Can fermented soybeans destroy Covid?

It’s too early to celebrate this, but from Japan comes the news that an extract made from natto–a sticky food involving fermented soybeans–inactivates Covid’s spike protein by digesting the receptor binding domain.

What’s a receptor binding domain? No idea, but Covid’s spike protein needs it, so anything that digests it has got to be good–at least from our point of view.

The extract of natto works on all the existing variants.

The reason it’s not time to celebrate is that so far it’s only worked in a lab. No one’s gotten the natto and the virus together inside the body. Eating natto won’t help. Neither will sending the virus invitations to a party and serving natto hor d’oeuvres. No matter how much it mutates, the virus will continue to be illiterate, so it won’t show up.

Irrelevant photo: a wild orchid.

The next stage is to isolate the molecular mechanism that’s destroying the–what was that called?–the receptor binding domain. Figure that out and you could well have a treatment for Covid. 

Possibly. At some time in the indistinct future. But c’mon, we need all the hope we can find.

 

England’s world-beating experiment in irresponsible government

On July 19, England took what little common sense it had forgotten in the drawers of 10 Downing Street’s desks and set it on fire. It’s been dry lately, but there wasn’t enough common sense to burn for long, so we didn’t get the second Great Fire of London, just another round of Covid stupidity.

To be clearer about this, nightclubs are now open. So are bars, restaurants, and pretty much everything else you can think of. It’s up to you whether to throw your mask away and sit nose to nose, indoors, and sing loudly with six of your favorite strangers and no ventilation. Or with thirty of them if you can get your noses close enough. Crowd limits are out of fashion, along with distancing. 

The first day of that was called Freedom Day. Those of us currently cowering under the covers are free to cower under the covers. Unless of course we have to go to work or in other ways mix with the rest of humanity.

The official justification for this is that vaccination has severed the link between infection and hospitalization. Or weakened it, depending on when you listen to the explanations and who gives it. We have to return to normal life. We have to live with Covid. The economy needs us. And if not now, when? 

Maybe when it’s safe, that’s when. Because the link between infection and hospitalization hasn’t been severed, it’s only been weakened, and that’s not enough. The number of infections is going up, and so is the number of deaths. Not as sharply as it once would have, but more than it would if we kept to a marginally sensible policy.

And the thing about deaths is that once people are dead, they’re gone. It’s kind of irreversible.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group warns that the combination of a large number of vaccinated people and a high number of infections creates the perfect conditions to create a variant that will escape the vaccines. No one can know whether that will happen–vaccines mutate randomly–but the likelihood increases as the number of infections increases.

And while all this is shoving us in one direction, Boris Johnson says vaccine passports will be required for nightclubs etc.–but not until the end of September. Between now and then, let Covid rip.

What are they thinking? One of the government’s scientific advisors, Robert West, says it’s “a decision by the government to get as many people infected as possible as quickly as possible, while using rhetoric about caution as a way of putting the blame on the public for the consequences.” 

That wave of infections would combine with the number of vaccinated people to push the country toward herd immunity and the virus would no longer spread.

What are the problems with the strategy? Well, in addition to opening the doors to a variant that evades the vaccines, no one knows what level of immunity is needed for herd immunity to Covid. The best guess is 85%. And then there’s long Covid–the long-term damage that some people live with for no one knows how long, after even asymptomatic infections. 

The government says that’s not its strategy. You’re welcome to believe it if you like. 

And a unicorn just pranced down the street outside my window. You’re welcome to believe that as well. It was wearing a tutu and singing a Mozart aria.

Not long ago, the Netherlands opened everything up and Covid infections rose sevenfold. They’ve since closed bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

England’s reopening has caused the Covid tracing app to warn an annoying number of people that they’ve been exposed to Covid and should self-isolate–more than 600,000 last week–and that in turn has led to a lot of people being off work.

So what’s a responsible government to do about that? 

We don’t have one of those, so who cares? Instead of deciding that too many people are being exposed to Covid because we took all our restrictions out and burned them, the government’s decided that too many people are being notified, so it’s created a list of crucial occupations whose employees can ignore the app if they’re double vaccinated–although they will at least have to test themselves. 

Can people who are doubly vaccinated spread Covid? Why look! It must be time to talk about breakthrough infections! Because buried in that segment somewhere is the news that we don’t have a clear answer to that question yet.

 

Breakthrough infections

First we need a definition of a breakthrough infection, even if you already know it: A breakthrough infection happens when a vaccinated person gets Covid–or (it can happen with any matched pair of disease and vaccination) whatever else they were vaccinated against. When that happens, it doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t effective. It means the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, much as we wish the Covid ones were. 

That leaves us–or me anyway–wondering why one person will get a breakthrough infection and another won’t. The definitive answer is that it’s hard to say.

Thanks, Ellen. That was really helpful.

Sorry, but I can only pass on what I find. The direct quote is, “It’s difficult to determine why any particular breakthrough case happens.” 

How large a dose of the virus you’re exposed to might make a difference–with the emphasis on might. Our individual immune systems will make a difference. They can be affected by health problems and by medications that make an immune system respond to the vaccine less enthusiastically.

And new variants can make a difference. The vaccines were developed for the Covid 1.0, or 2.0. We’re now onto–

Hang on a minute. I have to go look up the Greek alphabet and figure out where Delta comes. 

We’re now at Covid 4.0.

It’s also possible for a person to have gotten a vaccine dose that wasn’t administered correctly, although that’s a lot less likely. And no, I’m not sure how you administer a vaccine the wrong way either. Maybe you let the stuff get too warm. Maybe you let it expire. Maybe you miss the arm entirely and inject it into the hat. That last one is the reason they don’t let me do vaccinations anymore.

People who are (fortunately) better than I am at figuring this stuff out are tracking the number of breakthrough infections, looking for evidence that the vaccines’ are wearing thin and booster shots are needed. So far, they haven’t seen it. 

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We can break breakthrough infections into a few categories, and in order of decreasing likelihood they are: 1, testing positive, 2, having a mild infection, 3, having a serious infection, and 4, dying.

Patients are strongly advised to keep themselves out of category 4. 

If you’ve absorbed that advice–and it is important–we’ll move on to the question of whether fully vaccinated people who’ve been exposed to the virus should have to go into isolation. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (citing “limited evidence” according to the article I found) says they not only don’t need to go into isolation, they don’t need to get tested unless they develop symptoms. The theory is that they’re less likely to infect other people than unvaccinated people with asymptomatic infections.

Other countries are making different rules.The evidence is limited, the lights are off, and we’re all bumping into the furniture. 

What percentage of fully vaccinated people test positive after being exposed to Covid? If anyone has numbers on that, I haven’t found them.

What does seem to be well established is that breakthrough infections are rare, and we do have statistics (sort of) for categories 3 and 4–the one you want to stay out of and the other one you want to stay out of. In the US, 5,492 vaccinated people were either hospitalized or died and also tested positive for coronavirus. That doesn’t exactly say they were hospitalized for or died of Covid, but it’s as close as we’re going to get. That’s 5,492 out of the 159 million people who’ve been fully vaccinated. I’ll leave someone else to figure out what percent that is and just say it’s small.

Most breakthrough infections are mild, and the number of mild or asymptomatic infections will be larger, but again if numbers are available for that I haven’t found them.

 

A different way to live with Covid

Is it possible to return to normal life in some sane and safe way? A study from Barcelona points us toward a possibility. It followed the 5,000 people who attended a carefully controlled indoor concert. 

People were screened on the way into the concert, using an antigen-detecting rapid diagnostic test (it’s called an Ag-RDT if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about), and the test was done by nurses. At least with other rapid Covid tests, that makes it more reliable than when people do it themselves, probably because they maneuver those nasty swabs into the right spots.

Everyone wore masks–specifically, filtering facepiece 2 masks–the whole time. Presumably over their noses and mouths, not their chins or back pockets. They look like this.  (I’m conducting a one-person boycott of Amazon, but I’m not above using them as a link if I don’t have to give them money.) They’re a kind of mask that offers more protection than your average cloth mask, but they’re disposable, which if everyone used them everywhere would create its own set of problems. Especially since a few of us out there hate throwing things away when they still look usable. 

But enough of that. Let’s move on.

The event’s described as a concert but people danced. People sang (presumably along with the music but it shouldn’t really matter from a medical point of view.) No one was asked to keep 6 feet away from anyone, at least by the organizers, although some predictable number of individuals will have told some predictable other number of individuals to back off. 

I don’t have details on the ventilation except for a passing mention of improved ventilation. Ventilation’s probably the most overlooked way to make work and public spaces safe. 

The event was held in an area that at the time had a moderate rate of Covid and a low number of vaccinated people. 

What happened? The followup found 6 cases of Covid two weeks after the event. Three of those were traced to sources other than the concert. Another person may have been in the incubation stage when she attended the event and could’ve been missed by the test. No one’s figured out where the other two cases came from. 

Which isn’t bad for 5,000 people. So it can be done if we have the will to do it.

 

. . . and in the schools

In the US, the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for all students, teachers, and staff to wear masks in school, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. That runs counter to Centers for Disease Control advice, which exempts the vaccinated and says the unvaccinated should wear masks in school to protect themselves.

Even though–apologies, CDC–your average mask is better at protecting people around the wearer than at protecting the person sporting one.

The article I got this from has the first statistics I’ve seen on how many kids get multi-system inflammatory condition (called MIS-C, in case you have any need to address it directly): It’s 1 out of every 600 infected children and teenagers. That’s not the same as 1 out of every 600 kids, only out of the ones who get infected.

MIS-C is seriously serious and more often than not will land a kid in intensive care. It comes several weeks after the primary infection.

Has anything like long Covid happened before?

Well, yes or I wouldn’t ask the question. Let’s start with the Russian flu, which ran from 1889 to 1892, and its after effects.

 

The Russian flu

Geographical names for pandemics have gone out of fashion, since they’re generally wrong and lead people to blame entire countries for things they suffered from themselves, but the Russian flu was at least first spotted in Russia and to date no one seems to have gotten around to renaming it. So, Russian flu it is. 

Извините, Россия.

That doesn’t make the name correct, though. The Russian flu might not have been a flu at all but a coronavirus. And just to confuse the issue a bit more, the flu was also called the grippe at the time. That becomes relevant in a few paragraphs.

Whatever we call it, the Russian flu seems to have been highly infectious. Half the population of St. Petersburg got it, and it (that’s the disease, not half the population of St. Petersburg) moved across Europe, arriving eventually in Britain. Not because it had been watching Downton Abby and wanted to tour the great houses. Diseases don’t have destinations or intentions or TV sets, and Britain wasn’t its final destination anyway, just a stopover. I give Britain special mention because it’s what I allegedly write about here, although the pandemic’s led me off in other, less predictable directions. 

The Russian flu is now considered the first modern pandemic (no, we’re not going to stop and define that), spreading worldwide along the paths so helpfully laid out by train lines, roads, navigable rivers, and steamships, and demonstrating that it was spread by human contact and by the wonderful ways that humans could now travel.

The Black Death was green with envy. 

Irrelevant photo: roses

In a nifty preview of what would happen with Covid, public health officials in the US watched the virus cross Europe and played it down. It was a particularly mild strain of flu, they said. And when it inevitably disembarked, without passport or visa, on American soil, they swore the first cases were either common colds or just a seasonal flu. 

Nothing to worry about, folks. It’s all under control.

The New York Evening World wrote, “It is not deadly, not even necessarily dangerous. . . . But it will afford a grand opportunity for the dealers to work off their surplus of bandanas.” 

Yeah, I’m having flashbacks to the beginning of the Covid pandemic myself.

This wasn’t a mild disease. Worldwide, an estimated 1 million people died. A survivor said, “I felt as if I had been beaten with clubs for about an hour and then plunged into a bath of ice. My teeth chattered like castanets, and I consider myself lucky now to have gotten off with a whole tongue.”

It also had serious after effects and some uncounted but substantial number of people had them. More than three months after having been ill, the English women’s rights campaigner Josephine Butler wrote, “I am so weak that if I read or write for half an hour I become so tired and faint that I have to lie down.” 

If exhaustion wasn’t bad enough, some people had the added insult of insomnia. 

A Victorian doctor, Morell Mackenzie, said the flu seemed to, “run up and down the nervous keyboard stirring up disorder and pain in different parts of the body with what almost seems malicious caprice.” 

That sounds like he’s describing the flu itself, not the after effects, but the Lancet, which is a medical journal and can be assumed to know what it’s talking about, put that quote and the next one inside a discussion of the after effects. 

Another doctor, Julius Althaus, wrote, “There are few disorders or diseases of the nervous system which are not liable to occur as consequences of grip”.

The collection of symptoms went by an assortment of names: neuralgia, neurasthenia, neuritis, nerve exhaustion, grippe catalepsy, post-grippal numbness, psychoses, prostration, inertia, anxiety, and paranoia. The range on offer backs up my theory that when you can’t cure a disease it helps to change its name from time to time. 

We’d be on shaky ground if we tried to sort the after effects of the Russian flu from–well, everything else that might’ve been available, including psychosomatic problems, tight corsets, and zombies, but observers in the mid-1890s blamed it for everything from a high suicide rate to general malaise. According to the Lancet article, the image of England at the time was “of a nation of convalescents, too debilitated to work or return to daily routines.” 

I would have assumed that the description applied only to the upper class, who could afford not to return to work or daily routines, but what happened in Tanzania (called Tanganyika at the time) shows that I’d be underestimating what post-viral syndromes can do to a person.

 

The 1918 flu

Let’s back up briefly. 

The 1918 flu epidemic used to be called the Spanish flu and sometimes still is. It didn’t originate in Spain, it’s just that Spain put up the first Instagram post. But it was at least genuinely influenza.

How serious was it? Worldwide, at least 50 million people died. About half a billion people—that was a third of the world’s population–were infected. So no, this is not the pandemic you’d want to challenge to a wrestling match. 

Like the Russian flu, its after effects were fierce. They included apathy, depression, tremors, restlessness, and sleeplessness. 

A New Zealand book collecting people’s experiences includes references to “loss of muscular energy” and “nervous complications.” Along similar lines, a South African collection includes this: “We were leaden-footed for weeks, to the point where each step meant a determined effort. . . . It also was very difficult to remember any simple thing, even for five minutes.”

But they got off lightly compared to people in Tanzania, where the flu was followed by a wave of exhaustion so severe that in some parts of the country people couldn’t plant when the rains came and in others couldn’t harvest when the crops were ripe. The result was a two-year famine, called the famine of corms, named after a part of the banana plant that people ate in desperation. 

One strand of post-epidemic symptoms was called encephalitis lethargica–EL for short–or sleepy sickness. It left people not fully asleep but not what you’d call awake either. They were aware of their surroundings but not functioning in anything like a normal way. 

Worldwide, an estimated 500,000 people had EL. A third died, a third recovered, and in the final third the symptoms went on.

Unborn children were also affected. A 2009 study looked at people who, based on when they were born, could have been exposed to in the womb to the 1918 flu. Compared to people born either slightly before or slightly after them, they were 25% more likely to have heart disease after the age of 60. They were more likely to have diabetes. They were, on average, shorter. They had less education and their “economic productivity” was lower. I think that means they made less money. I can’t think how else anyone would measure it. 

 

What does that mean for the Covid pandemic?

No one knows yet how many people have long Covid, which is of several names for Covid’s after effects. No one knows how many people will recover and how many will carry at least some of the effects with them through life. 

No one has a clue what the effects will be on children born during or just after the pandemic, or if there’ll be any, and I’d be surprised if many people are worrying about that yet. They’re kind of busy with more immediate problems.

No one’s even agreed on a definition of long Covid.

It is known that people who have mild or even asymptomatic cases can get long Covid, and that children can. 

It is, as one researcher put it, “One of the reasons I worry so much for people with long-Covid is the . . . uncharted aspect of it. . . . It’s one of the reasons why I do worry when I see people being laissez faire, saying ‘Well, if we’ve got [to] the stage where people aren’t dying, and aren’t filling up the intensive care units, do we need to care?’ And the answer is, I think, until we’ve got more data, we don’t know how much we need to care.

 

A recent study identified 203 symptoms in 10 organ systems. After seven months, many people in the study still hadn’t gotten back to their earlier levels of functioning. When the study was conducted, 45% had to work a reduced schedule and 22% weren’t able to work at all. 

And in a peripherally related seam of worries, a study has called attention to the estimated 1.5 million children around the world who’ve lost a parent or a grandparent who was either raising them or lived with them. It’s an overlooked side effect of the pandemic.

We don’t need zombies, folks. This is scary enough.

Are the fully vaccinated likely to get long Covid?

A bit of scientific brooding over Covid’s statistical tea leaves tells us that the chances of getting long Covid if you’re fully vaccinated are probably small. 

But with the emphasis on probably.

Was anyone other than me worried? After all, the statistics tell us that a vaccinated person who does catch Covid will probably have a mild case. Unfortunately, though, mild cases fairly often leave people with long Covid. 

So far, the information that’s coming in is anecdotal, and the experts say that it’s too early to be certain. In six months, it’s possible that a significant number of vaccinated people will start showing up with long Covid. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

So stay tuned. That’s not the reassurance I was hoping for but it’s the best we’ve got. 

Irrelevant photo: traveler’s joy

 

Do young people have Get out of Covid Free cards?

By now, we all know that young people are unlikely to get seriously frightening cases of Covid, at least when compared with old coots. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re immune. Like anyone else, they’re liable to come down with long Covid even after a mild case of the virus, and the small number who are sick enough to be hospitalized are almost as likely to have organ damage as the old coots are–almost 4 out of 10 of them. 

The message here is that Covid is not the flu. And that young people don’t have a free pass on this.

Young, by the way, is defined as anywhere between 19 and 50. Which from where I stand looks younger all the time. 

 

Taking quarantine seriously

Australia and China have decided that the new Covid variants are too contagious for hotel quarantine to be safe. They’re planning special quarantine centers

Compare that with the way Britain’s treated quarantine, which ranges on the strict end from hotel quarantine after sharing air with passengers who won’t be quarantining to, on the loose end, go home and look in the other direction when you pass other people on your way there.

 

The Covid news from Britain

Over twelve hundred scientists from around the world have signed a letter objecting to Boris Johnson’s policy of lifting all Covid restrictions on July 19. It will, they say, help spread the Delta variant around the world.

As professor Christina Pagel put it, “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the world. . . . UK policy doesn’t just affect us–it affects everybody. . . .

“What I’m most worried about is the potential for a new variant to emerge this summer. When you have incredibly high levels of Covid, which we have now in England–and it’s not going to go away any time soon–and a partially vaccinated population, any mutation that can infect vaccinated people better has a big selection advantage and can spread.”

Some of the experts described the policy as “murderous” and “herd immunity by mass infection.” The words unscientific and unethical also came up. If you pay careful attention, you’ll come away with the impression that they’re pretty pissed off. Not to mention scared. 

In the meantime, the number of people hospitalized with Covid in Britain is doubling about every three weeks and could reach what England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, called “quite scary numbers.” Soon.

The government’s been telling us that vaccination has uncoupled the train car of hospitalizations from the accelerating engine of Covid cases. The problem is that they watched too many westerns when they were young, and uncoupling the cars from a runaway engine solved any problem involving railroads. 

Unfortunately, this is a pandemic, not a train. Or a western.

More cautious voices say they’ve weakened the link between Covid cases and hospitalization, but not uncoupled it. 

On Friday of last week, we had 50,000 cases, which is the highest  number since January. And 49 Covid deaths. 

Office for National Statistics data suggests that 1 in 95 people in England had Covid last week. I’m not sure why it only suggests that, but I’ve learned not to mess with the wording of things I don’t understand. 

The health secretary, Sajid Javid, is one of those new cases. He just came down with Covid. After having visited a care home earlier in the week–a visit that I’d guess was more pr and photo op than anything necessary. 

He’s fully vaccinated and says his symptoms are mild. He’s now self-isolating. No word on how things are going at the care home.

 

So what about Britain’s world-beating Covid tracing app?

Well, it’s been pinging a lot of people and telling them they’ve been exposed to Covid. That means they should self-isolate. Which means they should miss work. Which means the places they work, a lot fo which are already short on staff, are shorter on staff.

Which means no one’s in a good mood.

There was talk–quite definite-sounding talk–about dialing down the app’s sensitivity. People were uninstallling it, the government said, so as not to be bothered by its nagging. It was too sensitive, they said. The number of people pinged had grown by almost 50% in a week, to over 500,000. Transportation, trash collection, and health care were being affected, along with meat processing and car manufacturing. 

Then there was talk about not dialing down its sensitivity. It wasn’t too sensitive. The number of cases had grown, so of course the number of people exposed to Covid had grown right along with it.

So, the government mumbled to itself, what if we say that people who’ve had both their vaccinations are exempt from having to isolate themselves? They’ll get pinged, but they’ll be able to work? 

Last I heard, it hadn’t answered the question and was still mumbling. In other words, it’s taken the worst elements of both choices: It’s changed nothing but called the usefulness of the app into question and by saying lots of people are uninstalling it, it’s encouraged people to uninstall it. 

Why England’s ditching the face mask

England’s preparing to declare a half-assed victory over Covid (“We have to live with it”) and celebrate with a nationwide germfest. Starting on July 19–or yesterday, if you want to be the first kid on the block–masks will be voluntary. Social distancing will be a memory. Getting drunk and hugging strangers will be an Olympic sport.

No, sorry. England doesn’t get to decide on Olympic sports. I got carried away.

If you want to gather a few thousand of your closest friends in a closet for snacks and drinkies, you’re free to. Sporting events will be back. If you’ve been working from home, you can go back to the office. 

Cases, our alleged prime minister Boris Johnson predicted, will rise to 50,000 a day and “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.” But as long as we slip the word sadly in there, who gives a damn? I mean, these are people who’d die sooner or later, wouldn’t they? Of something.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coast

What they’re counting on is that vaccination has–in the phrase that’s being used so often that it’s started sticking to the walls–weakened the link between infection and hospitalization. Or sometimes the phrase is broken the link.

Broken it ain’t, and although the link’s weaker, the number of Covid hospitalizations has risen.

The main regulation that’s left is that you have to self-isolate if you’ve been exposed to the virus. Unless you’re fully vaccinated, in which case you get to collect £200 pounds in Monopoly money and start the game again.

A lot of this is about the economy, although how face masks damage the economy is beyond me and in the long run I expect all this will do more damage than good. The rhetoric on it is particularly brainless. You’re welcome to keep wearing masks, but it’s now a personal choice. Johnson said that we need to “move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.”

The next logical step is to let people make their own informed decisions on drunk driving. They’re in charge of a heavy chunk of machinery that can kill or maim someone. Other people’s lives are in their inebriated hands. But hey, it’s not for the government to tell them what to do.

Long live the extreme edge of libertarian logic.

 

Do masks actually make a difference?

Well, a study compared counties in Kansas that had face mask mandates with those that didn’t. Mask mandates reduced Covid cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities by 60%.

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And since we’re talking about masks, a new Covid test has been developed that takes the form of a facemask. You wear it for 90 minutes and it either detects Covid or doesn’t, with the same accuracy as the PCR test–those slow, lab-based tests that are the gold standard for Covid testing. 

The team that invented it is looking for a manufacturing partner to mass produce it.

I see articles about new, fast, accurate Covid tests fairly regularly, and for a while I was mentioning them here. But after that, I’d hear nothing more about them and I kind of gave up on the topic. This one, however, has the potential to be tweaked so it detects all sorts of pathogens and toxins. I thought it might be worth a mention.

 

What about wind instruments and Covid?

It turns out that blowing through wind instrument generates fewer aerosols than either singing or talking. In fact, it’s no more than a person generates by breathing.

The amount of aerosols that singers and speakers generate rises with their volume. That holds true for both amateur and professional singers, regardless of their vocal training, their lack of vocal training, and how good or bad they sound. You run as much risk listening to a terrible singer as a good one, and get less back for it.

 

And what did you do with your time in lockdown?

A civil engineer set a new Guinness world record for the tallest stack of M&Ms. It took him hours, but it was raining, he was in lockdown, and he eventually managed to balance five on top of each other.

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On the other hand, a six-year-old, Apollo Premadasa, wrote a string quartet, “Pandemia,”  and at the height of the pandemic emailed a London hospital to tell them about it. 

“I wrote this piece to say thank you to all the doctors, nurses and scientists around in the UK and around the world for all their hard work during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s been a really hard time for them and they have all been heroes.”

He plays the trombone, cello, and timpani, and he composes music. And in case you’ve forgotten, he’s six years old. 

To celebrate the National Health Service’s 73rd birthday, it was performed at the hospital

How kids learned to fake positive Covid tests–and why

TikTok videos have taught kids that they can get out of school by faking positive Covid tests. All they have to do is pour lemon juice or Coke on them. Or apple sauce, or vinegar, or hand sanitiser, or assorted other acidic liquids. Or they can rub a kiwi across them.

And here I thought TikTok was about dancing.

In Britain, at least, if they do that it means other kids in their imaginary school bubbles get sent home for ten days along with them. And their families have to stay home. But hey, if you’ve got a math test coming up–

It’s a short-term strategy, because in Britain a positive lateral flow test has to be followed up with a PCR test, which you can’t take home and use as a stir-stick for your Coke. Still, it’s a strange enough story to earn its word count here.

Irrelevant photo: Another wildflower I can’t identify. [It’s an elderflower. Thanks to DinahMow for identifying it. Somewhere in this strange thing I call my brain, I knew that.]

A spokesperson for the National Education Union suggested that Covid tests be taken in school. But that wasn’t about lemon juice and Coke. Many kids have simply stopped using the ones they’re sent home with. 

A determined spoilsport, it turns out, can override a faked positive. You can pursue that one on your own if you’re interested. The link is here.

But the story doesn’t end there. A claim’s making the rounds that lateral flow tests are useless because if you test a glass or Coke and a kiwi it will register as having Covid. And since any reasonable person knows Coke and kiwis are immune, there must be something wrong with the tests.

Shout, “Conspiracy,” here if you would.

Thank you.

A fact-checking site called, factually enough, Fact Check points to the directions from one test, which say, “This kit has been evaluated for use with human specimen material only.” This goes to the root of the problem, which is that neither the kiwi nor the Coke is human.

You can shout, “Conspiracy,” again if you want, but I won’t orchestrate it this time. I don’t think it takes a conspiracy to prove that claim. 

Alexander Edwards, associate professor in Biomedical Technology and professional spoilsport, puts it another way: “If you completely ignore the manufacturer’s instructions or in fact use the test for something completely different, then you shouldn’t really be surprised if you get a silly result.” 

 

At last: a way that Covid doesn’t spread

A study of Covid samples from hospital surfaces found that they weren’t likely to infect anyone. That lends support to the belief that contaminated surfaces aren’t a major way to spread Covid. I’d love to explain that to you in more depth but the explanation went over my head. You’ll have to follow the link and see where your head is in relation to the information.

Even without understanding the explanation, though, it reassured  me to know that the damn virus has found a way not to spread. 

 

High fashion in the Covid era

With British kids back in school (when they can’t talk their parents into parting with a lemon) and Covid restrictions easing (in spite of a more aggressive form of the virus), colds are coming back into fashion. 

I’m not basing this on personal experience. I haven’t seen anyone with a cold in a year and a half, but then I’ve never been in the front ranks of fashion. When a style starts making sense to me, that’s a signal that it’s on its way out. But I read this in multiple publications, and those of you who care about trends need to go out and get yourselves a cold. 

Parents haven’t quite caught onto this, so they’re dragging their kids into Britain’s A&E departments. (A&E stands for accident and emergency and it’s the equivalent of US emergency room.) They–that’s the panicky parents–have forgotten what it is to have a kid with a fever, a cough, and a runny nose. 

In fairness to everyone, those are also Covid symptoms and I might panic myself.

Britain’s hospitals are already overwhelmed and have been for the past year and a half. Or for the past decade or so–ever since the government started cutting funds and saying, cheerily, “We’ve never given the NHS so much money.” So they’re not in shape to add kids with minor problems to the major-problem mix. Last month, fewer than 1% of children under 15 who went to A&E needed immediate attention and more than 72% weren’t seriously ill.

And 4.36% asked their parents if they couldn’t get a Coke from the vending machine, please.

The US is also seeing a rise in the number of colds as face masks come off. 

 

A petri dish for the world

The British government’s gone sports mad lately. We’re in the midst of the Euro tournament where they play–oh, I don’t know. Some damn thing involving a ball. The game’s not the point; the crowds are, because fans travel here and there to watch the games. They eat out. They drink. For all I know, they get happy and hug.

Then they go home, and so does Covid.

In Scotland, nearly 2,000 cases have now been linked to people gathering in public fanzones, pubs, and house parties to watch the games–not to mention stadiums. Some two-thirds of those are among the 1,300 people who went to London to watch the Scottish team play there. 

For a semifinal game in Wembley, the British government plans to allow the stadium to reach 75% of its capacity–the largest crowd at a sports event in over a year. 

The World Health Organization has warned that tournament crowds (in general, not specifically this one) can act as Covid amplifiers. And the European parliament’s committee on public health warned that such a large crowd at Wembley would be “a recipe for disaster.” But Britain’s left the European Union, so we don’t have to listen to them. The reason we left the EU was so we’d be free to spread our own germs in any way we want.

If the EU passes the law of gravity, we don’t have to follow that either.

The government’s making noises about lifting most of the remaining Covid restrictions in mid-July. When it isn’t saying that we may have to take some precautions. It’s hard to know which Boris Johnson to believe, but my money’s on him lifting most restrictions. I’m basing that on how many decibels are devoted to each side.

It’s not a prospect that makes me happy. As Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology, said, “The UK is in a unique position. We’ve the biggest Delta outbreak in a well-vaccinated country. We are a petri dish for the world.”

The question is whether vaccination breaks the link between infection on the one hand and hospitalization and death on the other. The government seems to be betting that it will. My best guess is that vaccination will weaken the link but that without other controls–masks; an effective contact tracing system; reasonable sick pay for people who are supposed to stay off work–it won’t be enough.

 

Updating the list of Covid symptoms

Assorted experts are calling for the UK to expand its list of Covid symptoms. It currently lists only the Big Three: cough, loss of the senses of smell and taste, and a high fever. 

Europe’s list includes headache, weakness, tiredness, muscle aches, runny nose, loss of appetite, and sore throat–symptoms that often begin before the Big Three and are more common in young, unvaccinated people. 

But hey, we left Europe. We get to enact our own symptoms.

 

Your small dose of hopeful news

A small study showed the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine to be effective against the Delta variant.

News from the Department of Good Government

In the US, a Republican in the House of Representatives is fighting climate change, one orbit at a time. At a committee meeting, he asked a senior Forestry Service official if changing either the moon’s orbit or the earth’s would fight climate change.

To which the official said that she’d “have to follow up with you on that one.”

She didn’t mention that the Forestry Service has no authority over celestial orbits. If she kept a straight face, she deserves a raise.

*

Irrelevant photo: I should know the name of this one but I can’t rattle it loose. Eri-something? It’ll come to me once it’s no longer needed. Erigeron? I think it is erigeron.

As long as we’re airborne and in the US, let’s talk about the New Mexico campaign rally that was interrupted by a flying sex toy.

Now there’s a sentence I never really expected to write.

The drone carrying it hovered beside the candidate briefly, then there was a scuffle for the drone (I’d guess that the owner wanted the sex toy back), and that was followed by a minor punch-up. 

I love an elevated political debate.

*

In Britain, a member of the public found classified defense papers in a soggy pile at a bus stop in Kent. The Ministry of Defense has said it’s sorry. 

No big deal. 

 

And now the news from science

E coli bacteria can be convinced to convert plastic bottles into vanilla flavoring

How’d they learn to do that? With the help of a bit of genetic engineering. 

Plastic bottles can be recycled, and a whopping 14% of them actually are, but only a limited range of uses has been found for stage two plastic. If you count that in money, stage two plastic is worth 5% of the value of the stage one stuff. So recycling them into vanilla? It’s a bit creepy, but if it pays, it’ll happen (she said cynically).

Some 85% of the vanilla currently in use is synthesized from–you got it–fossil fuels, and vanillin is used not just in food but also in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, cleaning products (hang in here, because it gets weirder), and herbicides. Global demand has outstripped the supply of vanillin that comes from vanilla beans and is still growing.

So if you figure that worldwide a million plastic bottles are sold every minute–and somebody with a $5 calculator already has figured that for us–that’s a lot of synthetic vanillin that suddenly becomes available. 

So far, the process hasn’t been scaled up to a commercial scale, so don’t buy your ice cream cones just yet.

*

Bacteria can also be convinced to recover the rare metals from electric car batteries. The process is low energy and the rescued elements could be recycled indefinitely. The process is also, predictably, still in its infancy and not yet ready to play with the big kids, but it’s something to keep our eye on. We need whatever drops of hope we can find. 

*

Compared to recycling plastic bottles into vanilla, the creation of vegan spider silk may in the long run be more useful, since it eliminates the plastic and so won’t need recycling. 

Vegan what?

Vegan spider silk. It’s a replacement for plastic film and instead of it’s not made from vegan spiders. No spiders are involved in its creation. The link explains the process in more depth that I had the patience for, so you’ll have to read it for yourself if you’re interested. 

 The process of making it is energy efficient and the product will break down in a home compost heap. Unless you live in an apartment, in which case you just pile it up behind the sofa until you can plant potatoes in it. 

The product was developed at Cambridge University and is being handled by a spin-off company that expects to have products on the market next year–things like replacements for those little plastic pouches that hold dishwashing and laundry liquids. 

*

In a triumph for womankind and a great leap forward for equality between the sexes, women around the world are now as likely as men to have risky drinking habits. And the US is leading the way, with women in their teens and twenties getting drunk at higher rates than men. 

Yes, friends, there is no idea so good that it won’t find some way to bite you in the ass. 

As a second-wave feminist from the sixties and seventies, I can testify that this didn’t come up in those late-night, let’s-take-over-the-world plotting sessions that (of course) we held. 

Long-term heavy drinking hits women harder than men, and at lower levels of drinking. Women have less body water than men of the same weight, and body water dissolves alcohol. So they run a higher risk of hangovers, blackouts, liver disease, and alcohol-induced cardiovascular diseases and cancers. 

Yes, some people get to have all the fun.

It’s the sex, not the money: a small political scandal hits Britain

Nothing’s as delicious as a scandal unless it’s a scandal involving a government you dislike. So forgive me, but I’m enjoying the resignation of Britain’s former secretary of state for health. 

What brought Matt Hancock down was sharing a kiss with an aide. Or more accurately, sharing a kiss with an aide within range of the office CCTV, which an anonymous someone released to the press. Or even more accurately than that, sharing a kiss with an aide within range of the office CCTV during LockdownLite, when people weren’t supposed to even be hugging people outside their household (or “bubble,” in pandemic-speak), nevermind trading long and apparently passionate (CCTV can only tell us so much) kisses with them.

It was the pandemic hypocrisy that gave it resonance. Lots of people wouldn’t have minded making physical contact with a wider range of humans, but they were sticking to government guidance and here was the person allegedly responsible for that guidance conducting an extensive germ exchange with someone he was supposed to stay two meters away from. Because the health of the nation was at stake. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose.

Both Hancock and the aide are both married. To other people. So it’s a safe bet that their bubbles burst at the point where they wedged each other inside.

And just to give the story a bit more resonance, in the early stages of the pandemic Hancock criticized a scientist on the government’s scientific advisory board for breaking lockdown by getting together with someone he was in a long-term relationship with. Hancock said at the time that it left him speechless. 

The scientist resigned, taking his expertise with him. 

The real scandal, though, is that Hancock had appointed his aide to a (well paid) position as a non-executive director of the Department of Health and Social Care, which ever so incidentally oversaw his performance as secretary of state for et cetera. Without either of them mentioning their relationship. But that’s less fun than two people playing grab-ass in the office, so although it gets mentioned I doubt it’s what brought him down. 

How well paid is well paid? For 15 hours of work a year, the position pays £15,000 pounds. Unless I’m hallucinating, that’s £1,000 an hour. The aide has now resigned too. 

The role of the non-executive directors is to challenge the government as well as provide oversight, and fifteen other people with tight connections to the Conservative Party hold the positions in various departments. They include donors, former Members of Parliament, and peers. Let’s say it all gives the appearance that it wasn’t their expertise that got them their jobs.

But that’s nowhere near as much fun. 

 

A report from the Not out of the Woods Yet Department

One of the world’s most highly vaccinated countries, Israel, has reimposed indoor mask rules as the Delta variant becomes Covid’s dominant strain. The number of Covid cases was doubling every few days. Admittedly, it was starting from a low number, but so does any spike. 

And the same thing’s happening in other highly vaccinated countries–and even more so in largely unvaccinated countries. Delta has raised the stakes in the herd immunity poker game. People who’ve recovered from earlier Covid infections–the kind caused by other variants–seem to be vulnerable to Delta. 

A good news/bad news study shows that while two doses of the vaccines that Britain’s using are 96% effective against hospitalization and 79% effective against symptomatic infection, one dose is only 35% effective against Delta. 

Delta is so contagious that over 80% of a population would need to be fully vaccinated in order to contain it. So far, only 1% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated, and the Delta variant has been identified in 14 African countries. 

In spite of all the promises to get vaccines to poorer countries, contributions to the Covax vaccine program have dried up. “The world is failing,” a spokesperson for the World Health Organization said. “Just give us the vaccines.”

*

Six cases of the Lambda variant have been identified in Britain. That’s a variant that the World Health Organization has labeled a variant of interest, which translates to Don’t panic yet, but we’re watching it. It was first identified in Peru and has now been found in 26 countries. 

Don’t panic yet. At this point, it’s just something to know.

 

And a counter-report from the On the Other Hand Department

In the US, according to a study, almost all Covid deaths are of unvaccinated people. Breakthrough infections–the ones that happen to people who’ve been vaccinated–are 0.1% of the total hospitalizations. Of the Covid deaths recorded in May, 0.8% were among people who’d been vaccinated.

If I’m not mistaken (and I can’t be trusted with numbers), the second percentage is larger than the first, which does seem odd. I’m guessing here, but it could be because breakthrough infections happen in people whose immune systems are in one way or another out of order, so they’re not only vulnerable to infections in spite of vaccination, but having once gotten infected, are more vulnerable to the disease–again, in spite of being vaccinated. But that comes with a wild-ass guesswork alert. If anyone has some solid information on that, I’d love to hear it.

A short history of the 1918 flu pandemic

Now that we know at first hand what a pandemic is, this might be a sensible time to learn more about the 1918 flu–that thing most of us know as the Spanish flu. 

Spain’s connection was minimal. The disease first got public recognition there and that’s about it. World War I was still being fought, and newspapers were still censored in Germany, Britain, France, and the US–and possibly in assorted other countries that don’t get a mention. They weren’t allowed to mention the flu. You couldn’t publish anything that might lower morale.

Epidemics, you might have noticed, do lower morale.

Spain, though, sat on the sidelines in World War I. It didn’t censor its papers–at least not for any mention of morale-lowering diseases, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of censorship on other issues. So Spain broke the story and its reward was that the world blamed it for the disease it had mentioned. 

Irrelevant photo: a peony

Recent epidemiological research hints that the virus might have been circulating for two years before reaching pandemic levels, and US troops could have been–well, I don’t know if calling them the source of the epidemic would be correct, but the first known cases were in Fort Riley, Kansas, and they didn’t stop the US from shipping soldiers to fight in Europe. So you could make an argument that the US was the source. 

Alternative theories, on the other hand, point to China, Britain, and France. 

 

Numbers

Although a lot of us learned to call the 1918 flu an epidemic, it was a full-blown international pandemic. (Hands up: How many of us even knew the word before last year?) The only part of the world that didn’t report an outbreak was Marajo, which I never heard of until I started researching this post. It’s an island in Brazil’s Amazon Delta. 

The pandemic ran from 1918 to 1919 and killed over 50 million people worldwide. Or possibly 100 million. No one was keeping count, so we’ll have to settle for guesswork. And to confuse the picture further, even if folks had been counting, the symptoms were easy to confuse with other diseases. 

An estimated 500 million people were infected–a third of the world’s population.

In Britain, 228,000 people died of the flu; 1918 was the first year on record in which deaths outnumbered births. And Britain got off more lightly than many countries.

By way of comparison, worldwide Covid deaths are currently just under 4 million, although that’s generally agreed to be an underestimate. Britain’s had 128,000 Covid deaths.. 

The flu pandemic killed between 10% and 20% of the people who became infected, and more people died of it in a single year than died of the Black Death between 1347 and 1351. I believe that’s in Britain. Or in England. Or somewhere. Who cares? It’s a sobering comparison.

It hit young adults particularly hard–people between 20 and 40, who you’d expect to have the most resistance–but it also hit children under 5 and people over 65. Most of us, though, will have heard about  the 20-to-40 age group because it’s unusual for a disease to zero in on them.

 

Spreading the flu

The flu spread both through the air on droplets–those things that people breathe, sneeze, coughe, or talk into the air. It also spread on surfaces. You’d touch a surface that had germs on it, give them a ride to your face, and have yourself a nice little bout of the flu. 

Soldiers returning home from northern France get a special mention in any discussion of how the virus spread. In France, they’d been coming down with la grippe, which consisted of sore throats, headaches, loss of appetite, and the cramped trenches it circulated merrily. But they tended to recover quickly. Doctors called it a three-day fever. 

From that, though, the disease evolved into something deadly. We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s go back to those British soldiers returning home on cramped troop transports and trains. Following their path, the flu spread from railroad stations to city centers, from city centers to suburbs, and from suburbs to the countryside. 

 

The pandemic’s waves

The first wave of the pandemic hit in the spring of 1918 and was relatively mild. The second came in the winter and was the most deadly. In the past, when I’ve read that the second wave was worse than the first, I assumed that meant only that more people got sick. No such luck. The disease itself had changed. In the second wave, you could be fine at breakfast and dead by nighttime. 

Let’s go to Historic UK for the gory details: “Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signalling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death.”  

The third wave hit in the early spring of 1919, and was somewhere between the first and third in its virulence. Smaller, localized outbreaks went on into the mid ‘20s. But in August 1918, an observer could reasonably have thought that the disease had ended, and since the government still had a war to fight it kept its attention on that. 

For the most part, pubs stayed open. The Football League and FA Cup had been canceled because of the war, but men’s regional tennis competitions went ahead and so did women’s football, which in the absence of men’s games attracted big crowds.  

Hospitals were overwhelmed, and it didn’t help that medical personnel had been vacuumed up by the war. Medical students were brought in to help fill the gaps. Doctors and nurses worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. 

Graveyards were also overwhelmed. Think of them as the kind of high-end restaurants where you need advance bookings. The draft meant the country had a shortage of grave diggers, of funeral workers, of coffin builders. Horses had been drafted as well, so even getting the dead picked up was a problem. In Sunderland at one point, 200 bodies were left unburied for over a week. 

When the war ended (November 11, 1918, in case anyone asks, at 11 a.m.), crowds turned out to celebrate, helping to spread the disease. There just might be a lesson hidden in there for us.

 

The expert advice

Sir Arthur Newsholme, the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board, wrote a memorandum in July 1918 advising people to stay home if they were sick and to avoid large gatherings. It wasn’t bad advice, and he promptly buried it. Britain had that war to fight.

Looking back on it in 1919, he said it could have saved many lives, but “there are national circumstances in which the major duty is to ‘carry on’, even when risk to health and life is involved.”

Keep smiling. Keep morale up. If you have to die, do it off stage.

The cabinet never discussed the epidemic. No lockdown was imposed, and I’m not sure the concept was available to be discussed. In 1917, it talked about forming a ministry of health to prevent disease and coordinate health care, but it did nothing about it until 1919, leaving localities to respond to the pandemic as well or badly as they could. 

In places, theaters, dance halls, movie theaters, and churches were closed for varying lengths of time, and in some places streets were sprayed with disinfectant. Some people wore masks. Some didn’t. Whatever happened, happened locally.

Public health messages ranged from the vaguely useful to the batty. Some factories relaxed no-smoking rules because cigarettes were known to prevent infection–or at least some people knew about it and probably thought the ones who didn’t were idiots or deliberately suppressing information.

But that’s just a guess.

In a Commons debate, M.P. Claude Lowther asked, “Is it a fact that a sure preventative against influenza is cocoa taken three times a day?”

The News of the World told people to “wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”

Cleaning your teeth was also recommended. It might not keep you alive, but at least you’d die with clean teeth. Brandy and whisky were popular preventatives. So was ventilation, which would have actually helped, along with warm clothes. Worrying about your health, on the other hand, would make you more vulnerable. Besides, it could interfere with the war effort.

Predictably, in the absence of solid information, individuals were often blamed–for catching the disease; for spreading it; for taking risks that no sensible person would take, like passing up that third cup of cocoa.

People rushed to chemists to buy quinine, which was useful against malaria but roughly as helpful against the flu as turkey feathers. 

We can–and we might as well–laugh, but remember that there weren’t any antibiotics yet, which could have been useful against flu’s secondary infections. And there were no antivirals. The first vaccine for the flu wasn’t licensed until 1940. 

Many doctors prescribed what they had available: aspirin. Its patent had expired in 1917, so new companies moved in to produce it–I’d assume cheaply. Patients were told to take up to 30 grams a day, which is now considered a toxic dose. If you take anything above four grams these days, red lights start flashing and sirens go off. 

The symptoms of aspirin poisoning include hyperventilation and pulmonary edema, which is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Some flu deaths may have been either caused or speeded up by aspirin poisoning.

To be fair, some of the recommended public health measures were useful, including ventilation, disinfection, limiting or banning large gatherings, quarantine, and isolation of patients, but they were applied unevenly. 

 

The pandemic’s legacy

Industrialized countries went into the pandemic with atomized health systems. Doctors worked for themselves or for charities or religious institutions. Public health policies–and this isn’t particularly about Britain–were colored by eugenics, a theory that, to simplify wildly and irresponsibly, managed to show that the people at the top of society were there because they were better genetic specimens and the people at the bottom were degenerate and a mess. So public health policy–or so the Smithsonian tells me–tended to be about protecting the elites from the diseases of the poor. 

When the pandemic died down and they had some space to think, the lesson many countries took from it was that healthcare had to be available to all, and free, although the moves in that direction weren’t universal or, at first, complete. Public health embraced the idea of not just treating disease but preventing it. Epidemiology–the study of diseases’ patterns, causes, and effects–came into its own, and epidemiology demands data, which governments, or some of them anyway, began to gather. One of the problems that article after article mentions about the flu pandemic is that it wasn’t a reportable disease, so doctors weren’t required to report cases to the government and wouldn’t have had a bureau to report them to if they’d been inclined that way. That meant no one knew the size or shape of the crisis.

In 1919, the forerunner of the World Health Organization was founded–an international bureau to fight pandemics.

Covid, Cornwall, and the G7 meeting

 

Cornwall’s had a low Covid rate throughout most of the pandemic, but it now has the fourth highest Covid growth rate in England. That’s not the highest number of overall cases–that’s still relatively low. It’s the rate of growth, which went from 12.2 cases per 100,000 people to 99.5 per 100,000. 

Did that happen because the G7 met here? Or is it because the county’s a tourist center and we’re visitors have flooded in–more than usual, since going abroad’s a gamble just now? County councilors (which I initially misspelled as counselors, as noted in a comment; councilors is British for politicians, not for mental health professionals) are arguing both sides, but heavy Covid concentrations have shown up in Falmouth, St. Ives, and Newquay, where assorted people associated with the summit stayed, and in Carbis Bay, where the meetings were held 

Most other parts of the county haven’t seen spikes. That argues for the G7 as a superspreader event. 

Irrelevant photo: honeysuckle

On the other hand, the spikes started three weeks after what we’ve learned to call hospitality venues–those place we might once have called cafes and pubs and things like that–opened back up. Staffed heavily by young (by which you can understand largely unvaccinated) people, and customered at least in part by people visiting from parts of the country with higher Covid rates, many of them accompanied by children (by which you can understand smallish unvaccinated people). 

Also on that second hand, some spikes point toward a local university campus at Penryn.

Those points argue for reopening hospitality venues as a superspreader idea.

The national government’s announced that the spikes have nothing to do with the G7. It’s also announced that it’s not about to publish its summit risk assessment and anyone getting themselves into a state about reading it should go have an ice cream cone and settle down.  

Someone may manage to untangle the threads in the next week or three, but until then you can take your pick of the causes.

My small patch of the county is still fairly Covid free, but we’re full of visitors and the cafes, pubs, and restaurants are open. We’ll see what happens next. 

 

Covid transmissibility

A study of two Covid variants–the one first found in South Africa and the one first found in Britain–looked at why they’re more transmissible and found that the people they infect don’t have increased viral loads, which a person might logically think would be linked to high transmissibility. But nope, that doesn’t seem to be it.

People with the variants are less likely to have asymptomatic cases, though. And although they’re not more likely to die of Covid, they are more likely to be hospitalized. 

I can’t draw any conclusions from that. All I can do is toss it on your doorstep and hope you find something useful to do with it. 

 

Covid test effectiveness

Not long ago, the US FDA–that’s the Food and Drug Administration–urged the public to stop using the quick Covid tests that Britain relies on to test asymptomatic people. To which Britain said, “What do you know anyway?” and extended its emergency use approval. 

One of the problems with the tests is that when the number of Covid cases drops below a certain point, they produce more false positives than genuine positives, turning them from a not terribly accurate but possibly useful tool to an outright pain in the neck. Other tests are available and better supported by test data. But we like our lateral flow tests and we’re not about to abandon them. I have no idea why. 

 

Stay safe: avoid birthdays

A study in the US found a link between the spread of Covid and–guess what–birthdays. Yes indeed, gathering data from 45 weeks in 2020, a study found that in areas where Covid was circulating heavily, a birthday was 30% more likely to be followed by a Covid diagnosis in the household than a non-birthday. If it was a kid’s birthday, the rate was higher. 

The study was designed to look at the impact of small gatherings in spreading the disease. It didn’t specifically look at whether the household had a party–it drew its information from insurance records–but it is suggestive.

But don’t worry. If you don’t have a birthday in any given year, you should be safe enough.

What does “we have to live with Covid” mean?

Periodically, someone announces, as if it ends the discussion, that we’ll just have to live with Covid. But that doesn’t end the discussion, it only begins it. What does living with Covid mean?

To some people, it means, end the lockdowns, burn the masks, and get together in an unventilated space with a few thousand of our closest friends so we can all get shitfaced and dance. Because that’s what normal looked like, at least in retrospect, and we need to get back to normal.

To others, it means that we keep wearing our masks and hoping to hell other people do the same, because someone out there is contagious and someone else is vulnerable. It means staying out of closed, crowded spaces. It means admitting that we only liked six of those few thousand closest friends anyway and haven’t missed them this past year and a half.

But forget what we think. I’m making it up anyway. Let’s turn to the experts. 

An article in the Medical Xpress says that we may never reach full herd immunity–that point where so many people are immune to a disease that those who aren’t immune are protected by not being exposed to it, ever. 

Irrelevant photo: poppies

Why aren’t we likely to reach that point? Because Covid immunity seems to wane over time. Because the disease continues to evolve, especially where unvaccinated groups of people create pools that the virus can spread through and evolve in. And because animals can harbor the virus and pass it back to humans. 

There may be conflicting arguments that say we will reach herd immunity, but I haven’t found them. Let’s go with what we’ve got. 

The article’s authors say that even if we don’t reach full herd immunity, we could still reach practical herd immunity, allowing us to go back to near-normal levels of activity. Their measure of near normality seems to be how far a country can open up without overwhelming the health-care system. It depresses the hell out of me that we measure safety not by the deaths and disabilities the disease would cause but by how many cases of it a health system can sustain, but–well, there it is, written in black and white. That’s what happens, I guess, when you enter the land of policy making.

How many people need to be immune to reach practical herd immunity? It depends on the level of restrictions–or adaptations, if you want a more user-friendly word–we’re willing to live with. Masks? Contact tracing? Mass testing of asymptomatic people? Measures to stamp out outbreaks? 

It’s interesting that although this is a consideration, how many deaths and disabilities we’re willing to live with isn’t. 

Practical herd immunity also depends on vaccination levels: “Some estimates,” the article says, “suggest that we may need two-thirds of the population to be protected either by successful vaccination or natural infection. If 90 percent of the population is eligible for vaccination, and vaccines are 85 percent effective against infection, we can obtain this two thirds with about 90 percent of the eligible population being vaccinated or infected naturally.”

Don’t let those numbers scare you. They’re safely contained within quotation marks.

There’s still a possibility that new variants will escape our immunity, but the fewer outbreaks we have, the fewer chances we’ll give the disease to reach escape velocity.

And we’ll all live happily–if cautiously–ever after.

I hope.

 

The cost of herd immunity in cold, hard cash

But if you’re in love with the idea of restricting nothing and either pursuing herd immunity or in letting Covid circulate freely because it’s no worse than the flu–or if you want to argue with someone who is–academics have calculated the cost to Western Australia if it had pursued a herd immunity strategy: They say the state saved $4.9 billion and avoided 1,700 deaths in a year by locking down hard. It also prevented 4,500 hospitalizations.

In Britain, it was the cost of a hard lockdown that made the government hesitate, repeatedly, to either stamp out or contain the virus. It sounds like it was an expensive savings.

 

Vaccination news

In Britain 52% of the people who said they’d never get vaccinated have now gotten vaccinated, along with 84% of the people who said they weren’t likely to. The percentages shift when you break the population down into religious and ethnic subgroups, but in all of them the trend is in the direction of vaccination.

Part of the change, I’m sure, comes from work that’s being done with community leaders and work to counter misinformation campaigns, but I can’t help wondering if a kind of herd immunity isn’t at work here too: People around us have been vaccinated. We see that keys don’t stick to their faces and that axe heads don’t pursue them down the street, so we figure they probably haven’t been magnetized after all–or at least not heavily. There probably hasn’t been enough time for them to demonstrate that they can still get pregnant–at least those of them who could’ve gotten pregnant in the first place. That–allow me to remind you–excludes all males of the species and enough categories of females that I won’t list them. Even the real but very rare serious side effects of some vaccines–well, they’re very rare. Have they happened to anyone we know? Um, no.

It’s an odd thing, but a 1 in 100,000 chance looks more likely to happen if it happens to someone you know and less likely to if it doesn’t. Even if the numbers don’t care who your friends and acquaintances are.

Humans do seem to be herd animals. We see people around us getting vaccinated and going on with their lives, not visibly marked by the vaccine, and it starts to look like a safe thing to do. Even a smart one. 

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The Netherlands is offering pickled herring to people who get vaccinated. Traditionally, the year’s first barrel of Hollandse nieuwe is auctioned off to raise money for a good cause, but since that couldn’t happen this year it was given, “on behalf of the Dutch people” to the head of the health services. Other barrels were sent to vaccination sites and people are being offered herring when they show up.

 

Counterfeit and Covid

Counterfeit Covid vaccines, tests, and vaccination passports are becoming big businesses. Vaccines and test kits are sold through online pharmacies. Amazon, Etsy, and I’m sure other places sell vaccine passports, with no proof of vaccination required. 

Why not? Everything’s available online. This Christmas, I bought my partner a certificate making her a minister in the Church of the 400 Rabbits. All I had to do was make a donation (it went to a food bank) and print it myself.

Although the article I found talked about the danger of counterfeits infiltrating the supply chain that countries use for genuine vaccines and tests, it didn’t say it had happened. So we’re talking about individuals–people made desperate enough by the world’s uneven rollout that they’re willing to roll the dice and hope that luck will lead them to the real thing.

 

Odd ways to fight Covid

Okay, just one odd way, but the plural made a better subhead. Scientists have developed a sticky wall surface that uses ingredients in hair conditioners to trap the aerosolized droplets that contribute so heavily to the spread of Covid. 

The theory works like this: Droplets bounce off indoor surfaces all the time. Add sticky stuff to your plexiglass divider, though, and their bouncing days are done. 

The developers coated a barrier and it captured almost all the aerosolized microdroplets and 80% of plain old droplet-size droplets. (The comparison point for those numbers is an uncoated barrier. I have no idea how you compare them.) The coated barrier didn’t need cleaning any more often than the uncoated one did, and once it was wiped down with water the coating could be reapplied.

It also works on fabric, concrete, and metal, turning low-touch surfaces into Covid fighters.

This won’t eliminate the need for ventilation, though. We’ll still need air filtration systems and open windows. But it does give us another tool. 

The bad news? A lot more work needs to be done to confirm its usefulness and get it authorized. 

“We understood that the current pandemic may end before this concept is implemented,” said engineering professor Jiaxing Huang. “It may or may not be used now. But next time, when an outbreak like this happens, I think we will be better equipped.”