Welcome to week 2 of The Body. Thanks for reading. Here's absolutely everything that happened this week in health, science, and medicine.
Booster shots? (No)
The debate over whether Americans should get COVID vaccine booster shots heated up. Drug companies say we could need them imminently; agencies say we don't know that. Expert opinions are mixed as to how and when boosters will be recommended. I think some people are looking for a yes-or-no answer that doesn't exist.
For the moment—even in some hypothetical world where there were plenty of vaccine doses for everyone—there's no case for recommending boosters to the general U.S. population. Though I expect most of us will get one at some point. People with specific medical conditions, and/or older populations may be advised to get one pretty soon. But recommendations will be incremental, starting with highest-risk groups. There won't be a sudden announcement that everyone needs a boost.
Nor will it be absolutely clear when any given person definitely needs one. That protection you have now isn't going to drop precipitously to zero. If it did, the need for boosters would be obvious. (It would also be terrible news; a catastrophic scenario where a new variant is suddenly beating everyone's vaccines.) In the real world, recommendation-makers have to decide what's acceptable, if and when protection slowly wanes. The safety thresh-hold will be somewhere between when people are 100 percent protected and ... far less protected. And the task is made more complex by the fact that numbers like that are never static. They vary based on who's vaccinated around you, and how much virus is spreading around you.
If everyone in the world had 70-percent protection, hypothetically, there should be no need for a booster. The compounding effects of partial protection would squelch the virus into irrelevance. But since that's not the case, and the virus is spreading widely, people may try to aim higher for their own protection. But that same reasoning also backfires if many people are 0 percent protected, and very much in need of vaccine doses, as are in much of the world. Whenever populations don't get vaccinated, and the virus keeps spreading widely, then your hoarded boost becomes less reliably durable.
Even if you're the most purely self-interested person alive, it's impossible to make a clear recommendation about what's best for you in the long run without taking other populations into account. We've already made an egregious display of hoarding vaccines during a pandemic. To continue to do so with booster doses that aren't even clearly necessary seems unconscionable. But we'll probably do that.
(If you're looking for a podcast to catch up on the entire history of Cuban-U.S. relations, check out the new season of Blowback.)
This is the deadliest month of the entire pandemic in Bangladesh, where the delta variant is spreading with abandon. Nonetheless, thousands of people came out of lockdown to see the smallest cow in the world (Guinness Book verification pending). There are things you need to see in person to believe. The tiny cow, Rani, is not one. Imagine a cow, but small. That's Rani. She is adorable and "reported to be scared of the other cows," in keeping with the fact that she's 20 inches tall. This is caused by pituitary dwarfism, a deficiency of growth hormone. It's rare in cows of her breed, but Rani the tiny cow doesn't want you to break lockdown just to see her, according to sources who I can neither confirm nor deny are Rani the tiny cow.
Speaking of boosters, billionaire Richard Branson "went to space" (spent "three to four minutes" at a level off the ground that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration considers to be space, but the international standard does not). Beloved Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield seemed impressed. Branson did the trip earlier than initially planned, in an apparent attempt to emasculate Jeff Bezos, who has a similar jaunt scheduled for next week. (Bezos was further robbed of grandeur when the nameless person who bid $30 million to come along bailed out due to a "schedule conflict.")
Which it may become. People with serious medical conditions and few options often pursue costly treatments that aren't better than a much-cheaper placebo. Doing something can make us feel better than doing nothing, even if the something amounts to nothing, or leaves us worse off than doing nothing.
If enough patients demand a treatment, many doctors will be willing to prescribe it under the auspices of patient autonomy. (The Cleveland Clinic offers energy healing to "detoxify the body"—and not because it's backed by rigorous evidence.) In this case, the drug is FDA approved, so that wave of demand could happen in bigger-than-usual surges if the drug company puts enough money into advertising. (And/or is able to produce compelling evidence that the drug is effective.)
Health culture wars
—Pray with me that "office bod" does not become a thing (in reference to concerns about bodily appearance upon returning to an office after 1.5 years away). Though I have a gnawing sense the phrase is already catching on, digging its claws into us. Really, everything is different now, and you're not supposed to look like you did in February of 2020. Haggard is the norm. And it's not just you: Everyone stopped showering.
—Bodies in the film and television industries are moving toward a consensus that there should be no gendering of categoriesat the Emmys or ... any other awards. NPR's Melissa Block went into this, noting that the Grammys are already gender-neutral, as now are the Berlin Film Festival and MTV's movie awards, and the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain is soon to do away with the binary, signaling acceptance of the very many people who don't fit neatly in one bin.
Quick note on reproductive aerial physics
—You probably saw the fascinating, widely shared video of tiny rainbow trout being dropped out of the cargo hull of an airplane and into a lake in Utah? It was part of an effort by the state's division of wildlife to increase the fish populations in high-altitude lakes. This had a lot of people worried about the health of the fish after falling from the sky. The agency said that most of the fish are fine. At least, more fine than when trying to take them by truck, dirt-bike, or backpack. Apparently, the fish kind of glide down through the air, more elegantly than a human body could, and they don't hit the water at the speed that would instantly shatter their tiny fish bones.
The decision to drop the fish comes after a long period of trial and error. Aerial stocking is a practice—and a science—that goes back decades. I went down a rabbit hole reading about a series of amazing experiments dropping beavers in parachutes out of airplanes, in attempt to get them to more sustainable habitats, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 1950. The logistics are even more complex than you might imagine. For example, the paper describes how the beavers needed to be put in boxes that would keep them secure during the launch, but which they could also free themselves from eventually.
But after this (and a thousand other potential problems) were ironed out (the researchers settled on boxes with lashing that the beavers could chew through, but didn't find irresistibly delicious), the practice apparently worked pretty well.
That's sad, and I don't mean to pull you down this hole too far, but I also don't want to leave you with that.
So, on a final, cheerier note:
If I were a billionaire, instead of going to space, I'd use my plane to drop beavers and fish wherever they'd like to go. (And, yes, my plan would be entirely capable of going to actual space. I'd just be too busy to do it.)
Okay, that's all for now. Please write to me if you'd like. Let me know what I missed, what you're thinking or reading or wondering. This is still in experimental stages so let me know what you'd like more or less of; what's working and what's not. Take care, and have a good weekend.
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