COVID, Quickly, Episode 3: Vaccine Inequality–plus Your Body the Variant Fighter

Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a new Scientific American podcast series!

Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.

Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis

Fischman: I’m Josh Fischman

Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors. Today we’re going to talk about the barriers Black and Latino people face in getting COVID vaccines …

Fischman: How your immune system strikes back against new coronavirus variants …

Lewis: And what the heck is going on with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Fischman: The pace of COVID vaccinations is picking up in the U.S. More than 87 million people have gotten at least one dose. Still, communities hit hardest by the disease are getting left behind. Who are they, and what’s the trouble?

Lewis: It’s true that states are opening up vaccination to more and more people, but Black and Latino people are getting vaccinated at lower rates than white and Asian people, despite getting sick and dying at higher numbers from COVID.

Fischman: You did some reporting on this with our colleague graphics editor Amanda Montañez. What states did you look at? 

Lewis: So, we broke down the data for five populous states with some of the worst COVID outbreaks: California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. The data show that Hispanic people had some of the lowest vaccination rates proportional to their share of the population, especially in California and Texas. Black people in New York, Illinois and Florida are getting vaccinated at notably lower levels as well.

Fischman: Did you get a sense of the reasons for those trends in the data?

Lewis: Many states have age minimums for vaccination, but Black people have a shorter life expectancy than white people, so they are at higher risk of dying before they reach the age cutoff. Many Black and Latino households are less likely to have high-speed Internet and the time to spend online booking vaccine appointments. They also are less likely to own a car to be able to drive to the vaccination sites. Language barriers and ID requirements also make it harder.

Finally, vaccine hesitancy plays a role in some communities of color—for legitimate reasons. But more and more of those people are now willing to get a vaccine. The government and health departments could make it easier by lowering some age barriers, helping those most at risk make and get to their appointments, and opening more community clinics.

People are worried about all these new coronavirus variants with mutations, thinking that they might evade the new vaccines. But you’ve found out that our bodies may have some countermeasures, right?

Fischman: Yes, we’ve all heard by now about the variants popping up that are more infectious than the original. Well, it turns out your virus-fighting cells may be evolving to keep up with them.

Several teams of immunologists have been looking at people who were infected with the virus early in the pandemic. These people have antibodies against that early version of the virus. But—and this is really fascinating—the people also have reserve armies of immune cells. Six months later these armies have mutated a little. They now churn out antibodies that are shaped a bit differently. Some seem to be a better fit for the new variants. In test tubes, the antibodies neutralize the newer virus versions.

Essentially, the immune system is trying to get ahead of the virus. That’s the explanation from Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at the Rockefeller University in New York, who did some of this work. Monique Brouillette, one of our writers, learned that he and other researchers are now trying to figure out if the body makes enough reserves to knock down a variant infection completely. They don’t know yet. But it’s encouraging to think our bodies aren’t just sitting around but actively trying to come up with new antivirus weapons.

Why is there so much controversy over the AstraZeneca vaccine? It’s been approved in Europe but not yet in the U.S. I keep hearing about side effects and questions about how effective it is. What should we know?

Lewis: Last week there were concerns that the vaccine may have been linked to blood clots, but the European Medicines Agency (Europe’s FDA) concluded that it is safe and effective, and the benefits outweigh the risks.

And AstraZeneca has had some self-imposed problems. Earlier this week, the company put out a press release saying the vaccine was 78 percent effective at preventing COVID in a U.S. trial. But then, in a highly unusual statement, a committee of scientists that was monitoring the trial put out a letter saying it was concerned that the company was using outdated results and suggesting the efficacy may be lower.

On Wednesday AstraZeneca put out another statement based on more recent results that showed its vaccine is 76 percent effective and protects against severe disease. That is still very good, so it seems to be more of a communication issue than a science one. Right now Americans have access to three other vaccines, but AstraZeneca’s could still be hugely important for the rest of the world.

Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us. 

Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out for updated and in-depth COVID news.

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