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 three COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are safe and effective and were made in record time.

But they aren't ideal.

An ideal vaccine — besides being safe and effective — would have a few other desirable characteristics, says Deborah Fuller, a vaccine researcher at the University of Washington.

Such a vaccine would be "administered in a single shot, be room temperature stable, work in all demographics and, even pushed beyond that, ideally be self-administered," she says.

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.

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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.

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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.

A look at the week's COVID-19 and vaccine news, including new information from the variant out of the United Kingdom.

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

Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

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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.

President Trump's medical team announced on Sunday that it had decided to treat the president with dexamethasone.

It was a decision that struck some doctors and COVID-19 specialists as surprising, given the fact that Dr. Sean Conley, the president's doctor, gave a fairly upbeat assessment of his patient's condition. Typically, only hospitalized COVID-19 patients in need of oxygen are given the drug.

White House physician Sean Conley says that President Trump was doing "very well" and that the symptoms he had are resolving and improving.

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Updated at 7:00 a.m. ET

More than 100,000 people are taking part in studies to see if one or more COVID-19 vaccine candidates actually work.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca announced Saturday that its COVID-19 vaccine studies have resumed in the United Kingdom, though not yet in the United States. The vaccine trials had been placed on hold around the world earlier in the week after a U.K. participant in one of the studies developed a neurological illness.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca has announced that it is pausing its COVID-19 vaccine trial because of a "potentially unexplained illness" in one of the trial volunteers.

The vaccine was developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca. It's being studied in thousands of patients in the United States and the United Kingdom. The illness apparently occurred in a U.K. volunteer.

Scientists and engineers in California are building a unique camera for a unique telescope.

The Rubin Observatory telescope going up on Cerro Pachón in north-central Chile can capture an unusually large swath of sky in a single image.

The camera capable of capturing those images has to be enormous. The one researchers are building at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., certainly is.

Several vaccines are currently in large-scale studies to see if they can prevent COVID-19, and more are on the way.

The primary goal of a COVID-19 vaccine is to keep people from getting very sick and dying. But there's another goal — to prevent the spread of the disease — and it's not clear most vaccine candidates currently under development can do that.

Some scientists think they can solve that problem by delivering a vaccine as a nasal spray.

Under normal circumstances, it could take years — if not decades — to bring a new vaccine to market. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that. In May, the Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed with the goal of delivering initial doses of a safe and effective vaccine by January 2021 — shortening the development time from years to months.

Nobody is eager to be stuck by a needle twice, so naturally many would view a COVID-19 vaccine that provides disease protection after a single injection as a good thing.

Two new studies released Thursday suggest that might be possible.

The COVID-19 vaccine candidate made by the U.S. biotech company Moderna and developed in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health starts its final phase of testing Monday.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni knows the dangers of infectious disease outbreaks. He was director of the National Institutes of Health in 2005 when bird flu appeared poised to become more infectious to humans. Fortunately, that pandemic never materialized, but he says it served as a warning of what was to come.

Zerhouni has been a member of the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and head of global research and development for the pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

Approximately 200 COVID-19 vaccines are being actively developed. All vaccines have one main goal: to prepare a person's immune system to fight off an invading organism should the body encounter it.

It turns out, cows may play an important role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SAB Biotherapeutics is in the business of making what are known as polyclonal antibodies. These are a collection of different antibodies that a body makes to ward off a specific invading organism.

The company has made polyclonal antibodies to treat influenza and MERS. Now it's making them with the aim of treating or even preventing COVID-19. To make them, SAB uses cows.

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