Can you catch Covid outdoors? 

If you work at it, yes, you can catch Covid out of door, but fresh air dilutes the virus, moves it off in directions that aren’t toward you, and it dries up the little liquid space suits it travels in. And sunlight kills it. 

Zap. Take that, virus.

So far, somewhere between one case and very few cases of outdoor transmission have been documented. But not documented isn’t the same as impossible, so let’s look at the risks.

At the riskier end of outdoor contact are extended face-to-face conversations where people get too close to each other. We still need to keep our distance, especially during the colder weather, because the virus likes the cold. 

Also risky are what in Britain are called market stalls–outdoor markets that are often under three-sided tents–don’t have the advantage of being fully ventilated. They’re safer than the indoors, but the air doesn’t circulate freely through them. Ditto bus shelters. 

And crowds. 

In those situations, the experts recommend masks, even outdoors.

Irrelevant photo: A wallflower. Yes, it’s a plant, not just someone who clings to the wall at a dance.

But Professor Cath Noakes said she doesn’t “want people to be terrified of passing each other in the street.” To transmit the virus that way, someone would have to cough right at you and you’d have to inhale at just the wrong moment. On the other hand, running with someone so that you’re following in their slipstream for an extended period of time might be a problem.

“The sad fact is that your greatest risk is from the people you know.”

It’s not impossible to pick the virus up from a contaminated surface, but it’s a lot less likely than breathing it in. 

 

Lockdown: the effect and the politics

On Saturday, Covid cases in parts of England were starting to level off. Or by a different set of calculations, the number of infections  is declining in the country as a whole, although it’s still going up in a few regions (including mine, thanks). Either way, the lockdown seems to be having an impact. But I’m going to have to leave you linkless on that, because every link I can find is behind a paywall. I got it from an actual piece of newspaper that I spilled tea on yesterday.

Quite a lot of tea. 

You can’t do that to your computer and expect it to survive.

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A former Supreme Court judge, Jonathan Sumption–known to his friends and family and all the kids who were in kindergarten with him as Lord Sumption–has made a name for himself as an anti-lockdown advocate. Let the old and vulnerable isolate themselves, he argues, while the rest of the world carries on as usual. 

And so it came to be, children, that he was on a TV show telling a woman with stage four bowel cancer that he hadn’t said her life wasn’t valuable, he’d only said it was less valuable than other lives.

Not just telling her, interrupting her to tell her. Because what some people have to say is more important than what other people have to say.

Don’t feel bad for her. She held her own.

“Who are you to put a value on life?” she said. “In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.”

Lord S. has since said that his comments were taken out of context.

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A group of Conservative Members of Parliament, though, is getting twitchy about lockdown. Some 70 of them have formed the Covid Recovery Group, which worries about “draconian restrictions” and wants to know when “our full freedoms will be restored.” They can be assumed to be after Boris Johnson’s job–but that’s an assumption. And they can’t all have it.

 

Covid testing and the schools

Somewhere back there, Boris Johnson presented us with a plan to reopen the schools safely by testing the kids every week. Or every day. Or every minute of every day. It was going to be miraculous and world beating and headline grabbing. What’s more, it was going to work, which would make a nice change. 

Or maybe it wasn’t going to work, because the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (known to its friends as MHRA) wouldn’t authorize the tests. It’ll give people a false sense of safety if they test negative, it said. 

This is a £78 million plan and part of the government’s £100 billion Operation Moonshot, which involves not putting a shot glass on the moon but mass Covid testing of various and miraculous sorts. 

The testing started in secondary schools and was scheduled to expand into primary schools (vulnerable kids and the kids of key workers are still in school), and move from there to universities and workplaces. 

The government’s already spent £1.5 billion on lateral flow tests made by Innova, which are fast and, unfortunately, not accurate. They miss a lot of people who are carrying the disease, and miss even more when nonprofessionals use them. 

In response to the MHRA not approving the plan, the government said, “So what? We don’t need regulatory approval because this is assisted testing.” (You understand that I made up that quote, right? But it’s true to the spirit of what they said.) 

Assisted testing is when someone sticks the swab down their own throat and up their own nose. Under supervision–that’s the assisted part, I believe. So it’ll be a seven-year-old supervised by a teacher with no medical background. Using a test that works its imperfect best when done by a professional.

I don’t have a problem with that. Do you?

The plan is that the close contacts of confirmed cases will be tested every day for seven days. If they’re negative, they can stay in school.

The MHRA, on the other hand, said it “continues to advise that close contacts of positive cases identified using the self test device continue to self-isolate in line with current guidelines.”

 

Tipping right over the edge

A super-Orthodox rabbi in Israel has warned people not to get vaccinated because the vaccine can turn people gay

He should be so lucky.

The logic is as follows: “Any vaccine made using an embryonic substrate, and we have evidence of this, causes opposite tendencies. Vaccines are taken from an embryonic substrate, and they did that here, too, so … it can cause opposite tendencies.” 

Are you following this? 

I’m not doing so well with it either. I did ask Lord Google about embryonic substrates and he was resolutely unhelpful, so I’ll nod vaguely, say, “Uh huh,” and sidle quietly out of the room while the good rebbe’s attention is distracted. Being ultra-Orthodox, he (and I admit I’m guessing here, and probably being influenced by stereotypes as well) probably doesn’t have a lot of time to talk with women anyway. 

In response, an Israeli GLBT etc. organization (that stands for gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato, with whatever else you can fit between two slices of bread without disaster ensuing)–

I’ve lost the thread there, haven’t I? An Israeli GLBT etc, organization has announced that it’s gearing up for a massive influx of new members. 

Israel has managed to vaccinate a large swath of its population–2 million people in a population of 9 million have had at least the first shot. So far, no noticeable change in their sexuality has registered on the Richter Scale. 

What Israel isn’t doing is vaccinating the Palestinians who live in territories under its control. 

A public service announcement

For the record: I am not related to Senator Josh Hawley–much to his relief. 

How Boris Johnson fucks up a free lunch. Again.

In case anyone suffers from the delusion that Boris Johnson’s government learns from its mistakes, it’s proving them wrong by screwing up free school meals. Again.

 

The free school lunch saga

When schools are in session, the poorest kids are supposed to get a free lunch. Last year, though, when schools were locked down and what would normally have been a school holiday rolled around, the government announced that it’d be fine if the kids missed lunch for a few days. They weren’t the government’s problem during the holiday.

It held that position until a football player, Marcus Rashford, who grew up poor and hungry, kicked the issue squarely into social media and made the government back down. 

Now, with schools locked down again, a mother posted a picture of the sorry collection of food that was delivered for her kid. It had about £5 worth of food, although the company that’s contracted to deliver it swears it cost £10.50 to buy, package, and deliver. 

And profit from, of course. All hail the great god of privatization. 

Irrelevant photo: cotoneaster, pronounced ka-tone-ee-aster. The birds plant them.

The food was either supposed to last five or ten days, depending on who’s right about this, but either way it hasn’t impressed nutritionists or parents or the public at large. I don’t imagine it did much for kids either. 

Rashford waded in again, at which point Boris Johnson condemned the parcels and the company apologized, saying it would toss in a free breakfast starting on January 25. 

Yes, folks, it was a miracle.

Parents and campaigners are asking, Why not just give the parents a voucher? That way they can buy what their kids like, what they’re able to prepare, and what suits the family’s preferences and diet. And guess what, if you do that, nobody has to pack, deliver, and profit from it.

Last I checked, the government was ignoring the suggestion. Because what’s the point of feeding kids if no one can make a buck out of it? Or a quid, since I’m supposed to be, at least marginally, writing British here.

Has the government learned anything? Don’t be silly. When the next school holidays come up in February,  England plans to suspend the free school lunches again

But the final word on this has to go to Conservative MP Pauline Latham, who said, “It’s only their lunch, it’s not all meals every day.”

We’ll give her this week’s compassion award, okay?

And having nothing to do with free lunches but on the subject of MPs so clueless they sound like something I made up, her fellow Conservative MP, the Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, greeted the mess that Brexit’s unleashed on the fishing industry by saying, “They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.”

He’ll have to wait for gets next week’s compassion award, since I lost last week’s and, um, last week’s over. But I award him next week’s not just to honor his sympathy for dead and dying fish but also his sympathy for the fishing industry, which is losing £1 million a day because they can’t get their catch to the European markets. 

Fish are reported to be rotting on the docks. Happily and Britishly.

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We need a shift in tone here, don’t we?

Scotland’s schools run under different rules than England’s, but even without the spur of England’s mean spiritedness, a group of chefs and hospitality workers in Edinburgh have delivered a quarter of a million meals to families during the pandemic. It’s all cost 50 p. per meal. (The p. stands for pence.) Each meal includes a main course, soup, bread, and a snack, and it’s free to anyone who asks. 

And it’s for the whole family, not just kids. Because you know what? Adults need to eat too. And while more affluent people have saved money during lockdown (no night at the pub, no meals out, no cappuccino on the way to work), the poorest people don’t have those small luxuries to give up and have had to spend more on food, gas, utilities, and the costs that go with home schooling. 

The Edinburgh program is organized by run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts and funded by donations, and it’s run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts.

 

The numbers

By now, over a hundred thousand people have died of Covid in Britain since the start of the pandemic. That’s almost one in every 660 people. Or to put that another way, one in every six deaths in the country can be traced back to Covid. 

Of course, whether those numbers are right depends on what you count as a Covid death. The government started out by counting everyone who’d had Covid (as far as was known) and later died, then it switched to a system that only counts people who die within 28 days of a positive test. Both are inaccurate. There’s no perfect system, but the government’s system, conveniently, gives us a lower inaccurate number.

If I was cynical, I’d think that was why they bought it in that color.

Even using the lower figures, though, Britain’s death rate per hundred thousand people is ahead of the United States’. That surprised me enough that I checked it with a second source, which confirmed it. I thought Britain was doing better than the US. Maybe that’s because the British government gives some semblance of sanity. It recognizes that the disease is real and makes noises about fighting it. Even if it gets it wrong almost every time.  

A member of the government’s science advisory group, SAGE, said, “The UK ranks seventh in the world in terms of numbers of deaths per million population through the pandemic. During the last week, our rate is the second highest in the world–a record that is ‘world-beating’ in all the wrong ways.”

Which not only confirms that we’re in deep shit but that the government’s own advisors can’t pass up a chance to whack Johnson over the head for bragging about the world-beating ways Britain was going to respond to the virus.

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Whatever the numbers, intensive care patients are being moved from overloaded London hospitals to others as far as 300 miles away. But lockdown does seem to be working. The R number, a measure of how many people each infected person gives the disease to, seems to be going down.

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Since we were talking about kids a minute ago, let’s talk check in on their parents. Over 70% of the women who ask to be furloughed from their jobs because the schools are closed have been turned down, or so says a survey of 50,000 working women. 

Nowhere near as many men asked for furloughs because of childcare (167 compared to 3,100) but 75% of them were turned down.

How are any of them managing? Some are taking any leave they’ve accumulated. Some are cutting back their working hours. Others (I’m extrapolating here) are managing it all and either quietly or noisily losing their minds.

The difference between furlough and any of the other alternatives is that people are paid 80% of their wages or salary if they’re furloughed. The government kicks in most of that, but the employer kicks in part, and that’s where the reluctance comes from.

 

Vaccine updates

Britain’s drive to vaccinate as many people as possible is being slowed down by an inconsistent supply of vaccine. Doctors’ offices aren’t able to schedule patients more than a few days in advance because they don’t have enough notice of when the vaccine will show up.

That’s called a push model: Doctors can’t order the vaccine. Instead they have to be ready to jump in and use what appears. 

Although having said that, our local GPs are almost through vaccinating the over-80 group and are scheduling the 75- to 80-year-olds. How those two pieces of information fit together is anyone’s guess.

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Internationally, 95% of the vaccine doses that have been punched through human skin have gone to people in just ten countries: the US, China, the UK, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain, and Canada. 

It will be March before Africa gets its first vaccine doses from COVAX, an international effort to be sure vaccines reach the poorest countries. More doses are expected in June, but doses from COVAX are expected to cover just 20% of the population–by what point I can’t say.

The continent has about 30,000 new cases per day now. During the first surge, it had 18,000.

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Back in Britain, there’s talk of the second vaccine dose being postponed even further than originally planned, depending on whether the first group to be vaccinated, the over-80s, turns out to be well protected by the initial dose. Public Health England says it’ll be reviewing infection data weekly to track how well the first dose works.

Some evidence is surfacing that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may get more effective with a longer time between the two doses, but you’ll have to follow the link if you want more information on that. It involved too many numbers. I fled.

But I can tell you what the rationale is behind vaccinating the elderly before younger people: According to Professor Wei Shen Lim, for every 25 to 40 people vaccinated in a care home, one life is saved. For every 250 over-80s vaccinated, ditto: one life. You’d have to vaccinate thousands of train operators to save that one life. 

To make sense of that, though, we’d have to understand the definition of a train operator. Are we talking about the person sealed into the booth at the front who drives the train–what Americans call the engineer and the British call the train driver? Or does it mean people working with and sharing air with the public? 

Does that number hold true for bus drivers or does there have to be a train involved? What about people working in supermarkets and warehouses and meatpacking plants? People working in hospitals? I have no idea. I’m passing it along because it’s an insight into how these decisions get made. 

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

If the Nobel committee ever gives a prize for incompetence, please, someone, can I nominate Britain’s current government?

It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s jump in with the government deciding to go off-label and give people their second dose of the Covid vaccines later than the manufacturers recommend. That set off a good bit of screaming by doctors and scientists, not because they know it’ll be a problem but because no one knows how it’ll work. 

But that’s serious stuff, so forget about it. What about the people who’d already gotten their first dose and were given appointments for the second one? 

Well, on the same day that the minister for Covid vaccine deployment (no, I didn’t know we had one either) said it was doctors could let patients keep their second-dose appointments, National Health Service England said the appointments needed to be “cancelled and rearranged.”

So that’s clear.

Irrelevant photo: skimmia japonica, I believe. 

Meanwhile, a Labour peer is suing the government over its decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Not the Oxford vaccine as well? 

Nope. Its clinical trials offer some evidence that getting the second dose later might not be a problem. Might. Some. Pfizer, though, has said there’s no evidence to support delaying its second dose. So that’s the stronger case.

Her argument is that the decision is unlawful and potentially unsafe.

Two notes before I go on: One, a Labour peer is, in normal language, a member of the House of Lords who’s a Labour Party member. If you live in the real world that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you follow British politics long enough it starts to sound frighteningly normal. 

Two, something I read the other day objected to calling the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine simply the Oxford vaccine. I’m sure they’re right, and it’s annoying as hell. I really should do it right.

 

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

The government has changed the lockdown rules sixty-four times since the pandemic started, according to a human rights lawyer who sat down and counted them. That’s an average of one change every four and a half days–and that’s just the actual laws, not advice or guidelines. So basically no one knows what we’re supposed to be doing.

That’s led to cops, lawyers, and government ministers not knowing law from advice or their ass from an apple. 

A lot of the information on lockdown that filters out to the public doesn’t reflect the actual law, and the average cops on the beat get their information from the same not-necessarily-accurate sources as members of the public. They’re not lawyers and they don’t read the new laws every four and a half days. 

What the ministers’ excuses are, I don’t know, but Boris Johnson’s recent bike ride reminds us that they’re as muddled as we are.  

What I’m talking about is that Boris Johnson, allegedly our prime minister, although I’m not sure how much of his time or attention the job claims, took a bike ride and a member of the public spotted him seven miles from home. That was after two women were fined £200 (each) for meeting five miles from their homes to take a walk. Because, after all, we’re in lockdown.

They were supposed to stay local, the cop who fined them told said.

The fines–after lots of embarrassing publicity–were withdrawn, but the incident did set a context. Was Johnson staying local? What does local mean?

The policing minister (I didn’t know we had one of those either) said, helpfully, that whether seven miles is local “depends on where you are.” 

And while we were all chewing our way through that, syllable by unhelpful syllable, he added, “Seven miles will be local in different areas.”

I hope that clarifies the issue. 

 

Deaths and other serious stuff 

On January 13, the UK had 1,564 Covid deaths–more than we saw on any day of the first pandemic wave. The best estimates are that those were people who’d been infected before the great Christmas germ exchange, so we can expect the daily number of deaths to rise when the Christmas cases start rolling in.

The situation in some hospitals is serious enough that to free up beds for Covid patients they’ve started discharging some patients to their homes, where they can at least theoretically be cared for by family, and others to hotels, where they’ll be cared for by volunteer organizations, medical people from the military, and (less realistically, since they’re already overstretched) NHS personnel. 

These are patients who they’d otherwise keep in the hospital. 

The NHS has also asked care homes to start accepting Covid patients who don’t have a recent negative test as long as they’ve been in isolation for 14 days and have no new symptoms. I don’t know about you, but I see trouble coming there.

No one sounds happy about any of this. It’s a measure of how bad things look right now. 

 

The vaccine in Britain and around the world

London is getting fewer doses of vaccine per person than other parts of the country, and it’s not being quiet about it. But the country as a whole is getting fewer doses than it was promised. We were told we’d have 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in our eager (and very cold) little paws as soon as it was approved. By Christmas, half that amount had made its presence known.

For the Oxford vaccine that I now have to call the AstraZeneca vaccine, 30 million doses were supposed to materialize immediately. By Christmas, 4 million were available.

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That hapless minister in charge of vaccine deployment said the government would absolutely switch the mass vaccination centers to 24-hour-a-day operations if that became necessary or possible. Then the prime minister’s press secretary said there hadn’t been any clamor for the centers to stay open overnight. 

I hate to side with Johnson’s office, but people do need to sleep–especially overstretched medical people. 

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While many countries are vaccinating their oldest people first, Indonesia is prioritizing people who are between eighteen and fifty-nine. Professor Amin Soebandrio said, “We are targeting those that are likely to spread the virus”–people who “go out of the house and all over the place and then at night come back home to their families.”

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The first reports on the Sinovac vaccine (it’s called CoronaVac–Sinovac’s the maker) said it was 78% effective, but new reports say it’s more like 50% effective at preventing the disease but 78% effective at keeping people from needing medical treatment. That makes it a perfectly workable vaccine but the first vaccines reported such high numbers that we’ve started to expect fantastic instead of just workable. 

SinoVac was tested in Brazil, where it’s become a political football, with the president, Jair Bolsonaro, feeding into an antivaccination movement and the governor of Sao Paolo, João Doria (who hopes to run for president), championing the vaccine.

 

And a bit of research that doesn’t fit anywhere else

Researchers are reporting that double-masking–wearing one on top of another–can protect not just the person on the outside of the mask but you, the person on the inside, especially if the masks are thin. You don’t want to get so crazy with this that it’s hard to breathe, but two relatively flimsy masks can approach the effectiveness of the N95 masks that medical workers wear. 

The researchers also say you can get a better fit out of a mask with add-ons: ties from ear loop to ear loop or nose bridges to keep it in place. And you’ll be in the height of fashion. I felt like a bit of an idiot, but I did wear two masks yesterday and it wasn’t much different than wearing one. 

 

Herd immunity, sterilizing immunity, and the current best guesses

Britain is now the proud operator of several mass vaccination centers, with more promised shortly, and general practitioners are scheduling their oldest patients for vaccination. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of trouble. The number of hospital cases is still rising and there’s talk of the current lockdown not being tight enough.

And we just approved a third vaccine, Moderna’s. Not long ago, Boris Johnson was crowing at Scotland (which on average isn’t happy about having left the European Union) that if they’d stayed in the EU they wouldn’t have gotten vaccines so quickly. So it’s a nice little piece of irony to read that, approved or not, we won’t get or hands on this third vaccine until April because we’ve left the European Union.

I know I shouldn’t think that’s funny, but I can’t help myself.

 

Irrelevant photo: heather

Are we close to herd immunity?

The latest statistical modeling says one in five people in England may have already had Covid. How did they come up with that number? Since the official statistics inevitably underestimate the number of infections (a big chunk of people don’t get sick but carry the disease without knowing it or showing up in the statistics) and since the track and trace system is widely recognized as being roughly as useless as it is expensive, they get their statistics by comparing the number of deaths in an area to the estimated infection rate, putting them in a blender with a few other number and a dash of cinnamon, then baking at 160 C. for fifty minutes. 

In some areas, they estimate that one person in two has had the disease. The number of infected people may be up to five times higher than the number on the test and trace books.

Is that herd immunity? 

Nope. Exactly how many people would have to have had the bug to create herd immunity is still unknown, but a computational biologist estimates that 70% of the population will need to be vaccinated to stop the pandemic in the US. But that only applies to the US; it’s not a fixed number. People behave differently in different places, which upsets the numbers–they’re touchy little beasts–so they arrange themselves into different patterns. 

The number also depends on how long immunity lasts–no one knows yet–and on whether the vaccine turns out to keep people from passing on the infection. 

Most of our commonly used vaccines prevent severe illness but don’t give us what’s called sterilizing immunity. In other words, they keep us from getting sick–or at least from getting very sick–but they don’t kill off every bit of the disease that’s running around inside us. 

On the positive side, having less of the disease circulating inside our complicated little innards may (notice how much wiggle room I’ve left myself there) mean we pass on a milder form of the disease if we do give it to someone else.

An experiment with a chicken virus and a flock that was half vaccinated found that the unvaccinated birds came down with a milder disease than if the whole flock had been left unvaccinated. So even if the current vaccines don’t give us sterilizing immunity, Covid may yet follow that pattern and become milder once a significant portion of our flock has been vaccinated.

May. No one’s offering us a guarantee.

And no, none of the vaccines currently in use will cause us to grow feathers.

 

Transmission and hospitalization

In Britain, the current crop of hospitalized Covid patients are younger than they were during the first peak of the virus. People under 65 now make up 39% of hospital admissions. In March that was 36%. It’s not a huge change, but it is a change, and it’s worth noticing. 

The best guess is that the over 65s are more likely to be out of circulation. We left the party early and are tucked up in our little beds just now. That makes us less likely to become infected and less likely to show up in either the hospital or the statistics. But so much emphasis has been put on the elderly being vulnerable that we tend to think the non-elderly are made of steel.

They’re not. They can get very sick from this thing. In particular, pregnant women seem to be more vulnerable than non-pregnant women (or non-pregnant men, for that matter) in their age groups. 

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Half of all Covid transmissions come from people with no symptoms, including from people who never do develop symptoms. 

What does that mean in practice? That every one of us needs to act as if we could be carrying it. And that we need to look at our friends and family and neighbors as if they could be carrying it. That we need to look at other human beings and think, Oooh, yuck, germs! 

That’s not, I admit, a policy recommendation. It’s not even a real recommendation. It’s just an observation on how much it goes against the grain to live this way.

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A study reports that Covid can still be transmitted after seven days. Or after ten days. After ten days, 76% of the people tested still had detectable levels and 86% did after seven. 

So recommending a shorter period of isolation is a gamble. On the one hand, the theory goes that people are more likely to actually isolate themselves if you demand a shorter time. On the other hand, they can still be shedding the virus at the end of it.

The problem is not only that some people are jerks and don’t put the safety of others first. The larger problem is that a lot of people can’t afford to miss a day’s work–they’re living on the edge as it is. So when mass testing’s offered, they don’t show up because they can’t afford to be told to stay home. If they do end up getting tested and are positive, they stagger to work for as long as they can anyway. Because the hounds of hell are nipping at their heels. 

Already 70,000 households have become homeless during the pandemic and some 200,000 are teetering on the edge. There’s money available to people who have to self-isolate, but not to everyone and it’s not enough to cover the bills anyway. 

And if that doesn’t hold your attention, some people are still being told they’ll be fired if they don’t come to work.

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On a happier note, my partner’s been scheduled for her first vaccination. If all goes well (stop laughing–it could) I should be in line in mid-February. 

A snapshot of pandemic Britain

Britain’s back in lockdown and the number of Covid hospital admissions is higher than at the pandemic’s first peak. Go, us! The prime minister loves to set records. That’s why we had such a lovely Christmas germ exchange. 

 

The snapshot

Having reopened for exactly one day, the primary schools are now shut again. 

To explain the logic behind that, we go to Boris Johnson’s public statements. On Sunday he told us, “Schools are safe and . . . education is a priority.” On Monday he told us kids could (who knew this?) “act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.” 

Well, yes. Who would have thought that transmission thingy on a Sunday? It takes the cold light of a Monday morning for that to make its way through the fog.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. Almost everyone around here is complaining about the cold, but I feel very lucky to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

By Tuesday, Johnson had added the word alas to the situation. He says alas a lot. Maybe he always did, but he’s given himself so many reasons to alas this past year that someone I know set up a drinking game before his most recent press conference that would have her taking a drink every time he said alas. 

In fairness, she had a fistful of other phrases that would trigger a drink. I haven’t checked back to see how many bottles she emptied, but if she played the game at all (questionable, since drinking games like a cheering crowd and we’re not in crowd mode just now) she’ll still have the hangover.

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Unlike schools, preschools–or nurseries, if we’re talking British–will be staying open, and Purnima Tanuku, the head of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, “What we didn’t hear from the prime minister . . . is the reason behind the decision . . . to keep early years and childcare open, i.e. the science behind it.”

Science? Figures? Oh, these fussy people. 

Maybe in next Monday’s cold light the figures will surprise us, alas, and be forthcoming. At which point the preschools may also have to close.

Tanuku did say that with not many kids attending and staff being out sick, many of them weren’t likely to stay open for long anyway.

Cynics suggest that they’re staying open because it’s harder for people to work from home with a three-year-old underfoot than with an eight-year-old. In other words, forget health, it’s all about the economy.

You’re shocked, I know. So am I.

The data on how effectively kids spread the virus is still contradictory, but a study of Florida elementary schools and high schools shows that Covid infections went up after they reopened. Florida’s  statistics list an infected person’s age and county, which makes it a handy place to study.

After high schools reopened, infections went up almost 30%. For elementary schools (that’s kids age 6 to 13, so it seems to include middle schools or junior highs), that was about 20%. The study didn’t include preschools, but in times like these a person who happened to be prime minister, alas, might want to be make his mistakes on the side of caution.

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Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies tells us that the pandemic’s widening Britain’s inequality gap. More surprises, right? Poorer communities have taken a harder financial hit and their members are dying at roughly twice the rate of richer communities. Black and minority ethnic groups also have a higher death rate, in part as a result of disproportionately holding jobs that put them front lines. 

Kids from poorer families are hit harder by school closures. And people under 25 are twice as likely as older workers to have lost their jobs. 

The IFS has made several sensible recommendations to ameliorate the damage. Isn’t that nice? They’ll be ignored. 

 

New technologies that seem to be on the way

A new Covid test has been developed that not only gives a faster rapid result (five minutes as opposed to 20 or 30) but is accurate. It works by converting DNA to RNA and combining it with a technique called EXPAR. It will be called RTF-EXPAR. 

After that, unfortunately, I ran out of capital letters and couldn’t understand a thing. But it’s all very promising, they’ve applied for a patent, and they’re trying to get the beast into production.

If it works, it could be used for any RNA-based infectious agent or disease biomarker, including cancer.

I don’t know about you, but I understood the “including cancer” part of that sentence. The rest of it kind of went over my head, but I was impressed anyway.

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An at-home antibody test may become available, allowing people to track their Covid immunity by identifying neutralizing antibodies.

You know neutralizing antibodies, right? They’re the ones you met at the neighbors’ just before lockdown sent us all scuttling back inside our own four walls. They’re the tiny beasties that keep the virus from infecting your cells, and Medical Express tells us that “emerging research suggests neutralizing antibodies offer the best protection against the virus.” So learn to recognize them and say hello nicely when you see them, please.

Tests have been able to measure them before this, but not quickly, easily, or cheaply. And not accurately. Other than that, though, they’re great.

Since we’re dancing on the edge of what’s known–especially in countries like Britain that are deciding to administer one dose of a two-dose vaccine–monitoring immunity (your own; the general public’s; everyone’s) could be useful, she said in a masterful use of understatement. 

They’ve also filed a patent application.

The Covid medical news roundup

First, a fragment of good news, since we’re all in need of one: The Pfizer vaccine has been declared safe for people with food and medication allergies. It’s only a hazard to people who are allergic to components of the vaccine itself–polyethylene glycol and polysorbate

People who have a history of anaphylaxis to an injectable drug or vaccine made with either of those, along with anyone who can pronounce the key words I’ve used so far, should talk to their allergists before getting a vaccination. Everyone else can relax. But people will still be monitored for fifteen minutes or so after they get vaccinated–just in case. So you can relax twice over.

Vaccines cause allergies in roughly 1.3 people out of a million, and the rate’s about the same for the Pfizer vaccine. 

Irrelevant photo: Snow on a camellia bud last February–or possibly the one before–when we had two or three inches. To celebrate, half of Cornwall jumped in their cars and ran off the road.

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Turkey reports that a vaccine developed by the Chinese firm Sinovac is 91.25% effective. 

Why is Turkey reporting on a Chinese vaccine? Because it was tested there. You have to test vaccines where the virus is plentiful and happy to infect people, and it’s not happy in China just now. 

Turkey’s signed a deal to buy 50 million doses.

 

Covid and the brain

Enough good news. It’ll only go to your head. 

Around the world, a handful of wild-ass psychiatric problems are turning up in post-Covid patients who have no history of mental illness. The numbers are small, but the problems aren’t and they can show up after weeks and even months in people who had only mild Covid symptoms.

The patients described in a New York Times article range from their thirties into their fifties–ages when people shouldn’t start having hallucinations, becoming paranoid, or, as an expert might put it, nutting out in these particular ways. And some of them had enough of a grasp on reality to know that something was wrong, which people with this kind of psychotic symptom usually don’t.

The best guess at the moment is that this is somehow linked to the body’s immune response to the virus–maybe to inflammation and maybe to vascular problems. There are records of psychosis and mania after the 1918 flu epidemic and after the SARS and MERS outbreaks. 

One psychiatrist, Dr. Hisam Goueli, said,  “We don’t know what the natural course of this is. Does this eventually go away? Do people get better? How long does that normally take? And are you then more prone to have other psychiatric issues as a result? There are just so many unanswered questions.”

I keep saying this, but younger people aren’t immune to Covid. They’re statistically less likely to have problems if they catch it, but that’s not the same as being immune. The problems it can cause are fucking terrifying. 

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The National Institutes of Health–they’re in the U.S., and I have yet to figure out why they’re plural–are seeing damage caused by thinning and leaky brain blood vessels in tissue samples from people who died shortly after contracting Covid. But they found no signs that Covid itself had invaded the brain, although earlier research did find small amounts of Covid in brain samples. 

The NIH findings may be caused by the body using inflammation to respond to the virus. And no, I don’t know what it means either. Eventually, I trust, someone will. In the meantime, it’s just one more piece of this giant jigsaw puzzle that’s all over the living room floor. If the cat would stop hiding pieces under the chair, we might complete it some day.

 

Controlling the spread–or not

A study of the effectiveness of measures to control Covid reports that you can’t drive the growth of the virus to below zero without paying a high social cost. Limiting gatherings, canceling public events, and suggesting that people stay at home? Nope, that won’t do it. You have to close schools, order people to stay at home, and close workplaces either fully or partially.

The British government will do most, and maybe all, of that eventually, but it wants to wait until the virus has a head start. That’s only sporting.

In fact, after Boris Johnson waffled over whether to reopen the schools on schedule and at the latest possible moment announced that he would, he now says there’s “no question” we’ll have to take tougher measures. But only in “due course.” 

On Sunday, Britain had more than 50,000 confirmed new cases for the sixth day running. But no, we’re not going to rush into this. 

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A Barcelona experiment held an indoor concert, complete with masks, dancing, and rapid Covid tests, to see if an event could be held safely in this pandemic age. Half the people who tried to go were tested and sent home to be a control group and half were tested and allowed in if they were negative. 

Preliminary reports are that eight days later no one in the group that attended had Covid and two people in the group that was sent home did. 

What does it all mean? I’m not sure. A photo from the concert shows dancers wearing masks but they weren’t all wearing them in the right places, so whether this speaks to the effectiveness of the testing, the inability to adult humans to identify the parts of their faces involved in breathing, or pure dumb luck I don’t know. 

 

The great vaccine rollout

Now that Britain has two vaccines going, how long will it take to get everyone vaccinated? 

A while. In the first three weeks, three-quarters of a million people were vaccinated, so (even I can work this out) that’s a quarter of a million people per week. At that rate, it’ll be the end of 2021 before the vaccine reaches everyone in the official list of vulnerable people (anyone over 50 plus a narrow definition of front-line workers and people with underlying medical conditions). Someone else worked that out, so you can probably trust it. 

The health secretary is aiming for 2 million people a week. And I’m still hoping to be a full 6 feet tall, but at 73 I suspect I’ve stopped growing. 

And that’s just the first shot. For the followup, we’re counting on King Arthur to rise from–remind me, where’s he supposed to return from when his country needs him? Avalon? Anyway, he’s traded his now rusty sword for a rust-proof needle and will be helping out with the vaccination effort as soon as he finishes the required online module in identifying and countering radicalization and gets his certificate. 

And the good news is . . . 

. . . that astronomers in Australia have found a radio wave that (important missing word: apparently) comes from a nearby star. It was picked up for thirty hours during April and May of, um, 2019 I think. They’ve been analyzing it ever since and so far haven’t found anything earth-based that would account for it.

What’s more, It’s apparently shifted frequency in a way that’s consistent with the movement of a planet, and the star it seems to come from, Proxima Centauri, has a rocky planet in the habitable zone, where water doesn’t freeze permanently or sizzle itself into something not helpful to the creation of life.

No one’s ruling out some really boring explanation for the signal, but at the moment it’s called the Wow! Signal because an astronomer wrote “Wow!” in the margin next to the data. 

Why is this good news and what’s it got to do with Covid? You know the concept of deus ex machina? That’s when a writer traps her- or himself in a corner and can’t resolve the plot problem in an even vaguely credible way, so–let’s shift to the plural; it’s not as clunky–they bring in some unexpected power or event to save the day, the play, and the paycheck. 

Well, I try to include something hopeful in these posts, but my shipment of hopeful material got stuck at the Brexit border with the wrong paperwork and will be delayed for several days. Or months. So this is a deus ex machina ending. These folks, whoever they are, are radioing us instructions that, as soon as we translate them, will save us from our silly selves.

And if you believe that, I heard about a bridge in Brooklyn that’s going at a knockdown price.

Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machine” and it comes from ancient Greek drama (even though the words are Latin; don’t ask). They’d use a crane to lower a god onto the stage at the end of the play and nothing would have to make sense after that. If god said the undeserving character got the full bowl of Cheerios, the deserving one got yesterday’s cold toast, and the important Greek phrase got to be in Latin, who could argue? 

Hope raises its reckless head above the Covid parapet

Britain has approved two Covid vaccines and hope is raising its reckless head above the parapet. So what does the government do? It hustles us back to its comfort zone, which is chaos. 

 

Vaccine dosage and the mathematics of gambling

A few days ago, someone in or near the government realized that if people need two doses of vaccine, that means the country needs (pay attention here, because this is complicated) two doses for every person who gets vaccinated. Not to mention enough people and places to vaccinate them twice. And we need to vaccinate almost everyone, which is, in technical terms, a shitload of people.

But, look! If we divide two by two, we get one. 

Who knew?

So let’s give everyone a single dose and tell them to wait a while for the second. That way we’ll get the vaccine to more people. 

This is very clever. 

Irrelevant photo: Daffodils. I saw the first ones in bloom last week. Not these–these are from last year–but you get the basic idea.

Doctors made loud and unhappy sounds. People who already got one injection were given appointments for the second, they said. Who’s going to unschedule them? We (this is the doctors speaking, remember, in unison) and our staff are already at the breaking point and don’t have time to unschedule. What do you want us to do with these people when they show up?

And by the way, does anyone have access to a study indicating that postponing the second vaccination is safe?

Oh, that, the government said. We’ve done some modeling. Short term, it’ll be fine. This will save more lives than the original plan.

The government didn’t hear that noise about appointments. Appointments are Someone Else’s Problem, and as that great philosopher and scientist Douglas Adams pointed out, that means it falls into an SEP field, where becomes invisible.

So let’s stick with the question of studies showing that this is a good idea. Pfizer, the maker of one of the vaccines, said, “There are no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days.” And the US’s Dr. Fauci said something along the lines of, Do what you like over there, be we’re not crazy enough to try it here. 

I’m not putting that in quotes because it’s not a quote. He was considerably more diplomatic.

Scientists–at least in Britain–seem to be split. 

And the public? By now, most of us will take any gamble that’s offered. Remember that business about hope’s reckless head? It’s a beautiful sight. We’re in love.

How much protection will a single shot give us for how long? Who the fuck knows? Some. For a while. That’s better than none for eternity. 

They’re talking about delivering the second dose three months after the first, but I don’t recommend betting anything you’re attached to on it working out that way.

 

The mix-and-match experiment

But why create chaos in one way when the world offers us so many possibilities? 

As far as I can reconstruct this–and it’s not that far, so don’t put too much weight on the sequence of events here–Public Health England published some advice saying it was reasonable to give people one dose of one vaccine and one of another. If necessary.

Why would it be necessary? If, say, the first vaccine isn’t available when the second dose is due. (Whenever, that is, it does turn out to be due.) Or if the person doesn’t know which vaccine they got for a first does and their paperwork’s disappeared into an SEP field. 

“This option is preferred if the individual is likely to be at immediate high risk or is considered unlikely to attend again,” Public Health England wrote.

Cue criticism from assorted experts. 

The New York Times quoted virologist Prof John Moore, who said, “There are no data on this idea whatsoever,” and added that British officials “seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess.”

Which does sound familiar.

Public Health England shot back that they only meant that it would be okay in a crisis. They weren’t recommending it. 

A study of mixed dosing is underway. It might even be better that way. Who the hell knows?

 

The great vaccine roll-out

What, then, stands in the way of getting the vaccine to as many people as possible as quickly as possible? Among other things, a shortage of people capable of sticking needles into other people safely. So of course the government as made it as difficult as possible to recruit people.

A working dentist thought he’d pitch in, since he’s experienced at giving injections. 

Explaining the documentation he was asked for, he said, “Some of the things are really quite sensible, like resuscitation, and recognising and managing anaphylaxis, but then you get things like preventing radicalisation, level 1 certificate required, [or] safeguarding children level 2.

“Children aren’t a priority for vaccination, [so] I really don’t think we’re going to be seeing children.

“I must admit, I gave up at the second hurdle, because I’m very busy as a dentist and I do get home quite tired at night. I thought ‘good grief, If I have to go through all this, I’m not [doing it].’ “

Would that they took this much care when they were handing out contracts for Covid testing and tracing.

 

Are schools open or closed?

Yes. But for a while there we weren’t sure which.

A few days before they were due to open, head teachers–if you’re American, that means principals–weren’t sure which they were preparing for. But as I type this on Sunday the prime minister has finally announced that primary schools will open. Except in London and southeastern England, where they’ll stay closed for two weeks  because of the new Covid variant, which is believed to be more infectious. Even though the variant sneaked out of London and the southeast before the holidays and enjoyed a lovely Christmas and New Year’s break in other parts of the country. 

But why not wait till it gets a good hold elsewhere and react then?

Meanwhile, teachers unions are calling for primary schools to stay closed and head teachers have started legal action, hoping they’ll force the government to cough up the data behind its decision to reopen the schools. It’s a good idea, but the government’s beyond the reach of public embarrassment. 

In the meantime, secondary schools are due to reopen on a staggered basis, which is easy since we’re all staggered by now. Universities will open late and their students–some of them–are on rent strike. And Covid testing of students will be carried out by extras from the Dr. Who New Year’s Day special.

Do we know how to throw a party over here or what?

Covid, kids, and rumors

In spite of rumors to the contrary, the new variant doesn’t seem to be hitting children any harder than the old one. A nurse told the BBC that children’s wards were filling up with Covid cases, and the story spread. Hospitals and pediatricians report that they’re not.

Breathe. We have enough trouble without borrowing any.

Will Britain go into full Covid lockdown?

Covid cases are rising across Britain, with ambulances backing up outside the hospital doors and hospitals reporting that the rivets are popping out of their metaphorical bluejeans. The Independent Sage group is calling for another national lockdown. 

What’s Independent Sage? It’s a scientific advisory group that the government doesn’t listen to because it’s independent. The government has its own fully domesticated Sage group, but I can’t guarantee that it listens to them either.

 

Current Covid restrictions

As I write, 40% of England is in the highest Covid restriction tier–that’s tier 4–with the devolved governments (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland) setting assorted their own standards and if I had a shred of decency I’d cover them as well but it’s hard enough to keep this mess straight without taking in all its complications. I live in Cornwall, which legally speaking is part of England. That sets my focus. 

Apologies. I’m not a real newspaper, I just suffer from the occasional delusion that I should be. 

Irrelevant photo: A tree, pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

One of the primary differences between tier 4 and the lockdown we had earlier in the year, when the government woke up and noticed that the pandemic hadn’t skipped merrily over Britain on its way to the US or Ireland, is that under tier 4 the schools stay open. 

The cabinet office minister, Michael Gove–a man who looks like a balloon wearing a bowtie–says England’s secondary schools will be safe to reopen after the holidays if the kids come back in stages instead of all at once. They’ll be protected by rapid-results Covid testing, which is roughly 50% accurate (not to mention 50% inaccurate, which sounds 51% more shocking than if you put it the other way around). 

Teachers unions and an organization of school governors say the testing can’t realistically be set up in the time they’ve been given. Other than those small problems, though, it’s a great plan.

As an aside, I agree that it’s cheesy to attack people for their looks, but you have to make an exception for some people. Not because of their looks. Because of their actions. 

Okay, it’s cheesy in all situations. What can I tell you? I’m not a good person. 

The cabinet is reported to be split over reopening the schools, and Independent Sage has called for schools to be reopened only when smaller classes, adequate ventilation, and free masks can be organized. That will all happen the minute someone locks the current government in a back room–I understand there’s a small one available underneath Big Ben–and launches a coup.

 

Assorted recommendations

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says the only way for the country not to exceed the levels of intensive care unit usage set during the first Covid peak is to impose nationwide tier 4 restrictions after Boxing Day (that was December 26, which has come and gone without the advice being followed); keep the schools closed throughout January; and vaccinate 2 million people a week. 

I can’t find any ongoing vaccination figures, but in the first week roughly 138,000 people were vaccinated. I’m not good with numbers, but I’m reasonably sure that’s less than 2 million.

 Independent Sage has called for: 

  • Covid tracing to be run by local public health staff, since contracting it out has been a staggeringly expensive disaster, and for it to trace not just who the identified carriers gave the disease to but also who they got it from. 
  • Practical support to be given to people who have to isolate. They cite New York as an example, where support can range from money to a hotel room to pet care.  In Britain, they say, less than 20% of people with symptoms self-isolate.
  • Workplaces to be adapted to prevent transmission. This would involve funding, inspection, and certification of all workplaces.
  • Financial support to be available to the public. Inequality, they say, plays a central role in the pandemic. 

 

Who gets the vaccine?

Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, has called for a public debate about vaccination priorities. National Health Service staff weren’t in the top priority group, although their work exposes them to the virus and staffing shortages are one of the reasons the hospitals’ rivets are popping out of place. 

They are in the second group, which is now being vaccinated, but they’re getting just 5% of the doses, which translates, in expert language, to nowhere near enough to go around. 

 

Life under lockdown 

A new report on what Britons did during the height of lockdown tells us that they spent 40% of their waking time watching TV–90 minutes a day more than in the comparable month last year. 

How much time is that? If 90 minutes leaves London traveling west at a speed of 65 miles per hour and Arabella British stays awake watching 40% of her TV from her couch–which she may call a sofa or a settee or a davenport, depending on what class she comes from or wants to sound like she comes from–

Sorry, where were we? All I have to do is catch a whiff of how class affects British word choice and I get disoriented. And extremely American.

The couch. I was trying to work out how much time, in absolute numbers, Arabella British spent watching TV during (or was it before?) lockdown, but I’m beginning to understand that I won’t come up with the number. Possibly not with the figures I’ve been given and definitely not the mind I so impulsively bought. She watched a lot of TV. Let’s leave it there. With a second full-scale lockdown looking possible, you have to wonder if we’ll keep in touch with reality at all or just give in and lose ourselves in our screens. 

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A small group of Britons lurched into the cold brick wall of reality just hard enough to decide they didn’t like it, so they packed up and fled.

What am I talking about? A bunch of British tourists at a Swiss ski resort were told to quarantine for ten days from the date of their arrival to avoid spreading Britain’s new Covid variant all over Switzerland. 

Or maybe they were staying in several Swiss ski resorts, not one. It doesn’t matter. Swiss officials found about 420 British tourists, told them to stay in their rooms to avoid infecting anyone else, and about half of them packed up and snuck away in the night, leaving a trail of their possible germs all the way to the French border and from there back to Britain.

In case that doesn’t offend you sufficiently, I’ll add that once they got home some of them called the hotel to ask if they still had to pay for the nights they’d booked but not used. Or if I’m guessing right about the sort of people they are, they called not to ask but to demand a refund. 

 

Update

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved for use in Britain. It’s cheaper and easier to produce and store than the Pfizer vaccine, although the statistics on how effective it is are a bit on the murky side. It’s far better than nothing. Right now, that looks pretty good.

How to eliminate Covid, and other pandemic news

 

Academics at the University of Otago studied New Zealand’s experience with Covid and say that the virus can be eliminated, not just contained. 

The emergence of an apparently more infectious virus variant is just another reason to eliminate this infection,” they said

Actually only one of them said it, but let’s pretend, for the sake of simplicity, that they spoke in unison. They do stuff like that in New Zealand. 

What you need if you’re going to eliminate the virus, they said, is informed input from scientists, political commitment, sufficient public health infrastructure, public engagement and trust, and a safety net to support vulnerable populations. 

Those will be easier to cobble together in some countries than in others. That’s me speaking in unison and not mentioning any countries by name. To protect the guilty. 

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses. They’ll be coming up soon, and they’re not afraid of the corona virus.

One of the barriers to eliminating the virus is the belief that hard measures will hurt the economy more than half measures, causing greater hardship, which (as advocates of half-measures reminded us at the start of this mess) has its own health impacts.

“Our preliminary analysis suggests that the opposite is true,” the academics said. “Countries following an elimination strategy—notably China, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand—have suffered less economically than countries with suppression goals.”

The introduction of vaccines should make elimination easier.

 

Antibody therapy

Scientists are testing an antibody therapy that could prevent someone who’s been exposed to Covid from going on to develop it. It could, at least initially, contain outbreaks–in nursing homes, hospitals, or universities, say–or protect people in households where one person is known to be infected. They’re also investigating the possibility that it could protect people with compromised immune systems. 

If all goes well–please notice the if in that sentence–it could be available in March or April.

The Pfizer and Oxford vaccines don’t confer immunity for about a month after injection. With this, the immunity would be immediate.

It goes by the snappy name of AZD7442. 

 

Mass testing evaluated

Britain tried a mass testing program in Liverpool, using rapid-result Covid tests, and managed to miss over half the cases. 

So was it worth doing?

A study went through the data and came back with a definitive maybe. In this corner, wearing the electric pink tee shirt that says No, is the danger presented by false negatives. People who test negative but in reality carry the virus may be prone to riskier behavior than people who haven’t been given any reassurance. They think they present no threat, so they may spread the disease more.

And in this other corner, wearing the soothing green tee shirt that says Yes, is the benefit that comes with spotting Covid cases that would have been missed and taking those people out of circulation. Assuming, of course, that they actually do take themselves out of circulation, which most of them will. 

I think.

The Liverpool data hint that the test may spot people with the highest viral load–in other words, people who may be the most infectious–while missing those least likely to be infectious. But you might want to notice how many tentative words wiggled their way into that sentence. It hasn’t been established that a light viral load means you’re less infectious. 

People who are asymptomatic, by the way, can still have a high viral load, and an estimated 40% to 45% of cases are asymptomatic.

So is mass testing with rapid tests worth doing? It’s a matter of weighing the possible gain (spotting cases that would otherwise have been invisible) against the possible harm (giving false reassurance to people who are in fact carriers). And it depends on that unknown: how contagious people with low viral loads turn out to be.

Whatever it is you come here for–and that’s still a mystery to me–it’s not rock-solid certainty, is it?

 

The compassion report

With a show of compassion worthy of the current American and British governments, Colombia’s president announced that the country will refuse Covid vaccines to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees. The only refugees who’ll have access to the vaccine are those with dual citizenship or official status. That’s less than half of them, and more are crossing the border daily.

The idea that no one will be safe until we all are is a hard one to get across. As will that business the academics from Otago mentioned–political commitment. 

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A bookstore in Trieste asked for volunteers to call people trapped at home by the virus and spend twenty minutes at a time reading to them over the phone and just generally chatting. They figured they’d be doing well if they found a few people to help out the three staff members who were already doing making calls during their breaks and on their days off.

They got 150 responses. Some were from Italians living abroad. Some came from a theater company that had itself been trapped by the pandemic–not at home but offstage. Some were I have no idea who–people who don’t fall into such neat categories. The plan was to have the calling run during Christmas, but with the response it’s gotten it now has no end date.

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An Amsterdam museum that sold a Banksy work for £1.5 million so that it wouldn’t have to lay off staff had a bit of compassion and goodwill returned to it. The anonymous buyer emailed a few months later and offered to lend it to the museum for at least a year.

The new Covid variant, plus what Britain does during lockdown

Newscasters and British government briefings are sounding increasingly sure that the new Covid strain is more contagious than earlier versions. And it may turn out to be, but not all scientists are ready to jump on the bandwagon–especially when it’s steered by a government that outsources navigation to companies with expertise in collecting overdue parking fines. 

An article in Science magazine says that getting definitive answers could take months. What we have right now are possibilities and probabilities.

 

What’s known so far

A couple of things are known at this point. One is that the new variant is out-spreading the old ones. That could be because it spreads more effectively but it could also be because it got lucky: It found a cooperative human host, who introduced it to another cooperative host, who introduced it to a few thousand of his or her closest friends, who and so-forth’d, and before anyone had time to roast the brussels sprouts for Christmas the new strain was all over southeastern England. 

Virology professor Mark Harris, of Leeds University, said. “Unfortunately, the new variant has also become a political football.  It is being blamed by this Government for the rapid spread of the virus in London and the South-East – this is a smokescreen to distract from the failure to put these areas into Tier 3 after the national lockdown. . . .  The potential . . . [for this virus to spread through] communal activities is enormous and the rapid increase in cases of the new variant are a direct consequence.  We need to learn from the lessons of the past year and recognise that by delaying and failing to act decisively our efforts to control the pandemic are less effective, and ultimately lives are at risk.”  

The other thing that’s known is that some of the changes in the new variant are worrying. Like all viruses, Covid evolves, but it’s been known for evolving fairly slowly, making one or two changes a month. Then along comes this new strain carrying seventeen mutations, and at least from where we stand they seem to have popped up all at once.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The earliest ones are just now coming out.

Not only do the number of changes worry the scientists, so do their locations. Eight of them are on the spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to break into the human apartment, raid the refrigerator, move the furniture, play loud music, and then raise a family. The changes look like they could make it easier for the virus to break in, but that needs to be confirmed. 

Or to use that famous American (I think) saying, the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and she’s off in the wings, having a good sulk. She hasn’t even bothered to warm up yet.

 

What’s theorized

There’s speculation that the variant may be able to infect children, but that’s not clear yet. What we have at this point are hints, with no solid evidence. On the other hand, if you want to scare yourself shitless, this is good material. 

A theory on how the variant came to be holds that it could have evolved within a single patient who had a long infection, but at this point it’s just a guess.

As for where it was born, it didn’t necessarily originate in Britain. Britain’s one of a very few countries that sequences a lot of its viral samples. That translates to it being one of the countries most likely to spot a new variant, but it’s been found in other countries. One patient in the Netherlands had it in early December, and it’s been found in Denmark, Australia, and Italy. Belgium recorded four cases early in December. By the time I post this, it will probably have been spotted waiting for the train from Berne to, um, wherever trains from Berne go to. Let’s say Rome. All roads lead to Rome. Surely that includes railroads.

Finding a few (as opposed to many) cases in other countries may (or may not) be evidence that it doesn’t spread as rapidly as advertised. On the other hand, it may simply be evidence of what we (by which, of course, I mean I) already said, that Britain is ahead of most countries on identifying variants. 

Data’s a wonderful thing. Interpreting it is a bitch.

A similar variant seems to have evolved separately in South Africa. That gives some support to the possibility that the mutations give the virus a transmission advantage–or so I’ve read, although unfortunately the article didn’t explain why.

 

So what does it all mean, bartender?

I am emphatically not arguing that the new variant doesn’t spread more quickly or that any conspiracies are being built to claim that it does. (Was that a simple double negative or an implied triple one?) All I’m saying is that commonly held belief seems to have jumped ahead of the science. We have some numbers on infection rates and we have a spike protein with a fashionable new haircut. They’re worrying, especially in combination. But we don’t have the lab work to confirm the conclusions people are drawing.

I could wish the government and the scientists who appear at its briefings would say this, but I expect they think we need clarity. And since the government, at least, hasn’t been clear on anything else I can see why they might want to sink their teeth into this and shake it until it’s in shreds.

And if apparent certainty moves the government to react more decisively to the virus’s spread, that can only be a good thing. It’s a shock to find myself agreeing with anything this government does–I’ll try not to make a habit of it–but if we’re looking at even the possibility of a more aggressively spreading variant, I don’t want them sitting around saying, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.” 

Call that one wrong and people die.

People die anyway. But I think we’d all like as few of them as possible, thanks.

 

What about vaccines?

So far, the virus hasn’t moved itself outside the reach of vaccines, but BioNTech says that if that happens it could tweak its vaccine within six weeks and catch up with a new strain. 

 

And irrelevantly but importantly . . .

Researchers in Australia have documented Covid immunity eight months after an infection. No one knows yet how long immunity lasts, but the documented time keeps getting longer. 

 

And even more irrelevantly, do you know what Britons did during the last lockdown?

Given the data we have–

You remember I said (more or less) that it’s all about how you interpret your data? Well, the data we have is about food and drink, and it says we can forget all those pre-pandemic trends toward plant-based eating and healthy whatevering. Britain spent an extra £2.5 billion buying beer, wine, hard liquor (in case you think the other kinds are soft), and meat. And also tobacco–both cigarettes and roll-your-owns. 

At the top of the list was lager, but Corona beer didn’t do badly either, from which we can infer, deduce, or at least allege that the virus hasn’t affected the famously skewed British sense of humor.

Some of the expenditure can be explained by people not being able to buy drinks at the pub or duty-free wine and tobacco on trips abroad, so they may or may not have consumed more of all those things but just bought it in different places. We don’t want to jump to conclusions–at least not when they’re not any fun (she said, reveling in another double negative).

On the other side of the scales, people spent less money on prefab meals. They were suddenly rich in time, so they cooked more. They bought less bottled water and chewing gum. They spent less on cosmetics, hairstyling products, toothbrushes, and deodorants. 

I fed all of that through the invisible data interpreter that I keep on the other end of my couch and it tells me that we’ve become a nation of hard-drinking, bad-smelling cooks.

 

And finally, things you didn’t know you need to know

A gene that some small number of people inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may double or even quadruple their risk of serious Covid complications. The genetic risk, though, is much smaller than the risk that comes from social factors like poverty and poor access to health care, to name just two.

On the other hand, another bit of Neanderthal DNA may be protective. It just depends on which particular Neanderthal ancestors you might have had, and what particular bits of genetic material they left you. 

Assuming, of course, that had any Neanderthal ancestors. Most Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans do and walk around sporting some small amount of Neanderthal DNA. Anyone whose ancestors came from other places has none.

Make of that what you will. 

*

And finally, translator Peter Prowse has contributed a video to the worlds’ effort to stamp out the virus. He tells us to stop using those explosive consonants (called plosives–P, T, K, and their troublemaking friends) and replace them with softer ones.

He’s well worth a listen.