About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Covid, singing, and the London Marathon: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The London Marathon was supposed to happen last April but it was postponed until October 4 because of the pandemic, and somewhere in between those two dates they decided to make it a virtual marathon. A handful of top runners will follow the marathon’s route and have what used to be called a race. 

What do we call it now? I’m not sure. The language tested positive the other day, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful language and it’s only in the hospital because there were some people here who wanted to be cautious. Very, very cautious. 

The test’s fake anyway. The virus is a fake. 

But with all that hospital equipment beeping, it’s hard to remember words. So never mind what we call it these days. It used to be a race. A very beautiful race.

Where were we? 

All the other runners will do their miles wherever they happen to be–Cornwall, Australia, it doesn’t matter–and log their time onto an app, which will take their word for it and give them a medal. 

Okay, the app won’t give them the medal. It has humans to do that for it.

This being Britain, a certain number of the participants will run in costume, which could be anything from a tutu to a telephone box. If you’ll click the link, you’ll see someone running in a 10 kilo a rhino costume. That’s 22 pounds, or to put it simply, a shitload of weight to go running in, especially since she has to hunch forward inside there and can’t see very well. And that’s just when she’s in training. On the day of the actual marathon, her husband will be on hand to steer her around trash barrels and gawping kids. 

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Irrelevant photo: This flower is orange. You’re welcome.

A third of Britain is living with tighter-than-the-national Covid restrictions because of a localized rise in case numbers. And what really matters in all of this is who’s to blame.  

Boris Johnson blames the public’s “fraying discipline.” It has nothing to do with the government having encouraged people over the summer to travel, eat out, drink out, get out with their wallets in hand, or with guidelines and laws so murky that Johnson got them wrong when he explained how simple they were. Or with its own advisors (and more recently an MP) breaking them. Or with a heroically useless test and trace system. 

The mayor of one affected area, Middlesbrough, said the new measures were based on “factual inaccuracies and a monstrous and frightening lack of communication, and ignorance. . . . We do not accept these measures.”

Cases have managed to double in the majority of cities and towns under the tighter restrictions. I don’t have a start date for that–the restrictions started at different times in different areas–but it ended on September 20.

The best educated guess on why they haven’t been effective is that the rules are confusing and that the communities and their leaders haven’t been involved and don’t support them. Plus that when you try to talk about what’s wrong with the test and trace system the discussion quickly falls off the edge of the English language.

Okay. The expert whose opinion I’m paraphrasing, Chris Ham, said the test and trace system was “still not working well enough.” But I’m channeling what he really thinks. You know I am.

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Serious, labor-intensive contact tracing in two Indian states shows that just a few events were responsible for a disproportionate number of Covid infections. It also suggests that, contrary to what’s generally been thought, children transmit the virus quite efficiently, thanks. Every time I read a study about kids and transmission, it contradicts that last one, so let’s not rest too much weight on that frail bridge, just acknowledge that it’s all still preliminary.

Still, this is the biggest epidemiological study of the spread so far. 

What they found is that 8% of the people they followed caused 60% of the infections. The things that seem to separate an event from a superspreader event are how close people are to someone who’s infected, how long they’re close, and how good the ventilation is. 

Contact tracers followed 78 people who’d been on a bus or train with one lone infected person, sitting within three rows of them for more than six hours, and found that 80% of them had gotten the virus. In lower-risk environments–being in the same room but three feet away–only 1.6% got the virus.

Kids between the age of five and seventeen passed the virus on to 18% of the close contacts in their own age groups. That’s not exactly parallel information–how close, how long, how well or badly ventilated, or what percent of adults passed it on to close contacts –so it doesn’t tell us whether they’re passing the bug along as efficiently as their older, wiser, creakier relatives, but what the hell, it’s information. I thought I’d throw it at you. 

The study also doesn’t answer the question of whether any biological factors separate your average infected person from your superspreader. 

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Back at the start of the pandemic, the British government set up a loan program to help businesses survive. The British Business Bank warned that it was vulnerable to being scammed by people setting up fake businesses. 

Actually, not just vulnerable to: at high risk of. The British Business Bank is state owned and was supposed to supervise the program, and it sounded the warning twice.

And surprise, surprise, exactly what they warned of has happened, although I don’t think anyone knows yet how often, or how much money the government’s on the hook for because of it. What I’ve seen so far is anecdotal–the ”someone stole my name to steal money from the government” sort of thing. But I thought you might need cheering up by now, so I wanted to mention it.

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A new study of Covid spread and singing is drawing from “faith communities” to find its participants. I’m putting that in quotes because on the one hand it manages to include every religion you can think of and several you can’t, so it’s useful, but on the other hand it sounds so prim and tippy-toed that I want to throw crockery at it.  So I’ll use the phrase and disown it at the same time. 

I just hate when people do that. Which is why I’m spending more time explaining it than I am talking about the study.

Other than its focus on religious groups, the study’s inclusive: It’ll involve people from a range of heights, sizes, sexes, ages, and ethnicities. Also with and without hairy faces in case any of that affects things. They’ll sing at different volumes, chant, or hum, using assorted face coverings, while lasers measure the aerosols they spray out. 

These days I do all my singing from inside the large plastic wheelie bin that the county supplies for green waste recycling. With the lid down. As long as the green waste guys don’t come when I’m singing and the neighbors don’t get together to push me down the hill and into the ocean, it’s perfectly safe. 

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It seems to be accepted at this point that Covid can catch a ride on the aerosols that we breathe out when we do all those noisy, communicative things that human evolution has given us, but it’s not clear to what extent aerosol-borne germs actually spread the disease. 

What is known is that aerosols travel more than six feet–the magic distance that’s supposed to keep us all safe from other people’s germs. The six-foot recommendation was based on the larger particles–droplets–which fall to the ground relatively close to the breathing, singing, humming source. But aerosols can hang in the air for hours. They hold dances up there. They run marathons in rhinoceros costumes. 

Okay, we don’t know what they do up there, or how dangerous it is to us. All we know for sure is that ventilation is a good thing. So are air purifying systems.

Mind you, I don’t know what qualifies as an air purifying system and I’m not in a hurry to take any non-expert’s word on it. I do know that open windows work. I also know that in a Minnesota January open windows aren’t as simple a solution as they are in June.

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An article in Journal of General Internal Medicine surveyed 28 experts in vaccinology (yes, there is such a thing) and on an average they thought a vaccine would be available to the general public (this would be in the US or Canada) at the earliest in June 2021 but more probably in September or October.

For people at the greatest risk, the soonest would be February but more probably March or April.

But as the great Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

Berra also may or may not have said, “I never said half the things I said,” which is why I’m being cautious about attributing that quote to him. Someone will, inevitably, let me know that someone else said it. And they’ll probably be right.

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Having Neanderthal genes, as 16% of Europeans, 50% of south Asians, and 0% of Africans do, can make a person three times more likely to need ventilation if they’re infected with Covid.

But Professor Mark Maslin added a however to that: “Lots of different populations are being severely affected, many of which do not have any Neanderthal genes. We must avoid simplifying the causes and impact of Covid-19. . . . Covid-19 is a complex disease, the severity of which has been linked to age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, health, virus load among other things.”

I only mentioned it because it’s so damn weird.

Quinine, malaria, and empire

Quinine reached Britain (not to mention the rest of Europe) by way of Jesuit missionaries in South America. Browse around the internet and you’ll read that quinine is the dried, powdered bark of a tree that grows in the Andes and that it was discovered in the seventeenth century: The Jesuits, you’ll read, may or may not have used it to treat a Spanish countess’s malaria. Or the countess may or may not have discovered its uses herself. She may or may not have brought it back to Europe with her. 

Had the bark’s uses been discovered long before that by the people who were known as Indians thanks to Columbus having put too much trust in a glitchy SatNav (or GPS, since he was headed for the Americas)? 

Um, yes, according to biologist Nataly Canales. She says the bark was known to the Quechua, Cañari, and Chimú peoples long before any countesses or missionaries barged onto the stage.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Once it got to Europe the bark was added to a liquid–usually wine–and drunk as a treatment for malaria.

Now let’s put quinine on the shelf and talk about malaria for a few paragraphs.

I don’t know about you, but the random reading I did when I was younger (and I spent a shocking amount of my life being younger) left me with the impression that at least the British and probably Europeans in general were exposed to malaria as a result of empire. In other words, I assumed they caught it when they left their nice, safe home climates and broke into other people’s (warmer, mosquito-prone) countries, taking them over.

Not so. Malaria in Europe predates predates the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, and while we’re at it, the Roman Empire. It was around in the ancient Mediterranean and it was also around in marshy, fenny parts of England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and in London itself for at least for part of that time.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, it went into decline in England. Lots of causes have been proposed, from swamps being drained to an increase in the number of domestic cattle, which meant mosquitoes could bite creatures that weren’t able to swat them. Any combination of those reasons is possible. I found a perfectly respectable article that told me no one’s sorted the reasons into piles yet or measured which one is larger. 

Was malaria present in England before the fifteenth century? Probably. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chaucer writes about tertian fever–a recurring fever that was probably malaria. That takes us back to the fourteenth century and we won’t chase it any further back than that or we’ll never get out of here.

Malaria was also called ague or intermittent fever, and ague appeared in any number of the crumbly old novels I read when I spent all that time being younger. I had no idea what ague meant, I just accepted it as some vague kind of sickness and went on as if I understood more than, in fact, I did.

Those characters had malaria. And although some caught it by breaking and entering in other people’s countries, some caught it right there at home.

In fact, Europeans may have exported the disease to the Americas. That’s not certain, but a second strain of malaria was definitely imported with the slaves Europeans dragged over from Africa.

The long-standing European belief was that malaria came from bad airmal’aria–and that made a kind of sense. Folks had noticed that it was associated with stagnant water, vapors, swampy places. They were missing a piece of the puzzle, but as far as it went, it was good observation.

By the seventeenth century, the English were treating malaria with the latest wonder drug, opium, which both doctors and patients agreed cured pretty much everything: pain, fever, financial embarrassment, although it only cured that last problem if you were selling the stuff, not if you were taking it or buying it.

Opium was also used as an antidote to poison. Like I said, it cured everything.

Then along came quinine and–well, there was a problem. It came from the hands of Jesuits–in fact, it was called the Jesuit powder–and England wasn’t just Protestant, it was aggressively Protestant. Puritan-flavored, Cromwellian Protestant. And Cromwellian Protestants didn’t want a Catholic-flavored drug, even if it would cure a serious problem. 

Cromwell himself is thought to have died of malaria and he might (it’s not certain) have refused to take any of that dread Jesuit powder. Andrew Marvell (another staunch Puritan and a poet; nothing to do with the comic books) also had malaria and might have died from an accidental overdose of opium that he might have taken for it instead of quinine. 

Sorry–lots of mights in there. History’s full of things we don’t know for sure, and one of them is whether anyone dangled Jesuit-inflected quinine in front of them. (“Here, kid, the first one’s free.”) The consensus, though, is that Cromwell, at least, refused it. In a definitely very probably likely kind of way.

Opium wasn’t the only treatment for malaria. I’m not sure when Europeans gave this one up as a lost cause, but at some point the remedies they tried included throwing the patient head-first into a bush. The idea was the patient should get out quickly and leave the fever behind.

Britain’s full of thorny bushes, and I know that because I’ve met every one of them personally, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the British gave this remedy up early.

Eventually, England settled down enough to realize that taking quinine for malaria didn’t necessarily turn you into a (gasp) Catholic (and didn’t leave you full of thorns) and it accepted the drug.

All of this mattered because malaria was and is, to varying extents, debilitating. The extent depended on the strain. Some strains killed people and others didn’t. Britain’s version was on the milder end of the spectrum, but many strains were capable of leaving individuals, whole regions, and armies debilitated. Some historians tag malaria in the fall of the Roman Empire. It wanders into discussions of the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and assorted other historical turning points. The European colonization of Africa was slowed by malaria. Europeans had no immunity to it, while some (although not all) Africans did. If you inherit two copies of a particular genetic mutation, you have sickle cell anemia, but if you inherit only one it protects you against malaria. 

By the nineteenth century, Europe was in the process of eradicating malaria, so the Britons who went abroad to build and serve the empire (not to mention to build their own fortunes and serve themselves) were moving from a relatively low risk of the disease to a higher one. Which explains my impression that malaria was something they got in the hot countries where they practiced breaking and entering. 

In India, the British Empire ran on quinine. In the nineteenth century the active ingredients was isolated and purified, and Britons in the Indian colony mixed it with sugar and soda water, called it tonic, and took a dose of it daily as a preventive. 

In 1858 it was first made commercially, and from the colonies it eventually took over the home market.

At about this same time, gin was overcoming its reputation for dragging people into sin and degradation. It became respectable enough for British colonial officials to pour a bit into their tonic water. Or possibly a bit more than a bit.

For medicinal purposes only, you understand.

In 1880, the malaria bug was finally identified. It was a nearly transparent, crescent-shaped beastie. Then, as the world was falling off the edge of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the anopheles mosquito was identified as its carrier.

Quinine remained the treatment of choice, as it had been for four hundred years, but the stuff had–and has–side effects that range from mild headache, nausea, and hearing problems to severe vertigo, vomiting, marked hearing loss, loss of vision, hypertension, and thrombosis, asthma, and psychosis.

Its use is not recommended if you take a long list of drugs that you can’t pronounce anyway.

All of which explains why other drugs are often used for malaria these days and why so many websites tell you not to use it to treat leg cramps–although a few swallows of tonic water won’t leave you psychotic and vomiting by the side of the road. 

Why young adults don’t have a get-out-of-Covid-free card

As the pandemic lumbers onward, we’re hearing more about long Covid–the debilitating long-term effects that some people experience after the disease has passed. Here’s what I’ve been able to scrape together:

No one who catches the virus knows what card they’ll pull out of the Covid deck. Some people have no symptoms, some people get sick and recover, and some people die. As far as most discussions are concerned, that’s it. Cards distributed. Can we play something else, please? 

Well, no, we can’t, because that middle group isn’t done drawing cards. Some of them recover fully, regardless of whether they had serious cases or mild ones, and some–even people who had mild cases–don’t go back to being the people they were before they got sick. And that includes young adults, the people we thought had a get-out-of-jail-free card for this disease. 

The symptoms of long Covid range all over the place. They can include exhaustion, brain fog, memory problems, breathlessness, depression, hair loss, concentration problems, loss of the senses of taste and smell, joint pain, muscle aches, chest pain, chills, sweats, digestive issues, coughs. Trouble going upstairs and trouble walking to the end of the street (the road, the lane, the whatever) get mentioned a lot. Fatigue sounds like the most common symptom.

Some people slowly get better and move on. Some improve a bit and slip back a bit and improve again and slip back again. Some seem to be stuck at the bottom. And it goes on for months. 

Does it get better? We don’t know yet. 

Semi-relevant photo: This is called honesty. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to politicians in the middle of a pandemic. It’s out of season at the moment, but let’s not draw any overarching conclusions from that. 

The Covid Symptom Study app–that’s not the official British test and trace app but it’s been downloaded by 3 million people and one cockatoo–says one person in twenty has long-term symptoms. Another app, this one in Scotland and Wales, comes up with one in ten having symptoms for longer than three weeks, some of them for months.

An article in the BMJ quotes Tim Spector, of the Covid Symptom Study, saying that if your version of Covid includes “a persistent cough, hoarse voice, headache, diarrhoea, skipping meals, and shortness of breath in the first week, you are two to three times more likely to get longer term symptoms.” 

Long Covid seems to be about twice as common in women as in men.

Or in one Paris hospital, four times more common. The same hospital said the average age of the long-haulers they saw was forty.

I know. The numbers are all over the place. These are early reports, a lot of them involving a small number of cases. They’re not carefully designed studies. It’s too early for that.

Another study said a third of patients who had mild symptoms hadn’t gotten back to their pre-Covid health after two to three weeks. The older the patient, the more likely that was, but a quarter of the people between eighteen and thirty-four hadn’t bounced back.

Many long-haulers report that many doctors don’t take them or their symptoms seriously–especially if they’re women. And gee, no, we wouldn’t want to draw any overarching conclusions from that either.

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Meanwhile, back at the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study reports that older people are underrepresented in trials of both Covid vaccines and treatments. 

Why’s that when they’re the most vulnerable to the disease? Because participation often depends on not having other diseases, or on having smart phones or internet access. 

That causes a problem, because older patients may need higher or lower doses of a vaccine or a medicine. Get it wrong and a cure or vaccine can be either toxic or useless.

Dr. Sharon Inouye said, “To be sure, some exclusions are needed to protect the health and safety of older adults—such as poorly controlled comorbidities. However, many are not well-justified, and appear to be more for expediency or convenience of the trialists.”

Did you say something about overarching conclusions?

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Okay, how much do masks, handwashing, and keeping a distance from people limit the spread of Covid? Considerably, according to a study in Thailand.

Wearing a mask all the time lowers the risk by 77%. Wearing it only part of the time you’re with someone does fuck-all. So that business about putting on a mask at a restaurant when you head for the toilets, then taking it off so you can sit back down and shovel food into your face? Useless. 

Keeping a meter away from people reduces infection by 85% and keeping contact down to fifteen minutes or less reduced the risk by 76%. Frequent handwashing? That reduced it by 66%. Add those all together and Covid will end up owing us. Or doesn’t it work that way?

If you’re wondering whether they’re talking about reducing the risk of passing on the disease or of getting it, I wondered the same thing.

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Researchers at Oxford University suggest that the best use of limited Covid testing resources would be to test people who are the most likely to pass on the disease–healthcare workers, transport workers, social care workers, delivery drivers, people who go to large gatherings, people in large cities–and to do it at regular intervals.

Random testing, they say, wastes resources.

Are we going to listen to them? Probably not. What do they know anyway?

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An anti-Covid nasal spray that’s been tested ferrets looks promising. It interacts with cells in the nasal cavity, waking up the immune system, which then kicks in and–

Okay, let’s not pretend I understand this. I’ll quote: It “kicks in like a defence shield which is broad-sprectrum and non-specific.” So presumably it slaughters anything it finds that looks suspicious. It’s odd how a moderately nonviolent person like my own bad-tempered self turns bloodthirsty when we’re discussing the immune system.

It’s too early to know if it’ll translate to humans. Or cause us to grow a glossy fur coat. 

“The hope is that it will reduce the duration and severity of the symptoms and if you reduce the number of viral particles in the nose, the hope is that it would reduce transmission – although they haven’t done those studies yet.” 

Hang onto that word hope. We need as much of it as we can get these days.

Stay well, people. I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.

Does the Covid virus work nights? It’s the pandemic update from Britain

With Covid cases rising in Britain and more than a quarter of the country living with local restrictions on top of the national ones, pubs in England have been told to close at 10 pm. So who can resist a story about Parliament’s bars being exempt from the rules?

Parliament has thirty bars and the booze is subsidized, so it’s cheap. And we shouldn’t be calling it booze, because a lot of these people are high-class guzzlers. They’re not in the habit of letting people talk about them as if they were your everyday, low-rent lush. They are extremely high-rent lushes.

But high rent or not, sitting in the House of Commons or the House of Lords is a thirsty job, so they need those bars. Which, I assume, is why they were neatly defined as workplace canteens, which gave them an exemption on both hours and a few other things until the opposition–that’s the Labour Party–started yelling, the whole thing got a bit of embarrassing publicity, and someone decided that, gee whiz, guys, this might give people the wrong idea about us. 

The bars now stop serving at 10 pm, and that will last until either the regulations change or outsiders promise not to notice.

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Irrelevant photo: Pansies. I’ve given up growing them. The slugs and snails just love ’em.

What’s the logic behind closing the bars at 10 pm? According to our prime minister, who’ll say anything that comes into his head, however incoherent it may be, “What we’ve seen from the evidence is that the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.” 

What evidence do they have that the disease spreads late at night once the viruses or their containers (that’s us) have gotten shitfaced? Well, the BBC asked the Department for Health and Social Care for the specific evidence and didn’t get it. Instead, the BBC ran through an assortment of data from Public Health England, showing the number of outbreaks in schools, food-related businesses (you can slot the pubs in there), care homes, and workplaces, but it inevitably showed more transmission in places where testing’s heaviest, so it’s anything but conclusive. And it doesn’t mention time of day. Or night. 

Professor Mark Woolhouse, who’s on the government’s infection modelling team, explained (helpfully), “There isn’t a proven scientific basis for any of this.”

So as far as we know, the virus works both the day shift and the night shift.

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A study has begun on how long Covid can survive once it’s airborne. Figure that out and  you can figure out how to reduce the risk people run in enclosed spaces. 

The consensus is that it’s not just the larger droplets that humans breathe, cough, and sneeze out that carry the disease, it’s also aerosols–tiny beasties less than  5 microns across, which hang in the air much longer than droplets. By way of comparison, a human hair is 60 to 120 microns across. 

Because aerosols are so small, they stay airborne longer than droplets and can be carried by air currents. 

Humans are messy creatures, always breathing–not just in but (annoyingly) out–and we tend to share whatever’s taken up residence inside us. So if the disease does spread on aerosols, keeping two meters away isn’t going to keep us safe. 

Earlier research gave the rough estimate that Covid has a half-life of 1.1 to 1.2 hours in aerosol form, but the new research will create a closer replica of real-world conditions, even varying it for different climates. I’m hoping they don’t tell us that we all need separate countries. In spite of how difficult we are as a species, I actually like being around other humans. Not all of them, but a fair few.

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Here’s a quick snapshot of Britain at the moment: University students across the country went back to school this month, and (to no one’s surprise) universities are reporting Covid outbreaks. They’re being urged in all directions: to drop all face-to-face teaching, to continue normal teaching, to be sure campuses are two-thirds empty, to quarantine affected students and pretend that in a dorm that solves the problem, to let student life carry on as usual because the climate of fear is doing untold damage, to return the tuition they charged, and to keep the tuition they charged.  

The only way to choose the correct advice is by having a gorilla throw darts at a target.

A report says infections in the food industry are thirty times higher than are being reported. 

A scientist from SAGE–the group of scientists who advise the government–is arguing that repeated two-week lockdowns could knock the virus on the head. Not necessarily hard enough to kill it but enough to make it dizzy.

Outside of Britain? The world has now logged a million coronavirus deaths. Those are the ones that’ve been counted. How many are there really? No one knows. Countries haven’t even agreed on the definition of a coronavirus death, and we won’t get into the problem of figuring out who actually had it when testing is so patchy. But basically, a lot of people have died, and that’s not taking account of the people who are left debilitated or of the economic damage the pandemic leaves in its wake.

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A quick Covid test is now available. It gives a result in 15 to 30 minutes and works like a pregnancy test, but nine months later you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and feed anybody. 

Unless of course you want to. 

The makers claim it’s 97% accurate, but in real-world conditions it picks up something more like 80% to 90% of infections. Other quick tests are sold online, but this is the first one that meets the World Health Organization’s standards. By way of illustration, Spain ordered two sets of rapid tests in March and sent them back.

A second test is expected to get WHO approval shortly.

Under an initiative started by the WHO, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation, and the French government, 20% of the tests will be made available to low- and middle-income countries for $5 per test. The rest will go to wealthy countries. You may notice an, um, imbalance there between what wealthy countries get and what poor ones do, but it’s actually better than the alternative, which is to have them all go to the countries that can pay the most. 

Yes, it’s a lovely world we live in.

Right now, most low- and middle-income countries are doing minimal testing. North America tests 395 people per 100,000 daily, Europe tests 243, and Africa tests fewer than 16, but most of those are in just three countries, Morocco, Kenya, and Senegal.

It’s not clear whether the UK plans to buy any of the tests. It’s committed heavily to two different tests that take 90 minutes, aren’t as easy to use, and cost more.

 

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A reporter asked Boris Johnson to explain the tighter local restrictions that northeastern England is living with and, to prove how simple the rule of six is, he got it wrong. It all has to do with how many people you can get together with indoor and outdoors.

Here’s how it really works:

If you’re outside the restricted area, it’s six inside and six outside. But if you’re inside, it’s six inside but not six outside. 

I hope that clears everything up. If not, just hide in your basement, knock the glass out of a periscope, and breathe through that. We’ll look for you when this all passes, as all things must.

Freedom, survival, and flag waving: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A reporter asked Boris Johnson (although not in these words) whether the mess we call our Covid test and trace system might explain why Italy and Germany have lower infection rates. 

Britain’s a “freedom-loving country,” Johnson explained, “and if you look at the history of this country in the last 300 years, virtually every advance, from freedom of speech to democracy, has come from this.”

In other words, “I may not approve of the coronavirus, but I will defend to the death our right to respond with complete incompetence, as well as my right to give fat contracts to my friends and respond to pointed questions with irrelevant answers.”

Wave that flag, folks. Strike up the band. There’s money to be made.

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Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

England’s Covid tracing app, let’s call it App 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will, is up and running. The older one, App 1 point 0h-No-You-Won’t crashed into the brick wall of reality when it was tested on the Isle of Wight, leaving barely enough shards to make fun of. But take heart: 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will is off to a roaring start.

  • Android users were able to download the trial version, so of course some of them did. They hated it. 
  • iPhone users who left a hyphen out of the app’s name got the New Zealand version. None of them came within two meters–or several thousand miles–of anyone on the system. This may be the fastest way to stop the spread.
  • NHS workers who downloaded the app and brought their phones to work were told they’d been exposed, even though they were wearing protective gear. 
  • People with older phones were sent into the outer darkness–that place where apps are unavailable and contact with the rest of the human race has to be made in person. “Older” is defined as prior to 2018.
  • People who had symptoms but tested negative can’t enter that into the app. It only accepted positive. But since they’ve been tested, the isolate-yourself countdown began. And couldn’t be turned off.
  • People who took tests outside of the privatized testing system–through NHS England, for example–couldn’t enter them into the app. That was tens of thousands of results that were missed. Daily. 
  • Users could only mark themselves down as infectious if they’ve been tested. The idea–probably a reasonable one, given what the world’s like–was to keep a bunch of wiseasses from saying they were infectious for the sheer joy of sending people home to isolate needlessly and, basically, shutting the country down because it sounded like a fun thing to do on a Saturday night. But since the testing system’s broken and tests are hard to get, people who genuinely were infectious couldn’t prove it to the app. 

Other than that, though, it’s going well. Except for Downing Street at first saying the app couldn’t trace contacts and then having to explain that, well, yes, actually it can. And will. And sing “There’ll Always Be an England” while it does it. 

You have to love these people. I’m not sure what they thought the point of the app was if it couldn’t trace contacts, and whoever they threw out in front of the press apparently didn’t stop to wonder. By now, I expect everyone at the press conference was too punchy to think of the question until it was too late to ask it.

I’ve scrupulously listed the app’s problems in the past tense, although I’d bet a batch of very good brownies that most–possibly all–of them could be hurled into the present tense without damaging my credibility even a small amount.

My credibility’s limited, I know, but I still have more than the people running the country.

Britain, by the way, has more test capacity than Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, or South Korea. And in spite of that, people can’t get tested. 

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A study said the privatized network of Covid testing labs “bypassed accreditation and raises quality concerns.” It also criticized the system of having people do their own swabs, saying it can lead to useless samples. 

When you do the test, you’re told to swab either your tonsils or their last known address. My tonsils still live with me, as they have for 73 years now, so I know they’re somewhere in Cornwall. But we don’t have the kind of relationship where we do a lot of hand-holding, so when I took a test I couldn’t tell if I was mopping my own tonsils or someone else’s. 

I’m relieved to hear that’s a flaw in the system, not a personal failing.

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak told us that there’s no “risk-free solution” to Covid and we all have to “learn to live with” it. Human contact is important. Spending money is also important, although I don’t think he exactly said that, but all the same the economy needs us. “Lives can no longer be put on hold,” he said. Britons should learn to live “without fear.”

Personally, I’m more interested in still being alive by the time this ends–assuming it does end–than in being fearless. Preferably with my lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other body parts still working at full capacity, and with my energy in the functional zone. Also with my sense of taste and smell intact. Fear can be crippling, but its gift is that it can also keep us from crippling or killing ourselves–from walking off cliffs, say. It’s like pain. No one likes it, but it offers us important information. 

I can live with a reasonable amount of fear, especially if it means continuing to live.

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I can’t speak to Sunak’s genuine competence, but he’s the one member of this government who at least projects the image of it, leading to rumors that he may turn out to be Boris Johnson’s replacement–assuming, of course, that the Tories break with recent tradition and select for competence when they choose their next leader. He may be signaling here that he leans toward the libertarian wing of the party–the let ’em wander free, the virus will take care of itself wing. 

Never say it can’t get any worse.

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Enough with the politicians. Let’s visit the scientists: 

A Centers for Disease Control study found a correlation between eating out and catching Covid. That’s not proof, it’s just correlation, as in the two seem to be lining up more than is statistically likely. But it’s worth noticing.

Eating out included eating indoors, on patios, and outdoors. 

What’s the difference between a patio and outdoors? Damned if I know. I thought they were both outdoors.

Which should warn you about how little I know.

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A new Covid test can be done at home and it takes only fifteen minutes. What’s more, it’s cheap, although the article I saw didn’t say how cheap. The problem? It only detects the virus in people with a high viral load. The team that developed it talks about it as complementing existing tests, not replacing them, and says the people with the largest viral load are the people most likely to transmit the virus.

For some time now, I’ve been reading about fifteen-minute tests, half-hour tests, and instant tests that can be done only by large, bearded men with divining rods, but they’re always in development, or about to be set loose in the world but not quite yet. Or that they’re available on the internet but their accuracy ranges from who knows to don’t ask me. 

Then they drop out of sight. The only one that’s resurfaced is the sniffer dogs. Fido’s working in a pilot project in an airport in Finland. Do not go through a Finnish airport with dog biscuits in your pocket.

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Speaking of viral load, a study in Detroit found the viral load decreasing in hospitalized patients between April and June, and that lined up neatly with a lower number of deaths. They’re not sure why the viral load was lower, but it might be a result of social distancing, lockdown, and face masks–especially when they’re worn over the parts of the face that we breathe through.

Does anyone know why we keep talking about face masks? Is there some other part of the anatomy a mask could cover? The eyes are a possibility, but they’re generally located on the face.

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The city of Manaus, in Brazil, may have reached herd immunity: 66% of the population may have Covid antibodies. (Yes, but do notice that the word may squeezed itself in there not once but twice.) Getting to that point involved mass graves, overwhelmed hospitals, and corpses piled in refrigerated trucks. People there are still dying of Covid, but the numbers are going down. 

As soon as that went public, experts jumped in to warn against thinking that herd immunity is a viable strategy. 

Florian Krammer, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tweeted, “Community immunity via natural infection is not a strategy, it’s a sign that a government failed to control an outbreak and is paying for that in lives lost.” 

And after all those deaths, immunity to Covid may be short-term. No one knows yet.

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I said earlier that I wanted to get out of this mess with my sense of smell intact. Why do I care? Not only because I like food and if you lose your sense of smell your sense of taste goes with it, but because its loss may indicate some serious long-term losses.

Yeah, sorry, yet another study. Those scientists. They will keep worrying about this thing. How are we supposed to live without fear when they keep scaring the shit out of us?

This study takes off from Covid’s demonstrated ability to get into the brain and insult the cells. That’s is childish, I know, but brain cells aren’t used to it and they’re sensitive. Insult them enough and they die. 

True, Covid knows how to do insults. One of its insults involves starving the cells of oxygen, and that would probably upset anyone, so maybe we can cut the brain cells a little slack here.

Covid does less drastic things as well. The loss of smell is one, and the study treats that as a neurological symptom and an indicator that Covid’s up to something in the brain and nervous system. The loss of smell, it says, is caused by an inflammation that could cause long-term neurological problems.

Inflammation, it turns out, causes a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s, and 90% of people who get Parkinson’s report a loss of the sense of smell in the early stages. After the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, survivors had two or three times the risk of developing Parkinson’s.

So yes, even those of us who don’t speak science are starting to see a pattern.

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From the Department of What’s It Going to Take, People? comes the story of a gospel choir in Spain that scheduled an outdoor concert in September and then rehearsed for it indoors.

Members did the recommended stuff–kept a distance, washed their hands, and wore masks for most of the rehearsal. They even did a temperature check as people arrived. What they didn’t do was open the windows–there were moths out there, and mosquitoes. So they turned on the air conditioning, because hey, it was hot.

When the article was written, thirty of the choir’s forty-one members had tested positive.

Exactly what a gospel choir in Spain sings I don’t know. I’m probably defining gospel in American. 

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And from the Department of Good News at the End of a Post comes this: A study estimates that England’s decision to house the homeless in unused hotel rooms during lockdown may have saved 266 lives and avoided 21,000 infections, 1,164 hospitalizations, and 338 intensive care admissions among the homeless alone. That doesn’t count the people they’d have gone on to infect.

I’ve been trying to find out if the program’s still going on. I think so, but I can’t swear to it.

Math, medicine, and research: It’s the news from Britain–and elsewhere

Martin Hairer won the $3 million 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics for explaining the math involved in stirring a cup of tea, which is also the math involved in several other things that don’t sound as silly. It’s complicated stuff–180 pages worth of complicated, involving regularity structures. 

Never heard of them? Neither has anyone else. That’s what’s so impressive. They tame the randomness that throws disorder into equations involving the way forest fires grow, the way a drop of water spreads on a tissue, or the way that cup of tea you’re stirring–

Would you stop that stirring? You’re upsetting an otherwise ordered univer–

Damn. Now see what you’ve done.

Regularity structures may be the genuinely impressive element of his work, but if you want an impressive phrase to use when you’re pretending to explain this to someone who’ll understand it even less than you do and isn’t listening anyway, the phrase you want is stochastic analysis. Or better yet, stochastic partial differential equations. From those words on, everything you say will be nothing but a background hum to whatever’s going on inside your alleged listener’s own head.

If you want complicated math, though, you could try explaining why a bunch of mathematicians are giving out a 2021 prize in 2020.

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Irrelevant photo: Wind-carved rocks at the top of Rough Tor, which is pronounced Ruff Tor. No, don’t ask me.

If you’re British inflected instead of American inflected (yes, there’s an L in there: infLected), that’ll be maths, not math. I can only assume that the British are better with numbers than the Americans, since they wrestle with them in the plural  and we only have one to fight with. 

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The Breakthrough Prize is also awarded in the sciences, and Catherine Dulac won one for showing that the neural circuits that govern the behaviors involved in both male-specific and female-specific parenting are present in both sexes. I have no idea what the implications of that will turn out to be, but they should upset a few apple carts. I look forward to hearing more.

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As long as we’re on the subject of medicine and male/female differences, Rebecca Shanksy, a neurologist from Boston University (no, it’s not in Britain, but never mind) is calling for stricter requirements for medical research to include both female and male animals. 

For decades, researchers have used both male animals and male human subjects on the grounds that the fluctuations of female hormones would–forgive me if I use complicated scientific language here–fuck up their results. 

They did that even when they were studying conditions that mostly affected women. Because you know what women are like. Hormonal. Unstable. Unpredictable. Lots of un- words. 

It turns out, according to Shanksy, that male rodents–the go-to subject of many experiments–are less stable in terms of both hormones and behavior than females.

Shanksy is, by way of full disclosure, a female and therefore likely to be biased and unstable. Unlike males researchers, who are entirely objective and don’t have hormones.

The result of the male bias in research subjects is that drugs are likely not to work as well on women as on men. Ambien, which did its trials using both male mice and male humans, turned out to be metabolized  more slowly by women, and therefore (don’t ask me) more powerful in them. 

Women tend to experience more side effects and overdoses for all drugs. 

The U.S. and Canada now require female test subjects to be included (Britain doesn’t yet), but experiments are often done first on male subjects, with female subjects used later, treating the female subject as a deviation from the male standard. The article I read didn’t go into whether or how that biases the results, but I can see that if the first set of tests establish a standard, you could easily close off avenues that might be open if you worked differently.

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Were we talking about sexism? The Musee d’Orsay in Paris–a museum with walls full of nudes–wouldn’t let a woman in because an official decided her dress was cut too low. 

And if that wasn’t bad enough, they followed up their decision by telling her, “Calm down, madam.” 

So she did what any good citizen of the twenty-first century would do: She went online and called them out on their double standards and sexism. The museum has apologized, both by tweet and by telephone, but it’s not the first time the museum’s had a problem with women’s real-life flesh as opposed to the artistic depiction of it. It called the cops on a performance artist who posed nude next to a nude painting. She was in jail for two days before a judge threw out a charge of public indecency.

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An eighty-year-old hiker who’d been missing for three nights turned up not at his own funeral but at a press conference, held in a pub, where his family was about to appeal for help finding him.

Harry Harvey got separated from an organized walking group during a heavy hailstorm and spent three nights wild camping. He had camping gear with him but ran short on food. He described the area where he lost the group as desolate.. 

He eventually spotted a wildlife photographer, who called a rescue team and they brought him to the pub just in time for a dramatic reunion. 

The quotes from his family make them sound a bit on the crabby side about it all. 

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A research trial that put robots into care homes has been defended on the grounds that the robots aren’t intended to replace humans, only to help fill times when, because the care system’s overstretched, staff don’t have time to spend with residents.

Which is commonly known as replacing humans with robots, only the humans were taken out before the robots were put in and no one had any intention of filling the gap they left–not even with robots.

The robots have wheels and a name, which they all share–Pepper. Also arms and hands. With a bit of programming, they could hold basic conversations with the residents, learn what they’re interested in, play them music, teach them languages, and remind them to take their medicine. 

This could go wrong in so many ways. In Japan and Singapore robots are more widely accepted and have been hacked to intercept phone calls or let the hacker use the robot’s camera and microphone. I don’t find any mention of medication reminders going wrong, but I doubt many of us suffer from the delusion that technology is flawless. 

The two-week trial found that residents’ loneliness levels decreased–not hugely, but a bit. 

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Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, called Extinction Rebellion “criminals who disrupt our free society and must be stopped.” Other cogs in the government chaos have talked about classifying it as an organized crime group, which takes a bit of mental mechanics, since XR is decentralized and I suspect you’d be hard put to find an overall organization. 

The police, interestingly enough, see XR as nonviolent and committed to civil disobedience.

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We’ll end with some more science awards, the Ig Nobels. This year’s include an one for determining that many entomologists–those are the folks who study insects–are afraid of spiders. Which aren’t insects, so it seems fair. Another went to a study that tried to spot narcissists by the shape of their eyebrows. A third went to a study that looked for a correlation between a nation’s income inequality and the prevalence of mouth-to-mouth kissing.

Covid, Brexit, and a nice cup of tea

Silver Lining Department: Pain researchers have noticed that Covid can block pain receptors, fooling people into thinking they’re not sick. I’d explain that in more detail, but between the first few paragraphs of the article and the last ones all I managed to scrape off the page was an impressive-sounding buzz. 

What I can tell you is that understanding this (as I so clearly don’t) opens up two possibilities: 1, By blocking something called neuropilin-1, doctors could limit Covid’s entry into the body. 2, By blocking neuropilin-1, they could limit the body’s experience of pain. 

In other words, a new approach to pain control may come out of this mess, as well as another possible way to tackle Covid. Take heart, my friends. Every silver lining hides a cloud.

Or vice versa. I keep forgetting.

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Tragically, that line about silver linings isn’t my own. I stole it from a song by Brian Bedford, “I Hear the Sky Is Falling,” sung by Artisan. It’s a lovely little paranoia song. I recommend it, because we all need a paranoia song to fall back on from time to time. 

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Irrelevant photo: pears on our tree.

Early research says that Covid doesn’t spread easily among kids under ten. They don’t catch the bug as easily as adults, and when they do they don’t get symptoms as often, which means they don’t cough and sneeze it into other people’s breathing spaces.

That was the silver lining. The (small) cloud is that infected kids do spread it, but at a lower rate. 

After kids turn ten, though, every cell their bodies wakes up, showers, and puts on big-boy pants and a bad attitude, and from then on kids spread it more easily–possibly as easily as adults.

But again, that’s all based on early and limited research. Like so much about this mess, it’s not certain.

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On Tuesday, when he was announcing a new, improved, world-beating set of Covid restrictions in England, Boris Johnson called for togetherness. Or, to be completely accurate, “a spirit of togetherness.” 

I don’t want to misquote a man whose public statements mean so little.

So what does this one mean? We’re all going to virtually join our sanitized hands, keep two meters apart, and sing “Kumbaya” as we beat the virus by not doing half the things he told us–told us? hell, begged us; harassed us– to do just six weeks ago. 

I support a lot of the changes–the country opened up too quickly, with minimal planning and a screwed-up testing system–but I don’t know how seriously people are going to take them. The government’s blown whatever credibility it back when lockdown started. So even though some of their own scientists (that means the ones they’re willing to listen to, sort of) say the restrictions are late and not enough, getting people to follow them may be like rolling a dead horse uphill in an ice storm. 

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About a 20% of people in Britain say they’d be likely to refuse a Covid vaccine and 78% said they’d be likely to get it. The missing 2% may be covered by the about at the beginning of the paragraph. Or they may be on break, having a nice cup of tea. It’s a British thing–not drinking the tea but attaching a nice cup of to it. It makes such a difference when you raise it to your lips. Your blood pressure falls. You expect–well, if not exactly wonders, at least niceness. And as a rule, you get it. 

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A post or three ago, I wrote about younger women forming a larger part of hospitalized Covid patients, and I’ve found a bit more detail: The study was based on hospital admissions and it noticed a rise in serious cases among women between twenty and forty. Between January and September, 44% of hospitalized cases were women. Since August (yes, you noticed: they overlap), it’s been 48%, driven by a rise in the twenty-to-forty age group, with no matching rise in admissions of men in that group. 

So it’s not a huge rise, but it is an increase. The best guess is that it’s because the work women in that age group do leaves them more exposed to the virus than the work men do. It should remind us, though, that no age group is invulnerable.

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Hospitalized Covid patients who also had the flu were more than twice as likely to die as those who didn’t (43% as opposed to 26.9%). 

Those numbers don’t actually look like one’s more than twice the other, do they? I’m trusting an article in the Medical Express. Maybe they were in too much of a hurry to check their figures. 

Either way, it was a small study but the findings line up neatly with preliminary findings from another study that’s in progress. To be on the safe side, get your flu shot, okay?

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The Helsinki airport has started to use sniffer dogs to detect travelers with Covid, and they’re close to 100% accurate. Plus they have lovely soft fur and it only takes then ten seconds to make their judgements, although the process itself somehow takes a minute, probably because humans are slower on the uptake than dogs are.

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Meanwhile, with the Brexit transition period ending on January 1, we’re told that a reasonable worst-case scenario would involve lines of 7,000 trucks waiting to use the Channel Tunnel. They count on delays of two days and 30% to 60% of the trucks not having the right paperwork. 

And then there’s the possibility that a Covid spike could mean a shortage of port staff and border officials slowing things down a bit more.

And then we have to talk about disruptions to imports. Only we won’t. I’ve exceeded my dire warning limit for the day.

And did I mention that truck drivers will need a Kent access permit if they plan to use the tunnel or ferry to France? 

“We want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process,” Michael Gove said. 

Gove? He’s the minister for the cabinet office, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the only human being I’ve ever seen who looks like a balloon wearing a bow tie. Even when he’s not wearing a bow tie. 

When Johnson’s government tell you the process is going to be simple, you’ll want to sit down and make sure you’re comfortable.

The head of the Road Haulage Association said, “How on earth can [trucking firms] prepare when there is still no clarity as to what they need us to do?” 

We’re looking forward to another interesting year.

Restrictions, conspiracy theories, & sewage: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

Britain’s Covid alert level has gone from 3 to 4, meaning infections are high or rising exponentially, and if nothing changes we could be looking at 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October. 

What are we doing in response? Well, weddings in England are now limited to fifteen people but funerals can have thirty. If you like a big party, I recommend dying.

People who work in stores now have to wear masks. Customers have had to wear them for some time, but who knew that staff members breathe as well? We learn something new about this disease every week.

Pubs and restaurants will close at 10 pm, because the virus is a creature of the night and we need to be tucked safe in our little beds when it prowls. 

People who can work from home should. Again. They were mostly doing that until the government sent out the virtual sheepdogs to round up as many of them as possible, sending them off to work from work. It would be fine, the government told them. They wouldn’t even need to wear masks, because their employers would make the workplace safe (stop laughing when someone’s typing, people; it’s rude) and besides the virus doesn’t have the attention span for eight hours in an office. Besides, the economy needed them to be out there buying a sandwich for lunch, a coffee to reward themselves for showing up, and a pen with metallic green ink to bring home for a seven-year-old.

No, I don’t know why we’ve had this upsurge either. 

Irrelevant photo: Watching the sea. It’s from last winter.

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Hospital admissions are also going up, although not as sharply as infections. They do lag behind, so that may or may not mark a change in the way Covid’s affecting people. Stick around long enough and we’ll find out.

What is new is that the rise includes women between the ages of twenty and forty who work in hospitality, in the care sector, or who have kids in school. In other words, women who are at higher risk of exposure than the general population. They’re not in the age groups we’ve all considered vulnerable, but they seem to be vulnerable anyway. 

As far as I can tell, from my highly unscientific seat on the couch, this is a change, and a worrying one.

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An experiment that involves testing sewage sludge for Covid (some people get to have all the fun) has not only tracked the virus accurately but spotted trends in the local infection rate five days ahead of the time when individual testing did. If they start using the system where you live, you can feel civic minded every time you use the toilet.

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What crazy theories about the virus are getting enough circulation that the BBC feels a need to debunk them? 

  • That a Covid vaccine will turn us all into genetically modified creatures and  “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface.” That one got 300,000 views on YouTube.
  • That a Covid vaccine will implant us with microchips so the Gates Foundation can track our locations.
  • That the vaccine used during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was responsible for 50 million deaths. 

That last one’s my favorite. There was no vaccine during the Spanish flu epidemic. Scientists did try to find one, but they were looking at bacteria and it was caused by a virus. At that point, no one had a clue. 

Be careful where you get  your news, friends. It’s crazy out there.

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Can we check in with a bit of real science, just to lift our spirits, not to mention the tone of the blog?

An experimental cancer drug may keep Covid from infecting cells and replicating itself–in other words, it would effectively kill the little bastard. It’s called AR-12, and it works by inhibiting cellular chaperones.

Yes, chaperones. They don’t follow the coronaviruses around at dances to keep them from getting too familiar with the boys. Nope, these chaperones are proteins that run around after the cells and keep them from getting bent out of shape. 

Well, more or less–probably a bit less, given that I’m the one interpreting this–but they do help the cells maintain their shape. Mess around with their shape and the little virii don’t reproduce themselves, and the whole purpose of a virus’s life is to reproduce. 

Earlier trials have shown the drug to be safe and tolerable. Now they need trials to show that it distracts the chaperones, allowing the viruses to get themselves into all kinds of trouble.

Other approaches are in the works–lots of them–but I try to limit myself to the ones I can explain, at least marginally well. Or failing that, make fun of. 

Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.

Covid, the brain, and the toffs: The pandemic update from Britain

The Covid targets targets that we hear most about are the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the blood vessels, but some Covid patients also have neurological symptoms, ranging from headaches to confusion to full-out delirium, and evidence is mounting that Covid can attack the brain. 

That’s according to a study posted online and–like most Covid studies in this crisis–not yet peer reviewed. 

Covid isn’t the only virus that does some breaking and entering inside the brain. Zika did, but the body mounted an immune response. Covid, though, is a sneaky little s.o.b., and the body doesn’t seem to notice what it’s doing up there, which is making copies of itself and leaving a trail of destruction. The study found no evidence of an immune response to its presence in the brain.

“Days after infection, and we already see a dramatic reduction in the amount of synapses,” Dr. Alysson Muotri of the University of California said. “We don’t know yet if that is reversible or not.”

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Researchers will need to analyze brain samples from autopsies to see if it’s present in people with milder versions of the disease and in the people who are being called long-haulers, the people whose symptoms hang on and on. A lot of them have a range of neurological symptoms. 

Some 40% to 60% of hospitalized patients have neurological and psychiatric symptoms, but they may not all come from brain infections. Some may come from inflammations throughout the body. So: autopsies.

The problem, though, is that autopsies need people to die first, so this all depends on the right categories of people conveniently keeling over.

Everybody seems to be saying this, but it bears repeating: So much about this disease is still unknown.

*

So what do you do about a disease like that? Well, at a town hall event hosted by the ABC network (that’s a TV channel), Donald Trump told the world that Covid will disappear when everyone develops a herd mentality. 

Conform, people. It’ll save us all.

*

At least in the absence of a vaccine and a herd mentality, testing is the most likely thing to save us, and a new Covid test that’s still in the development stage sounds promising enough to lift even my gloomy spirits. 

Gloomy spirits? Well, I keep telling people that it’s going to be a long winter, then I have an impulse to slap myself silly. I’m sure the other people in question feel the same way. To date, everyone’s good manners have kept the situation from spinning out of control.

But back to the Covid test: Researchers wanted to come up with a quick, accurate test that would be cheap enough for people to test themselves at home every day, and it’s looking promising. 

The test is called STOPCovid, which probably stands for something, since half of it is in caps, and the researchers come from enough U.S. universities that I won’t bother to list them all.

The details of the test involve RNA, magnetic beads, and a high sensitivity, meaning it correctly identifies a lots o’ positive cases. The details are also over my head and I’m going to arbitrarily decide that they’re over yours too, but hey, I’m giving you a link so you can go prove me wrong. 

Actually, it didn’t seem that complicated until I realized that I understood the sentences but not their content. A lot of my life is like that. What I did understand is that it’s promising and that it’s designed to be cheap, fast, and usable. 

Also that it’s not ready yet.

Stay tuned. 

*

The STOPCovid test can’t come fast enough for Britain, because the government’s taken what was already an expensive privatized mess of a testing program and made it worse.

It’s good that in these dark days we’re led by damn fools. 

What’s wrong with the testing program? People are being sent hundreds of miles from home for tests. People with symptoms can’t find tests, meaning they’re left not knowing if they can safely go back to work or if their kids can safely go back to school. 

The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding (whose background is in business, not public health), explained the disaster by saying that nobody “was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand.”

Of course not. No one knew schools were reopening or thought that might mean more people being exposed ans needing tests. No one noticed when Boris Johnson nagged everyone who was working from home to go back into the office, which would mean more people getting exposed and needing–yeah, you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, is hailing the testing program as a phenomenal success and telling us all to stop carping about it. 

Me, I’m not carping. I’m a vegetarian. But I will say that the demand for tests is four times greater than the testing capacity.  

All hail the wondrous testing program.

You have to love these people. They have absolutely no shame and minimal contact with reality. Or any desire to contact reality. They caught a glimpse of it once. It involved a lot of people with accents they didn’t like and clothes that cost less than theirs. Not to mention with infinitely less money than they have. It was all very unpleasant and why go through that again?

Anyway, the problems with testing seem to involve a shortage of lab capacity. The labs are also privatized, not that I’m trying to make a point here or anything. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54163226

Meanwhile the number of cases is rising in parts of Britain and people are facing increased localized restrictions. 

Contact tracing’s going well too. Some people working in the system report–anonymously–that by the time they contact people who’ve been exposed to Covid and tell them to isolate themselves for two weeks, more than two weeks have gone by since they were exposed. And this past week, the tracing firm’s software was too embarrassed to go on and some tracers had to be told not to refresh their screens too often. Some of the people they called got so frustrated with how long the calls took that they hung up. 

*

Shall we be completely fair here? The full quote from Jacob Rees-Mogg is, “The issue of testing is one where we have gone from a disease that nobody knew about a few months ago to one where nearly a quarter of a million people a day can be tested, and the prime minister is expecting that to go up to half a million people a day by the end of October.

“And instead of this endless capring, saying it’s difficult to get them, we should actually celebrate this phenomenal success of the British nation.”

All hail the British aristocracy. They either manage to believe this shit or don’t care what they say. 

And somehow or other, they stay in office. No, I can’t explain it either.