Covid, flu, and the fight against airborne viruses

Covid research has given us some unexpected insight into the flu: Contrary to what most of us have believed since forever, we’re not likely to catch the flu by touching contaminated surfaces. Yes, the viruses for flu and Covid can both survive on surfaces for some time, but the experiments demonstrating that used industrial strength amounts of virus–more than you’d find in real life–and that skewed the results. What’s more, a lot of the viral particles the experiments found were no longer infectious. It was viral RNA, which is “more like the corpse of the virus” than like the virus itself according to Emmanuel Goldman, of Rutgers University. 

Goldman was the first person to challenge the hygiene theater that had people sanitizing their groceries, washing their hands, and singing “Happy Birthday” to make sure they’d washed long enough. 

Or maybe it was only in Britain that people sang “Happy Birthday.” It was recommended by our then-prime minister–what was his name?–as a way to know you’d scrubbed for twenty seconds.

To be fair, that was relying on the medical advice available at the time. If he’d been marginally competent in other ways, I might forgive him.

Of course, I might not, but that’s a different post, and one I don’t plan to write. We could’ve skipped both the hand washing and the singing. Like Covid, the flu is airborne, and that’s how we’re most likely to catch it. During the first year of the pandemic, when people were still taking masks seriously (in spite of the people who hadn’t figured out that their noses were part of their breathing apparatus and that their chins weren’t), flu transmission went down to almost nothing.

Irrelevant photo: An azalea, now blooming indoors.

All that Covid-inspired hand washing did do one thing for us: It improved food safety.

Having called time on hygiene theater, Goldman is now pointing us toward a way out of the pandemic: 

Respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and the flu spread primarily indoors, so we need a safe virus-killing reagent that can be pre-deployed in occupied spaces. As it happens, we already have one.

“Triethylene glycol (TEG) is an air sanitizer that has been shown to be safe for humans to breathe at low concentrations. It’s also been found to kill viruses on surfaces and in the air at those same low concentrations. Given the science, regulatory agencies should fast-track approval of TEG-based air treatments.”

Will they? No idea.

A UK government study evaluates its safety this way: “There is some evidence that repeated exposures to a glycol-based aerosol may result in respiratory tract irritation, with cough, shortness of breath and tightness of the chest. However, it is not possible to extrapolate the findings to other workplaces/settings or to longer-term exposure impacts, without further research.” 

It’s generally used to make theatrical fog. That’s what the bit about “other workplaces” means.

 

A Report from the Department of Covid-Fighting Gizmos

This is going to sound like I’m wearing the proverbial tinfoil hat, but a gizmo that uses no batteries and no wires can detect the presence of Covid in air. It uses a “magnetostrictive clad plate composed of iron, cobalt and nickel, generating power via alternative magnetization caused by vibration.” I have no idea what that means, although I could define every last one of the words–or I could if I looked up magnetostrictive. Why bother when I still wouldn’t follow it? That’s why I’m quoting. 

I can’t give you a link on this, because it came as a download. The article’s title is the poetic “Batteryless and wireless device detects coronavirus with magnetostrictive composite plates.” If you ask Lord Google nicely, he may lead you to something at least vaguely related. 

Exactly what you do with the contraption once you have it is up to you. I imagine sending it into a roomful of people on the back of a small, dog-shaped robot and waiting for it to report back before I go in. If it’s not safe, I’ll just go home, thanks.

Why’s the robot dog shaped? To add a bit of charm to my tinfoil-hat look.

*

Another invention allows you–or if not you, at least someone–to watch viruses die as they try to make their way through masks. 

I know. I prefer a book myself. Or TV. Or, hell, social media if I get desperate. But still, the thing’s out there and someone wants to use it.

What does it do? It gets viruses to light up when they die, and by doing that they tell us that very few viruses get all the way through multilayered FP2 masks. That’s reassuring, but the process can also identify what materials are most effective at killing viruses. In other words, we don’t need the dog-shaped robot for this one. People who design masks will find it useful. The rest of us can give it a miss.

 

Coordinating information on long Covid

Worldwide, some 100 million people are believed to be living with long Covid, and a new questionnaire is trying to get a better picture of its impact, giving researchers better information. 

Existing questionnaires don’t cover the full spectrum of its symptoms. It’s not just fatigue; it can also be vomiting, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, hair loss, and so much other other fun stuff. The new questionnaire breaks the symptoms into 16 categories and uses a single scale to measure their severity, nad it can be “e-migrated, translated, and cross-culturally validated,” which I think means it’s set up to be translated into hundreds of languages. Accurately. Taking into account the cultural context in which it’ll be used. 

So far, it’s been approved for use in 50 countries.

 

New drugs in the works

A couple of Covid drugs look promising. Others are in the works, but let’s not spread ourselves too thin. We’ll look at two.

One of them is already used to treat a liver disease (primary biliary cholangitis, in case anyone asks), so its safety has already been tested and its patent has expired, which means it doesn’t cost a fortune. What’s more, it’s easy to store, it’s easy to ship, and it can carry a tune even when a symphony orchestra’s playing an entirely different one. It never loses its temper. What’s not to like?

Dr. Fotios Sampaziotis, of Cambridge University, explained it this way: “Vaccines protect us by boosting our immune system so that it can recognize the virus and clear it, or at least weaken it. But vaccines don’t work for everyone—for example patients with a weak immune system—and not everyone have access to them. Also, the virus can mutate to new vaccine-resistant variants.

“We’re interested in finding alternative ways to protect us from SARS-CoV-2 infection that are not dependent on the immune system and could complement vaccination. We’ve discovered a way to close the door to the virus, preventing it from getting into our cells in the first place and protecting us from infection.”

The timing’s good on this one, because the virus has out-evolved the antivirals we’ve relied on. And because it works on the human cell rather than aiming at Covid’s spike protein, it should be variant-proof.

It’s done well in small clinical trials and will be going into larger ones.

*

Another drug, in an earlier stage of development, also promises to be variant-proof. It’s called an ACE2 decoy, and it works by luring the virus to itself, so it ignores the cells’ ACE2 receptors, which is the normal route for infection. Once it’s done that, it takes off the top of Covid’s spike, which inactivates it.  

It sounds ugly, but there’s a microscopic war going on in there all the time. 

The drug could potentially be used against other coronaviruses, which enter human cells the same way. It hasn’t been tested in humans yet but they’re moving it in that direction.

Does Exeter Cathedral have the world’s oldest cat flap?

I can’t prove that Exeter Cathedral has the world’s oldest cat flap–no one seems to collect worldwide data on cat flaps–but it has one that was built sometime between 1598 and 1621. Or if not built, cut, since the hole doesn’t actually have a covering.

How authoritative are those dates? Dunno. Multiple sources use the same dates, but they could all quoting each other. Still, the door that the hole was cut in looks old enough to convince me, so let’s go with it.

The cat flap was to allow the cathedral cat (not the one in the picture, you understand) to get into the cathedral clock and catch the mice and rats drawn there by the animal fat that greased the clock’s workings. This may be the origin of the nursery rhyme “Hickory, dickory, dock/The mouse ran up the clock.”

Absolutely and completely relevant photo: The Exeter Cathedral cat door–with cat demonstrating that it’s still in working order.

The cathedral kept a series of cats on the payroll in the medieval era, spending 13 pence a quarter on each one in turn, which doubled for a few years in the fourteenth century. Maybe they had to add a second cat when the first one was overwhelmed. Maybe the first one took on an apprentice or insisted on a friend staying for a lifetime’s worth of suppers. The evidence is scant but tantalizing.

 

Want to buy Evelyn Waugh’s old house? 

From there, let’s go to the news: If you were in the market for an eight-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion, you’re too late to bid on the one Evelyn Waugh once owned. (He’s the guy who wrote Brideshead Revisited.) It came with a few small snags that looked like they’d keep the price down.

The asking price was £2.5 million, and yes, that’s down. In 2019, it sold for £2.9 million, and I’ll drop a hint here for the mathematically impaired: That’s more than this year’s asking price. The 2019 buyer was  a company controlled by a former BBC executive, Jason Blain, and it financed the deal with a £2.1 million bank loan, but the bank lost its sense of humor when the company that bought the mansion defaulted on the loan. 

To be fair to the BBC, Blain has also worked for Sony Entertainment. He seems to have a history with, um, I guess you’d say payment problems. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel took him to court when he paid only (only!) £508,500 of the £1.24 million he owed for an eight-month stay. The penthouse he was renting went for £4,725 a night, and his bill included £30,110 for valet parking and £25,497 for room service. 

I’ve seen enough movies to vaguely imagine how a person could rack up that kind of a bill on room service, but valet parking? Where were they parking that car? In a neighboring country? 

Never mind. Let’s talk about the sale’s snags instead. At some point after the 2019 sale, the mansion was rented to someone or other for £250 per year (I’d love to know the story there; all I’ve read is that they call themselves “Evelyn Waugh superfans”), and whoever they are, they’re refusing to leave and won’t let anyone in–no buyers, no real estate agents, and no photographers, so we won’t be able to go online and poke our snoopy old noses into the virtual rooms to see what we couldn’t have bought anyway. 

As the auctioneers explained the situation,  ““The property is occupied under a Common Law Tenancy at a rent of £250 per annum. A notice to quit was served on the occupant on 19 August 2022 and a copy of such notice was affixed to the property gate on 22 August 2022. Prospective purchasers should take their own legal advice regarding this and will be deemed to bid accordingly.”

I believe that means, “Don’t blame us when it all goes wrong.”

When the place was auctioned off, it sold for a mere £2.16 million. The occupants are still refusing the leave.

 

How much can you manage to spend on a train ticket?

British trains are expensive–complaining about the impenetrable pricing structure is a recognized indoor sport–but I can’t account for how much one passenger managed to spend.

The passenger was a drag queen who was booked for a private performance in Bangor but who lived in London. To be clear, that’s the Bangor in Wales, not the one in Maine. It would cost more to get from London to Bangor, Maine, but you’d need something more than a train ticket.

But back to business: She did what anyone would do and booked a train ticket–a first class ticket, which isn’t what anyone would do, but who could resist? I can only assume the client was paying but it’s not like I know that. It was supposed to include a Christmas dinner, even though this was well before Christmas. The British don’t believe in confining Christmas dinner to Christmas day. Christmas dinner, like the wine that was supposed to come with it, is a liquid, and it leaks into the surrounding month. The ticket cost £589

How could the ticket cost that much? It wouldn’t have been easy. After I’d stashed my credit card safely in the other room, I went online to see how far I could push up the cost of a similar ticket. A last-minute (you pay a lot more for a last-minute ticket) round trip came to £153.40. That doesn’t seem to have been first class, although I tried to upgrade myself in two different ways, and nothing mentioned Christmas dinner. Maybe I lack imagination, but I couldn’t get close to £589. 

Never mind. She paid a shitload of money for her ticket. I paid nothing for mine, but then I didn’t go anywhere.

On the way out, first class service was canceled and she was decanted into the ordinary cars. On the way back, the whole train was canceled, but not until two minutes after it was due to leave. 

She took to Twitter, which did at least shake loose a response from the train company, Avanti West Coast. It said, “We’re sorry to hear about this customer’s experience and we’re happy to look into their complaint. . . Our new timetable is based on a robust and sustainable roster for our people without reliance on overtime . . . ” and so forth, for at least two paragraphs of blither.

Merry Christmas. Would you like a side of cranberry sauce with that?

 

Could artificial intelligence write that?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about whether artificial intelligence is ready to replace writers. A new chatbot is–they say–impressing people with how fluent it is. Fluent enough that a Guardian columnist had it write the opening of his column and it produced a credible if boring paragraph. 

Academics report that it can give correct answers to questions they ask their students.  

It has certain limitations, as the columnist (once he took over for the chatbot) pointed out. It can’t see why a kilo of beef doesn’t weigh more than a kilo or compressed air or why crushed glass shouldn’t be a health supplement. It reproduces the biases of its human trainers and makes up facts, but then humans do the same things–more of them every day, it seems–so maybe it shouldn’t lose points for that. 

Humans, though, will bump up against the real world periodically, and that will give them a chance to correct some of their bullshit. Or we can hope it will. Mentioning no names, but I’m still waiting.

As time goes on, the chatbot will probably make fewer ground glass-type errors, but the bias it inherits from its humans is likely to continue. I also wouldn’t look for its prose to lift off the page and make us smile, and I wouldn’t expect creativity. Still, it could have written Avanti’s response to the passenger’s complaint as effectively as the human who (presumably) wrote it. Or more so, since it wouldn’t be bothered by any residual sense of shame. 

 

What about those pesky humans, though?

Humans, it turns out, are more likely to send hate-tweets when the weather turns nasty. The best available explanation is that we’re at our nicest, or at least our least horrible, when the temperature’s between 54 F (that’s 12 C) and 70 F (21 C). Outside of that, we get crabby.

The study tracked 75 million tweets from 773 US cities and found that the pattern held even in high-income areas, where people would be at least somewhat insulated from heat and cold. It couldn’t trace the demographics of hate tweeters but it could trace their targets: primarily members of the Black, Latino, and LGBTQetc. communities. 

Women aren’t on the target list. (Are women a community? Is any demographic group?) I’m not sure if that indicates a hole in the study’s design or a startling sociological insight. Seventy-five years of life experience (admittedly, I didn’t spend all of it on Twitter) says it’s a flaw in the study’s design.

The study–or at least the article on it–didn’t mention rain, snow, or other storms.

 

Your feel-good story for the week

A girl named Madeline (age not specified) sent a letter to her county government saying, “Dear LA County, I would like your approval if I can have a unicorn in my backyard if I can find one.”

The letter found its way to the department of animal care and control, and its director (or someone else on her behalf) sent Madeline a metal tag stamped “Permanent Unicorn License,” along with a fuzzy unicorn–white with pink ears, purple hooves, and a silver horn. The country did set some conditions though: Any sparkles or glitter sprinkled on the animal have to be nontoxic and biodegradable and the unicorn has be fed watermelon at least once a week.

Long Covid and the vaccines: do they give us any protection?

I come bearing a shred of good news about long Covid. Or at least it’ll look good to you if, like me, you worry about the prospect of long Covid. This comes from two doctors, Sarah Ryan and Lawrence Purpura, who’ve worked extensively with it. I’ll skip the details on their experience–just follow the link if you’re interested. It’s shortcut week here at Notes. In fact, the shortcuts are so short that I’m going to quote them interchangeably. They’ll never know–and if they do I’ll take no shortcuts in apologizing.

They say the long Covid cases they’re seeing have been less severe than the ones they used to see. They attribute that first to the omicron variants attacking the upper respiratory system, where they don’t cause as many of the heavy duty symptoms–lung complications, increased heart rate, lightheadedness, and chronic fatigue–and second to the vaccines being somewhat protective against long Covid. 

No, the vaccines don’t protect us completely, but “studies show that even one dose of a COVID vaccine reduces the odds of developing long COVID by seven to 10 times.”

Break out the ice cream so we can celebrate, will you? Or at least an M&M.

Irrelevant photo: Fields after a December frost.

Who’s most at risk? An article in Cell “identified four factors that correlate with greater risk of long Covid—type 2 diabetes, prior infection with Epstein-Barr virus, level of Sars-CoV-2 RNA detected in the blood, and the presence of autoantibodies.”

A different study sees being female as an increased risk. That same study saw people’s risk decrease by 30% if they’d have two doses of vaccine.

How likely are people with Covid to get long Covid? No one has a good answer to that. There’s no one definition of long Covid, which makes it next to impossible–or maybe that’s completely impossible–to compile statistics. 

Still, they estimate that something like 1% to 5% of Covid patients will go on to get moderate to severe long Covid. At twelve weeks, around 25% of them report fatigue, 25% report insomnia, 20% report increased heart rate or dizziness, and 15% report neurocognitive deficits–things like short-term memory problems. Some of those symptoms will be very mild to some disabling.

A different study came up with 1% of people who had Covid but weren’t hospitalized coming down with long Covid, 6% of people who were hospitalized, and 32% of people who ended up in intensive care units.

Many people will have what Ryan and Purpura call “profound recovery” in three to six months; 10% will have symptoms that go on for more than a year. An even smaller percentage will still have symptoms after a year and a half. 

So the news is far from an all-clear, but in a bad-news situation, this is good news.

 

Other long Covid news 

I’ve been stacking up articles on long Covid but never seem to get back to them. But here we are in shortcut week, so let’s do a few quick summaries and then run:

  • Covid’s associated with increased liver stiffness–a possible sign of liver injury–months after infection. Note the hesitancy in there: associated with; a possible sign. Nothing definite, just something worth looking into more.
  • Covid can affect the brain profoundly even months after infection.
  • A different study, from the early stages of the pandemic (I hope that’s significant), linked Covid to impaired reasoning, speed of thinking, and verbal abilities, comparing what they saw to the effects of sleep deprivation. The severity of the symptoms matched the severity of the infection.
  • A small study found Covid can damage the DNA in cardiac tissue. Compared to the 2009 flu, “Covid has led to more severe and long-term cardiovascular disease.”
  • Covid’s associated with increased chances of long-term brain problems, including strokes, cognitive and memory problems, depression, anxiety, and migraines. And if that doesn’t make you anxious, tremors, involuntary muscle contractions, epileptic seizures, brain fog, hearing and vision abnormalities, and balance and coordination problems–basically symptoms like the ones that come with Parkinson’s. Vaccines reduce the chances of having any of this joy land in your life by about 20%. Keep in mind, though, that a group of people who’ve had Covid are more likely to face these problems than a group that hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean all of them will.
  • Covid was associated with an increased chance of stroke and heart attack. If the study’s correct, over the course of a year, for every 1,000 people who had Covid, you’d expect to find five extra strokes, three extra heart attacks, and twelve extra cases of heart failure 

Those last two studies show a pattern but don’t show cause and effect so let’s not go off the deep end with them. 

 

Is Covid no worse than the flu?

The claim that Covid’s just like the flu translates to “Don’t get hysterical.” So an article from Australia has given us a comparison of the two. 

Between the beginning of 2022 and August 28, Australia had 44 times as many Covid cases as flu cases and 42 times as many Covid deaths. 

That makes the death rate from Covid lower, right? It looks that way to this number-phobe, but it also misses the point. The absolute numbers are higher. If you find yourself in the group of people who died, you’re not going to be consoled by the percentages. 

Okay, strictly speaking, if you find yourself in that group you’ll be dead and unlikely to care anymore, but still, you see my point: Some 1,700 people were hospitalized with the flu between the start of the year and some date in September–pick a number, any number, because here at Notes we don’t really care. Compare that to a single day in July 2022 when 5,429 people were hospitalized with Covid.

 

Life expectancy

I kind of ditched our good news theme there, didn’t I? Sorry. I had some, I spent it all in one place, and now it’s gone. To hell with it, let’s do more bad news. It’s cheaper.

The Covid pandemic lowered life expectancy worldwide. Or at least in the 29 countries included in one study. That leaves out a bunch, but close enough for our purposes.

Predictably, the losses aren’t evenly distributed. Countries with the most effective responses bounced back to pre-pandemic levels relatively quickly. Countries where the response was less effective may have what the study calls “a protracted health crisis.”

It’s another piece in the argument that Covid’s not just the flu in fancy clothes. Flu in the second half of the twentieth century caused smaller, less widespread drops in life expectancy. 

 

The new variant on the block

The new variant that’s emerged in China is BF.7, which is short for something more complicated, which we don’t need to bother with. It’s more infectious than earlier variants, has a shorter incubation time, and is better at infecting people who’ve already had Covid. The symptoms aren’t that different than we’re used to: fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and fatigue, but some people end up with vomiting and diarrhoea.

It’s been found in several countries other than China but doesn’t seem to be spreading as quickly in them, although (as I write this, in mid-December) it’s not clear why.

A US tradition invades Britain, and other news

The British are (generalization warning here) touchy about cultural imports from the US, and some people are downright sniffy about them. Halloween? I can’t get through the fall without someone telling me that not all that long ago kids wouldn’t have dreamed of going door to door asking for candy. So it’s interesting no one has yet felt the need to remind me about Black Friday’s roots in the US, although it was brought over far more recently than Halloween candy. Maybe that’s because it involve shopping, bargains, and adults, so it slots into the culture with fewer rough edges. But an import it is. 

Irrelevant photo: I almost remember the name of this, but that’s not quite enough. It’s a flower, and I didn’t grow it.

 

Black what?

The Black Friday tradition started in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until 2010 that the US shipped it to Britain. If you’re in the mood, you can blame Amazon for either the introduction or the delay. I’m always happy to blame Amazon–for anything. Still, it wasn’t until Asda joined the mayhem, in 2013 (or 2014 on other websites), that Black Friday really took off in Britain. 

The tradition–for you few happy souls who have no idea what I’m talking about–is that stores slash their prices massively on the day after Thanksgiving (that’s always a Friday), and when shoppers get a whiff of those bargains they go mad. Periodic post-Black Friday headlines in the US involve crowds breaking down doors or trampling innocent grannies in their frenzy to get to the discounted whatevers before they run out. 

What’s it like in the UK? Well, now that Black Friday’s safely in this year’s rearview mirror, let’s check in with a study by the oddly named British consumer group Which? that (or which) nibbled the numbers behind some 200 supposed Black Friday discounts and came back with the news that 86% of the items were either cheaper or no more expensive in the six months before they went on sale. To put that in simpler terms, they weren’t a bargain. A full 98% were either cheaper or no more expensive at other times of the year. None–0%–were cheaper on Black Friday alone.

Don’t you just love a deal? 

Some retailers raised their prices just before Black Friday so they’d be telling the truth when they claimed to have cut the price. 

Which?’s retail editor, Reena Sewraz, said, “It’s rarely the cheapest time to shop and you’ll probably find the things you want are the same price or cheaper as we head towards Christmas, the New Year and beyond.”

 

The history of Black Friday

If I’ve taken the fun out of bargain hunting, let’s talk about where the name Black Friday came from. 

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey tells us that the most widespread explanation is this: The shopping day after Thanksgiving is when stores count on crossing over from the red (debt) into the black (profit). But Hawley’s Small and Unscientific etcetera also reports that this isn’t the only tale around.

An alternative explanation, from no less a source than the Britannica, is that it originated in Philadelphia in the 1960s, when the police used the phrase to describe the chaos created by masses of suburban shoppers descending on the city to start their Christmas shopping. 

It wasn’t a compliment.

But we can go back further than that and trace the history to the 1951 edition of that rivetingly titled magazine, Factory Management and Maintenance, which wrote about workers’ habit of calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving. 

“‘Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis’ is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects,” it said in an editorial. “At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the ‘Black Friday’ comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick —and can prove it.” 

The editor recommended using the day as a bargaining chip in union negotiations, since employees were taking the day off anyway. 

“Shouldn’t cost too much,” he (and odds are a 1951 editor was a he) wrote.

For all you would-be union negotiators out there, there’s a lesson in this: If they’re happy to give you something you didn’t think to want, be suspicious. 

 

Another way to invade England

In France, a group called the La Mora Association is recreating one of the ships William the Conqueror sailed in. They plan to sail it across the channel in 2027, more or less the way William the C did in 1066.

William came over with (probably) 14 vassals–that’s vAssals–who brought an average of 60 vEssels each. Probably. One chronicler says W the C had 3,000 ships. Modern estimates are in the neighborhood of 700, 800, or 1,000. Still, that’s a lot of floating boatage.  

The ships would have been Viking-style longships–those long, narrow things with both a sail and oars, not to mention a dragon head. At least mostly. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a few, but it doesn’t show all 700, not to mention 3,000.  

Whatever they looked like, the ships carried something like 7,000 men and 200 horses, plus armor, weapons, shields, bacon (no, bacon was not used as a weapon; yes, bacon is the beginning of a new category), hard-baked bread, cheese, dried beans, and wine. Plus water and feed for the horses. 

The men were a mix of knights, foot soldiers, and servants. It would’ve taken a lot of servants to keep an army functioning. And a lot of beans.

When the recreation of W’s ship sails, it will leave the weaponry, the horses, and most of the men behind, along with the other 999 ships. And its crew will set a different tone than W’s did.

“We want this to be a symbol of Franco-British friendship,” the association’s president said.

Is he aware of how that worked out last time? 

Well, yes. He even knows about Brexit. But he thinks the ship can, “in the wake of Brexit . . . reunite our two countries,” although my best guess is that the rhetoric comes after the fascination with building an eleventh-century ship, using historic techniques, on the basis of not much more than a picture in a 230-foot-long tapestry and some reproductions of viking ships in a Danish museum. 

 

And in another story very marginally related to ships . . .

Want to vote on the word of the year? You’re too late, but Oxford Languages did open the contest to the public–sort of–so you had your chance.

Having learned from the Boaty McBoatface fiasco (or glorious success, depending on your point of view), in which the public voted in their gazillions to name a serious research ship Boaty McBoatface, forcing the serious research organization sponsoring the contest to publicly overrule them, this contest’s sponsors gave us three choices and only three choices:  metaverse, #IStandWith, and goblin mode. 

Zzzzzzzzzz.

But hey, after its snooze-making fashion, it is democratic. 

Drugs, denials, and British politics

It’s always fun when you can wring a denial out of a politician, and the denials are rolling in: Unspecified people who do equally unspecified work at Chevening–an estate used by Britain’s secretary of state–reported finding “suspected class A drugs” after parties thrown by Liz Truss, the lettuce who became prime minister but was then secretary of state.

Lettuce? Well, yes. Her tenure as prime minister was so short that a lettuce publicly outlasted her. She’ll never live it down. 

What kind of class A drugs? Something that registered as cocaine when it was tested with a swab that changes color when it gets high. Or, more accurately, when it comes into contact with cocaine.

Irrelevant photo: This is from our recent cold snap.

Is cocaine legal in Britain? Nope. Possession carries a sentence of up to seven years or an unlimited fine or both, and in July the government launched (or anyway, announced; I can’t swear that they did any more than that) a crackdown on casual users. 

Casual users? Yes. Those are the kind of users who have passports, because it was going to confiscate them. That’s a more fitting punishment for a high-end user than jail time, which is a better fit for the low-end, no-passport, no-invite-to-Chevening kind of drug user.

An unspecified insider says cocaine’s used widely in Whitehall (“Whitehall” being shorthand for British government offices) and around Parliament. And you know how it is: These are important people. You can’t just toss them in jail when they do something illegal.

During the ten minutes when Truss was prime minister, one of her spokes-salads said cracking down on illegal drugs was a priority. 

Cleaners report finding white powder at no less a residence than 10 Downing Street after two of the parties that were held during lockdown back when Boris Johnson was prime minister. Johnson outlasted many lettuces as well as a head of broccoli, and although several barbers are rumored to have attempted damage control on his hair he outran them all. 

No one’s saying either Truss or Johnson put the powder up their own personal noses. In fact, Johnson’s said not to have been at either of the No. 10 parties that left powder behind. But it does raise questions about the culture around them and what’s tolerated at high levels and not at lower ones. 

So what about those denials? 

When the Guardian, which broke the story, asked for a comment, Truss’s spokes-salad said, “If there were evidence that this alleged activity had occurred during her use of Chevening, Ms Truss would have expected to have been informed and for the relevant authorities to have properly investigated the matter. As it is, the Guardian has produced no evidence to support these spurious claims.”

A spokescomb for Boris Johnson said, “Boris Johnson is surprised by these allegations since he has not previously been made aware of any suggestions of drug use in 10 Downing Street and as far as he is aware no such claims were made to Sue Gray or to any other investigators.

“It was a feature of Mr Johnson’s premiership that he strongly campaigned against drug use, especially middle-class drug use. His government made huge investments in tougher policing to help roll up county lines drugs gangs, which cause so much misery. He repeatedly called for harsher punishments for the use and distribution of class A drugs.”

A spokesdriver for No 10’s current U-turn expert said, “The Guardian has provided no evidence to support these claims. If there were substantive claims, we would expect these to be reported to the police.”

So there you go. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Larry the Cat refused to comment but is alleged to have a serious catnip habit. As for me, I don’t usually post in the middle of the week, but this was too much fun to ignore.

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.

*

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.

“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. 

*

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.    

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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. 

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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.

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.

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. 

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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.