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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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.

A low-cost anti-inflammatory drug appears to reduce the risk of death in patients with COVID-19.

The drug is called dexamethasone. It's been used for decades to treat conditions such as arthritis and asthma. Because patients with advanced COVID-19 disease can have severe lung inflammation, scientists wanted to see if dexamethasone could treat that condition.

It was one of the drugs studied in a large clinical trial in the United Kingdom known as RECOVERY, or Randomized Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Turns out that cows may be helpful to us in the pandemic. There's a biotech company in South Dakota using cows to make antibodies for treating human disease. And lately, they've been making antibodies for COVID-19. Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today withdrew a special status known as emergency use authorization for the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

Emergency use authorization is designed to facilitate the availability of drugs needed during public health emergencies. It allows unapproved medical products or unapproved uses of approved medical products to be used in such emergencies.

Right now, there is only one drug shown by rigorous scientific testing to be helpful for treating COVID-19. That drug is the antiviral medication called remdesivir, made by Gilead Sciences. But remdesivir's proven benefits are modest: reducing hospital stays from 15 to 11 days.

Once upon a time, developing a new vaccine was a step-by-step process that went from concept, to design, to tests in humans, to regulatory approval, to manufacturing.

It was a process that could take a decade or more.

But the urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine has radically changed all that. Now, the hope is the entire process can be completed in a year or less.

Taking hydroxychloroquine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 does not protect someone from getting the disease.

That's the conclusion of a study published Wednesday involving 821 participants. All had direct exposure to a COVID-19 patient, either because they lived with one, or were a health care provider or first responder.

Updated at 10:20 p.m. ET

President Trump on Monday revealed to reporters that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine and zinc to protect against the coronavirus.

"I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this," the president told reporters, volunteering the information at the end of a roundtable with restaurant owners.

Trump said he asked his doctor about taking it after hearing from people who had done so. "Here's my evidence — I get a lot of positive calls about it," he said.

A vaccine manufacturer is reporting preliminary data suggesting its COVID-19 vaccine is safe, and appears to be eliciting in test subjects the kind of immune response capable of preventing disease.

Moderna, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., developed the vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The results reported Monday come from an initial analysis of a Phase I study primarily designed to see if the vaccine is safe.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Most health experts agree that the need for a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is clear.

"To return to a semblance of previous normality, the development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is an absolute necessity" is how a perspective in Science magazine puts it.

While authorities across the U.S. struggle to make policy without any hard numbers for how many people are actually infected with the coronavirus, Oregon State University has launched a project to change that — at least for one small city.

Most public health experts agree that widespread testing will be needed to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control. But for now, most coronavirus tests require specialized laboratories and high-tech equipment to process them.

Researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT hope to change that with a simpler test that could conceivably be done in someone's kitchen.

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has begun testing a new coronavirus vaccine in the United States. The initial trial will involve 360 volunteers, and the first subjects have already received injections.

The vaccine was developed in a partnership between Pfizer and the German biotech company BioNTech. In addition to the U.S. trials, there will be some 200 patients enrolled in trials in Germany.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommends against doctors using a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for the treatment of COVID-19 patients because of potential toxicities.

"The combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin was associated with QTc prolongation in patients with COVID-19," the panel said.

QTc prolongation increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Being able to test for coronavirus infections is a critical component to reopening society — even a little bit — after the initial wave of COVID-19. So there is an urgent need for faster, cheaper tests than the ones available at present.

Two of the world's largest vaccine manufacturers are joining forces to develop a new vaccine to prevent COVID-19.

Usually, the pharmaceutical behemoths GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi are competitors, but in a conference call with reporters, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley said the coronavirus pandemic represented "an unprecedented global health threat," and, therefore, required new ways of doing business.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gilead Sciences is reporting some preliminary results from the use of its antiviral drug remdesivir in treating patients with COVID-19.

The study, published Friday by the New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated the response of 53 patients given remdesivir on a compassionate use basis.

Thirty-six showed clinical improvement, while eight got worse. Patients who were not on a ventilator tended to do better than those who were. Seven of the 53 died.

How do you know when an experimental drug is working? For scientists, that answer only comes from carefully controlled clinical trials.

For President Trump, such trials aren't something he wants to wait on before promoting such a drug.

At Tuesday's White House coronavirus task force briefing, Trump told the story of a woman from Michigan who was sick with COVID-19 — a story he had seen on television the night before.

President Trump asked Americans during Monday's coronavirus briefing to maintain their social distancing through the end of the month to bring the coronavirus under control.

And if people really do observe the stay-at-home orders, models suggest that the epidemic could wane by summer. There's also hope that the changing weather will help slow the spread of the virus, though that's far from certain.

But there's a problem. Even if things "get better all of a sudden," as the president suggested he hoped would happen, the virus will not have gone away.

Scientists are reporting promising results for a new drug to treat COVID-19.

The drug is known as EIDD-2801. It works by interfering with the coronavirus' ability to make copies of itself once it infects a cell. In that regard it's similar to remdesivir, a drug currently being tested in COVID-19 patients.

EIDD-2801 has one major advantage over remdesivir: It can be taken as a pill, whereas remdesivir must be given intravenously.

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET

The Food and Drug Administration announced Friday it was taking the lead on a national effort to facilitate the use of plasma from recovered patients to treat patients infected with the coronavirus.

The FDA program involves the Mayo Clinic and the American Red Cross, with funding from the federal government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

A nationwide trial is underway to see if the drug hydroxychloroquine can prevent disease in people exposed to the novel coronavirus. A second trial will test to see if the drug can prevent severe disease in people who are already showing COVID-19 symptoms.

The trials are being run by David Boulware, an infectious disease scientist at the University of Minnesota.

"My normal research is doing clinical trials in Africa for fungal meningitis of the brain," Boulware says.

When our bodies are invaded by a virus, our immune systems make particular proteins called antibodies to help fight off infection.

Scientists working to quell the COVID-19 pandemic think it will be possible to figure out which antibodies are most potent in quashing a coronavirus infection, and then make vast quantities of identical copies of these proteins synthetically.

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