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.

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.

COVID-19 isn't the first health crisis the United States has faced that experts say a vaccine will be needed to resolve: In the 1950s, people lived in fear their children might be stricken with infantile paralysis, better known as polio — and they were eager for scientists to find a solution.

"There was a lot of anxiety," says New York University medical historian David Oshinsky, author of Polio, An American Story.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In an unusual move, the Food and Drug Administration today announced that is making it easier for doctors to try an experimental treatment for COVID-19 patients that uses plasma from people who had the disease and recovered.

There is scant evidence it works in people infected with the coronavirus, but the approach has been tried for other illnesses.

The federal government is now adding supercomputers to its tool set in the hunt for ways to stop COVID-19.

While health officials in the United States wait to see just how bad a public health challenge COVID-19 will pose, they still have to deal with an all-too-familiar challenge: flu.

It's been a bad flu season. Not the worst ever, but bad.

"It started very early this year," says Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collecting statistics about flu.

Viral infections can be very hard to treat. Just ask anyone who has a bad case of the flu.

But that's not deterring research groups around the world from looking for an effective therapy against the new coronavirus, although they know it won't be easy.

Right now scientists are trying to accomplish something that was inconceivable a decade ago: create a vaccine against a previously unknown virus rapidly enough to help end an outbreak of that virus. In this case, they're trying to stop the spread of the new coronavirus that has already infected tens of thousands of people, mainly in China, and given rise to a respiratory condition now known as COVID-19.

There's a mole on Mars that's making NASA engineers tear their hair out.

No, they haven't discovered a small, insectivorous mammal on the red planet.

The mole vexing engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is a scientific instrument known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 — or just "the mole" — carried on NASA's InSight probe that landed on Mars a year ago.

It's not easy to treat viral infections. Just ask anyone with a bad cold or a case of the flu.

But scientists in Massachusetts think they may have a new way to stop viruses from making people sick by using what amounts to a pair of molecular scissors, known as CRISPR.

It's a gene editing tool based on a molecule that occurs naturally in microorganisms.

Tiny satellites are taking on a big-time role in space exploration.

CubeSats are small, only about twice the size of a Rubik's Cube. As the name suggests, they're cube-shaped, 4 inches on each side, and weigh in at about 3 pounds. But with the miniaturization of electronics, it's become possible to pack a sophisticated mission into a tiny package.

It's hard for doctors to do a thorough eye exam on infants. They tend to wiggle around — the babies, that is, not the doctors.

But a new smartphone app takes advantage of parents' fondness for snapping pictures of their children to look for signs that a child might be developing a serious eye disease.

The app is the culmination of one father's five-year quest to find a way to catch the earliest signs of eye disease, and prevent devastating loss of vision.

Locusts are not just a biblical plague. They're swarming around the world. Still. Again.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the desert locust situation is serious in Yemen and at the Indo-Pakistan border.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago, it was an inspiring moment for people around the world.

But another kind of explorer is responsible for much of the modern enthusiasm for space exploration.

"Since the days of Apollo, the greatest adventures in space have been these robots that have gone all over the solar system," says Emily Lakdawalla, a self-described planetary evangelist at the Planetary Society.

Small drones can do big jobs: Firefighters can use them to find hot spots in blazes, environmental monitors can find the source of hazardous chemical leaks. One just delivered a human kidney for transplant surgery.

But it takes lots of power to spin four helicopter blades fast enough to keep a quadcopter-type drone in the air. Most can only stay aloft for about 30 minutes.

A team of astronomers led by an undergraduate student in Texas has discovered two planets orbiting stars more than 1,200 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers already knew of about 4,000 exoplanets, so finding two more might not seem like huge news. But it's who found them and how that's getting attention.

Is there an efficient way to tinker with the genes of plants? Being able to do that would make breeding new varieties of crop plants faster and easier, but figuring out exactly how to do it has stumped plant scientists for decades.

Now researchers may have cracked it.

Modifying the genetics of a plant requires getting DNA into its cells. That's fairly easy to do with animal cells, but with plants it's a different matter.

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