Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Cameron Hood, Newsletter EditorJonathan Lambert
Public Health Reporter
Welcome to Grid Health, bringing you stories on the intersections of health and politics, technology, climate change, misinformation and more. In today’s issue:  
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The future of covid vaccinations in the U.S. became a bit clearer last week after an FDA advisory committee voted unanimously in favor of the agency’s proposal to simplify covid vaccines to one shot per year for most Americans. The committee addressed many of the questions I raised in my story previewing the meeting, but what this once-a-year shot will look like, and whether it’ll be a successful long-term strategy, is far from clear. 

💉 One of the big questions: How will the FDA choose which covid strain(s) to target each year? 

The FDA’s advisers largely agreed that updating the shots to match circulating strains — as we do with flu shots each year — is a good idea. But covid hasn’t settled into a
predictable seasonal pattern like flu, making it hard to fully follow the flu shot model. Northern Hemisphere flu shots are based on which strains dominated the Southern Hemisphere winter a few months before.  

🏃 Some FDA panel members argue that covid “variant chasing” is ultimately a fool’s errand. After all, the strains this committee selected last summer for the bivalent booster — BA.4/BA.5 — were mostly gone by the time the vaccines rolled out. A precise match may not be necessary, since there’s evidence the bivalent boosters still protect against variants like XBB.1.5, but if the coronavirus takes an unexpected evolutionary turn after a target strain is chosen, the updated shots could be duds.  

👯 There’s also the question of how many strains to target. The bivalent boosters try to
cover many immunological bases by mixing the original Wuhan strain of the virus with an omicron strain, a strategy that stirred skepticism during this meeting. Continuing to include the old variant could keep our immune response tethered to old strains, or it might be a way of hedging against evolutionary curveballs. 

Perhaps most important: We need next-generation vaccines that go beyond tinkering with existing shots. The current crop of vaccines has done tremendous good, but as we figure out how to live with covid, more durable shots would be a huge help. Many committee members called for more funding into variant-proof vaccines that target more stable parts of the virus or nasal vaccines that might do a better job at blocking infection, not just severe disease. Scientists are racing to develop such vaccines, but it’ll be some time, perhaps years, before  
FDA advisers consider them directly. In the meantime, regulators will have to wait and see how well a flu-like approach to the covid vaccine works. 


💠 What the Tyre Nichols case reveals about body cameras: Police surveillance and body cameras captured the killing of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols by officers in Memphis, Tennessee, in stark and gruesome detail. Memphis prosecutors have now charged five officers with Nichols’ murder and other crimes, based in part off the body camera footage. But the case is a stark reminder that such cameras, now used widely in the U.S. and touted as a way to reduce officer misconduct, have a decidedly mixed track record, Technology Reporter Benjamin Powers writes. 

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race and abortion: A primary election this month for state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin is laying bare the significance of down-ballot races across the country after the Supreme Court ended federal abortion rights, Politics Reporter Sophie Tatum writes. The end of federal abortion rights has propelled Wisconsin’s technically nonpartisan primary into national focus, with Democratic-aligned groups — and candidates — framing the race as a vote on the Badger State’s abortion ban.  

The battle over state abortion-pill bans begins: Starting a nationwide courtroom battle over abortion pills that will likely end up at the Supreme Court, the drugmaker GenBioPro filed suit against West Virginia’s ban on the medication, mifepristone, I write. In the lawsuit filed last week, GenBioPro, one of two domestic makers of the drug, says that the FDA’s powers over interstate commerce, which allow sales of the drug, supersede state laws such as West Virginia’s, a legal concept known as “preemption.” 

Republican statehouses double down on anti-trans bills: At least 18 states are considering legislation that would outlaw treating teens with puberty-blocking hormones or gender-confirming surgery — threatening to create a wall of states where such care would be at best unavailable and at worst a criminal act, Science Reporter Dan Vergano writes. The push by conservative lawmakers across the country is already having a chilling effect on gender-affirming care for trans and nonbinary teens, even in states where such treatments are not at risk of being outlawed. 


By the middle of this century, the number of people aged 65 and over around the world will total more than 1.6 billion people, up from around 760 million in 2021. In other words, there will be more than twice as many elderly people a generation from now. 

“This is not a short-term challenge like famine or drought or war, but it is a long-predicted, natural change in the structure of our societies,” John W. Rowe, an expert on aging at Columbia University and a past president of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, told Grid. 

And it is
a change with far-reaching consequences, as Grid reporters break down in a 360 special report, looking at how this demographic shift is playing out in Japan, Korea, China, Europe and India. 

Read the full 360 here.


👋 Thanks for reading. Until next week, take care. –Jon

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Cameron Hood and Dave Tepps also contributed to this edition.
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