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How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.

Community healthcare workers are often the only point of contact with the health system in many underserved areas in the developing world. These noble public servants work within the community to bring health coverage closer to people who need it. Millions of babies around the world are at risk every day from vaccine preventable diseases and many of them live in very remote communities. This means that health care workers must sometimes travel long distances over mountains, across desserts and through rivers while carrying vaccine coolers.

These are some of the reasons why Pfizer is proud to partner with organizations that share a vision of increasing the health and well-being of children around the world. Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, recently sat down with Big Think to discuss how the company is helping to improve vaccine access in developing countries.

Pfizer is helping to improve vaccine access

The constraints people face in other countries requires companies to develop more novel and innovative approaches to help improve vaccine access.

So the question for Pfizer was: Tell us what innovating a vaccine means to you?

Silbermann brought a vial to show Big Think what innovation looks like.

"This tiny vial is an incredible testament to scientific innovation. Until 2017, it provided one dose to vaccinate one child. But now it provides four doses and can vaccinate four children. By combining multiple doses into one vial we have reduced the storage space and the shipping requirements."

Innovations like this multi-dose vial are just the beginning of making it easier to get vaccines to children. Here are a few facts that Pfizer wants to help change.

  • Sub-saharan Africa bears nearly 25% of the disease burden in the world.
  • It only has 3% of the global health workers.
Pfizer feels it's critical to ensure more health care workers are trained on how to administer multi-dose vaccines.

The critical role of health care workers in the developing world

A health care worker administers a vaccine in Malawi.

Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.

When Pfizer's new multi-dose vial (MDV) became available in 2017 in Gavi countries, it was a priority to ensure health care workers were properly trained. For this, Pfizer partnered up with the AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a pneumococcal conjugate refresher course and new training program for the multi-dose vial.

As part of the partnership program, Pfizer developed a "train the trainer" model that is a tiered system of training. For example, "master trainers" will go on to train the next round of health care workers.

Last year, Pfizer trained over 27,000 health care workers across 15 different countries. And this year, it's extended the program to an additional nine countries with the goal of reaching an additional 17,000 new health care workers by the end of the year.

A future dedicated to vaccine development

The overall impact vaccines are having on global public health are astounding. It's been estimated that vaccinations have prevented 26 million cases of childhood infections in the last decade alone.

Right behind clean water, immunizations are the most important health investment we have. Pfizer employees are passionate about vaccine development because they know it will translate into a tremendous public health impact.

Once logistical barriers and other obstacles are overcome, Pfizer believes that we will be working toward building a better future in communities around the world. One the best ways to remove barriers is through working with and supporting partners.

Why partnerships matter

Pfizer supports many projects that work to empower and equip community health workers. It recognizes that supporting health care workers is a critical part of achieving universal health coverage.

Silbermann talked with Big Think about making sure vaccines get to where they are needed.

"We have to make sure that vaccines get to those who need it. I have often said that our job doesn't end when we make a vaccine and ship it to a distribution center. What good is a vaccine if it isn't reaching the people who need it the most?"

Pfizer is a strategic partner of AMP Health (Aspen Management Partnership for Health), a cross sector, public private partnership to strengthen healthcare systems. AMP Health partners with Ministries of Health to help grow community health and immunization programs by providing leadership and management training and has worked in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Zambia.

National governments in Sub-Saharan Africa are committed to deploying thousands of community health workers, but often don't have the strategic, managerial, or financial skills to run a large-scale program.

Pfizer believes that professional, supported community health workers play a critical role in reaching underserved populations and that partnering with organizations like AMP Health advances this objective.

The unsung heroes

Vaccines must stay refrigerated as they travel and be stored at very specific temperatures until they are used. Health care workers often worry about the vaccine refrigerators which can be old and if they were to break down the quality of the vaccines could be at risk.

Silbermann told us a story about how a healthcare worker in Ghana ensured vaccines were available in her clinic.

"Let me tell you a story about a healthcare worker in Ghana that we recently met. She works in a clinic in a small village in the Ho region of Ghana which is approximately three hours north of the capital. In her clinic, there is no electricity or running water. These two elements are critical to ensure safe and effective use of medicines. For example, vaccines need to be stored at a specific temperature to maintain their effectiveness and therefore are stored in fridges which are powered by electricity.

"Instead of storing the vaccines in her clinic, the healthcare worker travels one hour each way on the bus to get fresh vaccines and transport them in a cooler. She then works all day at the clinic administering these vaccines and seeing mothers, children and babies. Without the dedication of healthcare workers like this one in Ghana it is very likely that communities of children would not have the opportunity to be vaccinated."

Why is Pfizer so committed to vaccines?

Pfizer colleagues are passionate about vaccine development and innovation because they know it can translate into a tremendous public health impact. Immunization not only saves lives and improves health, it also unlocks the potential of a community—a vaccinated community is not only healthier, research has shown it is stronger and more productive.

Silbermann left us with this thought:

"When I think about the future, I know we can make a significant difference by ensuring that no logistical issue is an obstacle to a child getting vaccinated. But we can't do it alone. We need to work together to build on our experiences and capabilities to make the world a healthier place to live."

Here's what it takes to get vaccines from the lab to the field

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A group of meteorites come from 1 single planetesimal

The meteorites suggest astronomers may have small, early planets wrong.

Image source: Madhuvan Yadav/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • A group of meteorites that have come down all over the Earth have something in common.
  • They all come from one early-universe baby planet, or planetesimal.
  • That planetesimal was apparently not what astronomers expected.

Before planets formed, astronomers believe, there were lots of mini-planets, or planetesimals, many of which eventually broke apart — they're believed to be the source of meteorites that strike Earth. Perhaps surprisingly, a group of meteorites all around the globe come from the very same planetesimal. Not only is that a bit weird, but the evidence suggests that this former baby planet was not what scientists thought a planetesimal could be.

The research, "Meteorite evidence for partial differentiation and protracted accretion of planetesimals," is published in ScienceAdvances. The research was partially funded by NASA.

Planetesimals

Image source: Maria Starovoytova/Shutterstock

Some things are pretty much known about planetesimals. First, it's believed that they formed out of the swirling mass of gas and dust that was our universe roughly 4.5 billion years ago. As the universe cooled, bits began to crash into each other, forming these small bodies. It's been thought that they formed quickly as these things go — in less than a few million years.

Early planetesimals, forming in the first 1.5 billion years of our solar system, would have pulled in radiogenic materials from the hot universe. This material gave off heat as it decayed, and so the cosmic rubble comprising these planetesimals was melted into a relatively homogeneous achondritic mass. Radiogenic materials would less available to planetesimals formed later, and their rubble, though merged into a planetesimal, would be unmelted, or chondritic.

There may have been planetesimals that formed in the middle period, between early and late. The study notes, "This could have resulted in partially differentiated internal structures, with individual bodies containing iron cores, achondritic silicate mantles, and chondritic crusts." However, there's been little evidence of such "intermediate" planetesimals.

Until now, it's been basically a binary proposition: melted or unmelted. Which gets us to the family of meteorites.

IIE irons

Image source: Carl Agee, Institute of Meteoritics, University of New Mexico/MIT News

When meteorites are found and studied, the type of planetesimal from which they came is usually clear: melted or unmelted. Not so a family of meteorites called the "IIE irons." (IIE is their chemical type.)

As study co-author Benjamin Weiss of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) explains, "These IIE irons are oddball meteorites. They show both evidence of being from primordial objects that never melted, and also evidence for coming from a body that's completely or at least substantially melted. We haven't known where to put them, and that's what made us zero in on them."

Researchers had previously established that all of these IIE iron outliers — which themselves can be either achondritic or chondritic — came from the same planetesimal, and that raises some intriguing questions.

As study lead author Clara Maurel, a grad student at EAPS, puts it, "This is one example of a planetesimal that must have had melted and unmelted layers." Did that baby planet perhaps have a solid crust over a liquid mantle? "[The IIE irons encourage] searches for more evidence of composite planetary structures," she says. "Understanding the full spectrum of structures, from nonmelted to fully melted, is key to deciphering how planetesimals formed in the early solar system."

Back to the planetesimal

Image source: Maurel, et al

One particularly interesting question was this, says Maurel: "Did this object melt enough that material sank to the center and formed a metallic core like that of the Earth? That was the missing piece to the story of these meteorites."

If that was the case, the scientists reasoned, mightn't such a core generate a magnetic field in the same way that Earth's core does? Some minerals in the planetesimal might have become oriented in the direction of the field, similarly to the way a compass works here. And if all that's the case, those same minerals in the IIE irons might still retain that orientation.

The researchers acquired two of the IIE iron meteorites, named Colomera and Techado, in which they detected iron-nickel minerals known for their ability to retain magnetic properties.

The team took their meteorites to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for analysis using the lab's Advanced Light Source that can detect minerals' magnetic direction using X-rays that interact with their grains.

The electrons in both IIE irons were pointed in the same direction, providing additional confirmation of their common source and suggesting their planetesimal indeed had a magnetic field, and it roughly equivalent in size to the Earth's.

The simplest explanation for the effect was that the planetesimal had a liquid metallic core that would have been a minimum of tens of kilometers wide. This implication suggests that previous assumptions regarding the speedy formation of planetesimals is, at least in the case of this one, wrong. This planetesimal must have formed over the course of several million years.

Back to the IIE irons

Colomera and Techado roughly agree on their planetesimal's cooling pattern.

Image source: Maurel, et al

All of this got the researchers wondering where in this surprisingly complex planetesimal the meteorites might've come from. They partnered with scientists from the University of Chicago to develop models of how this all might've gone down.

Maurel's team came to suspect that after the planetesimal cooled down and imprinted the magnetic field on the minerals, collisions with other bodies tore them away. She hypothesizes, "As the body cools, the meteorites in these pockets will imprint this magnetic field in their minerals. At some point, the magnetic field will decay, but the imprint will remain. Later on, this body is going to undergo a lot of other collisions until the ultimate collisions that will place these meteorites on Earth's trajectory."

It's impossible to know for now whether the planetesimal that produced the IIR irons was unusual, or if its history is typical for planetesimals. If so, the simple melted/unmelted dichotomy needs to be reconsidered.

"Most bodies in the asteroid belt appear unmelted on their surface. If we're eventually able to see inside asteroids," says Weiss, "we might test this idea. Maybe some asteroids are melted inside, and bodies like this planetesimal are actually common."

The Anthropause is here: COVID-19 reduced Earth's vibrations by 50 percent

The planet is making a lot less noise during lockdown.

Photo by Eric Rojas/Getty Images
Coronavirus
  • A team of researchers found that Earth's vibrations were down 50 percent between March and May.
  • This is the quietest period of human-generated seismic noise in recorded history.
  • The researchers believe this helps distinguish between natural vibrations and human-created vibrations.
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Dinosaurs suffered from cancer, study confirms

A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.

Surprising Science
  • The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
  • After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
  • The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
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