There has been a lot of talk about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and a reader asked me to comment on it. The company claims it is more than 90% effective at preventing the disease, which is better than what most health-care experts were expecting. If true, that news is exciting enough. To add to the excitement, it is a new kind of vaccine that has great potential, if it works the way it is supposed to. There is another company trying to produce a similar vaccine, but it looks like Pfizer is in the lead, so for the purpose of this article, I will focus on its version.
Let me start by saying that I have no connection to Pfizer or any other pharmaceutical company. I am a science educator who writes about science issues like this one. I am also not a medical doctor or medical researcher. I am simply a nuclear chemist who has broadened my knowledge base by writing (or co-writing) a series of textbooks used by home educators and teachers in Christian schools. Thus, I am no expert on these matters. However, I get most of my information by reading the scientific literature, which allows me to avoid a lot of the misinformation found in the standard media outlets and (even worse) social media.
Before I talk about Pfizer’s vaccine in particular, I want to explain how this kind of vaccine works. To understand that, remember that a traditional vaccine uses a weakened/inactivated form of the pathogen whose infection it wants to prevent (or a chemical mimic of that pathogen). This causes your body to react as if it is being infected by the real thing. As a result, it mounts a defense that is specific to that pathogen and remembers how to fight it. That way, if you get infected by the real thing, it can mount a swift immune response. This process takes advantage of your acquired immune system. However, you also have an innate immune system, and the active ingredient of the vaccine does not stimulate it. As a result, traditional vaccines have additives, called adjuvants, which are designed to stimulate your innate immune system. That way, everything in your immune system works the way it is designed to work.
I have referenced this article in some comments I made previously, but I want to highlight it in a separate post, because the graph it contains (also shown above) makes it clear that the COVID-19 deaths are not some manipulation of the data. They are real. Very real. The purple bars in the graph represent all deaths recorded in the U.S. each week since 2017. The yellow line represents a projection of the maximum number of deaths that should have happened each week. The projection is based on historical data, and it fluctuates with the season. That’s because there are usually more deaths in the winter and fewer deaths in the summer, and as you can see, the actual deaths show that same fluctuation.
Notice that for most weeks, the actual deaths were lower than the maximum number of projected deaths. That’s expected. If the projection is done well, there should rarely be a time when the actual number of deaths meets or exceeds the maximum projection. However, there were some weeks in December of 2017 and January of 2018 when that happened, because there was a particularly virulent strain of the flu that season. As a result, more people died than were expected.
But those excess deaths are dwarfed by the ones that start showing up the last week of March in 2020. In that week, about 4,000 more than the maximum projected deaths occurred. Since then, the actual deaths have exceeded the maximum projected deaths by a considerable margin every week. All of this is discussed in the article from which I took the graph. However, I want to make a couple of additional points.
First, look at the shape of the excess deaths. There appear to be two peaks – one very large one the second week of April, and a smaller one at the end of July. This is important, because it looks very, very similar to the COVID-19 deaths reported over the same time span:
When the excess deaths have essentially the same time profile as the COVID-19 deaths, you know that the COVID-19 deaths make up most of the excess deaths. This tells us that the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths are real and most certainly represent people who would not have died had there not been the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, some friends have asked me why they don’t know anyone who got the disease or died from it. After all, if there really have been more than 180,000 people who died from the disease and more than 6 million confirmed cases, shouldn’t everyone know someone who has suffered from it? Of course not! There are 328.2 million people who live in the U.S. That means about 2% of the population has contracted COVID-19, and about 0.05% have died from it. Thus, your chance of knowing someone who died from it is ridiculously low. While your chance of knowing someone who contracted it but didn’t die from it is significantly higher, remember that for most cases, the disease is mild. Thus, you would have to know someone well enough that you track his or her common illnesses to be aware that he or she had the disease!
It disturbs me that there are so many people (many of whom are Christians) who think this pandemic has been made up. The data clearly say that it hasn’t been. Lots of people died because of the disease, and misinformation will only increase the number of deaths. Now please understand that I am not saying that I support any of the measures that governments have taken to slow the spread. We don’t know enough about the disease or the consequences of the actions that have been taken to know whether or not they are a good idea. I said this before, and I will say it again:
As a scientist, let me assure you that no one really knows what we should be doing. There are a lot of experts saying a lot of different things, and you should listen to all of them. Then, you should decide what works best for you and your family, and you should start doing it. But once you decide what you and your family should be doing, please please please show grace to those who choose to do something different. Since the experts can’t agree on a proper course of action, there is no reason to expect your neighbor to agree with your course of action.
In addition to showing grace to others, please please please stop spreading the false idea that the COVID-19 deaths are few in number or not real at all. They are real, and there are a huge number of them. There is simply no other way to understand the data.
I am writing this post because a reader asked me a question that I thought was very interesting and relates to a broader concept in biology. Before I answer her question, however, I want to make an important point about the virus that causes COVID-19 and how we should react to it. A few weeks ago, I gave the commencement address to a group of homeschoolers. Before I started my official remarks, I said this:
I am not going to say much about this virus, but I will say this: As a scientist, let me assure you that no one really knows what we should be doing. There are a lot of experts saying a lot of different things, and you should listen to all of them. Then, you should decide what works best for you and your family, and you should start doing it. But once you decide what you and your family should be doing, please please please show grace to those who choose to do something different. Since the experts can’t agree on a proper course of action, there is no reason to expect your neighbor to agree with your course of action.
I think that is the best way to approach this pandemic. The experts still can’t agree on exactly what to do because we just don’t know enough about this virus to make definitive choices. As a result of this ignorance, we must all muddle through this as best we can and realize that none of us has all the correct answers.
Now let me share my reader’s question:
Recently I came across a discussion online about quorum sensing in viruses. The initial topic had been the difference between groups meeting indoors verses outdoors, as many churches are now doing. I had never heard of quorum sensing before, so I did a little research, but I wondered if you would consider addressing this sometime. It sounds pretty fascinating to think viruses and such can actually monitor their environment.
***PLEASE NOTE: This is not a political post, and all political comments will be deleted without mercy.***
A good friend of mine asked me about something he had seen on Facebook. It wasn’t this particular post, but the message was the same. The image on the left comes from the post I linked. As it shows, the Coronavirus bill that became law on March 27, 2020 (called the CARES ACT) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on January 24, 2019. That’s long before we knew about the COVID-19 pandemic. How in the world could this bill be introduced in the House before anyone knew about the virus? As the Facebook post says:
Attention: The conspiracy theorists were right in calling this a “plandemic” and the proof can be found at www.congress.gov. Look up H.R. 748- CARES Act (the Bill that was passed for Coronavirus relief).
To someone uninitiated in the vagaries of legislation in the United States, the fact that the bill was introduced almost a year before anyone heard about the novel Coronavirus does seem to confirm that the entire pandemic was planned. However, like most conspiracy theories, a bit of education is all it takes to understand the real reason behind this odd timeline.
The U.S. Constitution says that all spending bills must originate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Thus, to be Constitutional, any spending bill (including the CARES act) must originate in the House. After it passes the House, it moves on to the Senate for consideration. During that process, the Senate can amend the bill, changing things it doesn’t like. However, once the Senate passes an amended bill, it must go back to the House, and it cannot be sent to the President for his signature until the House concurs with the Senate’s version of the bill.
Because Congress wanted the CARES act to move quickly, it essentially skipped the first step. It did so by taking a bill that had already passed the House and been sent to the Senate. That bill was HR 748, which was originally entitled, “Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act of 2019.” Its intent was to repeal a tax that the Affordable Care Act placed on “Cadillac” health insurance plans. It passed the House but was never voted on by the Senate. As a result, it just “sat” in the Senate until March of 2020.
At that point, the pandemic was upon us, and the Senate decided it needed to pass a relief bill fast. It took HR 748, stripped the bill of its content, changed the title, and “amended” it by writing an entirely new bill. The details of the bill were crafted with input from the House leadership so that once it passed the Senate, the House would quickly concur with the “amendment” so that it could be signed by the President, who had also been consulted to ensure that he would sign it right away.
So the strange timeline of the CARES act is the result of a “loophole” that the Senate uses in order to speed up the passage of a spending bill, not because the pandemic had been planned ahead of time. You might wonder if using such a “loophole” is really Constitutional. I personally don’t have enough expertise to figure that one out. I have read legal opinions on both sides of the issue, and they just left me with a headache. However, I can tell you that this is not the first time the Senate has used it. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, which was originally called the “Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act of 2009,” was passed in the same way.
Over the past few days, several people have sent me articles like this one, which makes a rather fantastic claim:
The Aldabra white-throated rail bird was declared extinct, a victim of rising sea levels almost 100,000 years ago.
However, the flightless brown bird has recently been spotted – leaving scientists scratching their heads as to how – and why – the species has come back to life.
What do you conclude from reading that? The article seems to be saying that no one had ever seen this bird before; it was only known from the fossil record. Now, however, living versions of it have been seen, and how they came back from extinction is a mystery. Unfortunately, like many “science news” stories, this one distorts the science to the point that it is deceptive and misleading.
Let’s start with the bird that is being discussed. It’s the Aldabra white-throated rail, whose scientific name is Dryolimnas [cuvieri] aldabranus. It lives on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean and is nearly identical to white-throated rails (Dryolimnas cuvieri) found in other parts of the world, like Madagascar. However, the ones on the Aldabra atoll cannot fly, while the others can. As a result, the flightless birds on the atoll are considered a subspecies of the version that can fly.
While we cannot say for sure, the generally-accepted origin story for the Aldabra white-throated rail is that normal white-throated rails landed on the atoll, and since there were no predators there, they stayed. Since they didn’t need to fly anymore, they evolved into flightless birds over several generations. This makes sense, because when a population of organisms doesn’t need a particular biological trait, mutations can degrade those traits without affecting survivability. In addition, DNA is so incredibly well-designed that over the course of generations, it can “turn off” genes that are no longer used in order to save energy. As a result, it makes sense that these flightless birds are descendants from birds that could originally fly.
Why do these articles discuss the birds being extinct at one point? Because the authors of the scientific study looked at the fossil record of the atoll. Using scientifically-irresponisble dating methods, they came to the conclusion that the atoll was completely underwater about 140,000 years ago. When they looked at fossils they interpreted to be older than 140,000 years, they found two bones that seem identical to the corresponding bones in the Aldabra white-throated rails that currently live on the atoll. Thus, they conclude that these flightless birds lived on the atoll before it went completely underwater.
Well, since the birds couldn’t fly, the authors assume that they all died when the atoll was underwater. However, in fossils that they interpret as being deposited after ocean levels decreased and the atoll was no longer underwater, they found another bone that looks similar to the corresponding bones in white-throated rails that can fly. However, it is heavier and more robust than what is found in those birds, but still lighter than what is found in the flightless Aldabra white-throated rails. In other words, it seems to be “in between” the bone of a normal white-throated rail and a flightless white-throated rail. To them, that gives “irrefutable evidence” (their words) that the Aldabra white-throated rails evolved twice: once before the atoll went underwater, and once after.
While their interpretation of the evidence makes sense and is consistent with all the known data, their case is certainly not “irrefutable.” First, you have to assume that they are interpreting the fossil record correctly. There is a lot of evidence to indicate the earth isn’t anywhere close to 140,000 years old, and if that evidence is correct, then their entire explanation is wrong. Also, even if the earth is as old as these scientists want to believe, the authors’ explanation is not the only one consistent with the data. We know that flightless animals can move from place to place on floating mats of vegetation. This is called “rafting,” and it is used by both evolutionists and creationists to explain the worldwide distribution of certain animals. If the atoll flooded like the authors think, the flightless birds could have survived by rafting. What about that one bone that is “in between” the two subspecies? There are natural variations in all bones. A “more robust” bone from a normal white-throated rail can be explained by natural variation within a population of normal white-throated rails.
The main reason I am writing about this is not to argue with the authors. It’s to point out the deceptiveness of articles like the one I quoted at the beginning of the post. As I have said many times before, do not believe the things you read in the popular press when it comes to science. Most “science journalists” are profoundly ill-equipped to understand science, and usually quite poor journalists as well.
A few readers have sent me questions regarding the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, so I thought I would make a post answering those questions and providing some resources you can use to deal with the issue. Please note, however, that I am neither a medical doctor nor a biologist. As a result, I don’t claim any expertise on the matter. However, there are some misconceptions about the virus that are easily cleared up, and there are some facts that anyone who can understand the scientific literature should share.
First, a few facts. The term “coronavirus” refers to a very large group of viruses that circulate mostly among mammals and birds. However, some are able to infect people. Most coronaviruses that infect people produce mild illnesses, but some (like this one) produce potentially fatal ones. The coronavirus that is in the news right now is one that has not been seen before. This is not unusual. When an animal is infected with two different versions of the coronavirus, they can mix together, producing a new (usually called “novel”) coronavirus. This particular novel coronavirus has been charmingly named SARS-CoV-2, and it causes the disease referred to as COVID-19. Because of that, it is sometimes referred to as the “COVID-19 virus.”
The illness caused by this virus is flu-like, but it is much more serious than the flu. The death rate caused by the flu changes from year-to-year, depending on the strains that circulate. However, on average, the flu has a death rate of about 0.1%. That means for every 1,000 people who get the flu, 1 will die. Even though that is a low death rate, a lot of people get the flu. As a result, millions of people die from the flu every year. We don’t know the death rate for this new virus, since we don’t really know how many people have actually been infected, but the best estimate so far is that the death rate is about 2%. That means this virus is thought to be 20 times more deadly than the flu virus.
In general, the best way to avoid being infected by this virus is to avoid other people and avoid going to places where it has been found. The virus spreads most effectively when an infected person is within a few feet of an uninfected person. However, it might also be transferred by surfaces. If someone sneezes on a surface and someone else touches that surface, the virus can be transferred to the hand. Then, if that person touches his or her mouth, nose, or eyes, it is possible for the virus to begin an infection. Thus, you need to wash your hands a lot and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth in between washings.
The most important thing to remember is that while the illness caused by this virus has a death rate that is thought to be about 2% on average, it is significantly higher for elderly people, people who are already sick with something else, and people with weakened immune systems. Thus, if you show any of the signs of the illness (fever, cough, shortness of breath) and think you might have been in contact with someone who has the virus, you should seek medical help.
While there are several groups working on a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus, the earliest a vaccine could possibly be ready would be at least a year from now. My guess, given that I am anything but an expert about these things, is that it will not be needed. The disease seems to have already plateaued in China, and I expect other countries to be a bit better at reducing the spread. Thus, I expect that the spread of the disease will slow down significantly before a vaccine can be approved for use. I could easily be wrong about that, however.
If you haven’t seen it, there is a viral story about a high school student, Wolf Cukier, who made a significant discovery. During a summer internship, he was looking through data that had already been flagged as coming from binary star systems. In these systems, two stars orbit one another. While this may sound unusual, most stars in the universe (as far as we can tell, anyway) are a part of a system in which two or more stars orbit one another. Solitary stars like our sun are the exception, not the rule.
In most binary star systems, one star is much brighter than the other. As a result, if earth’s orbit is aligned with the orbital paths of the two stars in a binary star system, when the dimmer star passes between earth and the brighter star, the light we get from that star system gets dimmer. This is called an eclipsing binary. The data that Wolf Cukier was studying had already been noted as representing eclipsing binaries, but Wolf noticed another periodic dimming in the light coming from a binary star system charmingly named “TOI 1338.” The dimming was weaker than the dimming seen from the eclipsing binary, but it was regular. It was determined that this weak dimming was the result of a planet coming between earth and the brighter star in the binary system. In other words, this young man had found a planet orbiting two stars! Such planets are rare, but not unheard of. There were seven such planets confirmed before this one, but this is the first one discovered using this particular telescope, which is called TESS.
If you can’t quite visualize what is going on here, NASA has made a helpful animation, which I have included below. As you can see from the animation, when the dimmer star in the system passes between earth and the brighter star, the amount of light earth receives from the system decreases a lot. When the planet comes between earth and the brighter star, it dims a little.
A student recently sent me an article from Live Science that reports on a man who was declared dead by three doctors. Four hours later, as he was being prepped for an autopsy (the marks to guide the autopsy had already been put on him), he started snoring! As of the time the article was written, he was alive and in the intensive care unit of a hospital. The student asked how such a thing could happen. Was it incompetence on the part of the doctors, or is it difficult to tell whether or not a person is dead? I told the student that while I couldn’t address the details of this particular case since I wasn’t involved, I could tell him that there have been cases over the years where the experts were convinced that a person was dead when, in fact, that person wasn’t.
I first heard this kind of story when I was preparing for a talk about miracles. I ran across the case of Emma Brady. She had been declared dead after exhibiting no vital signs. She was placed in a body bag and taken to the morgue. When her children arrived about an hour later to say their goodbyes, they found her gasping for air. The administrator of the hospital said that after the family told a nurse about what they had seen:
Miraculously, the patient exhibited vital signs that were absent previously.
Over the years, I have kept my eye out for stories like this, and while they are rare, they are most certainly not unheard of.
Consider, for example, the story of Steven Thorpe. At age 17, he was in a tragic accident that killed one of the other occupants of the automobile. He was put in a medically-induced coma, and a team of four physicians told his parents that he was brain dead. They suggested that his organs be donated to help others. However, the parents brought in an additional doctor (a neurologist), who demonstrated faint brain activity. The doctors at the hospital agreed to bring him out of the medically-induced coma, and Thorpe recovered. He left the hospital five days later and at the time the article was published, he was alive and well.
Once again, while these stories seem rare, they are not unheard of. In 2008, Zack Dunlap was in an automobile accident and was declared dead 36 hours later. However, he wasn’t dead. In fact, he says that he actually heard his doctors saying that he was dead. The hospital made plans to harvest his organs, since his driver’s license said that he was an organ donor. However, as his family was saying goodbye, one of his cousins (a nurse) decided to pull out his pocket knife, hold Zack’s foot, and scrape the knife against it. Zack pulled his own foot out of his cousin’s hand. The family took it as a sign of life, and they argued that the hospital should treat Zack as if he were alive. He ended up making a full recovery.
The bottom line is that while we have amazing technology and a lot of knowledge about human anatomy and physiology, there are limits to what we can detect and what we can conclude. While it is sometimes very obvious that someone is dead, there are other times when even the experts can be fooled. That’s something all of us need to keep in mind when we deal with life and death issues.
When I wrote the first edition of my high school chemistry textbook (back in 1994), I discussed the impossibility of seeing atoms. Atoms aren’t just small; they are simply too small to be seen, even with the most powerful microscope. That’s because in order for us to see something, light must bounce off it and enter our eyes. Cells on our retina detect that light, send nerve signals to our brain, and our brain interprets the signals to form an image. Since atoms are roughly 1,000 times smaller than the smallest wavelength of visible light, there is no way for light to bounce off a single atom. As a result, we will never be able to see individual atoms, no matter how powerful a microscope we use.
I said that every year to every general chemistry class I taught at the university level, and no one ever questioned my assertion. But homeschoolers think more critically than most students, so the very first year my chemistry course was published, I got a FAX (yes, a FAX) from a student questioning my statement. The student showed me an image like the one below, which was taken with a scanning tunneling electron microscope at IBM. She asked if it wasn’t a picture of individual atoms:
While the image is generally presented as a “picture” of nickel atoms, it is not. It is a graph that represents data that have been processed through a series of equations which govern the behavior of electrons traveling at high speeds. The equations depend on multiple theories, including special relativity and quantum mechanics. I am pretty confident that those theories are mostly true, so I am pretty confident that this is a realistic representation of atoms on the surface of a nickel foil. However, it is not a picture. Light was not used (high-energy electrons were used), and the image is not a direct representation of the nickel surface. It is a direct representation of data that have been processed through mathematical equations that come from several theories.
This is definitely a picture, as it is the result of directly detecting light. And, that light is coming from a single atom. That’s the remarkable aspect of the photograph. Because atoms are so small, it is very hard to isolate a single one, but the experimenter who took the picture was able to do just that. However, it is not a picture of the atom. It is a picture of the visible light that the atom is emitting as a result of being excited. When atoms are excited, they must get rid of that excess energy, and one way they can do that is to emit light. The strontium atom is emitting visible light, which is why a picture of it could be taken.
Once again, however, this is not a picture of the atom; it is a picture of visible light being emitted by the atom. After all, the picture shows that the light is purple. If this were a picture of a strontium atom, it would mean that strontium atoms are purple. However, atoms have no color, because they are smaller than the smallest wavelength of visible light.
If you think I am just being pedantic here, consider the picture below:
Each tube in the picture contains neon gas, and electricity is being passed through the gas, giving the atoms extra energy. To release that energy, they emit light, and the visible wavelengths that are emitted produce the orange color that you see in the picture. Are you seeing all the individual neon atoms in those tubes? Of course not. You are seeing the light that those excited neon atoms are emitting.
The “picture” of the strontium atom is the same thing, except that there is only one atom emitting light, while there are roughly 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 neon atoms emitting light in the picture above.
I was asked that question a couple of days ago, but it wasn’t the first time. Over the years, several people have asked me why I write about God in my science textbooks. After all, science is about facts, while belief in God is about faith. As a result, science doesn’t belong in religious texts, and God doesn’t belong in science texts. That may sound reasonable in today’s world, but it is simply dead wrong. In addition, it demonstrates a shocking level of ignorance about the history of science. Nevertheless, it is a good question, and it deserves a detailed answer.
First, there is an obvious philosophical reason: God is the source of all that science studies, so it only makes sense to discuss Him in the context of studying His creation. Consider, for example, teaching a course on U.S. Law. Would you try to teach it without referring to the U.S. Constitution? Perhaps. Maybe there are law professors who do just that, but for me, I can’t imagine discussing U.S. law without discussing the source from which it comes. In the same way, I find it pointless to discuss science without discussing its source.
Second, there are practical reasons to discuss God while teaching students about science. If we emphasize the fact that the things we study as scientists are designed, we give students a superior way in which to view the natural world. Those who want to reject the idea of a Creator God will try to convince students that this world was “thrown together” by random chance. As a result, students get the idea that creation is full of shabby constructions. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The designs found in the natural world make our best technology look like garbage. This has led one desperate atheist to write:1
Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.
Of course, a more reasonable evaluation of the data leads us to the conclusion that biology is the study of things that have been designed for a purpose.
But the context of religion is a great background for doing science. In the words of Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Thus scientific research is a worshipful act, in that it reveals more of the wonders of God’s creation.
Ever since I became a Christian, science has been a worshipful act for me. There is no way I could write about this worshipful act without including the One who is being worshipped!
1. Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, USA, p. 1, 1986. Return to Text
2. Cosmos, Bios, Theos, Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese, ed., Open Court Publishing 1992, p. 106. Return to Text