere on its way to us, we can figure out what's inside it. So yeah, everything from the origin of the universe to the origins of habitable planets.
Phil - In fact it's such a big operation we actually did a full show about it, but that was back in 2018. And here's Bill Ochs from NASA talking a little bit about the telescope’s design...
Bill Ochs - Our primary mirror of our telescope is about seven times larger than Hubble's primary mirror. That drives a lot of different technologies: we have to be able to fold our mirror up so it fits inside the rocket; since it's infrared, it has to be kept really, really cold.
Phil - It's a bigger operation to get it up there than Hubble was as well - am I right that it's going way far out in space?
Luke - Yes. So Hubble was in Earth's orbit, in its kind of local neighbourhood, where James Webb going is much further out. It's about 1.5 million kilometres away at a place known as Lagrange point 2, which is a place where the gravitational attraction of the Sun and the Earth cancel out. And from there it's stable, it stays in kind of the same spot in relation to the Earth, and can observe the universe around us. Unfortunately, it's far away so unlike Hubble, we can't send a space shuttle up to fix it if anything goes wrong. So once it's up, it's up and we can't bring it back again.
Phil - There's one other thing among the other space projects that are planned for 2021 that I'd like to talk about, and it's the developments with the project Artemis trying to get humans on the moon, maybe more permanently.
Luke - Yeah, so that's again another really exciting series of missions building up to the lunar gateway project, to get a space station in orbit around the moon and get a permanent crude colony on the lunar surface. In the buildup to that NASA and co are going to be testing a bunch of rocketry systems. One really exciting one coming out of the UK is they're going to put a lander on the moon which contains a bunch of different crafts, including one built in the UK, which is the first legged rover. It's about the size of a shoebox, and it's going to be scuttling around on the lunar surface doing some really interesting science. And yeah, it's just going to kind of build up and grow from here. It's a really exciting time to be in space science.
Phil - Giles when people do get up there, they've obviously got some nutritional requirements that need to be dealt with. How are they going to survive and what stuff has got to be kept in mind for them?
Giles - The problem in space is primarily the lack of gravity. And because of the lack of gravity, it's maintaining muscle and bone mass. And now some people think that, “okay, well, I'm going to maintain it by eating protein, because obviously if I eat evil carbs and if I eat fats, all I'm going to do is get fat.” The problem is this: unlike carbs and particularly fat, we don't have stores of protein. So that means that the protein that we eat is functional; it's either gone to repairing damage or building muscles if you're actually exercising. If you don't use it, it gets converted into fat. So I think a critical thing about long-term missions, either in orbit or on the moon in low gravity, is to maintain enough physical activity to maintain your muscle mass and to maintain your bone mass, and obviously then to eat effectively to then keep those growing and building at the right rate.
Phil - Obviously a lot going on in space. Luke, do you think 2021 is going to be an exciting year for space science?
Luke - Absolutely. We're going to be utterly spoiled. There's a whole wealth of really awesome missions going up and coming back this year. So I'm really excited to see the scientific insights we get.