In this Q&A, leading technology and healthcare futurist Jamie Metzl discusses a range of topics and trend lines that will unfold over the next several decades: whether a version of Moore's Law applies to genetic technologies, the ethics of genetic engineering, the dangers of gene hacking, the end of sex, and much more.
Metzl is a member of the WHO expert advisory committee on human genome editing and the bestselling author of Hacking Darwin.
The conversation was lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and length.
In Hacking Darwin, you describe how we may modify the human body with CRISPR technologies, initially to obtain unsurpassed sports performance and then to enhance other human characteristics. What would such power over human biology mean for the future of our civilization?
After nearly four billion years of evolution, our one species suddenly has the increasing ability to read, write, and hack the code of life. This will have massive implications across the board, including in human health and reproduction, plant and animal agriculture, energy and advanced materials, and data storage and computing, just to name a few. My book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity primarly explored how we are currently deploying and will increasingly use our capabilities to transform human life in novel ways. My next book, The Great Biohack: Recasting Life in an Age of Revolutionary Technology, coming out in May 2024, will examine the broader implications for all of life on Earth.
We humans will, over time, use these technologies on ourselves to solve problems and eventually to enhance our capabilities. We need to be extremely conservative, cautious, and careful in doing so, but doing so will almost certainly be part of our future as a species.
In electronics, Moore's law is an established theory that computing power doubles every 18 months. Is there any parallel to be drawn with genetic technologies?
The increase in speed and decrease in costs of genome sequencing have progressed far faster than Moore’s law. It took thirteen years and cost about a billion dollars to sequence the first human genome. Today it takes just a few hours and can cost as little as a hundred dollars to do a far better job. In 2012, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier published the basic science paper outlining the CRISPR-cas9 genome editing tool that would eventually win them the Nobel prize. Only six years later, the first CRISPR babies were born in China. If it feels like technology is moving ever-faster, that’s because it is.
Let's turn to the topic of aging. Do you think that the field of genetics will advance fast enough to eventually increase maximal lifespan for a child born this year? How about for a person who is currently age 50?
The science of aging is definitely real, but that doesn’t mean we will live forever. Aging is a biological process subject to human manipulation. Decades of animal research shows that. This does not mean we will live forever, but it does me we will be able to do more to expand our healthspans, the period of our lives where we are able to live most vigorously.
The first thing we need to do is make sure everyone on earth has access to the resources necessary to live up to their potential. I live in New York City, and I can take a ten minute subway ride to a neighborhood where the average lifespan is over a decade shorter than in mine. This is true within societies and between countries as well. Secondly, we all can live more like people in the Blue Zones, parts of the world where people live longer, on average, than the rest of us. They get regular exercise, eat healthy foods, have strong social connections, etc. Finally, we will all benefit, over time, from more scientific interventions to extend our healthspan. This may include small molecule drugs like metformin, rapamycin, and NAD+ boosters, blood serum infusions, and many other things.
Science fiction has depicted a future where we will never get sick again, stay young longer or become immortal. Assuming that any of this is remotely possible, should we be afraid of such changes, even if they seem positive in some regards, because we can’t understand the full implications at this point?
Not all of these promises will be realized in full, but we will use these technologies to help us live healthier, longer lives. We will never become immortal becasue nothing lasts forever. We will always get sick, even if the balance of diseases we face shifts over time, as it has always done. It is healthy, and absolutely necessary, that we feel both hope and fear about this future. If we only feel hope, we will blind ourselves to the very real potential downsides. If we only feel fear, we will deny ourselves the very meaningful benefits these technologies have the potential to provide.
A fascinating chapter in Hacking Darwin is entitled The End of Sex. And you see that as a good thing?
We humans will always be a sexually reproducing species, it’s just that we’ll reproduce increasingly less through the physical act of sex. We’re already seeing this with IVF. As the benefits of technology assisted reproduction increase relative to reproduction through the act of sex, many people will come to see assisted reproduction as a better way to reduce risk and, over time, possibly increase benefits. We’ll still have sex for all the other wonderful reasons we have it today, just less for reproduction. There will always be a critical place in our world for Italian romantics!
What are dangers of genetic hackers, perhaps especially if everyone’s DNA is eventually transcribed for medical purposes and available on the internet and in the cloud?
The sky is really the limit for how we can use gentic technologies to do things we may want, and the sky is also the limit for potential harms. It’s quite easy to imagine scenarios in which malevolent actors create synthetic pathogens designed to wreak havoc, or where people steal and abuse other people’s genetic information. It wouldn’t even need to be malevolent actors. Even well-intentioned researchers making unintended mistakes could cause real harm, as we may have seen with COVID-19 if, as appears likely to me, the pandemic stems for a research related incident]. That’s why we need strong governance and regulatory systems to optimize benefits and minimize potential harms. I was honored to have served on the World Health Organization Expert Advisory Committee on Human Genome Editing, were we developed a proposed framework for how this might best be achieved.
You foresee the equivalent of a genetic arms race between the world's most powerful countries. In what sense are genetic technologies similar to weapons?
Genetic technologies could be used to create incredibly powerful bioweapons or to build gene drives with the potential to crash entire ecosystems. That’s why thoughtful regulation is in order. Because the benefits of mastering and deploying these technologies are so great, there’s also a real danger of a genetics arms race. This could be extremely dangerous and will need to be prevented.
In your book, you express concern that states lacking Western conceptions of human rights are especially prone to misusing the science of genetics. Does this same concern apply to private companies? How much can we trust them to control and wield these technologies?
This is a conversation about science and technology but it’s really a conversation about values. If we don’t agree on what core values should be promoted, it will be nearly impossible to agree on what actions do and do not make sense. We need norms, laws, and values frameworks that apply to everyone, including governments, corporations, researchers, healthcare providers, DiY bio hobbyists, and everyone else.
We have co-evolved with our technology for a very long time. Many of our deepest beliefs have formed in that context and will continue to do so. But as we take for ourselves the powers we have attributed to our various gods, many of these beliefs will be challenged. We can not and must not jettison our beliefs in the face of technology, and must instead make sure our most cherished values guide the application of our most powerful technologies.
A conversation on international norms is in full swing in the field of AI, prompted by the release of ChatGPT4 earlier this year. Are there ways in which it’s inefficient, shortsighted or otherwise problematic for these discussions on gene technologies, AI and other advances to be occurring in silos? In addition to more specific guidelines, is there something to be gained from developing a universal set of norms and values that applies more broadly to all innovation?
AI is yet another technology where the potential to do great good is tied to the potential to inflict signifcant harm. It makes no sense that we tend to treat each technology on its own rather than looking at the entire category of challenges. For sure, we need to very rapidly ramp up our efforts with regard to AI norm-setting, regulations, and governance at all levels. But just doing that will be kind of like generating a flu vaccine for each individual flu strain. Far better to build a universal flu vaccine addressing common elements of all flu viruses of concern.
That’s why we also need to be far more deliberate in both building a global operating systems based around the mutual responsibilities of our global interdependence and, under that umbrella, a broader system for helping us govern and regulate revolutionary technologies. Such a process might begin with a large international conference, the equivalent of Rio 1992 for climate change, but then quickly work to establish and share best practices, help build parallel institutions in all countries so people and governamts can talk with each other, and do everything possible to maximize benefits and minimize risks at all levels in an ongoing and dynamic way.
At what point might genetic enhancements lead to a reclassfication of modified humans as another species?
We’ll still all be fellow humans for a very, very long time. We already have lots of variation between us. That is the essence of biology. Will some humans, at some point in the future, leave Earth and spend generations elsewhere? I believe so. In those new environments, humans will evolve, over time, differently than those if us who remain on this planet? This may sound like science fiction, but the sci-fi future is coming at us faster than most people realize.
Is the concept of human being changing?
Yes. It always has and always will.
Another big question raised in your book: what limits should we impose on the freedom to manipulate genetics?
Different societies will come to different conclusion on this critical question. I am sympathetic to the argument that people should have lots of say over their own bodies, which why I support abortion rights even though I recognize that an abortion can be a violent procedure. But it would be insane and self-defeating to say that individuals have an unlimited right to manipulate their own or their future children’s heritable genetics. The future of human life is all of our concern and must be regulated, albeit wisely.
In some cases, such as when we have the ability to prevent a deadly genetic disroder, it might be highly ethical to manipulate other human beings. In other circumstances, the genetic engineering of humans might be highly unethical. The key point is to avoid asking this question in a binary manner. We need to weigh the costs and benefits of each type of intervention. We need societal and global infrastrucutres to do that well. We don’t yet have those but we need them badly.
Can you tell us more about your next book?
The Great Biohack: Recasting Lifee in an Age of Revolutionary Technology, will come out in May 2024. It explores what the intersecting AI, genetics, and biotechnology revolutions will mean for the future of life on earth, including our healthcare, agriculture, industry, computing, and everything else. We are at a transitional moment for life on earth, equivalent to the dawn of agriculture, electricity, and industrialization. The key differentiator between better and worse outcomes is what we do today, at this early stage of this new transformation. The book describes what’s happening, what’s at stake, and what we each and all can and, frankly, must do to build the type of future we’d like to inhabit.
You’ve been a leader of international efforts calling for a full investigation into COVID-19 origins and are the founder of the global movement OneShared.World. What problem are you trying to solve through OneShared.World?
The biggest challenge we face today is the mismatch between the nature of our biggest problems, global and common, and the absence of a sufficient framework for addressing that entire category of challenges. The totally avoidable COVID-19 pandemic is one example of the extremet costs of the status quo. OneShared.World is our effort to fight for an upgrade in our world’s global operating system, based around the mutual responsibilities of interdependence. We’ve had global OS upgrades before after the Thirty Years War and after World War II, but wouldn’t it be better to make the necessary changes now to prevent a crisis of that level stemming from a nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, or deadlier synthetic biology pandemic rather than waiting until after? Revolutionary science is a global issue that must be wisely managed at every level if it is to be wisely managed at all.
How do we ensure that revolutionary technologies benefit humanity instead of undermining it?
That is the essential question. It’s why I’ve written Hacking Darwin, am writing The Great Biohack, and doing the rest of my work. If we want scietific revolutions to help, rather than hurt, us, we must all play a role building that future. This isn’t just a conversation about science, it’s about how we can draw on our most cherished values to guide the optimal development of science and technology for the common good. That must be everyone’s business.
Portions of this interview were first published in Grassia (Italy) and Zen Portugal.
Jamie Metzl is one of the world’s leading technology and healthcare futurists and author of the bestselling book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, which has been translated into 15 languages. In 2019, he was appointed to the World Health Organization expert advisory committee on human genome editing. Jamie is a faculty member of Singularity University and NextMed Health, a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and Founder and Chair of the global social movement, OneShared.World.
Called “the original COVID-19 whistleblower,” his pioneering role advocating for a full investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has been featured in 60 Minutes, the New York Times, and most major media across the globe, and he was the lead witness in the first congressional hearings on this topic. Jamie previously served in the U.S. National Security Council, State Department, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with the United Nations in Cambodia. Jamie appears regularly on national and international media and his syndicated columns and other writing in science, technology, and global affairs are featured in publications around the world.
Jamie sits on advisory boards for multiple biotechnology and other companies and is Special Strategist to the WisdomTree BioRevolution Exchange Traded Fund. In addition to Hacking Darwin, he is author of a history of the Cambodian genocide, the historical novel The Depths of the Sea, and the genetics sci-fi thrillers Genesis Code and Eternal Sonata. His next book, The Great Biohack: Recasting Life in an age of Revolutionary Technology, will be published by Hachette in May 2024. Jamie holds a Ph.D. from Oxford, a law degree from Harvard, and an undergraduate degree from Brown and is an avid ironman triathlete and ultramarathon runner.
This month, Leaps.org had a chance to speak with Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals. We talked about the best ways to communicate science to the public, mistakes by public health officials during the pandemic, the lab leak theory, and bipartisanship for funding science research.
Before becoming editor of the Science journals, Thorp spent six years as provost of Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor and holds appointments in both chemistry and medicine. He joined Washington University after spending three decades at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as the UNC's 10th chancellor from 2008 through 2013.
A North Carolina native, Thorp earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1989 at the California Institute of Technology and completed postdoctoral work at Yale University. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Read his full bio here.
This conversation was lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and format.
Matt Fuchs: You're a musician. It seems like many scientists are also musicians. Is there a link between the scientist brain and the musician brain?
Holden Thorp: I think [the overlap is] relatively common. I'm still a gigging bass player. I play in the pits for lots of college musicals. I think that it takes a certain discipline and requires you to learn a lot of rules about how music works, and then you try to be creative within that. That's similar to scientific research. So it makes sense. Music is something I've been able to sustain my whole life. I wouldn't be the same person if I let it go. When you're playing, especially for a musical, where the music is challenging, you can't let your mind wander. It’s like meditation.
MF: I bet it helps to do something totally different from your editing responsibilities. Maybe lets the subconscious take care of tough problems at work.
MF: There's probably never been a greater need for clear and persuasive science communicators. Do we need more cross specialty training? For example, journalism schools prioritizing science training, and science programs that require more time learning how to communicate effectively?
HT: I think we need both. One of the challenges we've had with COVID has been, especially at the beginning, a lot of reporters who didn’t normally cover scientific topics got put on COVID—and ended up creating things that had to be cleaned up later. This isn't the last science-oriented crisis we're going to have. We've already got climate change, and we'll have another health crisis for sure. So it’d be good for journalism to be a little better prepared next time.
"Scientists are human beings who have ego and bravado and every other human weakness."
But on the other side, maybe it's even more important that scientists learn how to communicate and how likely it is that their findings will be politicized, twisted and miscommunicated. Because one thing that surprised me is how shocked a lot of scientists have been. Every scientific issue that reaches into public policy becomes politicized: climate change, evolution, stem cells.
Once one side decided to be cautious about the pandemic, you could be certain the other side was going to decide not to do that. That's not the fault of science. That’s just life in a political world. That, I think, caught people off guard. They weren't prepared to shape and process their messages in a way that accounted for that—and for the way that social media has intensified all of this.
MF: Early in the pandemic, there was a lack of clarity about public health recommendations, as you’d expect with a virus we hadn’t seen before. Should public officials and scientists have more humility in similar situations in the future? Public officials need to be authoritative for their guidance to be followed, so how do they lead a crisis response while displaying humility about what we don't know?
HS: I think scientists are people who like to have the answer. It's very tempting and common for scientists to kind of oversell what we know right now, while not doing as much as we should to remind people that science is a self-correcting process. And when we fail to do that – after we’ve collected more data and need to change how we're interpreting it – the people who want to undermine us have a perfect weapon to use against us. It's challenging. But I agree that scientists are human beings who have ego and bravado and every other human weakness.
For example, we wanted to tell everybody that we thought the vaccines would provide sterilizing immunity against infection. Well, we don't have too many other respiratory viruses where that's the case. And so it was more likely that we were going to have what we ended up with, which is that the vaccines were excellent in preventing severe disease and death. It would have been great if they provided sterilizing immunity and abruptly ended the pandemic a year ago. But it was overly optimistic to think that was going to be the case in retrospect.
MF: Both in terms of how science is communicated and received by the public, do we need to reform institutions or start new ones to instill the truth-seeking values that are so important to appreciating science?
HS: There are a whole bunch of different factors. I think the biggest one is that the social media algorithms reward their owners financially when they figure out how to keep people in their silos. Users are more likely to click on things that they agree with—and that promote conflict with people that they disagree with. That has caused an acceleration in hostilities that attend some of these disagreements.
But I think the other problem is that we haven’t found a way to explain things to people when it’s not a crisis. So, for example, a strong indicator of whether someone who might otherwise be vaccine hesitant decided to get their vaccine is if they understood how vaccines worked before the pandemic started. Because if you're trying to tell somebody that they're wrong if they don't get a vaccine, at the same time you're trying to explain how it works, that's a lot of explaining to do in a short period of time.
Lack of open-mindedness is a problem, but another issue is that we need more understanding of these issues baked into the culture already. That's partly due the fact that there hasn't been more reform in K through 12 and college teaching. And that scientists are very comfortable talking to each other, and not very comfortable talking to people who don't know all of our jargon and have to be persuaded to spend time listening to and thinking about what we're trying to tell them.
"We're almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn't need to be included in stories."
MF: You mentioned silos. There have been some interesting attempts in recent years to do “both sides journalism,” where websites like AllSides put different views on high profile issues side-by-side. Some people believe that's how the news should be reported. Should we let people see and decide for themselves which side is the most convincing?
HS: It depends if we're talking about science. On scientific issues, when they start, there's legitimate disagreement about among scientists. But eventually, things go back and forth, and people compete with each other and work their way to the answer. At some point, we reach more of a consensus.
For example, on climate change, I think it's gotten to the point now where it's irresponsible, if you're writing a story about climate change, to run a quote from somebody somewhere who's still—probably because of their political views—clinging to the idea that anthropogenic global warming is somehow not damaging the planet.
On things that aren't decided yet, that makes sense to run both. It's more a question of judgment of the journalists. I don't think the solution to it is put stark versions of each side, side-by-side and let people choose. The whole point of journalism is to inform people. If there's a consensus on something, that's part of what you're supposed to be informing them about.
MF: What about reporting on perspectives about the lab leak theory at various times during the pandemic?
HS: We’re the outlet that ran the letter that really restarted the whole debate. A bunch of well-known scientists said we should consider the lab leak theory more carefully. And in the aftermath of that, a bunch of those scientists who signed that letter concluded that the lab leak was very, very unlikely. Interestingly, publishing that letter actually drove us to more of a consensus. I would say now, we're almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn't need to be included in stories. But I would say there's been a lot of evolution on that over the last year since we ran that letter.
MF: Let's talk about bipartisanship in Congress. Research funding for the National Institutes of Health was championed for years by influential Republicans who supported science to advance health breakthroughs. Is that changing? Maybe especially with Sen. Roy Blunt retiring? Has bipartisanship on science funding been eroded by political battles during COVID?
HS: I'm optimistic that that won't be the case. Republican Congresses have usually been good for science funding. And that's because (former Sen.) Arlen Specter and Roy Blunt are two of the political figures who have pushed for science funding over the last couple decades. With Blunt retiring, we don't know who's going to step in for him. That's an interesting question. I hope there will be Republican champions for science funding.
MF: Is there too much conservatism baked into how we research new therapies and bring them to people who are sick, bench-to-bedside? I'm thinking of the criticisms that NIH or the FDA are overly bureaucratic. Are you hopeful about ARPA-H, President Biden’s proposed new agency for health innovation?
HS: I think the challenge hasn't been cracked by the federal government. Maybe DARPA has done this outside of health science, but within health science, the federal government has had limited success at funding things that can be applied quickly, while having overwhelming success at funding basic research that eventually becomes important in applications. Can they do it the other way around? They’ll need people running ARPA-H who are application first. It’s ambitious. The way it was done in Operation Warp Speed is all the money was just given to the companies. If the hypothesis on ARPA-H is for the federal government to actually do what Moderna and BioNTech did for the vaccine, themselves, that's a radical idea. It's going to require thinking very differently than the way they think about dispersing grants for basic research.
MF: You’ve written a number of bold op-eds as editor of the Science journals. Are there any op-eds you're especially proud of as voicing a view that was important but not necessarily popular?
HS: I was one of the first people to come out hard against President Trump['s handling of] the pandemic. Lots of my brothers and sisters came along afterwards. To the extent that I was able to catalyze that, I'm proud of doing it. In the last few weeks, I published a paper objecting to the splitting of the OSTP director from the science advisor and, especially, not awarding the top part of the job to Alondra Nelson, who is a distinguished scientist at black female. And instead, giving part of it to Francis Collins. He’s certainly the most important science policy figure of my lifetime, but somebody who’s been doing this now for decades. I just think we have to push as hard as we can to get a cadre of young people leading us in Washington who represent the future of the country. I think the Biden administration leaned on a lot of figures from the past. I’m pushing them hard to try to stop it.
MF: I want to circle back to the erosion of the public’s trust in experts. Most experts are specialists, and specialists operate in silos that don’t capture the complexity of scientific knowledge. Are some pushbacks to experts and concerns about the perils of specialization valid?
HS: You're on the right track there. What we need is more respect for the generalist. We can't help the fact that you have to be very specialized to do a lot of stuff. But what we need is more partnership between specialists and people who can cross fields, especially into communication and social sciences. That handoff is just not really there right now. It's hard to get a hardcore scientist to respect people who are interested in science, education and science communication, and to treat them as equals. The last two years showed that they're at least as important, if not more so.
MF: I’m grateful that you’re leading the way in this area, Holden. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your work.
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Previously, scientists believed it was unlikely for fully vaccinated individuals with asymptomatic infections to spread Covid-19. But the Delta variant causes the virus to make so many more copies of itself inside the body, and high viral loads have been found in the respiratory tracts of people who are fully vaccinated. This suggests that vaccinated people may be able to spread the Delta variant to some degree.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."