Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.

In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington Star in DC.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, DC, Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Harris' book Rigor Mortis was published in 2017. The book covers the biomedicine "reproducibility crisis" — many studies can't be reproduced in other labs, often due to lack of rigor, hence the book's title. Rigor Mortis was a finalist for the 2018 National Academy of Sciences/Keck Communication Award.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

Government officials are trying to figure out how to make better use of drugs that can keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital. That's an urgent but daunting challenge in Michigan, where hospitals are struggling to keep up with a surge in new cases.

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This week Indians far and wide have been celebrating festivals to mark the harvest season and the New Year for many. For Sikh farmers from Punjab, Vaisakhi is the biggest celebration of the year, but for many in the Sikh diaspora, this year's holiday brings up complicated feelings as some of their relatives in India take part in months-long farmer protests. NPR's Jonaki Mehta has this story from California's Central Valley.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: This gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Fresno would normally be teeming during Vaisakhi season.

Researchers are reporting some progress in their search for drugs that tamp down the overwhelming immune reaction that can kill a patient with COVID-19.

These reactions are triggered by coronavirus infections and can veer out of control in some people. It's this reaction, rather than the virus itself, that is the real peril for people seriously ill with COVID-19.

A medical team in New York City says it has performed the first complete surgical transplant of a windpipe.

The trachea is basically a tube that transports air to and from the lungs, so you might think it would be easy to transplant. But not so. In fact, trachea transplants have been one of the last big challenges in this area of medicine.

A 56-year-old woman from the Bronx, New York, named Sonia Sein is the recipient. She ended up in the hospital six years ago after a particularly nasty asthma attack. To help her breathe, she says, doctors inserted a tube down her throat.

Doctors treating COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic often reached for antibiotics. But those drugs were not helpful in most cases, and overuse of antibiotics is a serious concern.

More than half a million Americans have received an experimental treatment for COVID-19 called convalescent plasma. But a year into the pandemic, it's not clear who, if anyone, benefits from it.

That uncertainty highlights the challenges scientists have faced in their attempts to evaluate COVID-19 drugs.

On paper, treatment with convalescent plasma makes good sense. The idea is to take blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 and infuse it into patients with active infections. The antibodies in the donated plasma, in theory, would help fight the virus.

Public health officials say it's important to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to reduce the risk posed by new coronavirus variants. One strategy to stretch existing supplies – albeit with huge logistical challenges — would be to give just one dose of the vaccine to people who have recovered from COVID-19.

About half a dozen small studies, all consistent with one another but as yet unpublished, suggest this strategy could work.

Though attention has understandably been on COVID-19 over the last year, nearly as many people in the hospital have died with a different condition: sepsis. A study now casts doubt on a once-promising treatment for this disease.

In 2017, scientists thought they had found a remarkable advance. A researcher in Norfolk, Va., reported that a treatment involving intravenous vitamin C, thiamine, and steroids sharply reduced the risk of death in his sepsis patients.

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Tens of thousands of people who volunteered to be in studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are still participating in follow-up research. But some key questions won't be easily answered, because many people who had been in the placebo group have now opted to take the vaccine.

Even so, there's valuable information to be had in the planned two-year follow-up studies. And that motivated Karen Mott, a 56-year-old job counselor who stuck with the continuing study.

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What will it take to finally halt the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.? To answer that question we've created a simulation of a mock disease we're calling SIMVID-19.

Mutations in the new coronavirus could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines against it. But vaccines themselves can also drive viral mutations, depending on exactly how the shots are deployed and how effective they are.

So far, vaccines still appear to work against the new strains – though scientists are warily watching a variant that first appeared in South Africa since it seems to reduce vaccine effectiveness. And evolution isn't standing still, so scientists realize they may need to update vaccines to keep them working reliably.

Scientists estimate that somewhere between 70% and 85% of people need to be immune from the coronavirus before the disease will wane through a process known as herd immunity. Both natural immunity and vaccines can play a role in achieving that goal. But getting there won't be easy.

Drugs to treat COVID-19 are being fast-tracked for development, but the pace can't match the astonishing speed that gave birth to the vaccines.

But one year into the pandemic, there has been strong progress toward effective drug treatments, and the groundwork has been laid for drugs to kill the virus and arrest disease.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, three big questions loom. First, can someone who has been vaccinated still spread the disease? Second, will the vaccine remain effective as the virus itself evolves? And third, how long will the vaccine's protection last?

Answers to these questions lie in our immune systems. And the answers aren't straightforward because our immune systems are both remarkably adept and remarkably challenging to predict.

Monoclonal antibody drugs are supposed to help people with mild to moderate COVID-19 avoid the hospital, but it can be a challenge to find out where the treatment is offered. NPR has heard from people across the country who have been frustrated by this.

They include Shirley Wagoner, an 80-year-old who still hits the ski slopes and helps run the family plumbing business in Spokane Valley, Wash.

First, her sons fell ill and were diagnosed with COVID-19. Then on the Monday after Christmas she came down with the symptoms of a bad cold, including a sore throat and laryngitis.

Many doses of the monoclonal antibody drugs that treat mild to moderate COVID-19 are sitting unused around the country. There are logistical problems with providing these drugs and skepticism over whether they work. But two major health systems have had good success in deploying these medications, and they're reporting hopeful results.

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Federal officials are disappointed to find that the monoclonal antibody drugs they've shipped across the country aren't being used rapidly.

These drugs are designed to prevent people recently diagnosed with COVID-19 from ending up in the hospital. But hospitals are finding it cumbersome to use these medicines, which must be given by IV infusion. And some patients and doctors are lukewarm about drugs that have an uncertain benefit.

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The common fingertip devices that measures oxygen in the blood can sometimes give misleading readings in people with dark skin, according to a report Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

These devices, called pulse oximeters, are increasingly finding their way into people's homes, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, this is not just a concern for medical personnel using professional-grade devices.

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Updated at 8:22 p.m. ET

In a 17-4 vote, with one abstention, a panel of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommended Thursday that the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech be authorized for emergency use during the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote in favor of the vaccine was taken to answer the agency's question: Do the benefits of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outweigh its risks for use in people age 16 and older?

The agency typically follows the advice of its expert advisers.

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The biotech company Moderna released new data Monday morning that strengthens the case for its COVID-19 vaccine. It concludes the vaccine is 94% effective — and strongly protects against serious illness. Based on these latest findings, the company plans to submit an application for emergency use authorization to the Food and Drug Administration today.

More than 2,400 hospitals and related facilities have received their first doses of new drugs that are designed to keep mild to moderately ill COVID-19 patients out of the hospital. But it's not clear how much the drugs will help these patients – and whether the medicines will reduce the demand for hospital beds.

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