About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

The future of mRNA vaccines

Covid may end up giving us an unexpected gift–a real one, not some snarky, I’m-saying-the-opposite-of-what-I-mean gift. All the work that went into developing the mRNA vaccines for Covid may soon translate into a flu vaccine that works against all 20 known subtypes of flu. It’s still in the testing stage, but it’s looking promising, and since flu can turn from annoying to lethal without having to file paperwork, this is no small thing.

In animal tests, it reduced symptoms as well as protected the little beasties against death. 

To be clear: protection against death is good. It’s not as good as 600% protection against illness, as we know from the Covid vaccines, which miss that 600% bullseye, but it’s a hell of a lot better than having zero protection against death.

The flu vaccines that are around now are seasonal: they protect against the recent versions but if some new strain that jumps unexpectedly from a bird or animal, adapts to humans, refuses to file paperwork, and turns out to be as potent as the 1918 flu–well, they’re not up to the job.

The 1918 flu? That’s the one those of us over a certain age learned to call the Spanish flu because it didn’t originate in Spain and because it’s important to have someone to blame, however inaccurately.

Thoroughly irrelevant photo: a neighbor’s dahlia

The developers of the new vaccine are currently designing human trials, and with luck the vaccine will be available by 2024.

Yeah, so what else can the technology do?

Since you asked, mRNA technology makes the creation of multivalent (be impressed with that word, please) vaccines relatively easy. 

Multivalent vaccines? They’re the ones like that flu vaccine that fore-arm us against bugs with pandemic potential, even when we’re not forewarned. 

The vaccine we really need these days is a pan-coronavirus vaccine, and one is moving into the human-trial stage. Or it’s fixin’ to get ready to think about moving into the human-trial stage. It’s close. In animal trials, three doses not only protected against severe disease, it also protected against infection and decreased the amount of virus the vaccinated animals shed, so they were less likely to pass it on.

Now we come to the hazy part: The article I read introduced it as a vaccine against coronaviruses in general, but the rest of the article focused on it as a Covid vaccine. I’ll leave you to figure out what that means. I’m short on time and can’t trace this one through the convolutions of the internet. 

The article did say, “The vaccine candidate is a combination of a nanoparticle antigen . . . along with an adjuvant—an ingredient that boosts a vaccine’s effects . . . . The adjuvant formulation, 3M-052-AF, significantly enhanced the immune responses in the animals when combined with the antigen.”

I’d translate that for you but I’m in so far over my head that not even the tips of my fingers reach the air. It does sound impressive, though.

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A Covid nasal vaccine is also in development, and it’s designed to piggyback on the immunity that previously vaccinated people carry. By coming in through the nose, it can work primarily on the mucus lining, which is where Covid likes to throw a housewarming party when it enters a body. If the vaccine works, it will be the emergency number you’ll want to call before the party starts, because you know what kind of neighbors Covid germs are. Loud music, fights, broken glass on the sidewalk. 

I could go on, but you get the picture.

In a trial, the spray protected previously vaccinated mice against both death and disease. It did zilch for unvaccinated mice. In hamster trials, it reduced transmission of the disease. It doesn’t use  live viruses, viral vectors, or adjuvants, and that may make the vaccine safer. 

Why? How much? No idea. Go do your own research.

So far, it hasn’t been tested in humans and the article I read was heavily spiced with the word may, so it’s not time to get too excited about this one. Although that hasn’t stopped me.

What about vitamin D and Covid?

Do vitamin D supplements protect against Covid? According to two studies, no. It makes sense that they would–vitamin D supports the immune system–but in a trial of 6,000 people vitamin D supplements made no difference in the number of either Covid or other respiratory tract infections. A second trial involved 35,000 people and tested vitamin D plus cod liver oil. Again, no noticeable difference emerged.

Both trials have their limits. In one, some people in the control group popped the occasional vitamin D supplement. In the other, most of the participants weren’t low on vitamin D at the start of the trial, so the real trial was with a much small group. And vaccines were rolled out during both trials, throwing the balance off. So don’t count them as conclusive, just suggestive.

The endless, depressing news about long Covid and (new word here) post-Covid

Having had Covid can–emphasis on can; it doesn’t always–leave people with nervous system  damage that messes with anything from their sense of smell to their ability to concentrate. It can increase their chances of having a stroke–not right away but eventually. 

It’s called neuro-Covid. Yes, folks, it’s another new word. Don’t say Covid hasn’t been generous with us.

A study that looked at the cerebrospinal fluid and blood plasma of people with neuro-Covid found an overblown immune response in the group with the most serious symptoms: impairments in the blood barrier that could have been caused by a cytokine storm; antibodies that had turned on the body’s own cells; and an overactivation of the microglia, which are immune cells responsible specifically for the brain. People with serious symptoms also had a smaller brain mass than healthy people, especially in the area responsible for the sense of smell.

“The virus triggers such a strong inflammatory response in the body that it spills over to the central nervous system,” Professor Gregor Hutter of the University Hospital of Basel said. “This can disrupt the cellular integrity of the brain.” 

The researchers are hoping to find a test that could predict long Covid and neuro-Covid before they strike, and to identify targets for drugs to attack–in other words, to identify the excessive immune response at an early stage so they can put the brakes on it. 

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A different study shows that having multiple Covid infections increases the risk of long Covid and of other post-Covid health risks. This was a massive study–5.8 million people in the US Veterans’ Affairs database. Its limitation is that this is a population primarily of older white males, so diverse it ain’t. 

The study showed that, compared to people who hadn’t been reinfected, people with repeat infections are twice as likely to die prematurely and three times more likely to be hospitalized. Heart and lung problems were more than three times more common, and reinfection also contributes to brain conditions, kidney disease, and diabetes.

The risk could increase with each infection.

Are you depressed yet? Sorry. It’s not pretty out there and I would have to open the damn curtains. But since I have . . . 

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Another study came at post-Covid brain problems from a different direction. 

To back up for a minute and state the obvious: The problem with studying brains is that as long as their owners are using them you have to accept some limits on the ways you study them. You only have access to certain information once their owners to die, which most people are reluctant to do, even in the interest of science. So this set of researchers created brain organoids–little clusters of brain cells the size of a pinhead. If the organoids object to being messed with, they have no way of letting us know, so it’s open season and the researchers infected them with Covid.

Sorry, guys. For the greater good and all that.

The researchers found that an unusual number of synapses were eliminated.

So what? Well, synapses are the social media of the brain. They allow the neurons to communicate with each other. In the normal wear and tear that goes on inside a brain, a number of synapses will be eliminated, which may explain why I can’t remember what I did five days ago, not to mention the fingering for an F chord on the guitar: The downsizing committee up there decided I no longer need to know those things and got rid of the relevant synapses in the name of efficiency. I might still want to know that stuff, but it’s austerity up there in my skull and something had to go. I should be grateful my brain didn’t ditch everything I know about commas, because, hey, that’s important.

I’m aware that that last paragraph implies that who- or whatever I am exists separately from my brain, but let’s stay out of that rabbithole while I remind you that austerity is what Britain’s government–or what passes for a government when it’s not tied up with more important business–calls cutting public services. Calling it austerity, though, makes it sound like it’s good for us. Think of it as the kale of the political world.

So what the researchers saw happening in the infected organoids was something like what’ll happen in austerity Britain 2.0, which is Sunakian austerity as opposed to Cameronian austerity. When the promised spending cuts kick in, it won’t just be the F chord that goes, it’ll be the smell of lilacs and where I put my car keys and the oomph I need to get from one end of the official looking letter that just came in the mail to the other so I can figure out if I’m being evicted or asked to serve as the next prime minister.

Did I lose you in that last paragraph? Sorry. I was having such fun–

I’ll summarize in a marginally sane way: In infected organoids, an excessive number of connections were downsized–or as serious people would put it, eliminated. That’s frighteningly like what happens in Alzheimers, Parkinsons, and schizophrenia. 

It’s true that our brains are bigger than organoids, and with luck, more complex. But post-mortems on Covid patients (post-mortems, I remind you, are carried out on people who are no longer using their brains), as well as brain imaging on live patients, show that the gray matter isn’t as thick in people who’ve been infected, which hints at a loss of synapses. 

Keep in mind that we’re still in the land of hints, though, not definitive conclusions, and also that I’m not clear on whether the post-mortems and scans were carried out on people who’d had serious cases of Covid or simply from people who’d been infected.

For the researchers, the next step is to look at whether various drugs will inhibit all that downsizing. 

Some of us living in Britain want to know if some drug can stop the government from downsizing services that have already been downsized so radically that they’re held together by nothing more than thread and newspaper headlines.

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Will you forgive me if I toss in a bit of good news? Paxlovid looks like it decreases the odds of developing long Covid.

Pax-what? It’s an antiviral pill that reduces the chances of hospitalization and death in people who’ve been infected–and reduces the chances of long Covid by 25%.

That’s from a preliminary study–it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, and its study subjects were (again) mostly older white males in high-risk groups, but the US National Institutes of Health plan to study the drug’s effectiveness on people who already have long Covid to see if it works after the fact.

How Twitter banned a meteor: It’s the news from Britain

I don’t know if Twitter will still be twitting by the time you read this (or by the time I reach the end of the sentence), but back in the days when it was making gestures in the direction of policing its content it blocked an astronomer’s account because she’d posted a video of a meteor in the sky above Oxfordshire. She–or possibly the meteor–had somehow breached the guidelines on, ahem, intimate content. 

The ban went on for three months. She could’ve cut it down to twelve hours but she’d have had to delete the video and agree that she’d broken the rules, which she didn’t want to do. She did try contacting a human being at Twitter but couldn’t find one. 

As a gesture of support, other astronomers tweeted the video without getting banned. 

Irrelevant photo: A California poppy

Her account wasn’t unlocked until the BBC went public with the story.

Her experience isn’t unique. A US meteorologist was banned for posting intimate content– a video of combine harvesters working in a field at night. 

Is it something about scientists? Nope. A Facebook photo gallery got slammed for overtly sexual content in a series of pictures, including one of two cows standing some ten or fifteen feet apart in the field, one of ripples on a pond for selling adult products, and another of a high-rise office building.

Facebook did manage to apologize and put the gallery back online the next day.

Where the dead don’t just vote, they win elections

I know you’ve read entirely too much about the US elections, but this story hasn’t found the audience it deserves: 

Tony DeLuca, Pennsylvania’s longest-serving state representative, was re-elected in a landslide with more than 85% of the vote in spite of being dead. 

Okay, to report this responsibly: He died too close to the election to be replaced on the ballot and his election will trigger a special election. But the way politics are trending these days, voting for the dead may be a responsible political alternative.

From the Department of Inspiring Awards

I learned recently that obituary writers have an industry award called the Grimmy. The plural is the Grimmys. Yes, folks, in a bold and counter-to-everything-we-were-taught move, the Y doesn’t become an IE when they add an S. That in itself is worth an award. A Spelly? 

The Grimmys are awarded every two years by the Society of Professional Obituary Writers at their ObitCon. If you follow the link you’ll find a photo of the four most recent winners. Three of them have managed a smile.

Ever wanted to write a sentence that would echo through the ages?

The oldest known sentence in the oldest known alphabet was inscribed on a comb and says, ““May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” 

How’s that for immortal prose?

From the Department of Vocabulary Expansion

Four new measurements have been added to the metric system. 

The first is the ronnagram, which carries 27 zeroes after the first digit. It’s big–a billion billion. If that doesn’t help you get a sense of its size, having words for it may at least give you the illusion that of understanding it. 

Until recently, you couldn’t go higher than the yottagram, which has a chintzy 24 zeroes. You can see why this was a problem.

The second measurement is the quettagram, which is even bigger. Its first digit trails 30 zeroes along behind it and it’s a thousand times bigger than the ronnagram. 

The earth weighs six of ronnagrams, although how you get it on the scales is beyond me, never mind where you find a counter to rest the scales on. Once you solve that problem, though, you’ll find that Jupiter weighs two quettagrams.

The third measurement is the rontogram. which has 27 zeroes after the decimal point. Once you come to the end of that string, they crash into the wall of a digit with a solid value. 

The fourth and final measurement is the quectogram, which has to slog past 30 zeroes before it finds a solid number. 

To anyone with even the least mathematical competence, I apologize for those last two descriptions. 

The telegram is not part of this conversation. Kindly stop kidding around about this. Mathematics is serious stuff.

The Corn Laws: food, money, and political power

As today’s post opens, the Napoleonic Wars are being fought over in Europe somewhere. Think blood, mud, Russian winter, and the Duke of Rubber Boots.* But all that is off stage. We’re in Britain, where the Corn Laws are about to be passed, and they won’t make sense until we talk about the price of corn. And about farmers and landowners and political power. And hunger. In fact, nothing makes any sense until we talk about everything. 

Sorry, that’s just how it works.

I’m more American than British, as you’ll know by now if you’ve been around here for long, but this is English history, so when I type “corn” I don’t mean the stuff I’d normally call corn, which in British is maize. I’m going all pseudo-British on you and using it to mean any old grain. So corn is the country’s most important food just now. And by now, of course, I mean during the Offstage Wars involving Mr. Rubber Boots, Napoleon, and Russia’s most efficient officer, General Winter. Corn’s so important that for a long time Britain’s been eating more of it than it grows, relying on imports to make up the difference.

But the Offstage Wars have interrupted those imports, so farmers have stepped in and patriotically grown more of the stuff than they used to. And government has stepped in and encouraged them. And throughout the wars, the price has stayed high, since no one’s been around to undercut it. If you’re a farmer, it’s a nice arrangement.

Sooner or later, though, every war ends, and whoops, the Offstage Wars did, just this minute, throwing everything out of whack. Back in 1812. corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Now, in 1815,  it costs 65s. 7d. We won’t bother with the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price has dropped. Drastically. 

Oh, hell, you want to get below the surface of the numbers, don’t you? Fine, we’ll break them down. Don’t blame me if we can’t get them back together. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Li’l Red Cat, helping with the laundry.

 

The math

A quarter, an s. and a d. are long-dead measurements that everyone but us knows how to work with, since we’re dropping in from another era. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d. The d. wandered in from Latin, because the Romans had a coin called a denarius. It hasn’t been used since the third century BCE.

You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?

You need 12 pence to make a shilling and 20 shillings to make a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand when they calculate the price of corn no one wants to shift from shillings to pounds, they just keep stacking up the shillings until they tip over. Only people who’ve lived with the system can explain it, but it seems so natural to them that they won’t understand why we want an explanation so don’t ask. 

That’s the money side of things, but we’re not done. A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight, which is sensible enough since it is a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit of sanity we’ll have until we escape this paragraph and possibly for some time afterward. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything–or if it does, it’s only by accident: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone. 

Just to complicate the situation, in the US a hundredweight weighs a hundred pounds, but its use is limited to livestock, some kinds of grain, paper, concrete additives, and a few other things with obvious similarities. They’d use it more widely but it’s too confusing having a hundredweight weigh a hundred pounds.  

How much grain is in 8 bushels? Enough to cover my living room floor nicely, thanks. 

 

Grain prices, farmers, and a few other things

I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are. It’s 1815, the Napoleonic Wars are over, and imported grain has made its way back into the country, knocking the price down. The farmers who stepped in and patriotically grew more grain  are patriotically stepping up and complaining  about the loss of what was effectively a monopoly. 

Who are we talking about when we talk about farmers? Most importantly, large landowners, and it’s the aristocracy who own most of the land. The only respectable way to be rich is to make your money from land. Below them, though, and still in the category are the farmers who rent from them or who own smaller amounts of land. But it’s the large landowners who matter, because they have the political clout, so when they tell the government to get off its hind end and protect them from these unpatriotic imports, the government duly gets off its hind end and passes the Corn Laws, which tax imported grain so that it’s no longer cheaper than patriotic British grain. 

Hold onto that thought while we look at the kind of country the government’s governing. 

The end of the war brings several changes in addition to the danger of grain prices falling. For one, former soldiers have come home and a lot of them can’t find work. In England’s textile towns, wages fall but the taxes that were introduced to support the war don’t, they walk into the peacetime years like zombies. 

The country enters a postwar depression. 

Britain’s also turning from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside pour into the cities, desperate for work. The cities aren’t prepared to house them, though, and people are packed in on top of each other. Sanitation verges on nonexistent. That’s not, strictly speaking, relevant, but helps us understand what life was like, so let’s leave it in. Wages, hours, and working conditions in the factories (and elsewhere) are terrible, and strikes are illegal: The Combination Acts mean you’re risking three months in prison if you and your co-workers walk off the job in any organized way, or even if you prepare to. Or even, as they say in Texas, if you’re fixin’ to get ready to prepare to.

You’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere if you like.

No, I’m not being dramatic. People live close enough to the margin that we’re often talking about eating or not eating. Or ending up in the workhouse, which sets you a very small step above starvation.

When the 1816 harvest is bad, grain prices go up and food’s in short supply, but the government doesn’t get off its hind end for this, because people who can’t afford bread don’t have political power. The Corn Laws keep the price of imports high.

Food riots break out. They’re one of the few channels discontent can pour itself into.

Petitions are legal, though, and  between January and August 1842 the House of Commons is the lucky recipient of 467 of them against the Corn Laws. They carry a total of 1,414,403 signatures. The Commons also receive 1,953 petitions in favour, carrying 145,855 signatures. In case that went over your head, that’s fewer signatures for the laws than against, but they’re better signatures, with pricier accents, so they carry more weight.

The Corn Laws are a focus of demonstrations as well. Two examples:

In 1817, a hunger march left Manchester for London. The marchers were called Blanketeers, and the march was broken up along the way. Only one marcher reached London to hand in their petition, but since he’s reported to have two very different names, he may be mythical.

Repeal of the Corn Laws was also one of the demands of the rally on St. Peter’s Field, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. https://notesfromtheuk.com/tag/voting-rights/ 

 

The opposition

You don’t gather over a million signatures or pull off marches and rallies without some sort of organization, and you can usefully break the opposition into two groups: One is the middle class and led by the richer and more powerful part of it. The other is made up of industrial and agricultural workers. By way of examples, on the respectable side is the Anti-Corn Law League, which mobilizes the industrial middle class against the landowners. The less respectable opposition comes from groups like the Sheffield Mechanics’ Anti-Bread-Tax Society, which gets a mention since its name saves me a lot of explaining. Both groups are working for the same change but their interests aren’t identical. 

What business people want is free trade: Get rid of those damn tariffs and business will expand endlessly in this best of all possible worlds. That will expand employment, lower the price of bread, make British agriculture more efficient, and promote international peace through trade contact. It will turn straight hair curly unless you want it to work the other way around and cure all ills of body and soul. 

I didn’t make up that business about international peace, even if it sounds like I did. The business with the hair, though? That’s questionable.

For the working class, this is about bread costing less so they can eat more. 

I’ll get out of the way and quote Ebeneezer Elliot, called the Corn Law Rhymer, who said, “The people will soon enough discover the frightful extent of the chasm which separates them from every man who has a decent coat on his back.”

Which should also remind us that this is a time when having a decent coat marked you as middle class. 

For both groups, it’s about political power. 

 

Support for the Corn Laws

The argument in favor of the Corn Laws is that, as one petition puts it, they “protect the British agriculturist from competition with the continental corn grower” and “could not be repealed without imminent danger to the best interest of the country.” 

Besides, if the price of bread drops, wages will also go down, so what’s the point? For landowners, there’s a finite amount of profit to be made and this is about whose pocket it’ll land in, theirs or the industrialists’. The people will be hungry either way: That’s a given.

 

Repeal

After much agitation and argument, the Corn Laws are repealed in 1846, not long after the start of the Irish potato famine. That’s enough for many sources to link the two, but as early as 1841 the prime minister, Robert Peel, had been looking at whether the price of European grain was high enough that imports wouldn’t hurt British farmers. At least one historian sees it as a case of the famine giving Peel a reason to end a policy whose value he isn’t convinced of.

The price of bread doesn’t fall dramatically, although it does fall a bit, and the potato famine goes on until 1852, largely unaffected by the repeal. Ireland loses a quarter of its population to starvation, disease, and emigration. 

What does repeal change? By one estimate, landowners’ income drops by 3% and workers and industrialists gain 1% in spending power. 

Where’d the other 2% go? Remember what I said about curly hair? It went into hair products.

Britain enters the era of free trade. For policy wonks, that’s the most important thing about agitation around the Corn Laws. For rebellion wonks, the importance lies in the campaign itself. Both the middle class and the working class are finding ways to organize, and to push for political power. The working class is organizing for a lot more than that, with wages and working conditions high on the list. 

 

* If you’re not British you’ll need a translation of that Duke of Rubber Boots crack. High rubber boots are called Wellingtons.  The style was introduced by Wellington, but the originals were leather riding boots. They weren’t made in rubber until 1856. 

It could be on a quiz some day.  

“A very British way” of saying no: It’s the news from Britain

“A very British way” of saying no: It’s the news from Britain

Our most recent ex-prime minister, Liz Truss, may not have outlasted that famous lettuce, but she hasn’t dropped out of the news. 

In spite of being prime minister for only 44 days, she and the loyalists who stayed in place around her insisted she had the right to draw up a resignation honors list–a list outgoing prime ministers create to nominate supporters, donors, and hangers-on for knighthoods or seats in the House of Lords.  

I’m not sure if a knighthood’s worth much, financially speaking, but a member of the Lords can collect £323 for any day they bother to show up, which a lot of them don’t. And they get bragging rights and can get people to call Lord or Baroness Whatsit and wear a very nice ermine robe on dress-up days. 

At least it’s very nice if you go for that sort of thing, although it’s a lot like a bridesmaid’s dress: Where can you wear it once the wedding’s over? 

That may be why they’re lent to the Lords, not given. 

Sorry, did I go off topic there? 

Irrelevant photo: a neighbor’s dahlia

Other than the money, the robe, and the bragging rights, I’m not sure what a person gets out of being in the House of Lords, but who’s there matters to the rest of us because they have a political impact. The more of its loyalists a party packs in there, the better. For it, if not for the country.

There’s a certain irony in a party–the Conservatives–adding to the House of Lords after it argued for slimming down the Commons needed because it was too expensive, but that was a while ago and it’s okay because we’ve all forgotten about it.

But we were talking about our most recent ex-prime minister, Liz of the Lettuce. There was a lot of push and pull over whether she should get to submit an honor list–or for that matter whether Boris Johnson, who lasted longer but left office in disgrace and is surely still hoping to bumble back in, should. Rumor has it that the word honor filed a lawsuit at being associated with either of them, but I haven’t been able to confirm that in the responsible press.

Now Buckingham Palace has stepped in to handle the situation in what an anonymous source (this is from the responsible press) described as “a very British way,” telling Truss that she can’t submit a long list. That apparently means she can submit a short one, but at least someone’s setting limits.

How will they do that?

“It will be a case of . . . you don’t want to embarrass the king, do you?” No formal rules govern the system of resignation honors (that may in itself be very British: This is a country with an unwritten constitution, after all) but tradition dictates that the new prime minister doesn’t object to the former prime minister’s nominees. So “don’t embarrass the king”? Tradition allows for that. 

As an ex-PM, Truss is also eligible for the £115,000 per year that former prime ministers are allowed to collect in order to fund a private office to handle the public role that’s at least theoretically involved in being a former prime minister, and there was, briefly, a flap about whether 45 days in office justified the money. No one seems to be arguing that she should get the money, but we’ve all gone on to new outrages since then. 

We have the attention span of a lettuce lately.

There were (and still are) assorted rumors that the money was a pension. It isn’t. 

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When Boris Johnson dropped out of the latest contest for prime minister, leaving the way open for Rishi Sunak to waltz in without Conservative Party members voting on their–and our–new leader, speculation was that he did it because he didn’t have enough support. 

Not so. It turns out he did have enough support, and he also had some advice (or so people in the know believe) that if he lost to Sunak it would cut into his potential earnings on the international speaking circuit. So to hell with leading the country. Let’s make cash.

Johnson still hasn’t submitted his list of resignation honors. We may have some outrage left when that happens or we may be tapped out by then. 

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Now that Truss is safely out of office, a former aide’s come forward to say that when she was justice secretary she avoided appearing on BBC’s Question Time by claiming family members had died–ones the aides described as “minor people like aunts and cousins and things.”  

Forgive me for getting personal about this, but I’m an aunt. Also a cousin. And a thing. So if you happen to be one of my relatives, please understand that I do not appreciate being killed off, even fictionally, no matter how minor I am in your life or how badly you want to avoid some commitment you made. I’m surprisingly central to my own life, thanks.

Eventually she either ran out of relatives or it all got too obvious and she had to appear on the show.

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In his first day or so as prime minister, a photo of Rishi Sunak appeared, looking crisp and tailored and being stalked by someone with a lettuce (complete with googly eyes) on his head. The humor there strikes me as particularly British, although I’m damned if I can explain why. If anyone else can, I’d love to hear it. Sadly, I’ve lost the link. It was on Twitter, I think, which is another way of saying I’ll never find it, and googling Sunak, lettuce, and googly eyes got me nowhere. 

And here I thought I had such a good relationship with Lord Google.

 

Speaking of very British ways…

The 1960s Profumo scandal involved British cabinet ministers, a Russian spy, and a young woman who was involved with all of the above. Newly released files note that MI5 pegged the Russian as a spy when he arrived at the London embassy as an assistant naval attache because he didn’t know much about ships and because he carried an umbrella. 

“Russians who frequently carry umbrellas are more likely to have an intelligence function,” someone noted.

Keep that in mind. You never know when it’ll prove useful.

 

In other political news

A while ago, Jeremy Hunt, currently the chancellor of the exchequer–a.k.a. the guy who’s in charge of the government’s money and on a good day is expected to make taxing, spending, and borrowing match, or at least not set each other on fire–set up a charity (if you’re American, that’s a nonprofit) called Patient Safety Watch to research preventable harm in healthcare. In the year that ended in January 2022, it spent two-thirds of its income–that’s something more than £110,000–paying its only employee, who’s it’s chief executive and who just happens to be Hunt’s former advisor, Adam Smith. 

Smith lost his job as Hunt’s advisor in a 2012 lobbying scandal but is now Hunt’s parliamentary aide because we have the attention span of a lettuce.

Hunt set up the charity in 2019 and part-funds it himself. So far, it’s produced zero papers. 

Sorry–”appears to have produced” zero papers.

And in the nonpolitical news

Since this is a roundup of the British news, let’s go to some art news from Germany, which for the sake of clarity I should remind you is not in Britain, it’s in, um, Germany. 

A painting by Piet Mondrian that’s been hanging in a museum in Dusseldorf since 1980 turns out to be upside down

Why couldn’t anybody tell? Mondrian was an abstract artist–so abstract that he painted nothing but grids–and he never got around to signing this one, so they didn’t have much to go on, but a photograph of his studio shows it hanging the other way around, so presumably that’s what Mondrian had in mind. 

But you know what? In a new show of his work, they’re going to hang it the way it’s been anyway.    

*

A study reports that unborn babies grimace when their mothers swallow capsules packed with powdered kale 20 minutes before an ultrasound. They don’t  grimace when the mothers swallow capsules filled with powdered carrots. 

Use that information in whatever way suits you. 

*

A study estimates that 20 quadrillion ants live on earth. 

How many ants in a single quadrillion? Lots. Enough that there are 2.5 million ants to every human now living. 

Use that in whatever way suits you as well.

A quick history of slavery in Britain: It’s not all abolitionists

If you’re playing free-association games with British history, slavery isn’t the word most likely to pop into your mind, but–sorry, folks–it’s an important part, if a contradictory one, and we don’t get to skip over it. 

Okay, you’re right, a lot of histories do exactly that, but we won’t. Break open a case of self-congratulation if you would.

The slave trade

England’s official involvement in the slave trade began in 1663, when it got royal approval. (Scotland was its own country at this point. We’ll start calling the place Britain in a minute.) The royal in question was Charles II. You know the one: long, curly hair (or wig; what do I know?); mustache; looks a bit like Bob Dylan in his older, creepier phase. He gave the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa a monopoly on transporting slaves from the west coast of Africa to be sold in England’s American colonies. 

Irrelevant photo: Osteospermum

Did he know what he was sanctioning? He’d have been hard put not to. The monopoly was for “the buying and selling, bartering and exchanging of, for, and with any negro slaves, goods, wares and merchandizes whatsoever to be vended or found’ in western Africa.”

That does kind of spell it out.

Over something like 150 years, England was responsible for transporting millions of people into slavery. How many millions? By one estimate, 3.1 million, although only 2.7 million arrived. The rest died in what’s called the middle passage–the trip from Africa to the Americas.  

If you want to translate that to money–and since the slave trade was all about money, we should–between 1630 and 1807 Britain’s slave traders made a profit of about £12 million. In today’s money, that would be–

Okay, grab a calculator and sit down with a nice cup of tea. For the sake of convenience, we’ll use the 1807 pound. A hundred of them would be worth £10,218.33 in 2022. So £12 million of them? To use advanced mathematical terms, that’s a shitload of money. 

Aren’t you glad you had that calculator? Enjoy your tea.

By another estimate, between 1761 and 1807 traders based in British ports sold 1,428,000 captive African people and pocketed £60 million from the transactions, which might translate to £8 billion in 2022 pounds. Yes, it’s a different total. On the other hand, it’s measuring a different aspect of the business. Either way, it’s still a shitload of money.

The colonies and the plantations

England–or Britain once Scotland was folded in–didn’t limit itself to trading in slaves. It established colonies in America and the Caribbean, and their economies depended on slave labor to produce sugar, cotton, coffee, rum, and the miracle drug of the time, tobacco. As a random indicator of how important they were, in 1750, sugar made up a fifth of all Europe’s imports. 

So slavery was a lucrative business, although historians argue about exactly how lucrative. Some will tell you it fueled the industrial revolution. Others will tell you its impact is overestimated. They got to the dress-up box first and and monopolized the historian outfits, so no one’s going to take my opinion seriously, but that won’t stop me: I toss my inconsiderable weight onto the side that says it was a major factor.

What’s certain is that money made from slavery flowed into British industry, that British ports grew rich on the trade, and that banks and insurance companies did business with slave traders and plantation owners and prospered.

But Britain itself didn’t have slavery, did it?

Yes it did. Also no it didn’t.

Once England–or a bit later, Britain–got involved in the slave trade and in the industrial-strength slave system that made American and Caribbean plantations so profitable, it was more or less inevitable that slaveholders would bring their servants when they returned home, and since they’d been slaves at the start of the voyage, they were still slaves once they landed. And again more or less inevitably, the slaveholders would give some of those slaves to relatives as gifts, and sell others. 

There was a difference, though. Slavery didn’t weave its way into the British economy the way it did in the colonies–it was more the embroidery than the cloth itself. Still, that some number of people did hold slaves can be traced through the newspaper ads they placed when their slaves escaped.

That situation held until 1772, when one slave called James Sommersett escaped, was captured, and was put on a ship bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold, but before the ship could sail his case was taken up by an abolitionist and brought to court, which ruled that no English law allowed for one human being to enslave another.

The court freed Sommersett and declared that from there onwards, “as soon as any slave sets foot upon English territory, he becomes free.” 

It was a powerful precedent–and it didn’t apply to the soil of the British colonies. 

So if we draw a nice thick line around Britain itself, we can, in all semi-honesty, do what a fair number of histories do and bounce past the slavery itself to focus on Britain’s Abolitionists. Break out the trumpets. Celebrate.

And they’re worth celebrating. They’re not all entirely pure–who is?–but they kept up what must’ve felt like a hopeless fight for many years. On the other hand, they’re not the whole story and shouldn’t be used to sweeten the taste of Britain’s involvement with slavery.

Some of the tendency to avoid talking about slavery comes from a belief that history is a patriotic exercise that should make people feel good. Slavery, though? Come on, it was such a downer. But history isn’t an energy drink, designed to send you out into the world high on caffeine, carbonation, and patriotism. At its best, it’s an effort to look square in the eye of what was. If we can do that, we’ll also learn a startling amount about what is.

So: Slavery had been abolished only on home turf, and it continued to be an important part not only of the empire but of Britain’s home turf–something we can see not just by looking at the numbers I dragged in earlier but also, oddly enough, by looking at the act that finally abolished it in Britain’s colonies.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 . . . 

. . . extended the ban on slavery to Britain’s colonies, freeing some 800,000 people of African descent–and it ordered payment to their former owners for the loss that caused them. 

Once the country committed to that, though, it had to figure out how much each former slaveholder had lost. So the government set up a commission, which evaluated each claim and, coincidentally, created a detailed picture of who owned how many slaves and what work the slaves did. If you trawl through the records, as historians have been doing lately, you’ll find the ancestors of William Gladstone, David Cameron, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and endless other well-known figures. They’re a reminder of how deeply slavery was woven into not just the country’s economy but into its culture and politics. Many of Britain’s richest families trace their fortunes back  to the slave trade, although not all of them are anxious to do any tracing just now. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable thing to know, let alone acknowledge publicly. But if you find one of those blue plaques that mark historic places and it tells you Sir William Ragbottom was a West India merchant or planter, you’re looking at a fancy phrase for someone who made his money from slavery.

But slavery went deeper than that, because it wasn’t just the great families who were involved. One of the surprises hidden in the archives is the number of small-scale slaveholders the commission recorded–middle class people who didn’t own plantations but owned a few slaves and rented out their labor. These included vicars, manufacturers, and lots of widows, many of whom would’ve inherited slaves from their husbands, along with the clocks and the candlestick holders. I can’t help thinking some financial advisor was running around the country saying, “What could be a safer way to invest your money?”

It wasn’t only safe, it was respectable.

Geographically, slaveholders ranged from Cornwall to the Orkneys, so the association wasn’t limited to the port cities.

By the time the commission was done, it had catalogued every owner who claimed compensation, and every slave, and the government paid out £20 million to the slaveholders for their loss. That was 40% of the government’s 1834 budget and in 2015 would’ve amounted to something like £16 or £17 billion.

Why don’t I give you a more up-to-date equivalent? Because I don’t trust myself around numbers–somebody always ends up getting hurt. We’re all better off if I just snatch someone else’s calculations, okay?

The slaves weren’t compensated. They also weren’t exactly freed. They were shifted into a transitional form of slavery that used a different name but left them far from free. And for that tale, I’ll refer you to an earlier post.

Covid news: Should we be losing sleep over the new variants?

If you’re even vaguely awake (or as our former and once again active home secretary would say, if you’re a Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokeanista), then you’ll know that Covid has some new variants, and that they have good publicity agents. So how much sleep exactly should you lose?

Not as much as some of the nightmare-on-Covid-Street headlines would have you think.

Let’s sort the variants into separate piles and talk about them.

 

Irrelevant photo: A California poppy. Or since it’s growing in Cornwall and is at least four generations in, maybe by now it’s a Cornish poppy. (That’s a bit of an in joke and I’ll explain it if anyone’s interested.)

The BA variants

BA.2.75 begat BA.2.75.2, because viruses are good at begatting, even if they’re useless at naming their begotten, and since they work under pressure from both our immune systems and the vaccines that are loose in the world, the descendants that survive tend to be the ones that spread most easily or have some sort of hyped up immunity–and .2 does indeed have some of that.

According to Ben Murrell of the Karolinksa Institutet (that’s not a typo; it’s Swedish), “While antibody immunity is not completely gone, BA.2.75.2 exhibited far more dramatic resistance than variants we’ve previously studied. “

In layperson’s terms, that means, “Well, damn.” It also means some of the antiviral treatments given to people who’ve been hit the hardest won’t work against this one, but all is not lost because one still does. 

That was what passes for good news. (Don’t go away–there’s more good news later on.) On the other side of the balance, the antibodies running around in the blood of anyone with antibodies (that’d be people who’ve been vaccinated or who’ve had Covid) are only about a sixth as effective.

Still, a sixth means they’re not completely ineffective. This is good, but it’s not the good news I was waving signs about. For that, you have to wait. Or skip ahead.

What’s not known yet is how quickly the variant will spread. It’s in several countries but can claim only a minority of cases, so it may not become dominant. It’s also not known whether it’ll drive up hospitalization rates or how protective the vaccines will be against it

Balancing all that out, I’d say it’s not time to panic yet. If you’ll wait a bit, you can always panic later. 

 

The BQ variants

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are not to be mistaken for either meat cooked with a sticky sauce–that’s BBQ–or B&Q, which is a chain of British stores that claims to have everything you need for your home and garden. What my home needs is a good coat of paint, and they do have paint supplies, but the problem is getting the paint and the walls in the right relationship to each other. The last time I tried, the dog and the rug somehow got into the relationship and–

Anyway, no, they don’t really have everything I need.

The BQ variants are making headlines and US influencers are running around saying they’re worse than the CDC is admitting. 

The CDC is the Centers for Disease Control, which technically speaking should get a plural, but never mind. What matters is that if the CDC had said they were world-ending, somebody would jump up and say the CDC was trying to panic us all for dastardly reasons of their own. You can’t win this game.

The BQs were begat by BA.5 and last I looked (that was Octover 23) made up 11% of Covid cases in the US. Like BA.2.75.2, they’re pretty good at dodging the neutralizing antibodies we’ve spent so much time and effort developing.

By the beginning of 2023, the BQs are expected to make of 80% of Covid cases. I think that means the world’s Covid cases, but they could be talking about Europe’s. Let’s not split hairs. They spread, probably because of the way they dodge our antibodies. There’s no evidence so far that they’re more severe than the earlier versions or that they’ve completely sidelined the vaccines.

 

The XBB variants

Finally, we have the XBB variant, which instead of being begotten combines two earlier variants. I’m not going to try to explain that–let’s just say viruses have many ways to mutate–and you don’t really care which variants they were, do you?

XBB is already creating subvariants. You know, XBB.1 and all that mess. By October 20, it had popped up in 26 countries and was collecting headlines calling it a nightmare variant. It seems to spread rapidly and it too knows how to slip past our neutralizing antibodies–even more so than the new BQ and BA variants. The last of the monoclonal antibodies–the one that works on the B and BQ variants–doesn’t work here. 

It’s not clear yet whether it causes a more severe form of Covid, but in Singapore, where it’s spread widely and which has a 79% vaccination-and-booster rate and  strict control measures in place, it’s been milder. “The number of people dying or in the ICU is really low,” according to Eric Topol of Scripps Research. “Their protection level is really solid.”

What kind of strict measures

“Facemasks remain compulsory on public transport and in most healthcare facilities. Contact tracing requirements remain in effect for events with more than 500 people. Authorities continue to bar unvaccinated people from dine-in services.” People who test positive are quarantined at home.

There’s no evidence XBB and its kiddies make anybody sicker than the earlier variants, and it’s too early to tell how well the new booster shots will work against it, but educated guesses say they’re still be well worth having.

“We’re going to have another wave,” Topol said. “The question is, how bad is it going to be?”

Can’t remember who Topol is? He’s up a few paragraphs.

 

On the other hand

Should we all just go out and slit our wrists?

No. It’s messy, it causes pain, and it’s not necessary. The new variants are a problem, but–and it’s a big but (with one T, thank you very much)–neutralizing antibodies aren’t the only insult in our immune systems’ vocabulary. We focus on them because they’re easy to measure, but our immune systems know other ways to get under Covid’s skin–or maybe that’s its spike protein. Or–

You know what? Never mind. Failed metaphor. Move on. Nothing to see here.

Our immune systems have T cells. And B cells. And if they’re English speakers, they’ve still got 24 letters in the alphabet once they use those up. What’s more, people who’ve had Covid have some letterless (as far as I know) immune cells throwing parties in their lungs.

We’re not completely unprotected.

The phrase Immune escape (which I’ve avoided using but which serious people will) has been misinterpreted. It sounds like it means time to panic. It doesn’t. 

Especially since multiple articles are telling us about research groups edging closer to a universal (or near-universal–I’ll settle for that) coronavirus vaccine which would, at long last, put an end to this damn pandemic. So put the knife back in the drawer. We can do without the drama, thanks.

Who hasn’t resigned yet? It’s politics in Britain

British politics have been so much fun this week that people were rushing home to watch the news because they need a good laugh. Our newly minted prime minister, Liz Truss, is now our ex-prime minister, although she’ll stay in office until her party finds some unfortunate soul to replace her. She should set a record for the shortest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

She came into office not much more than a month ago. Then the queen died and for ten days history was canceled, so Truss didn’t have much chance to screw up, or not publicly anyway. What she did behind closed doors was between her and Larry the Cat, chief mouser to multiple prime ministers. So she’s done a lot of damage–not all of it to herself, unfortunately–in a remarkably short time. 

Largely irrelevant photo: This isn’t Larry the Cat, just some cat I saw sitting in a window, looking like it would prefer to be someplace else.

So much for the intro. What’s happening?

We’ll start at something vaguely like the beginning. When she became prime minister, Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng chancellor and the two of them put together a mini-budget that in hindsight looks like a suicide pact, although I’m sure they saw themselves as bold, courageous, and several other synonyms. 

The mini-budget involved multiple tax cuts that were heavily weighted toward the people with the most money because, you know, they have so much money. And they dress well and they donate so much to political parties. Who can resist them? Besides, they’d invest that money and the economy would grow and all the cash would trickle down to people with less money, who’d be ever so grateful, and the pie would grow.

Yes, Truss did say the pie would grow. Cartoonists had a glorious few days with that before life got so crazy that growing pies started to look sensible.

In addition to the problems inherent in the trickle-down theory–primarily that it doesn’t seem to work–a more immediate problem was that they hadn’t bothered to say where the money was going to come from to fund the tax cuts, and you have to at least pretend you’ve got that piece before you show the world your completed jigsaw puzzle. 

The pound promptly tanked, which raised the cost of government borrowing, and there’d clearly be a lot since they hadn’t figured out how they were going to cover those cuts. It also raised mortgage rates, because some 20% of mortgages in the country are trackers, which go up when the interest rates rise, and interest rates were imitating that imaginary pie.

Truss’s party began to turn on her publicly–first one Member of Parliament, then several, then a few more. It was an iceberg situation. You judge the size of the hidden opposition by the part that’s visible.

So what does a courageous etc. prime minister do when her party doesn’t like her bold etc. plan? She fires her chancellor, that’s what she does, and exempts herself from the suicide pact, and appoints a new chancellor–in this case Jeremy Hunt, leaving Kwarteng holding the record for the chancellor who spent the second shortest length of time in office. But since the absolutely shortest-serving chancellor left his position by dying, that still gives Kwarteng a sort of first place.

 

Confession

I’m condensing the events here. And I’m not necessarily sticking to the sequence. It was all happening too fast to untangle, so in deference to the speed of events we’ll shift to the present tense, even thought it’s all in the past now. 

Don’t think about that too much. No matter which way you turn it, it won’t make much sense. Don’t give me any grief about it. I’ve rewritten this damned thing too many times already.

 

The press conference

If you want to look prime ministerial, you have to hold a press conference, so that’s what Truss does. Surely that’ll calm the markets, the politicians, and that segment of the populace that’s still searching the fields where pies grow. She’s smart enough to know she’s not popular, so she picks through the assembled journalists like someone who’ll only eat the blue M&Ms. Blue is her party’s color, after all, and she needs Tory-friendly questions. She’s surrounded by enemies. The woods are dark and dangerous. It’s hard to tell Grandma from the wolf.

None of the journalists, it turns out, are her grandmother. One asks, “Can you explain . . . why you should remain as prime minister, given that you’ve dumped a key tax cut that led you to be elected and got rid of your chancellor?”

Another asks how come, given that she and the chancellor designed the budget together, “you get to stay?”

A third asks what credibility she has.

A fourth asks why not even Grandma hasn’t seen fit to show her support.

To each question, she blithers something about being determined to “see through what I’ve promised.” 

After eight painful minutes, she ends the press conference and staggers out of the room.

 

Larry the Cat

Larry the Cat is reported to have chased a fox away from 10 Downing Street, although I have it on good authority that Larry was only asking if it would like to be the next prime minister, at which point it fled. 

 

Facing the Commons

Since nothing gladdens the heart of a British politician more than making another politician (preferably one from another party) suffer in public, the Labour Party puts forward a question that, under normal circumstances, would bring a prime minister toddling into the House of Commons to answer it personally. 

These aren’t normal times, though, and Truss doesn’t appear, so Penny Mordaunt–a fellow Conservative and at one point a rival for Truss’s current, unenviable position–steps in to answer for her, explaining that the prime minister is not hiding under her desk. 

A new rumor circulates: Liz Truss is hiding under her desk.

Jeremy Hunt–new chancellor, remember–announces that he’s reversing almost all Truss’s tax measures. The pound inches upward. The markets nod dozily.

He reassures us that Truss is still in charge. 

A new rumor circulates. Yes, you guessed it.

 

Facing the king

Truss is announced to the king for her weekly audience and he says, “Back again?” and then, “Dear, oh dear.”

 

Facing her own party

In the week before Truss resigned, all you had to do was ask Lord Google, “How long will Li . . .” and he’d finish the sentence with “. . . z Truss be prime minister?” Although, in fairness, he might have suggested something different to you. He knows what you’ve been thinking. He knows when you’re awake. He knew when Truss is in trouble, and so does everyone else.

Okay, that was past tense. Truss resigned twenty minutes ago and I’m rewriting this. Again.  

There were several ways Truss could be dumped, but they boil down to these: 1, Her own party could force her out, or 2, the House of Commons could force her out, triggering a general election.

Or, of course, she could resign and claim it was her own idea.

Her own party was and is somewhere between reluctant and shit-scared to trigger an election right now. Polls suggest that they’re slightly less popular than Covid. One shows ten ministers losing their hind ends, along with the parliamentary seats they sit them on, if an election were to be held now. They include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Hunt, and Therese Coffey, the health minister who recently told the world she’d given leftover antibiotics to a friend, enraging the medical establishment, which reminded us all that it’s not only illegal but dangerous. And unbecoming a health secretary, who might ought to maybe at least pretend she knows something about medicine, or at least knows enough to consult people who do.

To make up for it, she ups the ante and suggests that maybe pharmacists should start prescribing antibiotics, because who needs a diagnosis anyway? You just take some little pills and you get better.

But we were talking about polls. Sorry. It’s just so nice to hear that Coffey has an opinion on something other than the series comma. 

That same poll also projects that Boris Johnson would lose his seat and ass and the Conservatives would face a wipeout.

So no, the Conservatives aren’t in the mood for an election right now, and they still have a huge majority, so they’re in a position to block any move in the Commons. This means the first possibility was the one to pay attention to: Her own party forces her out. To do that, they have follow rules the party itself sets, which say the prime minister’s position can’t be challenged until she’s been in office for a year. Unless, of course, the party decides to change its rules, which it can do as soon as enough of the right people are in the mood. 

The last two prime ministers were forced out that way, remember. All it took was a threat to change the rules, although in Boris Johnson’s case most of his cabinet had to resign before he noticed. The point is, though, that they’re getting good at forcing prime ministers out, if not at governing. But rumor has it that they can’t coalesce around an alternative. Or any half dozen likely sounding alternatives. They seem to have poured all the fizz off the top of their beer and now they’re left with–

That metaphor’s not going to work, is it? Never mind They don’t seem to have convinced themselves that any living Conservative politician has what it takes. It’s one of the places where I find common ground with them. The other? That the law of gravity should remain in force.

Some are even talking about bringing Boris Johnson back. 

Nevertheless, speculation about how long Truss will last was so widespread that one paper had a live-streaming lettuce-cam, asking which will last longer, the prime minister or a head of lettuce?

The lettuce had a ten-day shelf life. It won.

Jack Peat, who writes at the London Economic, raised a possibility I hadn’t thought of: A new election doesn’t have to depend on a majority of parliament voting for it. A general strike could force one. We’re already in the midst of multiple strikes, and more are likely, regardless of who follows Truss.

“As we have seen this summer, workers are more organised than they have been in many years, and the worst is still to come as the cost of living crisis really shows its teeth. Such a large movement could force Truss’s hand, and in doing so, trigger the inevitable capitulation of the Tory Party. “

Truss’s resignation (now forty minutes old) makes that unnecessary but who knows what comes next? The strategy might still be useful.

 

Meanwhile, addressing the nation from under her desk . . . 

. . . Truss announced that she would lead her party into the next election. Several people near where I live said, “Whatever she’s on, I’d like some.”

Larry the Cat reopened negotiations with the fox, whose name has still not yet been made public.

 

Also meanwhile, at a committee of the House of Lords

Ai-Da, an ultra-realistic robot who paints, testified about I have no idea what. Someone asked how she produces art and she said, “I produce my paintings by cameras in my eyes, my AI algorithms and the AI robotic arm to paint on canvas, which result in visually appealing images from my poetry using neutral networks.”

Neutral is not my typo. The questions were submitted in advance and Ai-Da was giving a prefabricated answer. So someone of the human persuasion thought that particular set of words answered the question. 

And maybe it does. I’ve seen equally enlightening statements written by flesh-and-blood artists, and understood them just as well. 

In response to the next question, Ai-Da shut down and had to be rebooted, giving Truss a workable strategy for her next press conference–which didn’t happen.

 

. . . while in what passes for the real world

. . . the new chancellor made noises about a return to austerity. You know what that’s like: They start talking about efficiency and trimming fat, but mysteriously leave fat on the programs they like and take the bones and the meat from ones they don’t, leaving them not only less efficient but in pieces. 

Looking around the country, you might not be able to tell that we left austerity behind, but never mind. If we did, apparently we’re going back. Last I heard, the government needs to come up with £70 billion, and reversing the Truss/Kwarteng tax cuts will only cover half of that. 

Inflation was last clocked breaking the 10% speed limit, but necessities are up more than that. Electricity’s gone up 52%, gas 102.2%, cheese, 23.1%, prefab meals, 19%; milk (that’s low fat), 42%, and so on. People are looking for ways to use less and less fuel when they cook–it’s taking that much of a bite out of the budget.

 

It couldn’t get any worse, right?

Of course it could. Truss’s acting director of communications and key advisor was suspended for saying–or more likely, for being quoted as having said–that Conservative MP Sajid Javid was “shit”–or as one reporter put it, “excremental.” 

Folks, this is why governments need directors of communications. They know what to say in every situation.

The home secretary launched an attack on the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati. Tofu immediately started trending on Twitter.

Then she resigned, having held the position for 43 days and setting another record. Why? Well, she sent a secret document from her personal email account (apparently to someone who wasn’t authorized to see it anyway) and since she was on her way out she used her resignation letter to savage the government for not taking responsibility for its mistakes. 

But wait. She hadn’t quit, she was fired. Or she wasn’t fired. Or else she was and she and Truss had a 90-minute shouting match. At this point, no one much cares about the details, or at least the tofu-eating wokerati and I don’t and let’s face it, who else matters? She’s gone. Her replacement praised the new chancellor but managed not to mention the prime minister. 

Journalists began asking who was in charge. From under her desk, Truss sent a note saying, “I am.”

A vote in the House of Commons degenerated into chaos, with accusations of screaming, shouting, bullying, and more to the point pushing and shoving so Conservative MPs would vote the way their party wanted them to. This was possible because MPs vote by walking into one room or another–or in this case, by getting pushed into one of them. Apparently if your body goes through the door, it doesn’t matter how it got there, you voted.

The chief whip resigned–and apparently her deputy did as well. 

What’s a chief whip? The person who keeps MPs in line, threatening them with mayhem if they look like they might vote the wrong way. 

What does it mean when a chief whip resigns? It’s the political equivalent of your underwear spontaneously falling off as you stand at the bus stop on your way to work. Only your underwear’s unlikely to yell, as the deputy is supposed to have at the point where he and his underwear left the voting lobby, “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore.” Except the the site where I found that quotes him as saying “f***ing,” which is hard to pronounce, never mind yell.

Then they both unresigned. Or else one of them did. Or neither. Or possibly they never resigned in the first place.

We’re all a bit dizzy and need to sit quietly for a while.

A veteran TV journalist called the Northern Ireland minister–off camera–a cunt and apologized to the world at large, saying it was below the standard he sets for himself. I’m disappointed only that he apologized. Not that I know enough about the Northern Ireland minister, just that–oh, hell, I like a bit of swearing now and then.

 

Who’s next?

A friend suggested yesterday that we’ve had so many prime ministers lately that we need a collective noun for them. A disappointment of prime ministers? A desperation of prime ministers? Please, help me out here. It’s important and we need the world’s best brains working on it.

I’m writing this on Thursday, October 20. It’s now an hour since Truss resigned. She’ll stay under her desk, pretending to govern, until her party picks a replacement, which is expected to take a week–much less time than it took to choose Truss, but after the MPs narrow down the candidates the final two will be voted on by Conservative Party members, those wise and sober citizens who thought Truss was a good idea. The rest of us will sit on the sidelines.  

[Yet another update: Conservative MPs will narrow the field of candidates down and if two are left standing and unmaimed the choice will go to the members. If only one is still functional, that’s it, the decision will have been made and the members won’t have to bother their little heads.]

As for me, I’ve worn out several of the English language’s verb tenses and refuse to do any more rewriting. I’m posting it early–Thursday evening instead of Friday morning–before anything else changes. For whatever happens next, allow me to refer you to a real newspaper. Even if you’re not a fan, they’ve been a lot of fun lately.

A final word, though: Larry the Cat’s negotiations with the fox are ongoing. The snag, apparently, is that the fox won’t accept the position without a mandate from the voters and the Conservatives are understandably not interested in bringing the voters into the picture right now.

Translating from English to English: What does pudding mean in Britain?

Almost anyone who knows and loves the English language will agree that it’s mildly insane. Some of us admit that reluctantly and the rest of us think it’s what gives the language its eccentric charm. I’m in the second category, so I’m taking us all to play in a spot where linguistic oddity meets food. 

How far wrong can we possibly go?

Very, but let’s do it anyway. The question of the week is, What are the British talking about when they talk about pudding?

 

Irrelevant photo: a begonia flower

Definitions

As far as I’ve been able to tell after sixteen years of haphazard research, pudding means four very different things in Britain.

  1. Something sweet at the end of a meal. 
  2. Something made with a batter.
  3. Something either sweet or savory (savory being the opposite of sweet) that’s been tied into a cloth and steamed or boiled.
  4. A “sausage-like mass of seasoned mince meat, oatmeal, etc., stuffed into a prepared skin or bag and boiled.” (That’s from the Collins Dictionary.) 

If that last category doesn’t send you running to Lord Google for recipes, I sympathize. It doesn’t sound like my idea of what to cook on a slow Sunday afternoon either, although I’m sure someone will tell me that a mass of seasoned minced et cetera can be delicious, and I’m sure they’ll be right, at least if they’re serving it to meat eaters. I, however, live on raw carrots and the stems of organic herbs, so it’s not for me. Even if I ate meat, though, the word mass is what did me in. Any food writers out there? Put mass on your list of unattractive words.

And speaking of unattractive words…

 

The unfortunate origins of the word pudding

How did two ordinary syllables come to mean so many different things? Etymology Online takes us back to the year 1300, when pudding meant a sausage made of meat, blood, and all sorts of fun things, stuffed into the intestines of a pig, sheep, or other unfortunate, and then boiled. 

That explains meaning number 4, the boiled mass. 

The word may have come from a Germanic word meaning “to swell,” which means it’s related to words for all kinds of unpleasant swellings. But cheer up, it may come have a whole ‘nother source: a vulgar Latin word by way of an Old French word meaning sausage and having to do with animal intestines.

In the sixteenth century, in fact, if you talked about puddings, plural, you were talking about someone’s intestines, so we’ve got a pretty strong set of sausage-y connections here. But in that same century, pudding was slang for vagina. And–not to be outdone–for penis. 

I wouldn’t suggest holding out for any sort of logic there. Slang isn’t answerable to careful reasoning.

And now, let’s drop that thread before we give up on the topic altogether.

 

Moving right along

How did the word  transition from a sausage to a dessert? Well, in Tudor times it wasn’t unusual to sweeten a sausage, and to add dried fruit, and a sweet sausage-y thing is surely a step in the direction of what we know as a dessert. 

Also in the sixteenth century, a pudding became something involving flour, milk, eggs, and maybe some dried fruit. It could still be either sweet or savory. That points us to meaning number 1–dessert. The connection to those sausage-y things is that you could take those floury, milky, eggy things and boil them in pudding bags, because if you’re not going to stuff them into an intestine, you have to hold them together some other way. So that takes care of meaning 3, something tied in a bag and acquainted with hot water. 

 

Yeah, but what about meaning 1?

According to GreatBritishMag, calling something sweet at the end of the meal a pudding has to do with the British class system. 

Everything in Britain has to do with the class system. 

Traditionally, it says, puddings were rustic things eaten by the lower classes–things like rice pudding and (fasten your seat belt) spotted dick.

Yes, spotted dick. It’s a dessert–or a pudding, if you like–and no, you won’t get a funny look or a medical referral if you say you have or want some. 

While the rustic lower classes were eating spotted dick and wondering if anyone would get the joke, the upper classes were eating not pudding but dessert–chocolate mousse, sweet souffles, and that sort of fancified stuff. 

(Truth in blogging paragraph: Dick doesn’t seem to have become slang for penis until the late nineteenth century. EtymologyOnline says, “It has long been a synonym for ‘fellow,’ ” and dates that back as far as the sixteenth century.) 

Forget that, though. Somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure when or how, the word pudding not only jumped classes but appropriated the entire category of sweets-after-a-meal, and ended up being one of the few British words that doesn’t mark a person’s class. (Others in the category are and, of, or, but, and a scant few thousand others.)

Or so say one or two sources. Arguing against them, Country Living magazine lists pudding as upper class and dessert, afters, and sweet (as in (I think), “Should we have a sweet?”) as non-upper class, where they join declasse words such as couch and settee (instead of sofa), pjs (instead of pajamas), and movie (instead of film). Oh, the horror. How could one hold one’s head up–?

Who’s right? I haven’t a clue.

 

So what gets called a pudding?

Just about anything.

Okay, it does have to be edible–no chairs; no bike racks–and (I think) either solid or semi-solid. And it has to have more than one ingredient. I’m sure there are other limits, but hey, I’m a transplant. I’m doing the best I can here, but you wouldn’t want to trust me out of your sight. 

Now that I think about it, you might want to consult somebody sensible about this, and I invite comments on this from both the sensible and the senseless. 

But with that warning out of the way, foods that have pudding in their names include:

Yorkshire pudding. This is a breadlike thing generally served with meat, gravy, and all the sidekick foods. It used to be served before the meal to fill people up so they’d eat less meat. And it’s baked–it used to be cooked under the meat so it soaked up the drippings–not boiled. It lives in the flour-and-other-stuff room of the pudding house.

Christmas pudding. This is a fruitcake, and it’s steamed or boiled. [You’ll find an explanation of why is isn’t a fruitcake in the comments.] It can sleep in the flour-and-stuff room or the cooked-in-a-bag room, depending on the mood it’s in.

Black pudding. This is a blood sausage and it lives in the sausage room.

White pudding. Another sausage, but bloodless. It lives right near the black pudding.

Rice pudding. This has rice, milk, sugar, and whatever bits of flavoring you like to toss in. I learned to make it on the stove (that’s the hob in British), but most recipes I’ve seen in Britain toss it in the oven. Or, okay, slide in in carefully. It lives in the milk-and-bread room, even if it does substitute rice for flour. A starch is a starch.

Toad-in-the-hole. This involves sausages and a milk, egg, and flour batter, so it wanders from room to room at night, dragging its sleeping bag behind it.

Summer pudding. This is made of bread, fruit, sugar, and nothing else. It’s spectacular, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have a pass to any of the rooms. It sleeps in the hall, mumbling that it was made in a pudding bowl so why’s everyone so mean?

I could go on but we wouldn’t be much wiser. I’ll stop. 

So what do the British call that stuff Americans call pudding?

Nothing. You won’t find it in Britain, so they haven’t given it a name. I’ve seen sites claiming that the British call it custard, but custard’s a whole ‘nother beast.

 

The Black Pudding Throwing Contest

It wouldn’t be right to leave the topic without mentioning the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, held in (you can’t make this stuff up) Ramsbottom in September. Legend has it that the contest dates back to the War of the Roses, when the houses of Lancaster and York ran out of ammunition and started throwing food at each other. 

Legend has it that a lot of legends were made up in the pub, but never mind. The tradition was revived–or started–in 1839 and then re-revived in the 1980s.

The idea is to throw black puddings at a stack of Yorkshire puddings and see how many you can knock down. 

My thanks to The Year without Wimbledon for making sure I didn’t miss this. The information’s spent a long time sitting on my list of topics I never get to. I’m happy to see it fight its way out.

The latest thing in conspiracy theories: It’s the news from Britain

The latest thing in conspiracy theories: It’s the news from Britain

Britain has a special relationship with the US, although Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey indicates that only Britain is knows about it. But never mind that. It’s so important that Britain sometimes gives it capital letters: the Special Relationship.

In fairness, Britain hands out a lot of capital letters, so Americans, don’t let that go to your head.

But special relationship or no special relationship, Britain doesn’t like taking second place, even in the production of conspiracy theories, so we’ve come up with a nice one that’s all our own: The security guards who attended King Charles–that’s the monarch formerly known as Prince–at his mother’s funeral used fake hands so they could keep their real ones on the weapons hidden under their coats. 

Well, of course they did. I’ve seen photos circulating on TikTok, and they show the security guys keeping a tight grip on their hands, as if they were afraid they’d drop off. 

Yes, people do stay up nights to work this stuff out.

The paper I found this in seems to have found it credible enough that they trotted out a security expert to explain why that wouldn’t happen in the UK, although it might, of course, in the US.

Isn’t it interesting what people think of the US? We’re a nation where people could, imaginably, hide an extra pair of arms under their coats.

Irrelevant photo: A pedestrian crossing in Camden, London.

But that’s not what the expert addressed. In the US, he explained–and this comes in the form of an indirect quote from the Metro–“close protection officers are more ‘trigger happy’ . . . but the ‘risk is too high’ in the UK.”

In other words, you might be able to run around shooting people at royal funerals in the US (assuming, of course, that you can find a royal funeral), but you can’t do that in Britain. 

No one seems to have asked how long it would take security guys in any country to break their real arms loose if they did need to get trigger happy, but before I’m going to get on board for this one I need an answer. 

But let’s move on

Do you ever wonder why so many conspiracy theories are on the loose lately? It’s a desperate effort to make sense of a  world that’s falling apart. 

That’s not meant as a joke.

So what’s the British government doing to hold it all together? Well, we have a brand new government, cobbled together by the Conservative Party, which still has a hefty majority in Parliament. Already, though, the shine’s coming off it. It–this is the government we’re talking about in case you’ve lost track–announced a new mini-budget that, in the face of a population increasingly desperate about inflation, promised a tax cut for the richest eighteenth of a percent of the population. It would fund that by borrowing money that it would pay back when pigs fly in formation past the Houses of Parliament waving lion-and-unicorn banners and singing “The Marseillaise.”

Why “The Marseillaise”? Irony, that’s why. Their long and less than happy relationship with humans has led pigs to develop a sharp sense of irony.

The pound promptly tanked. That’s the vote that really matters, so the political world came to a rolling boil. MPs in the government’s own party publicly attacked the idea, attacked the prime minister, attacked the chancellor, and attacked Larry the Cat, who in fairness isn’t even in the cabinet. 

Cabinet ministers accused MPs of staging a coup. 

Larry the Cat accused the government of being stingy with the cat treats.

The prime minister said she wouldn’t back down. 

The prime minister repeated that she wouldn’t back down.

The prime minister backed down, but only on the most controversial tax cut, not on other problematic parts of the budget, which I’ll skip over. Come on, do I look like a newspaper? When the details overwhelm the humor, I have to move on.

The prime minister won’t rule out reinstating the tax cut. 

Larry the Cat upchucked a lightly used mouse head on the steps of Number 10.

In the meantime, the government that won’t commit to increasing benefits (Americans can translate that welfare and similar programs) in line with inflation. People–and not just the poorest ones–are seriously worried about how to heat their homes, food banks are deluged, and the National Health Service is coming apart at the seams. 

And we’re hearing a lot of talk about power cuts this winter. 

*

But compassion isn’t completely missing. I recently stumbled over an expensively printed flier with advice on reducing fuel poverty. Some sponsors are in small enough print that I’m not sure if it’s only from the Cornwall Council or if it’s national as well, but hey, if I had anything to do with it I’d want my name in small print as well.

What does it advise us to do?

  • Keep warm
  • Have regular hot meals and drinks
  • Keep moving 
  • Look after yourself
  • Take care of your neighbors

Thanks, guys. I don’t know what we’d do without you.

To be fair, they also give us a handful of phone numbers to try, but I wouldn’t hold my breath about any of them solving people’s problems.

So what does the Department for Fiddling While Rome Burns say?

The government’s addressing the important stuff, though. Therese Coffey–the new health secretary who sports an accent in her first name but I can’t be bothered searching the depths of Word to find it–has taken a tough stand on the Oxford Comma. 

The what?

I’m not exactly British, so I’m not the best person to ask, but back in that big country on the other side of the Atlantic, I learned to call it a series comma. By either name, it’s the comma you either do or don’t use before the final item in a list. You know, when you write to the health secretary and say either, “I find your advice odd, patronizing, and trivial,” or “I find your advice odd, patronizing [no comma, you’ll notice] and trivial.” 

C’mon, this stuff is important.

I won’t try to explain why that’s called the Oxford comma in Britain, mostly since  I don’t understand it either, but Coffey’s agin it. (She wouldn’t approve of agin either, which is why it made its way in here.) She’d no more than located her new office and hung up her coat than she told civil servants to “be positive” in their communications with her, to avoid double negatives, and to not use the Oxford comma. 

After that hit the headlines, her departmental flak-catchers jumped in and acknowledged that the memo was real but said Coffey hadn’t written it. 

“There may have been a bit of over-eagerness” in the content, he, she, they [Oxford comma ahead], or it said.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they were half as eager to shorten the lists of people waiting for medical treatment, fill the National Health Service’s job vacancies, or fix hospital roofs? But those things take money. Oxford commas? They come cheap.

Yeah, but why’d the Conservative’s get a reputation as the Nasty Party?

Gee, I don’t know. I wasn’t here when it happened, but it’s not helped by people like Daniel Grainger, chair of the Young Conservative Network, who arrived in Birmingham for the party convention and tweeted that it was “a dump.” 

He’s stepped down pending an investigation, although that may be over a different tweet–one that, sadly, hasn’t hit the headlines.

How’d the party conference go?

Well, a recent study reports that dogs can sniff out whether people are stressed. I haven’t read that the conference center was surrounded by stress-trained canines, but then I haven’t read that it wasn’t. And for all I know, those hands really were fake. Can you prove they weren’t?

Can we go back to economics, please?

Sure. The Ig Nobel Economics Prize went to Alessandro Pluchino and his colleagues for a mathematical explanation of why success so often goes not to the most talented people but to the luckiest. 

Irrelevantly but irresistibly, the prize for medicine went to Marcin Jasiński and colleagues for showing that patients treated with cryotherapy–a form of chemotherapy that dries out the mouth, gums, and tongue–have fewer harmful side effects when ice cream replaces the ice chips they usually suck on.

They used Ben and Jerry’s, although I expect the improvement would carry over to other brands. 

Bits of good news about Covid

We’re talking about Covid again, so let’s grab some shreds of good news and pile them up like hamster bedding–only (if I remember my brother’s hamster correctly) not as stale smelling.

 

Shred number one

A study involving older, high-risk adults showed that nasal irrigation reduced the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid and helped people recover faster. 

What does “older” mean if we don’t have a comparison group? C’mon, we all know that in our culture it’s not nice to say someone’s old. They’re trying to be polite. My best guess is, older than the researchers.

Next question: What’s nasal irrigation? An inexpensive and low-tech way of clearing out your sinuses. You squirt a mild sterile saline solution up one nostril, tipping your head so it dribbles helplessly out the other, having found its way via satellite navigation. As the solution falls into the sink, you’ll hear a small voice saying, “You have reached your destination.” 

Irrelevant photo: It must be time for another cat photo. This is Fast Eddie, who doesn’t look like he was assembled correctly but was. Really.

Okay, I asked Lord Google what it involves, and I even tried doing it. It’s mildly off-putting but I’ve done worse things in the name of health. It’s entirely survivable.

But let’s go back to the study: Only 1.3% of the subjects were hospitalized, and none died. Compare that to the control group, where 9.47% were hospitalized and 1.5% died. Group one also got better faster and had fewer symptoms hanging on at the end of two weeks. 

The inspiration behind the study was 1) that saline decreases Covid’s ability to attach to cells–to the ACE2 receptor, in case you’re taking notes and 2) that the larger a person’s viral load is, the sicker they’re likely to be, so if within 24 hours of testing positive (the study’s designers reasonsed) some of the virus was rinsed out, that might reduce Covid’s damage. 

Nasal irrigation is a common practice in Southeast Asia, and interestingly enough death rates from Covid were lower there. That’s not definitive proof, but it’s intriguing enough to make a person design a study around it–if the aforesaid person happens to be in the right line of work, of course. 

Irrigation also helps with colds, postnasal drip,  sinus headaches, and all sorts of fun stuff. It’s said to improve people’s sense of taste and smell and the quality of their sleep. 

I’m starting to sound like a true believer, aren’t I? Sorry. I’ll recover in a minute or two, as soon as I stop this saline solution dribbling out of my left nostril. In the meantime, I can balance things out by admitting that it won’t make you taller or reverse aging.

 

Shred number two

A small study hints that vaccination may be decreasing the number of people who come down with long Covid. The study comes from the long Covid clinic at the Cambridge University Teaching Hospital, which treats people on the severe end of the spectrum. Between August 2021 and June 2022, it saw a 79% drop in referrals compared to August 2020 and July 2021.

That’s not proof that vaccination’s the cause–it’s only correlation–but it does suggest it.

Other studies also show a decrease, although the numbers have been all over the map. One showed a 15% reduction and another 50%. A third showed “eight of the ten most-commonly reported symptoms were reported between 50 and 80% less often.” I’d translate that into a format that parallels the other studies but somebody glued the pieces in place and I can’t. 

The reason the numbers vary so much is that the studies weren’t defining long Covid the same way or following people for the same length of time. 

So does catching Covid multiple times increase your odds of getting long Covid? The assumption has been that with each infection, you roll the dice again, taking the same risk each time. But one author of the study expects that previous infections will have more or less the same impact as vaccination and the risk will turn out to diminish after the first infection.

Probably.

 

Shred number three

The omicron variant may be 20% to 50% less likely to turn into long Covid than the delta variant, depending on a person’s age and how much time has passed since they were last vaccinated. 

But–and isn’t there always a but?–because more people caught the omicron variant than the delta, the absolute number of people in the UK who came down with long Covid as a result was higher. 

Sorry. That second paragraph was as welcome as a thorny old blackberry cane sneaking into the hamster bedding.

 

Shred number four

Allergies might offer some protection against Covid. Do you have hay fever, allergic rhinitis, eczema, dermatitis? Be grateful for your bad luck, because you may be 23% less likely to get infected . Got one of those plus asthma? Be grateful twice: It may have down by 38%. 

That’s not proof, but it’s an interesting possibility.

 

Shred number five

A study estimates that in the first year Covid vaccines were available, they prevented 19.8 million deaths worldwide. Unfortunately, though, because of how unevenly they were distributed, the advantage was heavily skewed toward the richest countries.

You knew it wouldn’t all be good news here, didn’t you? 

During the first Covid wave, before vaccines were available, shutting schools cut daily deaths by 1.23 per million over 24 days and shutting workplaces cut daily deaths by 0.26 per million over 24 days. (Kids were less likely to get sick but they’re generous little creatures and they do like to share their germs.) For a population of 67 million (which just happens to be Britain’s population), that translates to roughly 82 deaths avoided every 24 days by shutting schools and 17 by shutting workplaces.

Lockdowns and restrictions on public transportation didn’t have as significant an impact. The difference is at least partially attributable to vulnerable people not being able to avoid workplaces and schools.  

 

Shred number six

India and China have approved inhalable vaccines, and many medical manufacturers are chasing their own inhalable versions. Injected vaccines concentrate antibodies in our muscles, which is useful, but we catch Covid by inhaling it, so the theory goes that loading the nose and mouth with antibodies could potentially keep us from spreading it. In other words, it really could end the pandemic.

Potentially. I don’t think the data on either of the new vaccines have been made public yet, so keep watching.

 

And now your weekly quota of bad-to-ambiguous news

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said, “Last week, one person died with Covid-19 every 44 seconds. Most of those deaths are avoidable.”

That quote’s from early September .

“You might be tired of hearing me say the pandemic is not over. But I will keep saying it until it is.”

A week later, he said “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.”

However, “If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty.”

WHO is urging countries to continue testing for the virus, to continue sequencing it, and to vaccinate 100% of the most at-risk groups, including health workers and the elderly.