The new Covid variant, plus what Britain does during lockdown

Newscasters and British government briefings are sounding increasingly sure that the new Covid strain is more contagious than earlier versions. And it may turn out to be, but not all scientists are ready to jump on the bandwagon–especially when it’s steered by a government that outsources navigation to companies with expertise in collecting overdue parking fines. 

An article in Science magazine says that getting definitive answers could take months. What we have right now are possibilities and probabilities.

 

What’s known so far

A couple of things are known at this point. One is that the new variant is out-spreading the old ones. That could be because it spreads more effectively but it could also be because it got lucky: It found a cooperative human host, who introduced it to another cooperative host, who introduced it to a few thousand of his or her closest friends, who and so-forth’d, and before anyone had time to roast the brussels sprouts for Christmas the new strain was all over southeastern England. 

Virology professor Mark Harris, of Leeds University, said. “Unfortunately, the new variant has also become a political football.  It is being blamed by this Government for the rapid spread of the virus in London and the South-East – this is a smokescreen to distract from the failure to put these areas into Tier 3 after the national lockdown. . . .  The potential . . . [for this virus to spread through] communal activities is enormous and the rapid increase in cases of the new variant are a direct consequence.  We need to learn from the lessons of the past year and recognise that by delaying and failing to act decisively our efforts to control the pandemic are less effective, and ultimately lives are at risk.”  

The other thing that’s known is that some of the changes in the new variant are worrying. Like all viruses, Covid evolves, but it’s been known for evolving fairly slowly, making one or two changes a month. Then along comes this new strain carrying seventeen mutations, and at least from where we stand they seem to have popped up all at once.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The earliest ones are just now coming out.

Not only do the number of changes worry the scientists, so do their locations. Eight of them are on the spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to break into the human apartment, raid the refrigerator, move the furniture, play loud music, and then raise a family. The changes look like they could make it easier for the virus to break in, but that needs to be confirmed. 

Or to use that famous American (I think) saying, the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and she’s off in the wings, having a good sulk. She hasn’t even bothered to warm up yet.

 

What’s theorized

There’s speculation that the variant may be able to infect children, but that’s not clear yet. What we have at this point are hints, with no solid evidence. On the other hand, if you want to scare yourself shitless, this is good material. 

A theory on how the variant came to be holds that it could have evolved within a single patient who had a long infection, but at this point it’s just a guess.

As for where it was born, it didn’t necessarily originate in Britain. Britain’s one of a very few countries that sequences a lot of its viral samples. That translates to it being one of the countries most likely to spot a new variant, but it’s been found in other countries. One patient in the Netherlands had it in early December, and it’s been found in Denmark, Australia, and Italy. Belgium recorded four cases early in December. By the time I post this, it will probably have been spotted waiting for the train from Berne to, um, wherever trains from Berne go to. Let’s say Rome. All roads lead to Rome. Surely that includes railroads.

Finding a few (as opposed to many) cases in other countries may (or may not) be evidence that it doesn’t spread as rapidly as advertised. On the other hand, it may simply be evidence of what we (by which, of course, I mean I) already said, that Britain is ahead of most countries on identifying variants. 

Data’s a wonderful thing. Interpreting it is a bitch.

A similar variant seems to have evolved separately in South Africa. That gives some support to the possibility that the mutations give the virus a transmission advantage–or so I’ve read, although unfortunately the article didn’t explain why.

 

So what does it all mean, bartender?

I am emphatically not arguing that the new variant doesn’t spread more quickly or that any conspiracies are being built to claim that it does. (Was that a simple double negative or an implied triple one?) All I’m saying is that commonly held belief seems to have jumped ahead of the science. We have some numbers on infection rates and we have a spike protein with a fashionable new haircut. They’re worrying, especially in combination. But we don’t have the lab work to confirm the conclusions people are drawing.

I could wish the government and the scientists who appear at its briefings would say this, but I expect they think we need clarity. And since the government, at least, hasn’t been clear on anything else I can see why they might want to sink their teeth into this and shake it until it’s in shreds.

And if apparent certainty moves the government to react more decisively to the virus’s spread, that can only be a good thing. It’s a shock to find myself agreeing with anything this government does–I’ll try not to make a habit of it–but if we’re looking at even the possibility of a more aggressively spreading variant, I don’t want them sitting around saying, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.” 

Call that one wrong and people die.

People die anyway. But I think we’d all like as few of them as possible, thanks.

 

What about vaccines?

So far, the virus hasn’t moved itself outside the reach of vaccines, but BioNTech says that if that happens it could tweak its vaccine within six weeks and catch up with a new strain. 

 

And irrelevantly but importantly . . .

Researchers in Australia have documented Covid immunity eight months after an infection. No one knows yet how long immunity lasts, but the documented time keeps getting longer. 

 

And even more irrelevantly, do you know what Britons did during the last lockdown?

Given the data we have–

You remember I said (more or less) that it’s all about how you interpret your data? Well, the data we have is about food and drink, and it says we can forget all those pre-pandemic trends toward plant-based eating and healthy whatevering. Britain spent an extra £2.5 billion buying beer, wine, hard liquor (in case you think the other kinds are soft), and meat. And also tobacco–both cigarettes and roll-your-owns. 

At the top of the list was lager, but Corona beer didn’t do badly either, from which we can infer, deduce, or at least allege that the virus hasn’t affected the famously skewed British sense of humor.

Some of the expenditure can be explained by people not being able to buy drinks at the pub or duty-free wine and tobacco on trips abroad, so they may or may not have consumed more of all those things but just bought it in different places. We don’t want to jump to conclusions–at least not when they’re not any fun (she said, reveling in another double negative).

On the other side of the scales, people spent less money on prefab meals. They were suddenly rich in time, so they cooked more. They bought less bottled water and chewing gum. They spent less on cosmetics, hairstyling products, toothbrushes, and deodorants. 

I fed all of that through the invisible data interpreter that I keep on the other end of my couch and it tells me that we’ve become a nation of hard-drinking, bad-smelling cooks.

 

And finally, things you didn’t know you need to know

A gene that some small number of people inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may double or even quadruple their risk of serious Covid complications. The genetic risk, though, is much smaller than the risk that comes from social factors like poverty and poor access to health care, to name just two.

On the other hand, another bit of Neanderthal DNA may be protective. It just depends on which particular Neanderthal ancestors you might have had, and what particular bits of genetic material they left you. 

Assuming, of course, that had any Neanderthal ancestors. Most Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans do and walk around sporting some small amount of Neanderthal DNA. Anyone whose ancestors came from other places has none.

Make of that what you will. 

*

And finally, translator Peter Prowse has contributed a video to the worlds’ effort to stamp out the virus. He tells us to stop using those explosive consonants (called plosives–P, T, K, and their troublemaking friends) and replace them with softer ones.

He’s well worth a listen. 

44 thoughts on “The new Covid variant, plus what Britain does during lockdown

  1. Impossible to say what’s going to happen with all the viral mutations, but apropos the Peter Prowse thing… what about the languages that use the ‘ch’ sound…. um, a forceful L’Chaim would do it well. Talking of which, I hope you had a happy Chanucah. (I never remember it anymore.) Ptt.. where’s that spitoon when you need it… ;)

    Liked by 2 people

    • L’chaim would be a disaster. Prowse apparently heard a monologue making the same sort of joke in, I think, French, and decided the English language needed something along the same lines. German, Yiddish, and (I assume) Hebrew would be disaster zones.

      Thanks for the Hanukkah wishes. At the insistence of the household Methodist, we celebrate it. Really. I gave her a menorah for Christmas one year. It’s been downhill ever since. I’m not sure what to wish you, but whatever it is I wish you a good one. And may the new year bring us all better news than we’ve had in 2020.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. New York governor Cuomo (that’s Andrew and not Mario which is what I call him and Pretty reminds me that was long ago and far away) is already making his warnings on the new variant of the virus that he feels is partying in the US. That is, in New York specifically. Regardless, I noticed lots of Europeans are flying here to visit during the holidays. Planes, planes and more planes flying into New York City and other major hubs.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’m pro-tourism, pro-family, and pro choice but that doesn’t really matter in the case against intercontinental traveling in the midst of a pandemic. I mean, don’t let any Americans loose over there either. We have infection rate of 1 in 4 in SC now. Don’t invite me for dinner.
    My girlfriend Alexa is currently shuffling KT Oslin and 80s Ladies is on. I recommend a listen to her music. Takes your mind off Silent Night.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t know her music, but I’ll have a listen at some point. Thanks. But Europeans flying to the US in the midst of this mayhem? Are they out of their minds?? Put yourself in a tin can with a mess of people who may or may not be carrying the virus (the rapid tests are better than nothing but not entirely reliable yet) and go someplace where the pandemic’s completely out of control? For fun?

      What is wrong with the world??

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can certainly support the buying alcohol statistic. I have bought a lot of cider and it’s taking up a lot of space in my kitchen. Since there were a few weeks when I couldn’t get any, I’ve overreacted a bit. I’ve never been one for eating out, but I would often nip into the takeaway on the way home from my weekly visit to the pub, so I suppose that I’m cooking that little bit more, since I haven’t been in a pub since March.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It so hard to tell what the new variant (70% better at spreading not 7 times better as one person stated on the radio to other day) and what is sloppiness by people (calling round their familiy, children’s birthday parties, going to mass car meets etc) but numbers are shooting up in Ireland too. Wales is now almost at the top of the new cases league (boo!) In South Africa there were a number of super spreader events realted to students and drinking – as you say this variant may have just got lucky.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Loved the twitter guy! Can’t believe how many of the commenters believed it was for real. Well I can believe it really, twitter seems to me 3% intelligentsia, 97% idiots who are their sycophants on one side and trolls on the other. Have a cool Yule Ellen, hope you and yours have a relaxing time.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. P, T and K – as in pneumonia, whistle and knight?

    Sorry, I’m worried that the new Covid strain might wipe out our sense of humor instead of our sense of smell. I’ve been drinking nothing but Corona lager, but that was more to piss of the Pres, than to support the virus. I like the idea of trucks rolling across the border from Mexico.

    I’m trying to remain calm, but what are the chances I get the vaccine the day before the virus mutates into an unaffected-by-the-vaccine strain. I mean, I haven’t gotten it yet, but who’s to say it’s not sitting there waiting for that magical 70% inoculated number before growing a third arm or a second head and attacking us all over again.

    Over here, where we hardly do any sequencing, we’re screaming for a ban on flights from the UK. I’m guessing we don’t do much sequencing, because doing all that testing caused our numbers to go up. Fool me once…and all that.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The new variant is called VUI-202012/01, which may not sound very snappy, but at least it is logical – the first variant found in December 2020. It certainly seems to spread faster but we won’t know if it is more lethal that common-or-garden Covid-19 until four weeks after lots of people have been infected.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I was signed up to work last week but after two hyper allergic patients collapsed with anaphylactic shock in another centre, we were told we had to monitor every patient for 15 minutes post jab. We were banking on 8 minutes per patient, but the slower throughout meant we didn’t have enough rooms and the small car park would become clogged. Then we found out the rooms were on the first floor with a secure lift, a bit tricky to manage, keying in codes, etc. The main group we were set to vaccinate were over 80s, and it was felt that they couldn’t cope with the stairs and smart lift. I think we could have made other arrangements, but I’m just the monkey, not the organ grinder, and the whole plan was deferred until the first week in January. Other primary care networks in the city have managed much better than ours.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Arghh. How frustrating.

          Our local surgery’s doing vaccinations–I know of two people in the village who’ve had the first jab–and my partner’s 81, so in theory she should be in the same category they are but she hasn’t been contacted. We’d heard that one of the problems was that the vaccine comes in such large shipments and ours is a small surgery, so I’d assumed they’d call every over-80 they had on their list to make sure they could use up the doses. I have no idea what’s going on and I really would love to. It would convince me her file hasn’t fallen down under someone’s desk (metaphorically speaking, since it’s all on the computer).

          Liked by 1 person

  8. The Transportation Safety Agency (or whatever TSA stands for) says they are doing a million screenings a day at airports. Coming or going – foreign or domestic.
    I agree with you and April Munday – I only stop for a fancy coffee if I’m already out and about and likely to have to wait for something – but I find myself sitting at home and musing about a drip to the local Dunkin Donuts.
    Over here the Pardon Palooza is racing ahead apace and the presidential veto is coming out to play. Oddly enough, for once, all the spending bills (including to keep the gummint open, unlike two years ago…) were approved by both parties to a veto-proof majority. So there’s just the paperwork to be re-done.
    One of the students who survived the Parkland high school shooting said (at one of the first public rallies) “I call bull shit !” That pretty much says it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t even drink coffee anymore (I can either drink too much or none and went with none years ago; thank all the gods I don’t believe in for tea), but now you’ve got me wishing for one. With lots of foamy white stuff and pretty patterns on top. The human mind really is an odd thing.

      If the rapid Covid tests were more reliable, all that testing would probably make a difference. As it is, they filter out some percentage of cases, but not all. (I saw an article on a study that says they’re even less accurate when done by the semi-trained nonprofessional, which I’d have to assume includes the TSA people, whose training used to focus on catching human-size threats, not virus-size ones.)

      Have a good holiday. May the world find its way to sanity one day.

      Like

  9. All of those references to “data” reminds me of that saying (Mark Twain?) – “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I’ve always felt that a clever person can use the same statistics to prove either side of an argument.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Possibly, but half the trick in proving your argument is picking your data. You don’t like that bit? Just shuffle it under the blotter on your desk. Since we stopped using quill pens, that’s what blotters are for.

      All otherwise unidentified quotes are either from Mark Twain or Yogi Berra, and that doesn’t sound Berra-ish, so Twain it is.

      Have a good holiday.

      Like

  10. Thanks for nothing, Ellen. I’m now stuck with an eye worm consisting of Brunhilde sulking in the wings as The Ring Cycle (aka Covid) seems determined to extend its season into 2021. Meanwhile, you and Ida celebrate what you like, when you like, as you like, as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses, as so wisely advised by Mrs. Patrick Campbell. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mrs_Patrick_Campbell

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m respectful toward horses. They’re much bigger than me. Or I, if you want to be grammatically over-pure about it. So I think the holidays are safe–at least from large creatures. All we have to do is stay safe from the tiny ones.

      Sorry about the Brunhilde image. That’s what you get for watching opera. Have a good holiday. Stay well.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Back in spring, I went into the local supermarket and the entire booze section was depleted. I asked one of the assistants if the wine had been removed because it is not an essential item and she started laughing. She made it clear that in addition to toilet rolls and dried pasta, people were bulk-buying booze too. I was shocked.

    But in all honesty, as we have not been dining out we probably have bought more wine than usual. Less cosmetics – yes, but still buying deodorant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As long as you’re still buying deodorant and toothpaste, it’s all still manageable.

      The Guardian did a set of year-end follow-up stories, including one on people who hoarded toilet paper and what they did with it. Basically, they used it, but it took a while. One, if I remember right, sort of said he was taken over by a kind of madness: If everyone wants this, I must too. It not only took a long time to use it up, it took a lot of space.

      Like

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