What do we know about the new Omicron variant?

Well, on its wanted poster, it’s called BA.2, so let’s call it that. We don’t know what it calls itself. It’s estimated to be 1½ times as infectious as its relative BA.1.

What kind of relatives are they? They’re being called sister viruses, since .2 isn’t a descendant of .1, although why it’s a sister instead of a brother I don’t know. Viruses never allow themselves to be shoved into little pink or blue baby suits.

Never mind. If they want to be sisters, they can be sisters. Kids, you can be anything you want to be. 

Within limits. We’ll discuss the fine print when you’re older.

Let’s set that aside, okay? We’ve got some good news for a change: BA.2 doesn’t seem to be any more dangerous as BA.1, and the vaccines seem to be as effective against .2 as they are against BA.1.

Irrelevant photo: The first celandine are out. They’re looking a little bruised, as if they’ve gone nine rounds with King Winter, which they have, but they’re in bloom.

End of good news. Dr. Gregory Poland, of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, said that variants will “continue to happen and infect every unvaccinated person until people are vaccinated and until they’re wearing a mask. You can choose to ignore these facts―these clear data―but the virus could care less what we think. The virus is going to find people who do not have protective immunity and infect them.”

That should be “couldn’t care less,” but you know what he means.

 

So what should we be doing?

According to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus, “We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines—and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity—preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory. This virus is dangerous and it continues to evolve before our very eyes.”

That quote’s a few weeks old, but we’re not listening. Many countries are undoing their Covid restrictions because, hey, they know better. And it’s over. 

Meanwhile, Covid’s overwhelming Hong Kong and desperate hospitals were setting up beds outside.

How much of Hong Kong’s population’s vaccinated? The closest I could come to an answer is this: If you compare the number of doses delivered to the population, 78.9% of the people could have had two doses. 

 

Vaccine news

Scientists at the Wistar Institute are working on a vaccine that, at least in animal studies, creates a stronger, broader, and more durable protection than the current vaccines, and does it with a single, low dose that can be stored at room temperature. If that’s not enough, it can also be adjusted quickly as new variants arise.

And it makes a decent cup of tea if you ask politely.

It uses three technologies: immune focusing, self-assembling nanoparticles, and DNA delivery. Now let’s see if I can explain what those are.

Well, no, I can’t quite, but I can throw some language at you to make it sound like I understand a bit of this. 

The vaccine shoots you some naturally self-assembling proteins (whatever they may be), and they then form nanoparticles that arrange themselves–oh, hell, I’m lost, so I’ll quote: “By arranging themselves into structures that resemble an actual virus, the nanoparticles are more easily recognized by the immune system and transported to the germinal centers, where they activate B cells which produce protective antibodies.”

To translate that, they use long words to activate your immune system, creating “stronger levels of protective, neutralizing antibodies.” 

If I understand this correctly, all this convinces the body to produce things that would normally be produced in high-tech factories.

They’re at the animal-test stage, and so far it’s producing a stronger, longer-lasting immune response than the existing vaccines. With that data in their pockets, they’re scrambling around, trying to raise the money for human trials. 

*

Another set of trials is using a nasal spray to deliver a booster vaccine, focusing the immune system on the areas Covid attacks first, the nose and lungs. It depends on the recipient having already had an mRNA vaccine or possibly a previous infection.

The idea, since this focuses the protection on the nose and lungs, that it would prevent both infection and transmission. 

They’ve run tests on mice and will test the approach on larger animals, then hope to start human trials.

*

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have worked out a way to inject RNA and DNA into the stomach lining by way of a capsule the size of a blueberry, allowing it to reach the digestive tract directly. 

Other than driving anti-vaxxers nuts, what’s the purpose? It would let you–or, ideally, someone who knows what they’re doing if you’re no more skilled at this than I am–deliver medicine for gastrointestinal problems directly to the gastrointestinal work site. It might (or might not–it hasn’t been fully tested yet) also let you deliver an RNA vaccine in a new and interesting way, one that would be easy on needlephobes and wouldn’t make small children scream, although that last possibility depends on someone getting them to swallow the blueberry. 

And, of course, it would drive the anti-vaxxers nuts. 

 

Do masks work?

A California study reports that wearing an N95 mask or its equivalent reduces the chances of becoming infected with Covid. In Europe, the N95 is called an FFP2; both are also called KN95 masks or just plain ol’ respirators.

These aren’t the blue disposable masks that blow around the parking lots of this and many other fair lands. They’re also not your average cloth masks. They’re the more expensive ones made of I have no idea what but designed not just to keep you-the-wearer from sharing your germs but also to protect you-the-wearer from stealing other people’s.

That’s other people’s germs, not their masks, and that’s a huge and important difference. As mask mandates are reduced and as some people insist on their right to breathe in other people’s faces, they become a form of self-defense. 

Some N95s are disposable. Others are reusable–up to a point, estimated at about 40 hours of use. 

The study involved 3,000 Californians, and it’s a less than perfect study. For one thing, it relies on what people say they’ve done, with no reality check built in. That’s always dicey. You know what humans are like. It was also limited to people who chose to get tested for Covid. Still, it might give us a hint or two about what’s happening out there.

So with all that out of the way, would I please tell you what the damn thing said?

Why yes, I’d be glad to: 

People who said they always wore masks (any kind of masks) in public indoor settings were 56% less likely to test positive for Covid than people who didn’t wear masks. That went up to 83% for people who wore N95 masks. People who wore surgical masks were 66 percent less likely to test positive.

A more controlled study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested the rate of transmission when an infected person talked for an hour to an uninfected person. When the person who wasn’t infected wore a well-fitting mask N95 or its European equivalent, the FFP2 mask, the risk of infection was 20 percent. 

If both people wore surgical masks, the risk of infection went up to just under 30 percent. When both N95 masks or their equivalent, though, it dropped to 0.4 percent. 

The two studies reported their findings differently, so we can’t compare the results–or I can’t anyway–but the second one does tell us that two people wearing good masks present less of a risk than one person doing the same. 

Should we do the howevers now?

To work most effectively, the N95 mask has to be fit tested, which is something they do at hospitals and in hazardous workplaces. It’s complicated enough that no one does it at home. Or in the supermarket, or on the bus. Most people who put them on without fit testing them don’t get a complete seal between the mask and their face, even if it feels like a good fit. 

So they’re less than perfect protection, but even if they’re not fit tested they’re still decent.

How decent? Sorry, I sank, but you’re welcome to dig around in here and figure it out yourself. I warn you, it involves numbers. Also words. Don’t say you weren’t warned. In layperson’s terms, I think the answer would be not enough to make someone with a compromised immune system safe but more decent than a cloth or disposable mask. 

I haven’t looked into how the second study was set up, but I did wonder. Did they actually use an infected person, putting the uninfected person at risk? Dunno. How many of the people being talked at expired from sheer desperation before the hour was up? Dunno that either. I’m sure it depended on the talker. With some people I’ve known, I wilt after fifteen minutes of listening.

27 thoughts on “What do we know about the new Omicron variant?

  1. Although I have a strong inclination to do the opposite of whatever our glorious leader tells us, I think there has to be a balance now, especially as we’ve all (in the UK) been offered and most people have taken the vaccine. The mental health of many people has suffered during these years. I think the Freedom Day 2.0 offered at the end of the month is an obvious diversion from BoJo’s utter dodginess, but we do need to get to a point of returning to normal because the government is not giving any more money for mental health services any time soon.

    Liked by 3 people

    • …or anything else useful unless a crony gets the contract.

      What thoroughly annoys me is this business of lifting the mask mandates. In spite of the noise a smallish segment of the population makes about them, they’re a low-key, non-intrusive, and highly effective measure that makes public spaces much safer. If we want to open things up, that’s the way to do it.

      Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

      Liked by 3 people

        • I’m not sure what it says. That we’re basically nowhere near as sensible (or smart, or whatever) as we like to think? I’m amazed at the number of people who either think or act as if they think that the pandemic’s over. All because someone has made some silly decisions for political gain.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. Here in Australia I tested positive to Covid a week ago- thank god I am diligent about wearing my K95 mask when I’m out, or I may have unknowingly infected everyone else on the plane or in the cafe. I caught it at home, innocently having dinner with my 21yr old, who unknowingly caught it at a party the night before… And so it goes…
    Feeling ok today, after feeling TERRIBLE for at least a week- wear those masks people! And don’t fall for Boris’ propaganda- DUMP HIM. These are trying times, and we need smart compassionate leaders, not arseholes like him. And we have a very similar arsehole in charge over here in Oz, so I am praying for a global Revolution!! 💪🏿💪🏿 G

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I still wear a mask (an N95 that I had to order on Amazon) when I go out for groceries, doctor’s appointments, etc. At the store I am probably in the minority, though not by a lot. The doctor’s offices – and some of the veterinarian’s offices – still require masks. If anybody resents that I haven’t been present when there was a confrontation. The comments here seem a despairingly accurate mirror of what is going on Over Here. Continued good health to you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And right back at ya with the good wishes.

      I’m seeing in increasing number of people maskless in public. It depresses the hell out of me but I don’t see any point in getting into it with them, and so far no one’s gotten into it with me. I’m glad no one’s given you any grief about wearing one. What craziness that is: People insisting they have the right to not wear a mask–as well as the right to give someone a hard time if they do.

      Like

  4. I read an article the other day that said – what if we are only hlaf way through the pandemic, and not at the end? Oh my heart sank, but I thought about it and decided there was a lot in it. If most of the world remain unvaccinated there’s little reason for the pandemic to be over. Why governments have suddenly abandoned mandated mask wearing is beyond me. There’s no evidence that BA2 is mild but plenty that suggests its very spreadable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you on all of that, and I think they’re abandoning mask mandates because they think it’ll be politically popular. I think the anti-mask contingent is small but it’s vocal and they don’t want to stand up to it. And god forbid we should do some public health education to make the segment smaller.

      It is a depressing thought that this could well get worse, or go on as it is. I find that even though I’m convinced that’s a very real possibility, I’m still drawn into the la-la-la, it’s-almost-over narrative. It’s so damn pervasive, and I want so much to think it’s true.

      Herd mentality at work.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Since you have yet to discuss the limitations on being anything we want to be, I’ll be confused. I, too, read what you said in the first paragraph “It’s estimated to be 1½ times as infectious as its relative BA.1.” And I yearn for good news, so I am delighted that the vaccines are still effective against this another-new-variant (was hoping for that). And yet I’m confused by how that jives with the first part of the good news “BA.2 doesn’t seem to be any more infectious as BA.1, and the vaccines seem to be as effective against .2 as they are against BA.1.” I know, it doesn’t take much to confuse me.

    I did run across this “aid” to help those still confused about how masks work and why they should wear them. May or may not be sfw, based on your work 🙃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erk! I plead temporary insanity. The word shouldn’t–should not–have been infectious, it should’ve been dangerous. It doesn’t get people any sicker. But yes, it is more infectious. Thanks for catching that, and I’ve gone back and changed it.

      For what it’s worth, by way of an excuse, it’s hard to spot a typo when it’s an actual word, spelled correctly.

      Great explanation.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What I’ve noticed too recently, is that wearing a mask indicates a social desire for physical distancing, meaning, if I see someone wearing a mask I automatically stay that extra bit of distance from them. Whereas if I see someone who isn’t wearing one, my little herd-mammal-brain instinctively wants to get closer, which I don’t do, in fact I tend to put even more distance between us, but that instinct, that desire to be close, which has taken a severe beating over the last two years, is still there, still strong.
    I suspect that all the recent ‘trucker convoy’ idiocy over here, has some small portion of its roots in that very human need as well.
    Having said that., I’m also aware that there are very few humans that I want in my herd anyway, so being a devout follower of the Goddess Hermit-itia, :D is a very fine thing indeed. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, this is probably a good time not to be a people person. I didn’t know we had a goddess, but what the hell, as long as we don’t have to have long conversations with her on boring topics, she’s welcome to the (very small) herd.

      I do know what you mean about the impulse to move close to people. I constantly find myself thinking, That’s six feet, isn’t it? Nope, it’s nothing like six feet. Maybe more like three. I’ve read that different cultures leave different amounts of space between people, so apparently we learn very young what the right amount of distance is.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fit testing. This is me being fit tested to ensure my respirator works properly. I was looking after patients with multi drug resistant tuberculosis in Swaziland in 2015. We had 2 or 3 different kinds of respirator, with different designs of facial attachment. The tester releases chemicals in the air to see if you can smell them while wearing the respirator. I would get a new mask every week. https://photos.app.goo.gl/sdbVxi2mMPZhoJV8A

    Liked by 1 person

    • My sense (based on an extensive survey of my own practices) is that home testing consists of asking, Does this thing fall off my face? If it doesn’t, we’re good to go. If it does, it’ll probably do until we get our hands on something else.

      I do take this stuff seriously, but–like many other people, I expect–I’m seriously overwhelmed by it all. I got some N95 masks–I’m expecting to be out in the world more than I’m comfortable with this spring–but have no idea about the fit, or where to get some with a different fit as opposed to more of what I already have. The testing sounds simple enough, though. Thanks for that, and for the advice on how often to change them.

      Like

  8. I’m afraid, that at least around here, mask/COVID fatigue has gotten the better of people. Even places where voluntary compliance used to be good, it appears that fewer than half of people are wearing masks. I work at Walmart, and they have dropped the mandate for their workers. Almost no one in the stores (employee or customer) wears a mask. Keeping my fingers crossed that vaccinations/booster continues to work. And staying away from people

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fingers crossed for all of us. I do hear and read, repeatedly, that the vaccines are good at preventing serious illness and death. I could wish they eliminated transmission too, but then I could wish a lot of things.without accomplishing much.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I moved to N95 grade masks a while back, while Himself persists with the blue disposable type. I am grateful he is diligent about wearing it, which is more than one can say for many. The odd thing is that he’s way more concerned about the prospect of catching it (or any cold/coughs etc) than I, yet won’t take a step up with his mask. I know he’s a very smart guy so, when I can’t figure out his thinking, I’ve got no chance with the greater populace.

    As for the “fit” I am sometimes horrified if I catch a whiff of people’s perfumes/aftershave. I am highly sensitive to it at the best of times, but now I wonder whether it’s related to how bad my mask fit is versus how drenched in the stuff they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • From what the awkwardly named Dr. Prunesqualor said somewhere in these comments, that’d be an indication of a poor fit. It might we worth experimenting with a different brand and see if you get a better fit.

      As for the poor decisions of smart people, we could spend a lifetime cataloging them. I’ve come to believe that being smart is at best a limited defense against–well, when I’m being polite I tend to say foolishness. We are a strange species.

      Liked by 1 person

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