Covid’s silver lining: another Zoom call goes wrong

If the pandemic cloud has a silver lining, it’s Zoom, which gives us such wondrous ways to screw up.

On the day that his party–the Republicans–launched a state campaign against distracted driving, an Ohio state senator, Andrew Brenner, participated in a Zoom call, and being a master of the technology he didn’t trap himself in a cat face and have to assure members of the state’s controlling board that he wasn’t a cat. No, he started the call in a parked car, showing his very own human face. Then he left the call for a few minutes and reappeared in front of a homey background. 

He’d have been fine if it hadn’t been for the seatbelt he was wearing. And the way he fixed his eyes straight ahead as if he was driving and turned his head from time to time as if he was changing lanes. And the moments when the background wavered and a road appeared beyond what looked very much like a driver’s side window, which had also appeared. 

The meeting was, of course, live streamed to the public. 

No, we don’t take in the real scandals of our age, but give us a politician in a seatbelt pretending to be at home and we sink our teeth in until they hit bone.

Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

“I wasn’t distracted,” Brenner said before digging his hole a little deeper by adding that “I’ve actually been on other calls, numerous calls,, while driving. Phone calls for the most part, but on video calls I’m not paying attention to the video. To me, it’s like a phone call.”

Which is why he did all the cloak and dagger stuff to look like he was someplace other than in his car. 

I suppose, since we’re talking about Zoom, that I have to mention another call that went wrong: Canadian MP William Amos showed up at a virtual parliamentary session stark screaming naked except for a strategically placed mobile phone. He was, he said in his apology, changing out of his jogging clothes when his laptop camera turned on. He’s patriotically placed, you’ll be glad to know, between the Canadian and Quebec flags.

 

. . . And bringing those two themes together

Have you ever had one of those problems that you can’t get anyone to pay attention to, no matter what you do? Geoff Upson, in New Zealand, had been tried to get some Auckland potholes filled and when he ran out of sane solutions he spray-painted penises around them–at last call about a hundred of them, some in neon paint.

I’d love to tell you that they’ve now been filled, but instead Auckland Transport activated the police on the grounds that penises distract drivers, making them a safety risk. 

No, not owning one. Seeing one painted on the road. 

They also said that it’s dangerous to paint on the road. They have your best interests at heart, Geoff. 

No word on whether the potholes have been filled. 

 

. . . And having nothing to do with any of that

A Belgian farmer moved a stone that was in his way and accidentally added a thousand square meters of France to his country.

In 1819, after Napoleon’s defeat, the Belgian-French border was marked out with a line of stones that had the date on them. If that makes it sound like the French-Belgian border’s a low-key sort of thing–well, I’ve never been there but that’s the impression I got too. It also sounds like the farm might be an international operation, at least some of the time. Intentionally or not. 

Two things kept this from being an international incident: One is that the countries aren’t at war. The other is that in 2019 the stones were geo-localized, so the wandering stone could be moved back to its original spot, although I expect the farmer wasn’t happy about it. 

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Six years ago, developers in London illegally knocked down the 1920s Carlton Tavern. This kind of thing happens regularly. Generally the developers say, “Oops, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do?”then pay a fine and go on to build what they wanted to. But this time some 5,000 people and a couple of local politicians organized a campaign.

To make sense of this, you have to understand that the building’s owners and the people who wanted to save the place aren’t the same folks. The owners asked for planning permission to convert the building to ten flats, which in American means apartments, and they didn’t get it. English Heritage–that’s an organization dedicated to preserving, um, you know, English heritage–was set to give the building listed status, which is a form of protection for buildings with historical significance, but two days before it came through the bulldozers knocked the place down.

A leader of the campaign said, “We had a suspicion . . . that they would do something, so we asked English Heritage to think about listing it. They took a plaster cast of every tile, and documented everything.”

That meant the local council–that’s the neighborhood government–could and did order the developers to rebuild it, brick by brick by brick. A few parts were reclaimed from the rubble, the rest were re-creations.

The Carlton reopened in April and is being run by Homegrown Pubs. One of the people involved said, “The pub tells its story from the half-broken fixtures that we’ve got. You can see bits of broken wood–it’s not all perfect, which we really love because it gives character and charm to the building.”

James Watson from the Campaign for Pubs said, “I never imagined that I would see a planning inspector order a developer to put back what he’d just knocked down, to look exactly as it was. I thought the developer would get a slap on the wrist, a £6,000 fine. It has set an incredibly useful precedent. Other planning inspectors will remember it, and so will developers.”

Watson also said that most developers are smart enough not to just send in the bulldozers. They “take some tiles off the roof and let the rain in. The beams rot, it collapses, and they say to the council, ‘This is a derelict site that needs to be rebuilt as flats.’ “ 

Why do pubs need protecting? They’re not just places to sit from 10 a.m. until you’re shitfaced, although up to a point you can do that in them. They also play a role in holding communities together. They’re a kind of public living room. But for a combination of reasons, running a pub is an increasingly hard way to make a living, so they’re disappearing from the British landscape. A few are being bought out by and run as community-owned businesses, which have the advantage of not needing to make a profit.

Your feel-good story for the week

A department store chain, H & M, has introduced a free service that allows men to borrow a job interview suit, free, for twenty-four hours. 

“Research shows that it takes less than one second for an employer to judge your ability based on your appearance,” according to an H & M manager. Hence the program’s name: One/Second/Suit. You don’t even need to dry clean it when you’re done. You send it back in pre-paid packaging and they’ll take care of that before the next person gets it.

If anyone offers a parallel service for women, unfortunately I haven’t heard about it.

The Covid chronicles: Is herd immunity still possible?

With Covid raging in India and Brazil, it’s a strange time to be talking about herd immunity, but a cluster of scientific articles are doing just that. 

How many people need to be immune to a disease in order for the population as a whole to be protected? The answer varies with the disease. For measles, which is very contagious, the estimate is 95%. Vaccinate that many (or wait till they get sick and grow their own immunity) and the other 5% will get protection simply from not being around anyone covered with itchy little spots. 

For the initial Covid strain, the best guess was that herd immunity would come when 70% of the population was immune. But as a planet, we handled the disease so badly that we’re not dealing with that strain anymore. Instead, we have a small raft of more contagious strains, so the bar we have to jump over before we reach herd immunity has probably gone from–oh, let’s say waist height to shoulder height. 

Oh, yes, lucky us.

Irrelevant photo: Wood anemones.

So far, the countries with widespread vaccination programs also have groups of people who refuse to be vaccinated–that’s in addition to some who for medical reasons can’t be. They also have groups who for social and political reasons haven’t been reached. The US and UK haven’t done as well at vaccinating ethnic minority groups as they have at vaccinating whites. When I last checked, in April, Israel had gotten only dribbles of vaccine to the occupied territories, saying they weren’t its problem.

And most importantly, the world at large has done a shit job of getting vaccine to the poorer countries. So all those pools of unvaccinated people are where the disease will spread and mutate and create new variants, each of which carries in its itty bitty little pockets the possibility of outrunning the vaccines that those of us who are vaccinated are so relieved to have. 

Israel has vaccinated just upwards of 60% of its population and has in large part returned to normal life, but that normality depends on keeping its borders largely closed and wearing masks indoors. Countries like New Zealand and Australia, which have in large part stamped out the virus, rely on tight border control and strict quarantine. How long they can or have the will to keep those barriers in place remains to be seen.

One article (the link’s above) says that the trick will be keeping restrictions in place once case and hospitalization numbers drop. Primarily, it says, these will be Covid tests and masks. 

And just so’s you know: There’s no agreed-upon definition of herd immunity. I’m going to skip the details and say only that this doesn’t make the conversation about it any clearer. For a sensible discussion, go here.

Some of the articles I’ve read say we’re unlikely to ever completely eliminate Covid. In countries that have been heavily (but not completely) vaccinated, it’s likely to continue circulating and causing deaths, but at dramatically lower rates.  

Sorry. It’s not the knock-out punch we were all hoping for, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci tells us not to worry about herd immunity.

“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is.

“That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”

 

The search for a Covid pill

At least three of the big drug companies are working on pills to keep mild Covid from turning into severe Covid. If they succeed, they’d make Covid’s continued presence in our lives a hell of a lot more manageable.

The first days after the virus moves into a human host are its busiest. It sets up housekeeping in a cell and creates a family to admire its work. And then the family spreads out, setting up housekeeping in new cells. And so forth. It multiplies like mad, and that’s when we’d need to drop that little pill–you know: the one that doesn’t quite exist yet–down our throats to disrupt the sequence. 

Researchers have trolled through existing drugs, hoping to find one that would, by chance, do the job but so far haven’t come up with anything. Hence the search for new ones.

One that’s in development is a protease inhibitor, which would interfere with the enzymes the virus needs to multiply. (No, don’t ask me. I’m just playing parrot here.) Drugs that treat AIDS and hepatitis C are protease inhibitors, in case that gives you the same illusion of understanding that glowed so nicely in my brain until I realizes I didn’t really understand a thing.

Other drugs in development target the virus itself. That does’t glow quite as nicely and I’d love to say more about the process but that’s all I’ve got, although I can repeat that they’d disrupt the virus’s ability to replicate itself.

The companies are hoping to have the first of the drugs on the market by the end of the year. And they may end up being used in combination to keep the virus from evolving some form of resistance. 

Don’t give up, folks. We’ll get through this, even if life isn’t quite the same as it used to be.

It wasn’t perfect then either, was it?

The Wallpapergate scandal goes free range; welcome to Nannygate

I hope you don’t mind a quick dip into political sleaze, because I do enjoy a good scandal and here in Britain we have one that’s going free range. Just before an election. Yes, friends, Wallpapergate is turning into Nannygate which is turning into Personal Trainergate.

I’ll stop gloating for a paragraph or two and translate for myself: Boris Johnson is being investigated for asking Conservative Party donors to pay for his and his partner’s £200,000 refurbishment of the prime ministerial residence, but that’s a few-days-old scandal. Now it’s now come out that he also approached donors to pay for his and his partner’s nanny and his personal trainer

I did use the phrase “the couple’s nanny,” but no, the nanny doesn’t take care of the couple, although if she (and I’m making assumptions there, I know) did she might’ve saved them from their wallpaper. But no such luck. She’s there to take care of their kid, who’s a year old. 

I won’t get into the whole nanny thing. Really. I won’t. I’m putting on mittens to limit my typing. 

Irrelevant photo: speedwell–a wildflower

It all makes me wonder, though, if Johnson also tried raising funds to pay for a food taster and a herald to blow the trumpet when he’s coming into a room. If he has, it hasn’t hit the headlines yet, but I’m ruling nothing out. 

The latest of Wallpapergate is that Conservative Party staff members have been told to hand over all communications that relate to it. They’ve been threatened with criminal charges if they don’t, which has a certain irony since their boss isn’t being threatened with criminal charges, although the email they were sent did say, “You are put on notice that this is a criminal investigation.”

Johnson is said to have taken out a personal loan to pay back whatever money was borrowed to cover  the renovations of his flat, although he’s dodged questions about when he did that. The loan he received hasn’t been declared, and neither has whatever he borrowed or solicited and then repaid. That signals trouble, although I have no idea how deep.

Prime ministers are given £30,000 to wipe away all visible traces of their predecessors, so that leaves only £170,000 to repay. 

To put that in perspective: If you worked a 40 hour week at the London minimum wage, which is higher than the national one, you’d take home something in the neighborhood of £17,000 a year, so if you didn’t frivvel that away on groceries and rent or anything else, it would take ten years to save that up. 

At the London real Living Wage of £10.85, you’d take home something like £22,000. 

Johnson, on the other hand, makes £150,000 a year as prime minister. That means he’s licking the underside of the top 1% of British earners, but he’s apparently told friends that he needs to make twice that just to keep his head above water. Rumor says he’s broke, although you might want to wait until the music stops and the numbers have all tried to grab the chairs that are left before you decide what to believe on the subject.

*

But I mentioned elections, so let’s talk about them: All across the country we’ve got local elections coming up on Thursday, and they’re being taken as a test of the impact all this is having on the electorate. Whether it’s a fair test is arguable. I’m not sure how much national politics translate to local elections. 

Some pundits speculate that the mythical man in the pub (and I’m reasonably sure they do mean the man) doesn’t care about Wallpapergate. What I’ve noticed, though, is that most of the Conservative newspapers seem to have turned against Johnson on this. I haven’t a clue how it’ll go or what it’ll mean. 

In Scotland, though, the elections will decide whether there’ll be another referendum on leaving the United Kingdom and joining the European Union. That referendum, if it’s held, will either be sanctioned by the British government or it won’t be. And if it isn’t, it’ll either be held anyway or it won’t be. I think that covers all the possibilities.

It’s going to be interesting here for a while.

The Wallpapergate scandal

First, a warning: Actual wallpaper is involved in Wallpapergate–massively ugly wallpaper, in my opinion highly biased opinion–but no actual gate is known to be part of the story. If there were a gate, though, it would be a very expensive gate, a high-end type of gate, because this is about Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Whatsit, spending something in the neighborhood of £200,000 to redecorate the apartment that prime ministers live in. 

Whose money were they spending? That’s where it gets interesting. Initially it seems to have been from major Conservative Party donors, but when the nosy neighbors–also known as the rest of the country and specifically a former aide who he’d first confided in and then pissed off–started honking and quacking about it, he paid it back.

Apparently. All he’s saying right now is that he paid for it personally. He’s not saying when he did that, although he has been asked.

Irrelevant photo: Wallflowers

Prime ministers are given a budget of £30,000 to redecorate the prime ministerial apartment when they move in, and you might think a person could manage with that in a pinch. The Johnson-Whatsit household could not. So, hands up, please: How many of us (al) have £200,000 worth of spare change rattling around in our pockets and (b) would use it to redecorate an apartment we don’t own and don’t have a lease on? An apartment we could be kicked out of the minute the political winds start blowing from some new direction? 

Yeah, preliminary polling predicted the count would go that way.

Maybe Johnson and Whatsit are counting on a long political and residential tenure–a kind of thousand-year Reich, only with wallpaper.

The story starts, as nearly as I can figure out, with Johnson and Whatsit moving into the prime minister’s apartment and declaring it a “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” 

I need to stop and translate that for readers who don’t live in Britain. John Lewis is a department store, and it’s either upmarket or downmarket, depending on what street you entered the market from. If you came in on the street not just used but owned by people who’d be mortified to have the same couch as anyone else, then John Lewis is downmarket. 

Johnson and Whatsit very much came in on that end. 

But I could be wrong to call the piece of furniture we’re talking about a couch. Maybe it’s a sofa. Or a davenport. Or–oh, hell, I’ll never understand the linguistic clues to class that make British English such a minefield. I do know that key objects have different names depending on your pedigree and your bank account. And that it’s all horribly important and completely insane. And may all the gods of snobbery help you if you get one of them wrong among the people who came into the market from Unique Sofa Street, because they take this (not to mention themselves) very seriously. 

Stop giggling. They do. So consider their embarrassment if they find out they’re sitting on a couch that any Tom, Dick, or Theresa May could buy. 

Theresa May was never really one of their crowd, but in fact she wasn’t responsible for buying the couches. Silly thing that she was, she left the furniture alone when she moved in and focused on trying to govern the country. I can’t say I was impressed by her idea of how that should work, but I will give her credit, belatedly, for not trying to make it involve wallpaper.

The Johnson-Whatsit wallpaper is said to cost in the neighborhood of £800 a roll. And of course you need a couch and curtains to match the wallpaper, and a rug to clash with the wallpaper, and all manner of other stuff in startling patterns. The funniest of the photos seems to have disappeared from the internet, but as I remember it, it involved overwhelmingly patterned wallpaper, a couch screaming to itself in the same pattern, and a person who was almost camouflaged by it all. Someone who wasn’t me described the style as Victorian bordello. I’ll take their word for it since I’ve never been to a Victorian bordello–I was born far too late–but they may be doing bordellos an injustice.

[Late addition: You can find a photo here.] 

I do understand that tastes differ, but if I moved into a place that looked like their post-renovation apartment does, I’d pay a lot of  money to make it stop. And I could do it for less than £200,000. All I’d need is a few cans of white paint and a wrecking ball.

So what happens next? I don’t mean furnishings-wise, because the couple seem happy enough in their house of horrors. I mean what happens politically

Well, the Electoral Commission will be investigating whether Johnson broke any of the laws about political financing. That should be fun, even though the commission’s investigations don’t usually end up with criminal charges. 

What all this proves–if anything–is that it’s not the big-league scandals that set the national alarm clock ringing–the ones where the people running the government hand huge contracts to their friends, who then bungle the work and are thanked for it and get more contracts. Those hit the headlines regularly and we roll over and go back to sleep. The ones that wake us up are the wallpaper, the snobbery about stores most of us can’t afford to shop in. It’s not that the others are hard to understand, but this is on such a human scale. We’re watching a panto, that over-the-top British theatrical form where there’s always someone to boo and hiss.

They’re not behind us (as the audience yells at a panto). They’re right in front of us. We can’t take our eyes away.

 

News from the Department of Unexpected Results

Belgium is facing a different kind of crisis: It needs people to eat more potatoes. The country normally exports them, but the Department of Unexpected Results reports that because of the pandemic a lot of potatoes went unexported.

What’s going on here? Do people eat fewer potatoes during pandemics? Does exposure to Covid reduce people’s carb cravings? Do people only eat potatoes when they’re away from home? Tempted as I am to toss you a few off-the-top-of-my-head answers, these questions are too important for that. What we need here is a serious study. While—we hope–someone’s doing that, let’s treat the issue gently and try not to break anything. In other words, let’s not speculate.

And while we’re waiting for the results of those studies, why not make yourself a nice portion of potatoes? You’ll help improve international relations and fight Covid, all in a single act, with no intermission. The Belgians like their potatoes deep fried, with mayonnaise, but you’re welcome to eat them any which way. 

My thanks to Be Kitschig for alerting me to this crisis. 

*

Young kids in Ireland and the U.K. responded to the recent lockdowns and school closures by reading longer, more difficult books. That comes from a survey of a million kids, who are reading fewer books but more challenging ones. And they’re understanding them. They’ve had more time to read and the little stinkers are surprising everyone by actually doing it. 

Then they get into secondary school–in the U.K. that happens when they’re around eleven–and after the first year the improvement stopped dead. 

Okay, admittedly, there hasn’t been time to follow the same kids from primary to secondary school. This is a different batch of kids we’re talking about. But is something about being in secondary school killing off kids’ interest in reading, even when they’re not in the building? The answer is a resolute I don’t know, but the study’s author is calling for schools to make more time for kids to read and for secondary schools to encourage kids to read harder books.

Still, we take our good news where we can find it these days: Young kids are voluntarily reading harder books. It’s a safe guess that they’re doing that because they’re enjoying them. And that’s got to be a good thing.

No, vaccinated people do not shed spike proteins

The latest thing in nut theories–if it hasn’t been superseded by a newer one, and you’ll have to forgive me if I limp along behind this stuff–is that it’s dangerous for women who are still menstruating to even be around people who’ve been vaccinated.

Why’s that? So the little vaccy-things jump out of the vaccinated Person V and into still-fertile Person non-V, implanting some version of Rosemary’s baby that’s been updated to look like Bill Gates?

Quite possibly, with just the tiniest touch of exaggeration.

Utterly irrelevant photo: This is for all you British mystery fans out there. If you remember a detective called Campion, this is the flower he named himself after. It’s a wildflower–a.k.a. a weed–and grows wherever it damn well pleases. It stays in bloom for a good part of the year and is a cheery little beast. This is the red campion, in spite of being pink. It also comes in white.

The theory is that the vaccines shed the spike protein. (Please don’t ask about the mechanism for that.) Someone who described herself as a cosmic doula posted an Instagram video saying, “Women in their menstruating years are experiencing severe side effects from people around them having received this jab.” They miss their periods. They have excruciatingly painful periods. Post-menopausal women start to have periods. Cats flee from them.

Okay, I made up the bit about the cats, but you have to admit it’d be upsetting.

Someone on Facebook who likes to Capitalize stuff she Considers Important listed the side effects of being around a Vaccinated Person as bleeding, hemorrhaging, passing clots, irregular periods, miscarriages, severe cramps, abnormal pain, post-menopausal periods, and decidual casts.

Most of these things aren’t fun but they’re also not signals that an asteroid is headed for earth or that Bill Gates has implanted his own DNA into the Covid vaccines, which will turn us all into non-rich versions of him. They happen, even in non-pandemic times.

In other words, call me when men start having periods. You’ll have full attention. Until then, I’m not impressed.

Gynecologist Dr. Jennifer Gunter said, “Neither of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines . . . nor the Johnson and Johnson vaccine . . . can possibly affect a person who has not been vaccinated, and this includes their menstruation, fertility, and pregnancy. Let me be very clear. The COVID-19 vaccines cannot affect anyone by proxy.”

So she’s no fun at all. And cats flee from her.

 

Vaccination and pregnancy

If we’ve had our fun now, and if the cats have crept back into the room, allow me to mention a study of 35,000 women that says the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are safe for pregnant women–not to mention the people standing next to them. Their rates of complications, miscarriages, and premature births were the same as the rates for those things before the pandemic. 

The vaccines may also be safe for pregnant men, but it was hard to find a large enough pool for the researchers to follow. For the time being, guys, you’re on your own.

Longer-term follow-up is needed, but pregnant women face a higher risk of severe Covid and hospitalization than non-pregnant women in their age groups, although their babies don’t seem to be affected.  

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was released too late to have been included in the study.

 

Yeah, but what are we immune to?

A new study says that the Covid vaccines activate–

Oh, hell, this is complicated, so you’re going to have to pay attention, okay?  The immune system has these cells that we’ll call helper T cells, although when they appear in court they’re known by their formal name, CD4+ T lymphocytes. And to distinguish themselves from the defendants, they wear those strange, lawyerly wigs that distinguish British barristers from the normal run of human beings. But never mind all that. We’re friends here and we can afford to be informal and wigless. Helper T cells it is.

The study says that once activated by either of the two mRNA vaccines (those are the Pfizer and the Moderna), the helper T cells will recognize any of the current Covid variants and slaughter the little bastards. 

Okay, that’s not a direct quote. I get carried away with the opportunity to slaughter small and bloodless things that have no apparent nervous systems so I can do it in good conscience. 

The activated helper T cells may also protect us against one of the coronaviruses that causes the  cold. 

Sorry, not all colds. Just one form.

This is important because our antibodies are cute little things but they’re not as smart as T cells and sometimes need a phone call to tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. 

But before we get too excited, first this was a small study and second it may only mean that they’re able to prevent the variants from causing severe illness, not to prevent all infections.  

 

The Pfizer upgrade

If all goes as expected, the Pfizer vaccine will soon be easier to ship. Up to now, it’s had to be kept at the temperature of dry ice, meaning a country needed one hell of an infrastructure to use it at all. In its new form, an ordinary freezer will keep it safe. 

It’s also one of the more expensive vaccines on the market, so making it easier to ship won’t solve all the problems involved in getting it where it’s most needed.

How’s it stacking up against the variants?

Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, said “We have already data for the UK [variant]—I hate using the countries, but people know them like that—which is very prominent in Israel… efficiency was 97 percent.

“We have data from South Africa, with the South African variant, and overall the efficacy was 100 percent. And also have data from Brazil. And it looks also this is very well controlled.”

You’ll notice that he didn’t give us any numbers from Brazil. Let’s assume there’s room for improvement.

It takes, he said, 100 days to tweak a vaccine so that it’s more effective against a worrying variant. 

 

The search for a universal vaccine

So will there ever be a Covid vaccine that doesn’t need tweaking? 

Possibly, and I suspect I’ve written about it before but it’s not as if I pay attention to what’s going on here. That’s your job.

One has shown encouraging results in animal studies. It targets a part of the virus that seems stable–in other words, it doesn’t mutate–and indications are that it will protect against multiple coronaviruses, not just Covid. So it could–potentially, remember; we’re not there yet–protect against coronaviruses that have yet to make their way into our lives, and also against multiple cold viruses.

And it can be produced cheaply. If you brewed it in a keg the size of your car’s gas tank (or petrol tank if you’re speaking British), it would cost $1 a dose. That’s compared to $10 a dose for the mRNA vaccines like Pfizer. 

But if production is ramped up, you won’t be brewing it in your car’s gas tank, or even (Prohibition-style if you know your US history) in your bathtub. You’ll be using industrial-scale tanks and it’ll be a whole lot cheaper. 

“If you have two or three or four, pretty soon you get enough vaccine to immunize everybody in the world,” according to Dr. Steven Zeichner of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

The vaccine’s designed to attack a part of the Covid virus called viral fusion peptide, which sounds like it’s going to blow something up but is just another damn peptide, not a nuclear weapon.

When in your life did you hear the word peptide as much as you have this past year? 

This particular peptide is a universal coronavirus part. That means you can get from any used parts dealer, any junkyard. Etsy has it. I’d mention Amazon but I’m carrying on a one-person boycott so I won’t. It’s a part of the spike protein that hasn’t shown any changes so far and that’s unlikely to show any in the future. It’s like the headlight that’s used on this year’s model and also the 1957 model. 

Or so Zeichner says, and he knows more about this than I do–which wouldn’t be hard. Let’s say he knows considerably more than I do and trust his judgement on this. After all, he did have enough sense not to bring junkyards or headlights into the discussion. I’m to blame for that.

Even if he turns out to be wrong and under pressure from the vaccine the peptide does mutate, we will have been given some breathing room.

This doesn’t have to be a new vaccine. Existing vaccines will be able to incorporate the target as they add new tweaks.

But a universal vaccine isn’t ready for human studies yet. For one thing, in animal tests it prevented severe symptoms but not infection. The developers want to tinker, retune the engine, give it a new set of tires, do all those things that will make it more lethal to coronaviruses. The preliminary data, they say, are exciting, but these are the very early stages still.

A nice British scandal

Who doesn’t love a good scandal? And Britain’s rich in them right now. They’re buzzing like flies around the rumpled head of our prime minister. We have so many that–metaphor switch here–it’s like standing in front of a dessert buffet with a too-small appetite and a too-small plate. 

To translate that, I can’t cover them all, so let’s focus on the Covid-related one: Before the third lockdown, Boris Johnson allegedly said, “No more fucking lockdowns. Let bodies pile high in their thousands.” 

Allegedly? Well, yes. The source of the quote is, so far, unnamed, and Johnson denies having said it before changing the subject, but it’s being taken seriously and the subject doesn’t stay changed for long. 

You can probably guess, even without following British politics closely, that letting the bodies pile up isn’t a popular stance. 

I’m sure someone in government is looking for the source of the quote even as I type. Back in October, someone leaked government plans for a lockdown and an inquiry was ordered so that blame could land somewhere. To date, the culprit remains unnamed. More recently, families of people who died of Covid have been calling for an inquiry into the pandemic’s mishandling and the government’s said it doesn’t have time for that sort of hindsight. Haven’t these families noticed that we’re still in a crisis? 

Irrelevant photo: Wild primroses with violets.

However, there is time for an inquiry into top civil servants taking outside jobs that may be conflicts of interest. There’s also time for an inquiry into who leaked text messages between Johnson and a businessman in which Johnson promised to change some tax rules the businessman had complained about. There won’t–if Johnson & Co. can help it–be an inquiry into the exchange of messages itself. 

After all, there’s only so much time a government can devote to inquiries.

Sorry to have passed up the other scandals. They look delicious, but it’s not nice to be greedy.

 

Yeah, but what are we doing about Covid?

A taskforce–we’re still in Britain in case you folded your map away–has been told to find two new drugs that will stop mild Covid from progressing to severe Covid. If that makes it sound like someone’s misplaced the drugs and they’d show up if you’d just move the couch away from the wall for me, please–well, that’s probably not what they have in mind. 

You can shove the couch back in, thanks. It hides the dust.

The drugs they’re looking for have to be something people can take at home instead of in the hospital, and they have to come in either tablet or capsule form. 

What’s the difference between a tablet and a capsule? Does it matter? They’re both pills. If you’ll just shut up and swallow one, by tomorrow you won’t remember which it was.  

When he announced the task force, Johnson said experts expect another wave of Covid later in the year. In spite of which, and in spite of the possibility that the pills dropped into the heating ducts and won’t be found until years from now when the whole system’s torn out and replaced, no one’s adjusting the steps toward easing the country out of lockdown. The economy must be revived. Let the bodies–

No, he’s not going to repeat that particular quote. And I hope we’re not in that dire a position this time around. Almost 47 million people have had at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s out of a population of almost 67 million. In precise percentages, that’s a lot of people. But it’s not a suit of armor. If another pandemic wave comes, it does no good to tell the newly bereaved, “Well, nowhere near as many people died this time around.”  

How likely is the taskforce to succeed? I don’t know, but I do know that it isn’t the world’s only group working on the problem. With luck, someone will get there, and whoever shows up first–and second and forty-eighth–I’m prepared to applaud.

*

So how vulnerable is the country?

Professor Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, expects a third wave this summer. He considers the country vulnerable and says the dates for easing lockdown may need adjusting.

Britain’s vulnerabilities include new Covid variants, the still-large number of unvaccinated people, and the inevitable breakthrough cases among the vaccinated. The number of deaths expected in that wave vary from 30,000 to 100,000, depending on what software the statisticians rely on. The time when the wave’s most likely to hit also varies. What does seem to be solid is that another wave will come.

You remember that Greek myth about Orpheus going down to the underworld to bring his love Euridice back to the land of the living? He’s told not to look back at her until they’re above ground, and he doesn’t until he comes into the sunligh. Then he looks back, but she’s still in the shadow of the underworld and, damn, you blew it, Orph, so back she goes, yelling, “You damn fool, you never did think of anyone but yourself,” the whole way down.

We need to think about that tale as countries emerge from the underworld. Don’t let yourself believe you’ve solved the problem just because you feel the sunlight on your own silly skin. 

*

That noted non-scientist our prime minister, however, says there’s nothing in the data to show that everything can’t go ahead exactly as planned. 

 

And meanwhile–

A nurse in Manchester, Karen Reissman, was fined £10,000 for protesting the 1% raise that the government saw fit to give the nurses it spent months applauding. She’d handed in a risk assessment for the protest, but the Manchester police decided the rally was breaking Covid rules anyway.

“Somebody calculated that if I used my 1% rise, it would take me 56 years to pay the fine off,” Reissman said.

Believe me, the fine will be appealed.

Real-world information on Covid vaccine effectiveness

For the first time, we have some real-world data about how effective the Covid vaccines are. The good news is that a very small percent of fully vaccinated people get sick. The bad news is that the vaccines aren’t  a three-hundred percent effective suit of armor against serious disease. Or even quite one hundred percent.

Among the 77 million fully vaccinated people in the US, the Centers for Disease Control reports 5,800 Covid cases. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.0001%. Of that group, 7% were hospitalized and 74 died, and damn it I wish they’d give statistics either entirely in percentages or entirely in absolute numbers to dopes like me could compare them. I can get as far as saying that most of the cases have been either mild or asymptomatic. If you can translate, leave me a comment. Even if your answer’s wrong, I’m not likely to know. 

Infections in vaccinated people are called breakthrough infections, and it would be unusual if they didn’t happen. They were found in all age groups, although 40% were in people who were 60 or older, 65% were in women, and 29% were asymptomatic. 

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms

So far, they haven’t identified what, if any, risk factors incline vaccinated people toward getting Covid or which (if any) variants are more likely to be involved, but believe me, someone’s staying up late crunching numbers. It’s also not clear how the asymptomatic cases were noticed, since it’s unusual to test fully vaccinated people who show no symptoms. It could be that they were hospitalized for other reasons and a Covid test was run as part of the admissions routine. Whatever the reasons, though, we can assume that the number of asymptomatic infections is an underestimate.

But didn’t they tell us that the vaccines were 100% effective against severe Covid? Yup, they did, and they weren’t lying to us. The odds of a fully vaccinated person getting a severe infection are so small that the sample would’ve had to be insanely large for a case to have surfaced. The people who ran the trial gave us the numbers they had. As real-world information comes in, those numbers change. That’s the annoying thing about the real world. Every so often, it doesn’t line up with our predictions.

I get a rightwing newsletter in my inbox every so often–it’s been interesting so I don’t unsubscribe, although I’m not the person they have in mind–and it’s fond of reporting on cases of people catching Covid after being vaccinated. The tone leans heavily toward See? We told you it didn’t work. If I could, I’d compare that 0.0001% of breakthrough infections with the percentage of unvaccinated people who catch Covid in the US, but we’ll need a person with some minimal mathematical competence to work it out. I asked Lord Google but he was in one of his moods. If you’d like percentages on many unrelated things, I can point you in the right direction. 

The conclusion, if you want one to put in your pocket and take it home, is that the vaccines aren’t 110% effective and we still need to be careful, but we can let go of the anxiety. The numbers are on our side here and the anxiety isn’t helping anyway.

There’s nothing like someone telling you not to be anxious to make you less anxious, is there?

The additional conclusion is, keep the mask. Even if you’re vaccinated, you can still spread the disease. You’re less likely to–if you have an asymptomatic case you’re likely to have a lower viral load–but you can still do some damage. Other people share this world with us. Try not to do them any more harm than you can help.

 

What’s the story on vaccines and blood clots?

The two vaccines that have been linked to very rare incidents of blood clots are based on a single technology–one they share with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Basically, they take an adenovirus–that’s a virus that causes colds–deactivate it, and turn it into a chariot for the vaccine to ride in on.

Vaccines are hopelessly vain. They can’t resist a grand entrance. Horses, polished metal catching the sun, noise, dust, cameras. 

The clotting problem seems–and we’re still at the stage of seems–to be related to that damn chariot. 

The clots happen in veins in the brain, in the abdomen, and in arteries, and at the same time the person’s level of blood platelets fall, and those platelets are the beasties that help our blood clot. We end up with blood clots happening at the same time as hemorrhages, which in everyday English means bleeding. That’s kind of like an elevator going up and down at the same time. 

Normally, you’d pour an anticoagulant called heparin into a person with a blood clot forming in scary places, but when you pair the clots with hemorrhages, you can’t do that.

What are the signs that a person’s getting a serious reaction to one of the vaccines? Severe headaches, abdominal or leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination.

Every article about this says the clots are very rare. 

How rare is very rare? Last I checked, 222 cases had been linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe and Britain, along with 18 deaths. That’s out of 34 million people who’ve gotten the vaccine. Most of those were in women who were–okay, not young but under 60, which looks younger all the time. In the US, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to 6 cases out of 6.8 million people who were vaccinated with it.

So how rare are the clotting problems? About the same as the chance of being struck by lighting in the UK in any year you choose. And that’s in a country that, by comparison with the American Midwest, doesn’t get a hell of a lot of lightning.

The risk of Covid, though, is no small thing. 

And if you’re inclined to roll the dice by going unvaccinated, the risk of having a blood clot after a bout of Covid is 8 times higher than after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. The risk of clots after Covid is 100 times higher than after a normal infection.

 

Covid immunity and prior infections

And vaguely related to that is the news that having had Covid doesn’t give young people full protection from another bout of it. That’s from a study of 3,000 healthy U.S. Marines who were between 18 and 20 years old and unless the regulations have changed since last I looked had radically and irrelevantly short hair.

Even though the marines had antibodies, they didn’t have the level of protection that the vaccine offers: 10% got reinfected. That compares with 50% who hadn’t had an earlier infection, although in the previously infected group 84% of the infections  were asymptomatic or mild compared to 68% in the previously uninfected group.

The numbers of infections and reinfections were higher than would be likely outside of a military base because of the cramped living conditions and close contact.

The advice to people who’ve recovered from Covid is to boost your immunity with a vaccine.

Why the royals didn’t wear uniforms at Phil’s funeral

The BBC overdid its coverage of Prince Philip’s death so massively that it received a record 110,000 complaints. Enough many shows went off the air that I started to wonder if there’d been a coup.

For the funeral, they decided to be more moderate. I’d report on what was left on the air but I wasn’t watching. Sorry. I can’t do daytime TV, even in the name of research.

I also don’t do royal-watching, but I’ll make a brief exception. The word came down ahead of time that William and Harry wouldn’t walk next to each other in the procession. You know what it’s like when the kids are both in the back seat. It starts out well enough, but then they’re arguing about who reached across the imaginary line between them, escalates to who poked who, and the next thing you know they’re throwing ice cream at each other.

The brothers–watch the procession as many times as you like if you don’t believe me–were not allowed to carry ice cream.

Not only that, no one in the family was allowed to wear uniforms, which is interesting, because the royal family does seem to enjoy playing dress up, and they all have honorary military titles to match their clothes. Except Harry, who had to give up his honorary titles when he left the family business, although he has a less impressive one left over from when he actually served in the armed forces. Andrew, who (mysteriously) is still in the family business, was insisting on his right to wear an admiral’s uniform. And stand in the prow of a ship. That was to be towed along a street flooded to a depth of–

Ellen, stop. Somebody’s going to think you’re serious. But he did want to wear an admiral’s uniform. I’d love to know who leaked that glorious bit of gossip.

Irrelevant photo: Osteospermum–probably.

 

Fake journalist makes real news

An online gamer called Kacey Montagu infiltrated the White House press corps, claiming to work for a nonexistent news outlet, White House News, or WHN. Or alternatively for the Daily Mail, which does exist but which she didn’t work for. 

But it’s not just WHN that doesn’t exist. Neither does Kacey Montagu.

What she–and let’s call himherthem a she, since herhistheir persona is female–did was relay questions to the press secretary via other reporters. That isn’t unusual in these pandemic days. The usual 49 seats in the briefing room have been whittled down to 14, so any number of real reporters can’t be in the room, and the ones who are regularly relay questions from colleagues.

Montagu became visible in December, setting up a couple of Twitter accounts, and her tweets were useful enough (even if they do sound pretty bland) that she gathered a serious political following. 

She was finally unmasked by Mediaite, a website that focuses on politics and the media, and it was her success that did her in. She asked a question about Biden’s relationship with Obama that another reporter followed up on. It wasn’t your most incisive question, but there’s no predicting what’ll grab people’s interest. Or what’ll lead to your downfall. 

What Mediaite found was that Kacey Montagu was, as they put it, “a gag persona for a former Secretary of State made of Legos.” 

That needs translating, doesn’t it? 

Montagu was active on ROBLOX, an online global gaming platform where users call themselves Legos. Which in case you’re not laughing is a joke. 

I didn’t laugh either. Even after I found out it was a joke. The best I could manage was to frown and shake my head. 

Somewhere on the platform is a role-playing group called nUSA–a mock U.S. government. 

I know. People do this to entertain themselves. I’ll never understand our species.

Montagu was the secretary of state at one point but resigned because ”the President went to war with some U.K. and I thought it was a pretty bad idea!”

From this we can deduce that she’s principled if not grammatically gifted.

So who is this person? She’s been careful enough not to leave a electronic trail that leads to the person behind the persona, so no one’s sure. She told one set of people that she was an 18-year-old law student from the United Kingdom who was born in the U.S. and moved to Britain at six. That six is an age, not a time of day. She told another that she was studying political science and wasn’t motivated by politics but was socially liberal and conservative on economic issues.

People who know her online are skeptical about most of that. What they’re sure of is that she bragged online about passing herself off as a reporter.

She did say “I love journalism, and I think the Press Corps is doing a pretty bad job at the moment, so I decided I would ensure some transparency and ask some questions me and some friends wanted the answer to.” 

Because what’s more transparent than passing yourself off as someone else and claiming to work for a media outlet that doesn’t exist, and what’s more incisive than asking about Biden’s friendship with Obama? Talk about your burning issues.

 

Cake and gnome stories

Britain’s caterpillar cake wars have begun.

Britain’s what?

Well, store A, which we’ll call Marks & Spencer, since that’s what everyone else calls it, sells a cake called Colin the Caterpillar. It’s chocolate and cartoonishly caterpillarish. And since M & S is known for high-end food, it got huffy when it found that store B, which we’ll call Aldi and which is known for discount food, started selling a cheaper cake called Cuthbert the Caterpillar, which is also chocolate and cartoonishly caterpillarish and looks similarish. 

So everybody’s going to court, where the lawyers will wear wigs and look cartoonishly British-lawyerish, although, disappointingly, they will not emerge from a chrysalis to show off their wings and fly.

You needed to know about this.

*

In the meantime, Britain is suffering through a shortage of garden gnomes. Also of garden furniture, but it’s the gnome shortage that really hurts. The problem is due to a tragic combination of Brexit, Covid, and a hangover from the Suez Canal blockage. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country, but it’s getting serious over here.

Send gnomes.

The Covid testing dilemma

England’s pushing mass testing as a way to contain Covid. It’s free, it’s government approved, it’s somewhere between uncomfortable and painful, and it may or may not be a good idea. Let’s tear the numbers apart and see what we can figure out.

Since the schools reopened, secondary students–those are the older kids–have had to do quick Covid tests twice a week, and that’s been a bulwark of the program to keep the schools open while not letting the virus get out of control. 

The tests, unfortunately, have a reputation for being unreliable, especially when done by non-experts. Since the kids are doing their own tests, or asking their parents or three-year-old sisters to stick the swabs up their noses and down their throats, these are in the hands of the distilled essence of non-expert. One fear about relying on the quick tests has been that false positives will send a lot of people into isolation unnecessarily. So half of the positive tests were sent to a lab to be confirmed by the slower, more reliable tests, and only 18% of them were false positives. 

Irrelevant photo: Rhododendrons. Photo by Ida Swearingen

But wait, because we’re not done yet. Those numbers are from March, and Covid rates have fallen, at least in parts of the country. (Some hot spots remain, and I don’t know if numbers are falling there as well. Just put that possibility off to one side. The recipe may call for it later. If it doesn’t, we’ll stick it in the freezer.) The point is that where the number of cases is lower, everything changes

Why? Because the tests will crank out the same number of false positives, no matter how many people are infected. Find yourself a population of people who’ve never been exposed to Covid and the test will swear on any religious book you like that some of them are infected. 

I’m about to throw some numbers at you, so if your allergies are bad today just skip a few paragraphs.

Ready? In London, the southwest, the northeast, and the southeast of England, the prevalence of Covid ranged from 0. 08 to 0.02. In England as a whole, it was 0.12%. Using those figures (I’d assume that means the England-wide ones), it would take 16,000 tests to find one infected person. If the tests cost £10 each, that means spending £160,000 to find that one person.

Is that worth it? If we were trying to stamp the disease out and keep it stamped, as New Zealand is, it would be. Given that we treat stamping it out as the silly thought of irresponsible day dreamers, probably not. 

Meanwhile, in leaked emails (I do l love a good leak) “senior government officials” are talking about scaling back mass testing, although the Department of Health and Social Care says it has no plans to end the program. One in three infected people, they remind us, show no symptoms but is still contagious. 

That brings us neatly to the question of whether the rapid tests will spot that one person. In other words, it’s time to talk about false negatives. Administered by an expert, the tests pick up 79% of infections. Or to put that the other way around, they miss 21%, and those are mostly people with a low viral load. Or to put that another way, they’re most likely to miss people who don’t have symptoms, who are just the people the testing program is looking for.

Administered by secondary school students or their three-year-old sisters, they’re more likely to pick up 58% of infections, or to miss–umm– I think that’s 42%. Although estimates of the number of cases the test misses vary. It might be as high as 50%. 

The government denies that it has any plans to scale back anything ever and Boris Johnson is urging everyone to get tested twice a week. Even though his advisors say that in areas with low infection rates, only 2% to 10% of the positive results may be accurate. 

But what the hell, guys, we’ve got these tests. Someone’s cousin has the contract for them. Use them, will you, please? For the good of the nation.

 

News of an accurate rapid test that’s in development

A new test is being developed that’s both fast and accurate. It also tracks variants and tests for other viruses that might be mistaken for Covid. It can screen 96 samples at a time and within 15 minutes it starts to report the samples as negative or positive. In 3 hours, it will have sequenced all its samples. 

It’s also small and portable. It doesn’t make coffee, but it just might be able to make you a cup of tea.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory where it’s being developed, said, “We can accomplish with one portable test the same thing that others are using two or three different tests, with different machines, to do.”

That’s the good news. But will it go from development to being manufactured and used?

Market analysis would be required to determine whether the initial cost of commercialization—and the constant tweaks to the test needed to make sure it detected new variants or new viruses of interest—are worth it.”

I believe that translates to “maybe.”

It’s called NIRVANA, which doesn’t seem to stand for anything, so I don’t know why it’s in all caps. 

 

High- and low-tech approaches to Covid

In New Zealand, they’re trying out an app that connects to smart watches and fitness trackers, monitoring people’s heart rate and temperature. It’s called an Elarm and the developer claims it can spot 90% of Covid cases up to three days before symptoms appear.

Does that include people who don’t go on to develop symptoms? I’m have to give you a definite maybe on that, because the article I found doesn’t address it. The company’s own website doesn’t answer the question either but says it will also let you know about stress and anxiety, although you might notice those without needing an app. Basically, it figures out your normal levels and lets you know when you’ve wandered off them, so you could end up going into isolation over the flu as easily as over Covid. That would scare the pants off you but would, at least, take a lot of the punch out of flu season.

So how do you use this? New Zealand wants its border force to try it out, since almost the only cases of Covid there are in incoming travelers, who have to go into quarantine, meaning the people who work for the border force are in the front lines.

When New Zealand says quarantine, by the way, they actually mean quarantine. It’s one reason they’ve been able to contain the virus.

*

On the other end of the scale comes the recommendation that we open windows in public places to minimize Covid transmission. It’s cheap, it’s simple, and–

Oh, hell, how many public places these days have windows that open? Okay, ventilation. The air in public indoor spaces needs to be replaced or cleaned. 

We’ve heard a lot about keeping two meters (or yards) away from people to avoid contagion, but in addition to the heavier droplets people breathe out, which can carry Covid, the tiniest particles that we breathe out can also carry it, and they can stay suspended in the air for hours. The goal is to run them outside and get some fresh air in. 

*

If you’re looking for a low-tech way to decide how far from people you should be standing, you can think of it this way: If you can smell that they’ve had garlic or peanut butter for lunch, you’re too close. 

 

Drug news

An asthma drug, budesonide, has been shown to shorten people’s Covid recovery time –and it can be used at home without anyone involved needing welding gloves, a deep-sea diver’s helmet, or a set of allen wrenches. It’s relatively inexpensive and comes in an inhaler. It shortened people’s recovery time by three days and at the end of two weeks the people who used it were in better shape than the control group.

It’s not clear yet whether it made hospitalization less likely. In the budesonide group, 8.5% were hospitalized. In the control group, that was 10.3%. That sounds like a result, but the problem with interpreting the numbers is that hospitalization rates are dropping in Britain. If you want to understand why that makes the numbers hard to interpret, you need to talk to someone who actually knows something.

Everyone in the test was over 50 and had underlying health problems. The drug can be used in the early stages of infection. 

The herd immunity debates

Professors at University College London grabbed some headlines with the news that Britain’s almost achieved herd immunity.

Should we celebrate? 

Nope. The small print said we can’t ease restrictions yet. “If we let up, that threshold will go up again and we will find ourselves below the threshold and it will explode again,” Karl Friston said.

This makes it sound like we’ve probably misunderstood what herd immunity means. Or else that the people who wrote the study have. I thought it marked the point where we could all wander back to whatever we can reconstruct of our normal lives, trusting that the virus will stay in retreat. Apparently not, though–at least not by this definition. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose. Indoors. It’s too early in the year for them outdoors yet.

In a rare moment when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and I agree (I’m sure that upsets him as much as it does me; sorry Matt; it won’t happen often), he’s dismissed the suggestion of herd immunity, although his comments are oblique enough to be unquotable. They’re not incoherent but they’re not exactly to the point either. Never mind, though. I have agreed with him. It’s a rare moment. We need to mark the occasion.

Cup of tea, anyone?

Another estimate of herd immunity, this one from Airfinity (it “provides real time life science intelligence as a subscription service” and as part of that tracks vaccination programs around the world), sets it at the point where 75% of the population is vaccinated. The U.K.’s expected to reach that point in August, shortly after the U.S. and a few weeks before Europe.

Sorry about the rest of the world. It seems to have dropped off the map the article I found was using. 

There will, of course, still be a need to booster vaccines to keep up with the variants, at least until those countries that fell off the map get access to vaccines so are species can stop producing variants so prolifically. 

 

Creeping out of lockdown

As Covid deaths go down, Britain’s taken another step toward ending its lockdown, opening gyms, shops, pubs and cafes with outdoor seating, assorted other businesses. Internal tourism is causing traffic jams in all the usual places. 

About half the population has at least one dose of a vaccine. Will that be enough to keep the virus from rebounding? I wish I knew. Chile has an impressive vaccination program and unlocked too early, giving the virus the gift of a trampoline. Cases there have spiked. 

Optimist that I am, my mind snags on Britain’s remaining virus hotspots and on the two London boroughs where the government’s chasing cases of the South African variant. I expect they’ll do better with the variant than with the hotspots, because one of the things the government resolutely refuses to do is pay people a workable amount of money to self-isolate, and if you’re broke you’ll go to work, regardless of what the test says. Because you have to. 

On the other hand–and before I go on I should issue an Unimportant Personal Story Warning–I’m grateful to have stores open. I have a battery-operated watch whose battery stopped operating a while ago. (Whose idea was it to run watches on batteries, anyway? I seem to remember winding my watch every day without feeling unduly burdened. I didn’t even break a sweat.) 

How long ago did the battery run out? No idea. We were in lockdown. Who needs a watch? But eventually I did need a watch and I noticed that mine was no longer in touch with consensual reality. So I got a battery (thanks, Tony). I opened up the back (thanks, Ellen), took out the old battery, put in the new one, put the innards back together, and was just starting to congratulate myself when I found that I couldn’t fit the back on, making the whole project pointless. I put a rubber band around the thing and left it alone.

I still didn’t have a watch.

On Monday, the first day that unimportant stores were open, I took it to a jeweler. Jewelers have a little gizmo to hold the back in place while they thump it shut. I now have a working watch.

I don’t need it more than once a week. We’re still halfway locked down. 

So yes, it’s nice to be able to do that sort of small thing. It also makes me nervous–and it should.

 

Lockdown and the economy

Britain’s economy’s now in the worst recession it’s had in 300 years. Worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Apparently. To find one that was worse, you have to go back to the great frost of 1709, when Britain was an agricultural country.

On the other hand, having shrunk 9.9%, the economy then grew by 1% in the last quarter of (I believe) 2020. Household savings during the pandemic reached £140 billion–16.3% of people’s disposable income. That’s compared to 6.8% in 2019. Predictably, that’s unevenly distributed, with some people building up savings while others struggle to hold onto their homes and food banks struggle to keep up with need. 

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

Want to figure out the Covid risk people face indoors? Measure the carbon dioxide level

This works because–well, the thing about infectious people is that they exhale. Admittedly, uninfected people do too. You probably do it yourself. And all that exhaled carbon dioxide joins together and either stays in the room or doesn’t. The Covid virus does exactly the same thing: It either stays in the room or if the room has enough ventilation it wanders out into the world, where it poses next to no danger.

The thing is that carbon dioxide levels can be monitored cheaply. If you see them rise, you still won’t know if anyone infectious is breathing into the mix, but you will know that the ventilation isn’t what it needs to be and it’s a risky place to stand around inhaling. At that point you can (a) limit yourself to exhaling, (b) leave, or (c) improve the ventilation. Preferably (b), since that will help everyone.

*

An Irish study reports that roughly one Covid case out of a thousand is caught out of doors. 

Professor Orla Hegarty said, “During Spanish flu people were advised to talk side by side, rather than face to face, and this is borne out by how viral particles have been measured moving in the air when people breath and speak.

“The risk of infection is low outdoors because unless you are up close to someone infected, most of the virus will likely be blown away and diluted in the breeze, like cigarette smoke.”