Fighting to outrun Covid’s mutations

A small test of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine has come back with bad news: It gives people only minimal protection against the mild form of the South African Covid variant. It may, though, prevent the most serious forms of the disease.

May. The study involved only 3,000 people–yeah, that’s a small test–and they were young, with an average age of 31. In other words, they’re less likely than older people to get serious Covid, which limits the information the test could deliver. 

AZ is frantically working to tweak its vaccine and expects to have a modified vresion–a booster shot–in the fall. 

But there’s a way to broaden and deepen people’s immunity, according to an expert I can’t link to because he was on the evening news, and that’s to mix vaccines: one dose of AstraZeneca, one of Johnson & Johnson, or of Pfizer. If you were drinking that way, you’d have a hell of a hangover the next morning, but you’re not, you’re sampling vaccines. It’s a way to keep ahead of the virus’s evolution, at least for a while.

The expert said he was fairly sure that the virus will turn out to be seasonal, in which case we should get some breathing room come summer. 

Irrelevant photo: A viola, stolen from last summer. Sorry–it’s late and a couple of other new photos have gone strange on me.

For the UK, the good, if tentative, news is that the South African variant doesn’t seem to have spread widely in the country. Note the weasel-word there: seem. A lot of frantic testing’s going on, trying to identify the variant and contain it. I haven’t seen much about how competently the testing’s being handled. In spite of itself, the government’s managed the vaccination process well. It handed it to the National Health Service instead of contracting it out to Conservative Party donors and friends. Who’d have thought that asking experts to do the job would work so well?

The government’s also done good work in sequencing the virus, which is turning out to be important. But its test and trace system has been an expensive farce. Until further notice, I’m skeptical about them containing the virus. 

A number of people sound like they’re betting on the Kent variant out-competing it, because it’s believed to be more contagious. That’s sort of like–

Well, I was once on a committee with two difficult people who disliked each other. I counted on their dislike to keep them busy enough that the rest of us could get some work done. It wasn’t one of my better ideas. But they were humans, not viruses, although at the time I might have said differently. I don’t see how one variant will block the other, although it might outspread it. 


If the AZ virus protects against the serious forms of the virus, what does that leave? Mild or moderate Covid, and they’re nothing you’d volunteer for. 

With mild Covid you get to choose from a list of symptoms: fever, tiredness, muscle aches, headache, sore throat, runny nose, and loss of your sense of smell or taste, but you won’t be breathless and you’ll still be able to take care of yourself. You get to keep your appetite but you may be sad and weepy. So basically, you feel like shit and it lasts seven to ten days. 

And moderate? That’s even more fun. You get to choose from a cough that may be worse than the one they forgot to mention in the mild case, a higher temperature, breathlessness when you do normal stuff like going up stairs but not if you just bump around the kitchen, disturbed sleep, diarrhea, headache, and a dry mouth.But you can still take care of yourself, even if you don’t really want to. You can sit still and not be breathless. You can make sense when you talk to people. You may feel not just weepy or low but downright miserable. You may want to stay in bed for a couple of days. And that goes on for a week or two. 

Is either version likely to lead to long Covid? If anyone knows, they haven’t told me. I’m sure it was just an oversight. 



Could we have some good news, please? Why, yes, I think we can: A bunch of sciency types have found a nanobody that looks like it’ll block Covid.

Let’s chop that into little pieces and try to figure out what I’m talking about. Nanobodies aren’t people who’ve lost a lot of weight. They’re synthetic versions of tiny antibodies that were originally found in llamas and camels–who for the sake of simplicity should probably be known as llamels but aren’t. 

Viruses work by hijacking human cells. Or any cells, but it’s humans we’re interested in just now. To do that, Covid uses those spikes we keep seeing pictures of. I don’t  know about you, but I’m really tired of seeing them. 

The researchers’ idea was to give the virus the right nanobody to grab onto–something that isn’t a human cell. Better yet, the nanobody they found is cheap to produce, easy to store and transport, and can be delivered as an aerosol–a couple of sniffs and you have nanobodies.

The problem–there’s always a problem, isn’t there?–is that the next stage, testing, is expensive and they’re still looking for a partner with money. But pharmaceutical companies are focused on vaccines right now, so they’re not being overwhelmed with offers. Still, it’s hard to believe that someone won’t show up, cash card in hand.

26 thoughts on “Fighting to outrun Covid’s mutations

  1. “Who’d have thought that asking experts to do the job would work so well ?” Yeh, that’s been a surprise to some folks over here too..but there is a long stretch to catch up on.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You wrote:
    But there’s a way to broaden and deepen people’s immunity, according to an expert I can’t link to because he was on the evening news, and that’s to mix vaccines: one dose of AstraZeneca, one of Johnson & Johnson, or of Pfizer.

    There’s a trial ongoing in the UK to answer this question. I suspect it won’t be harmful, but not as beneficial as having two identical doses.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The horrible thing seems to be so clever that I suspect it’ll soon find a way to mutate and outwit the other vaccines too, so they’re all going to need tweaking. But, as we keep being told, viruses do this, and the flu vaccine has to be tweaked regularly as well. We’ll probably get to a point when going for your annual Covid jab is just a routine thing, like going for an eye test or a dental check-up, but it’s getting to that point, and having the capacity to produce that quantity of vaccine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The mutants are advancing. This sounds like a bad sci-fi movie but is actually much scarier. My immediate family now has three cases of covid here in Portugal. My wife’s uncle is a cabbie and that is obvious how he got it and spread to his family. The good news here is that covid is on the decline three weeks after total shut down. What does that mean? Covid was being spread by restaurants, bars, and cafés which were the last to close besides schools. These places are the only inside places that did not require masks. All schools were mask mandatory. What a no brainer. We still have a high level, about three times the highest level in spring 2020, and this week the government will decide on whether to extend the state of emergency for two more weeks, which I think they should. That’s my Portuguese update. Far UVC is the long term answer. Something called hygiene ended most of the historical epidemics in the past. Something for a post I must write.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The rates here are going down, but not as much as they’d hoped. My best guess is that it’s because of the halfhearted nature of the measures the government’s willing to take–it sounds like Portugal’s putting more ooomph behind the lockdown–but some people are attributing it to the Kent variant. Cynic that I am, that strikes me as convenient, but who knows at this point.

      Fingers crossed for your family members. I used to drive cab back in Minneapolis and cab drivers have been on my mind throughout this mess.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have always found the testing of vaccines during a time when there are strict social distancing measures confusing.

    I would imagine that if a vaccine is tested in a land where people are staying at home, working from home, getting home deliveries from Ocado, wearing facemasks when they do venture out to the chemists, cancelling Christmas etc those circumstances would make it look as if the vaccine is working very well. However, if the same vaccine is tested in a land where the other measures are not as strict, I would have expected that numbers would not look so good. I am sure there is a lot more to it than that, and potentially different variants could do a lot more damage, but I sometimes worry there is too much emphasis put on the import of various vaccines.

    Although I am all for getting vaccinated, I consider it only one string of the bow. I think vaccines cannot be solely depended on for a long time. It is those other social distancing measures and good hygiene that have to work alongside the vaccines for there to be real results. That’s why the lifting of social distancing restrictions cannot be rushed. I understand that there are huge economic impacts of social distancing and also concern over mental health, but I dread the thought of us relying too much on the vaccines and removing the measures that have made an enormous difference to those that have followed them,

    I wish someone would explain that to the chairman of one budget airline who keeps popping up on the news saying that the holiday making public should be able to get their vaccinations asap to be able to book their holidays (and prop up his profits and save his business).

    Liked by 3 people

    • About testing: What they do is test the vaccine where the disease is circulating widely. It’s true that some people can stay home, but not everyone. Not the people who package and deliver the stuff people send. Not the people who grow the food, pack the food, kill the animals (slaughterhouses are hotspots), stock the shelves, work in the hospitals, and go into the offices and schools and so forth because their bosses insist that they have to. So plenty of exposure there. Older people are less likely to be exposed, which is good for them but was a problem for the AstraZeneca tests. Because they have a control group, who get something that isn’t the vaccine, they can compare how many people in each group get sick, and how seriously. That allows them to measure whether they’re protected by not being exposed or by the vaccine. And to make that work, the test groups have to be large, and randomly selected.

      I agree with you about the lifting of restrictions, especially on travel–and especially since we don’t know yet it begin vaccinated will keep us from spreading the disease.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The AZ vaccine was looking good due to its suitability for those with allergies, but clearly I was being overly optimistic in hoping for one straightforward “best for all” option. Totally agree with your comment on testing – it’s a pickle, for sure. It is notable that the high profile oldies who announced publicly that they took part in early tests appear to be clear of any underlying issues. My GP surgery recently texted looking for people to take part in a vaccine study. After completing the questionnaire to check for my validity, I was rejected. There was only one “wrong” answer, so I know why I’m not suitable, which has served to confirm (to me at least) why my decision to be especially cautious was a good call.

    As for those already travelling “on business” and those wanting travel restrictions to be lifted yet further – I simply shake my head. I won’t be going anywhere soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I heard a travel industry rep on the news saying that if people have to pay for their own Covid tests, it’ll kill the airlines industry. So they can pay for a ticket, but they can’t pay for a test–and yet their travel is essential? Let’s all stay home unless we’re talking about, oh, I don’t know, saving someone’s life, maybe, and take care of everything else over the phone. Or Zoom. Or whatever.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I did read somewhere (and I forget where sorry) that if the richest countries paid a big chunk of money for the vaccines and the logistics of making and distributing the vaccines for the full global community, it would massively reduce the odds of new and multifarious mutations rearing their ugly heads and save those self same rich countries loads of money in the long run because, what with global economics etc, we’re all connected. I suspect this may have been known and mooted at the beginning of the pandemic because this virus is doing, well, what viruses are known to do. Goodness, now I’ve just made myself depressed just by thinking all these rational thoughts that all governments ought to have been thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true, and it keeps being said, but getting governments to actually do much about it is a lot harder then getting them to pay lip service to the need–and maybe donate some small fraction of what’s needed. And when the next mutation sweeps out of some largely unvaccinated country, they’ll be shocked by it. How could this happen?


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