The Covid testing dilemma

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: Rhododendrons. Photo by Ida Swearingen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

News of an accurate rapid test that’s in development

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

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

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

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

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

I believe that translates to “maybe.”

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

 

High- and low-tech approaches to Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Drug news

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

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

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

The herd immunity debates

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

Should we celebrate? 

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

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

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

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

Cup of tea, anyone?

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

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

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

 

Creeping out of lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

I still didn’t have a watch.

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

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

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

 

Lockdown and the economy

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

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

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home brew Covid research meets Goldilocks

When Vittorio Saggiomo, a scientist in the Netherlands, couldn’t work in his lab during lockdown, he invented a rapid Covid test using the materials he had at home: coffee pods. You know, those pretty, nonrecyclable things that–well, if you use them at all, you have plenty of them.

The reason he wanted to do this is because Covid tests give you a choice between a slow but accurate one and a fast but inaccurate one. The slow ones take time because–

Oh, hell, do you really want to know this? They take time because tiny scientists have to take the swab you jammed up your nose, extract the DNA you left on it, and multiply it until they have enough to work with. And it’s not easy to find tiny scientists–they have to be small enough to fit inside a test tube. 

The fast one is inaccurate because it bypasses the tiny scientists and works with just that bit of DNA you left on the swab. 

Irrelevant photo: These are either what you think they are–dandelions–or one of the half dozen or so flowers that look just like them but aren’t. Damned if I can tell them apart.

Listen, if you want a serious explanation, you should follow the link. I didn’t flunk high school science, but that was only because I was hiding behind the bunsen burner when they handed out grades.

Onward. There’s a third way of testing, a process called Lamp, which stands for, um, loop-mediated isothermal amplification.

You just had to ask, didn’t you?

It does the same thing as the PCR test, multiplying that stingy bit of DNA you sacrificed, but unlike the PCR test it doesn’t have to be done at a bunch of different temperatures. One will do.

So Saggiomo’s problem was how to create the right temperature at home. He found a wax that would melt at the right temperature, so that would keep the DNA at a constant temperature. Next he needed something to put it in. At this point, he turned to the coffee pods. 

The final problem was finding a way to heat the pods. In the dishwasher, they got lost. In the microwave, they overheated and the lids popped off. Cups of hot water didn’t control the temperature well enough and the porridge was too cold. Or possibly too hot. The bears got hungry. 

A pan of water simmering on the stove was perfect, though, and Goldilocks and the three bears sat at the table together and said, “Yeah, but where’s our coffee?”

“Shut up,” the scientist said. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough and all you can think of is caffeine.”

They ate him.

The tests can be made for .20 euros each (don’t miss the decimal point on the left), but whether anyone’s actually going to produce it is up for grabs. 

Anyone ready for porridge?

[For anyone visiting from a culture with a different set of folk tales, the references are to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If I have to explain them, they won’t be remotely funny, but Lord Google will be happy to help you find the tale if you’re interested.]

 

 

More at-home research

From the start of the pandemic, a professor’s thirteen-year-old son watched his father disinfect the groceries and afte a while he questioned whether it really needed to be done. 

“I just told Anand, ‘If you want to do a science project, this is a perfect one,'” the father, Vishal Shah, said.

They took the project seriously enough to quarantine for fourteen days so they wouldn’t contaminate the test subjects, then gathered produce from ten stores in the Philadelphia area, where high levels of community Covid spread were reported, and they went at peak times. They took produce that people touch a lot–apples, avocados, bananas, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, lettuce–and swabbed them five times.

“One of the first things I realized once I told my dad I wanted to do this project was that I had no means of testing for the virus on my own,” Anand said. “My dad’s lab was closed, so I contacted labs across the country and gave presentations that discussed what the project was.”

He found one  in Tennessee that would do his testing. Of the 140 pieces of produce it tested, only one apple had traces of the virus on its surface. 

The study has been published in ACS Food Science and Technology.

Not bad for a thirteen-year-old, even if he did have help.

 

A bit about long Covid

At the beginning of March, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in Britain had long Covid.

So gets long Covid? It was most common among people between 35 and 49 and more common in women than men. It followed Covid’s pattern of hitting hardest in the poorest areas, and health and social care workers are the most likely occupational group to have it. That could be because they–like people who live in the poorest parts of the country–are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

People with preexisting health conditions were also more likely to get long Covid.

In round numbers, out of seven people who test positive for Covid, one will still have symptoms three months later. 

But there’s still no official definition of long Covid, and that leaves a lot of questions about what happens to people who get it, financially speaking. If they use up their sick leave and lose their jobs, do they have a medically recognized condition so they can apply for support? How is long Covid diagnosed when there’s no definition and no diagnostic code? 

You’ll notice I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, so here’s one I can answer: What’s a diagnostic code? It’s something terribly important that you put into a little blank square. If you don’t have one, please apply to the Department of Diagnostic Codes. As soon as you get it, your life will become more fulfilling.

So are people who get long Covid disabled? In practical terms, some are and some aren’t. Some will be able to work full time, some only part time, and some not at all. Are they officially disabled, though? Gray zone. The short answer is that it’s too early to tell, and figuring it out is going to be messy. If they become officially disabled, an employer’s expected to make “reasonable adjustments” for them. If not–

Gray zone. 

Among those 1.1 million people in Britain with long Covid are 122,000 people who work for the NHS, 114,000 teachers, and 30,000 social workers. I didn’t find statistics on what percentage of teachers that is, but it’s close to 4% of the NHS staff, and their illness is hitting the NHS hard. 

It’s also hitting the people with long Covid hard. Some haven’t been able to go back to work and have lost their jobs. 

Or I think that’s what the article I read is saying. The exact quote is about losing their “roles.” Maybe they’re talking about being downgraded to other roles, but I wouldn’t count on that. If you take enough sick leave–even if it’s your job that exposed you to the sickness–most employers will find a way to show you where the door is. 

One MP is trying to get long Covid recognized as an occupational disease, and to compensate and support workers in health care, social care, and key public services who catch it. I wouldn’t hold your breath, but it would be the right thing to do.

I should also mention the thousands of people who caught Covid in less prestigious jobs in transportation and meat packing and supermarkets–all those people who used to be cheered as key workers and who’ve now been officially reclassified as Remind-me-why-we-cared-about-you.

 

How not to break lockdown rules

An unnamed man broke the Covid rules by traveling from England into Scotland for no better reason than to camp out on Inchtavannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Once there, he didn’t sing “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes” (as far as anyone knows, anyway). Instead, he lost his paddle and got his silly self stranded. 

(Again, if you’ve visiting from a culture with a different set of overused songs, that’s from “Loch Lomond.”)

What happened to the unnamed man isn’t quite the same as, in the famous American phrase, up shit crick without a paddle, but it’s close enough. (That phrase, by the way, is said to date back to the 1860s. You can take it back half a century or so to the days of Admiral Nelson, but you might or might not have to sacrifice the word shit. You needed to know that.)  

It’s not clear what happened to the paddle. The man went for a walk and when he came back he discovered that it had gone for a walk of its own. He and his true love never met again, and someone called the cops–probably him but the article I found doesn’t commit itself. A rescue boat picked him up. I don’t know if he was fined, but I’m reasonably sure that he was teased within an inch of his life.

Do vaccines keep us from transmitting Covid?

One of the endless unanswered Covid questions has been whether people who’ve been vaccinated will still spread the disease, and evidence is piling up that they’ll spread it less. 

During their early trials, Pfizer didn’t test for asymptomatic cases, but AstraZeneca did and they fell by 50%. That matters, because asymptomatic people can still spread the disease, so fewer cases means less spread. Not to be outdone, Pfizer did its own study and reported that one dose of vaccine cut the risk of transmission by 70% and two doses by 85%. 

Don’t put too much weight on the differences in those numbers. They were measuring different things.

In Scotland, people living with vaccinated NHS staff were considerably less likely to catch the virus than people living with unvaccinated NHS staff. 

How much less likely? Considerably. Will you stop asking awkward questions?

Irrelevant photo: More daffodils.

Hospital workers in Cambridge showed a 75% decrease in asymptomatic infections, and an Israeli study showed that when vaccinated people did have infections they had lower viral loads, which would make them less infectious than people with higher viral loads. 

So if we’ve been vaccinated, can we throw a party for a few hundred of our closest friends as long as they’ve also been vaccinated? ‘Fraid not. The British government’s advice is that “the full impact on infection rates will not become clear until a large number of people have been vaccinated” and we should please keep our heads on straight and be cautious. 

Why? Well, consider what’s happened in Chile. 

 

Okay, what has happened in Chile?

It’s vaccinated about a third of its population with at least one dose–it’s vaccination program has been impressive–and even so it’s going into another wave of the pandemic. Both deaths and case numbers are rising and they’re threatening to overwhelm the health system. Some 20% to 30% of the country’s medical professionals have gone on leave because they’re exhausted, wrestling with health problems of their own and with thoughts of suicide.

“When transmission rates are high, the vaccine does not rein in new infections right away,” said Dr. Denise Garrett, an epidemiologist at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. “And with the new variants, which are more contagious, we’re not likely to see a big impact until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated.”

According to Dr. Francisca Crispi of the Chilean medical association, the government unlocked the country too quickly. It reopened its borders and loosened restrictions on businesses. It introduced a permit system that let people go on summer vacations–or holidays, if you speak British. So people came into the country. People went out of the country. People traveled around the country. Gyms, churches, malls, restaurants, and casinos reopened. Experts fretted, but the government stuck with it, reopening the schools at the beginning of March. 

Nobody traced anybody.

And it all felt so good.

So no. No parties for the time being. Sorry.

 

The mass testing report

A study of mass Covid testing in British universities and colleges reports that it was haphazard, expensive, and a lost opportunity.

The BMJ–a medical journal–sent freedom of information requests to 216 schools and got full information from only 16, leading me to think that information may be free but it’s still elusive. But never mind that. They got partial information from others and it was enough to draw some tentative conclusions.

The testing was part of the government’s Operation Moonshot, which was going to make the country Covid safe and avoid a second lockdown by testing people–lots of people–whether they had symptoms or not. Since it started, we’ve had not just a second lockdown but also a third.

Never mind, though. It’s been a good use of £100 billion. 

The university and college testing was just a small part of Op Moonshot, and the study estimates that every positive test result cost £3,000. It also says that’s likely to be a massive underestimate because it doesn’t include the staffing of test sites and whatever other costs are hidden under the rug. 

You’d noticed that the rug was lumpy? I tripped on it just this morning.

Angela Raffle, consultant in Public Health and honorary senior lecturer at Bristol University, said the testing program was “a desperate exercise in trying to get favourable publicity for number 10, trying to get rid of the Innova test mountain, and trying to change the culture in this country so that we start to think that regular tests for everybody is a worthwhile use of public resources, which it isn’t.”

Number 10? That’s the center of the British government.

And the Innova test mountain? It’s made up of £1 billion (as far as I could figure out) worth of quick-result Covid tests that the government bought and which turn out to work best on people who have a high viral load. In other words, they’re exactly what you don’t want to use on asymptomatic people–the program’s target audience. 

And they’re even less accurate in the hands of non-experts. 

So who’s using them? Non-experts. 

We’ll skip the most confusing of the numbers involved in this and settle for these: Let’s say you use them to test 100,000 people and get 630 positives. Of those, 400 of those will be false positives, and you will have missed half the positive cases (that should, I think, be 230) in your sample. If that isn’t worth £1 billion, I don’t know what is. Or even £100 billion. Because what’s £99 billion between friends? 

Regular testing of secondary school students was rolled out this spring, although it’s too early for anyone to have statistics on how effective or expensive that will be. The program was sold to us as a way to reopen the schools safely. 

Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage, the government’s science advisory group, said, “The government keeps on seeking quick fixes based on one intervention. What they consistently fail to do is build a system in which all the parts work together to contain the virus.” 

 

Vaccine passports vs. mass testing 

All of this is particularly relevant because Boris Johnson–our prime minister when he’s working, which he does sometimes do–just backed off his plan to introduce vaccine passports and announced that we’ll use mass testing instead. But only in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are doing whatever the hell they want because that’s how it works around here. 

Are you confused? Then you understand the situation.

The vaccine passports were supposed to allow people into crowded events, but MPs from across the political spectrum opposed them, including a good number from his own party, and they were joined by an assortment of civil liberties groups he wouldn’t normally listen to but what the hell, let’s mention them anyway. They’re particularly problematic because not everyone’s eligible for the vaccine yet. 

So instead of vaccination passports, everyone in Britain is going to be offered two rapid Covid tests a week. 

How many of us will use them? My best guess is not many, given the odds of coming up with a false positive and having to self-isolate. For someone who’s retired, that’s a minor inconvenience. For someone who’s working and can’t afford to miss a paycheck, that’s a disaster. 

The usual suspects are saying this would work better if people were paid enough to live on when they can’t work. And if the contacts of anyone who tests positive were traced effectively.

The usual suspects will be ignored. 

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Last weekend, the government announced a pilot program of nine events to try out Covid passports. Presumably that was before it abandoned the idea, who your guess is as good as mine, which is roughly as good as theirs. Five of the nine venues said they had nothing to do with the program. 

You have to love this government. It’s a gift to satirists everywhere. If only it wasn’t supposed to run the country as well.

 

Other vaccine news

Russia has announced a Covid vaccine for animals, Carnivak-Cov. The idea is to prevent the virus circulating in dense animal populations, where it can mutate and spread back to humans. 

And Pfizer reports that its vaccine is effective in kids between 12 and 15. It’s still testing kids between 5 and 11 and any minute now will begin tests with kids between 2 and 5. All of that’s important because although kids are less susceptible to Covid, they can sometimes get very sick indeed and can less rarely get long Covid after a mild bout of the disease. 

They can also form a nice reservoir where the disease can sit and breed before returning to the more susceptible adult population.

 

And your light relief for the day is…

An art director, David Marriott, was stuck in Australian quarantine after flying back from his father’s funeral and was going ever so slightly nuts with boredom, so he made himself a cowboy outfit out of the brown bags that his meals came in when they were left at his door.

Then–as anyone would do–he realized that any serious cowboy needs a horse, so he made one, also from brown paper, but plus the ironing board and a lamp. Its–or, I guess, his–name is Russell, and Marriott’s asked for a pet walking service.

The photos are worth clicking through for–not just Marriott brushing Russell’s teeth, but Russell lined up to use the toilet since the management turned down the pet walking request. Russell’s in quarantine too.

Marriott’s thinking about adding a cat and a dog next. 

The Covid update for Britain

Between lockdown and vaccination, Britain has fewer people dying of Covid on any given day than in–well, let’s say anytime in the last three months because I found some very pretty graphs that use that as a reference point. We also have fewer Covid cases (as opposed to deaths) than we did three months ago, but the downward slanting line has flattened out. Maybe because the schools have reopened, but that’s guesswork. You’ll find other possible reasons below.

By mid-March, half of Britain’s population had antibodies, some from vaccination, others from having had Covid. 

Okay, not half: 54.7%. Most of us who’ve been vaccinated have only had one dose and are waiting nervously for the second. At least my partner and I are nervous. We’re coming up toward twelve weeks and haven’t heard a memory of an echo of a whisper of a date. 

The main thing, though, is that case numbers and deaths are both down and we’re breathing a bit easier. The country’s coming out of lockdown in stages, peeping its head over the parapet to see if the virus is still shooting at us.  

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn

Should people be working from home?

So what would any sober, sensible prime minister do in that situation?

Damned if we know, because we don’t have one. We’ve got Boris Johnson, and he’s told us that people who’ve been working at home should go back to–

What do you call that place? The office. They should go back and start working from their offices. They’ve had enough days off, he told the Conservative Party spring conference.

The exact quote is, “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.” Making it not exactly his idea, but one that originated elsewhere and meandered into his head because there isn’t much in there to stop it. 

That followed on the heels of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saying that people are likely to quit their jobs if they’re not allowed to go back to the office and businesses had better open up if they want to keep them.

Are office workers really desperate to start working from work again? It seems to depend when you ask, and who, so we’ll skip the numbers and say that some want to keep working from home, at least until they can count on the workplace being Covid-free, and some would love to go back because they’ve been calling one square foot of kitchen table an office and they’ve had to share that with a cup of tea and the toast crumbs from breakfast. Not to mention until recently a small kid or three who they were supposed to be homeschooling. And the cat, whose spelling is terrible.

Recruitment agencies expect that a lot of people will want to work remotely after the pandemic ends. 

So working from home isn’t a simple yes/no question. It involves a lot of ifs and no answer will be unanimous. But offhand I’d say Johnson may have had his own work habits in mind when he assumed people were sitting around with their feet up, drinking wine and contemplating how to get someone who isn’t himself to pay for new wallpaper

Okay, it’s more than wallpaper. It’s also furniture. To the tune of £200,000. Which is, at least, more than the £2.6 million spent on a new briefing room.

But forget all that. How safe are workplaces?

A strike’s pending at the Swansea Department of Vehicle and Licensing Agency over workplace safety after 560 workers tested positive for Covid. That’s out of, as far as I can tell, something in the neighborhood of 2,000, so let’s say a quarter of the workforce. 

The union says the building’s too overcrowded for pandemic working. 

Britain’s had 4,500 workplace Covid outbreaks. 

What are businesses doing to make workplaces safe? Half of them have done Covid risk assessments. Others have done none or have outdated assessments. A quarter of them have been inspected during the pandemic. My world-beating mathematical skills tell me that means three-quarters of them haven’t been inspected. No employers have been prosecuted for violating Covid regulations.

That’s not to say that workplace outbreaks are due only to violations of the regulations, or that the regulations are up to the job of keeping people safe, only that they’re the measure we have at hand. 

If you want to read the guidelines, they’re here.  

At least part of what’s driving the push to get office workers back into the office–and this isn’t my speculation but that of genuine journalists (I only play one on the internet)–is that the businesses that feed on office workers need to be fed, and what they need to be fed is money. That can only happen when people work in central locations, then go out for lunch, stop in for coffee, and buy a pair of shoes on their way home. 

Office workers, put on your high heels and your ties (pick one, please; if you wear both you’ll draw too much attention to yourself) and get back into the office. Your nation needs you. 

Your nation needs your money.

 

So why isn’t the number of cases dropping?

I can’t give you a definitive answer on that, but I can toss a few possibilities at you. If we practice this long enough, you’ll know when to duck.

I mentioned that the schools have reopened. That’s one factor. Another is that fewer than one person in five requests a Covid test when they have symptoms and only half self-isolate when they have symptoms. That’s from a large study by the British Medical Journal

The people least likely to self-isolate are men, younger people, the parents of young kids, people from working-class backgrounds, people working in key sectors, and people with money problems.

One of the (many) glaring gaps in the government handling of the pandemic has been not giving low-income people who have to self-isolate enough money to live on while they’re off work. 

The reasons people don’t self-isolate range from the compelling, including the need to buy groceries and pay the rent, to the self-indulgent. The self-indulgent ones include exercising, meeting people, and having only mild symptoms so what the hell.

The study took place in waves, over a good stretch of time, and it did see some improvement as time went on, from 43% self-isolating to 52%. The study’s authors said greater practical and financial help would improve the numbers and messages addressed specifically to men, younger people, and key workers might also help.

In the meantime, the country’s budgeted £37 billion for a test and trace system that hasn’t shown any clear impact. The Public Accounts Committee said it was set up with the goal of preventing lockdowns, but the country’s had two since then. It also said the spending was “unimaginable” and that the taxpayer shouldn’t be treated like an ATM machine.

Some of the test and trace system’s consultants are paid more than £6,600 per day.

In a pinch, a person could live on that. 

 

The elusive Covid inquiry

Assorted troublemakers have called for an inquiry into the way Britain’s handled the pandemic. You know the sort of troublemaker we’re talking about. The doctors publication the BMJ wanted one as far back as last September. A group called Bereaved Families for Justice, whose name pretty much explains what they’re about. Health workers. Minority ethnic organizations, whose communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus. A small bouquet of academics. The children’s book writer Michael Rosen, who recovered from Covid after a long (long, long) hospitalization and has written movingly about the experience, so he’s able, for the moment, to grab some lines of newsprint. Your basic troublemaking pick-and-mix.

Some of them want a wide-ranging inquiry into what went wrong and others want a tightly focused inquiry into what should be done in the future, but that division’s in the background right now. They can argue over it later.

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who says he wishes he’d done some things differently but he’ll keep all that between himself and his pillow at 3 a.m. In the meantime, sorry, but no inquiry–not to not to figure out how to do better in the future and not to figure out what went wrong–and a horrifying amount has, both stuff you can chalk up to incompetence and stuff you can chalk up to corruption, not to mention stuff that embraces both with enthusiasm.

Other ways of holding public inquiries are possible, though, and they’re outside the prime minister’s grasp. Ian Boyd, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, better known as Sage (Boyd’s a sir, but I never can bring myself to attach that sort of nonsense to people’s names), suggested a royal commission–basically a committee of experts pulled together to investigate an issue. It wouldn’t have as much power to gather evidence as an inquiry form with the prime minister’s blessing and that of his pillow, but it could get some work done–probably with less political interference.

How dangerous is Covid to kids?

With Britain’s schools having only recently reopened, this is a disturbing time for me to mention a British Office for National Statistics report that says kids are getting long Covid. So I offer all the usual apologies for bringing it up, but ignorance of the real world is no protection against snake bites or traffic accidents. That means we might as well open the report and see what sort of snakes or car wrecks it mentions. 

It’s well established that kids are less likely than adults to get sick if they catch Covid, and that if they do catch it their symptoms are likely to be mild. Beyond that, an uneasy-making number of unknowns are running loose. If you follow the literature, you’ll find all sorts of contradictory studies on how likely kids are or aren’t to pass Covid on, either to each other or to adults. If you’re sitting on a couch in Britain and ask Lord Google “Are children at risk of getting sick with coronavirus?” he’ll take you to some withdrawn but still available government advice to schools: “Children are likely to become infected with coronavirus (COVID-19) at roughly the same rate as adults, but the infection is usually mild.” So, basically, it’s all fine, go back to sleep.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. The yellow ones are wild and the pink are what happens when domesticated ones go out on their own and cross-pollinate. And many thanks to Cat9984 for finding me a way to size photos in spite of the WordPress’s dreaded new editing program.

The government may have posted updated advice, but Lord G. isn’t aware of it. They haven’t taken the old advice down.

The mantra that kids who show symptoms are likely to have mild ones has left a lot of us meditating serenely on the safety of children in these dangerous times. So England, at least, has reopened the schools without any real discussion of what it’ll take to make them safe, because, hey, kids are resilient little bugs, they need to get back to school, and they’ll be fine. 

Teachers? Toss a coin. Some have been vaccinated. The ones who haven’t are statistically likely to be fine. 

Probably.

But evidence is starting to form a more worrying picture. The Centers for Disease Control in the US estimate that in 13% to 15% of kids who do show Covid symptoms, at least one symptom hangs on for more than 5 weeks. That’s more or less the definition of long Covid. (The more or less is there because no fixed definition of long Covid exists yet. A quick check with Lord G. also brought me 12 weeks.)

An Italian study shows that more than half the kids who get symptomatic Covid still have at least one symptom 17 weeks after they were diagnosed. In 43% of them, the symptoms are enough to cause them problems in their daily lives. 

A separate study found long Covid symptoms that included tiredness; weakness; headaches; abdominal, muscle, and joint pain; gastrointestinal symptoms; and skin complaints such as rashes. 

If you’re not worried yet, they also list trouble concentrating, trouble remembering and processing information, and trouble finding the right word. Also unexplained irritability, although those symptoms would be enough to explain anyone’s irritability. 

The first two studies are preprints, meaning they haven’t been peer reviewed yet. A lot of papers have been released that way this past year. I’m reasonably sure preprint is one of the words tha pandemic’s given us. Thank you, Covid. The language was poorer before we had that.

 

Would you get vaccinated if someone offered you for free donuts?

How do you convince reluctant people to get vaccinated? You offer them donuts. Also beer and popcorn. Preferably not all in one meal. The British have an odd–at least to an American–habit of mixing alcohol and sweet stuff, but I’ve never seen anyone take it as far as mixing beer and donuts. And the offers were made in the US anyway.

To be fair, I think those offers were made less by way of inducement and more by way of thanks, or possibly marketing, but I’m not inside the minds that made those decisions, so I can’t know. 

For whatever reasons, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is offering one free donut a day to anyone who brings  proof that they’ve been vaccinated. Chagrin Cinemas (that’s not a typo; they’re in the oddly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio) are offering free popcorn, but only through April. Market Garden Brewery (no note on where that is) is offering ten-cent beers, but there’s fine print: You have to be an adult.  

I know. Someone always wants to spoil the fun.

In Walled Lake, Michigan, the Greenhouse is offering one pre-rolled joint. That’s called Pot for Shots. 

Employers are itchy to get their businesses back to what we so casually call normal, and in the U.S. a number of companies are offering workers cash, gift cards, store credit, and time off. 

Will any of that work? You’re damn right it will–not necessarily the donuts, but the money. According to one survey, almost a quarter of employed Americans who either probably or definitely wouldn’t get vaccinated would reconsider if they were offered money.

In Britain, Boris Johnson took another approach, floating the idea of allowing only people with vaccine certificates into the pub. 

Which pub is that? All pubs are the pub to someone. If they’re not, they go broke quickly. 

The pub and restaurant industry shot back that it would be unworkable, unnecessary, inappropriate, and a very bad idea. Johnson promptly backtracked. Which doesn’t mean the idea’s dead. Johnson does U-turns for a living.

 

Do women leaders kill Covid?

Any number of people argue that since countries led by women have done well during the pandemic, women’s leadership is responsible for those outcomes. But a worldwide survey argues that a nation’s culture matters more than its leader’s gender.

The study looked at 175 countries (hands up everyone who knew the planet had so many), 16 of which were led by women. They didn’t find a statistical difference in death rates based on the leaders’ gender. 

What they did find was that success in dealing with Covid depends on how egalitarian the country is and on how much it prioritizes the wellbeing of society in general. Or to put that another way, it depends on two cultural factors, individualism and power distance, which is a measure of the power differences among the country’s citizens. 

More egalitarian and less individualistic countries have done better in the pandemic.

I’m reading between the lines, but part of the study looks like it’s based on actual data and part of it looks like they’ve used that data for statistical modeling. I’ve been hesitant about statistical modeling, but its prediction that the British Covid variant spread more easily than earlier variants has been borne out by lab work, so maybe I should shut up and accept that statistical modeling might just be useful.

Anyway, it’s up to you. Take the study for whatever you think it’s worth: It says that when both individualism and power distance are high (as they are in, for example, the U.S.), the average death rate is predicted to be 28.79 per 100,000 people. 

Where both are extremely low (as they are, for example, in Trinidad and Tobago and in New Zealand), the predicted average is 1.89 per 100,000.

Countries that value collective action have been more open to wearing masks and enforcing lockdowns. And egalitarian societies tend to have universal healthcare systems in place, along with paid sick leave and policies that make it possible for people to stay at home. 

So why are women leading so many of the countries that have done well? Because egalitarian countries are more likely to elect women as leaders. That gives us a correlation between women in leadership and success in handling  the pandemic, but with only 16 women leaders there’s not enough evidence to say that women leaders are better at it.

Sorry.

If you want a triumphant feminist note, though, the study does note that the pandemic’s messed with the world’s usual way of dismissing women leaders. In normal times, they’re criticized either for being too masculine and aggressive or for being too feminine and weak, which doesn’t leave much of a zone where they’re not shredded. During the pandemic, though, they’ve been praised for their decisiveness.

The world will never stop surprising us.

 

Vaccine news

Brazil has developed a vaccine, ButanVac, that’s expected to be approved in April and to start trials in July. Plans are to produce it in both Brazil and Thailand and distribute it to poorer countries.

Brazil’s short on vaccines and has a record number of cases, not to mention a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who opposes masks and lockdowns, downplays the virus’s danger, and has been publicly skeptical about ButanVac’s effectiveness.

Sao Paulo state’s governor, Joao Doria, said the vaccine, “is the response to those that deny the science and life.” It may be entirely coincidental that Doria’s expected to run against Bolsonaro next year.

*

A group in Germany are working on a Covid vaccine that would come in the form of a pill, making it easy to transport and store and relatively cheap to produce. This isn’t a new technology. Typhoid vaccine is already delivered that way.

The plan is for it to produce two antigens rather than one, giving it a bit of a jump on the virus’s mutations. But it’s still in the early stages, so don’t get excited about it yet.

*

Cuba’s also working on its own vaccine–multiple versions, and one of them, Soberana 2, looks promising and is in stage 3 trials. If it makes it through the trials and is authorized, they expect to have enough doses for all Cubans by the end of summer. Plans are to export them initially to Mexico, Iran, and Venezuela, and after that to the world–and to offer them to tourists.

The island’s kept the number of Covid cases low for much of 2020–some days just one or two cases a day–but in November, needing the cash, it reopened to tourists, which sent numbers up. 

Is a universal coronavirus vaccine a pipe dream?

Scientists are in the (very) early stages of working out a universal vaccine against coronaviruses–one that would block not only Covid’s existing and future variants but any new coronaviruses that emerge.

Okay, let’s call that a possible vaccine. It could easily not work out, but on the other hand no law of nature says that it can’t. Scientists have been doing the next-to-impossible a lot lately. I’ve started to take it for granted. 

IMG_0082 (1)

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud, stolen from an old post because I’m trapped in WordPress’s horrible new editing program and haven’t found a way to drop in new photos at full size. I had a way to avoid the new system, but they’ve blocked it.  

They can approach the task in two ways. One is to make a mosaic vaccine. That has nothing to do with Moses–you know, the guy with the stone tablets. It’s from the word for those tiny pieces of colored tile that make up a picture. The vaccine takes particles from several Covid variants or other coronaviruses and sticks them onto a nanoparticle–a very tiny biological structure made up of proteins. Think of it as sticking some olives on a toothpick.

Or don’t. It’s your mind. I’ll never know. But if you do want to go out on that imaginary limb with me, watch while I saw it off behind us: We’re going to take that toothpick with its olives and drop it into the martini of your immune system.

Thwack. That was the sound of us hitting the ground, olives and all.

It would make a nice lullabye, don’t you think?

Now that we’ve dusted ourselves off, we can let our immune systems figure out what those bits of virus have in common and arm itself–and us–against that.

When this was tried in mice, their immune systems created a broad range of neutralizing antibodies. And creating neutralizing antibodies is the main goal of any vaccine.

Mice–as no doubt you already know–are not humans. They’re also not martinis, so this may not transfer seamlessly from them to us. But it holds some promise.

If you’ll let me brush those twigs out of your hair, we can go on.

The second approach has the scientists looking for features that are common to all coronaviruses. That could mean analyzing their genetic sequences to see where they overlap. It could also mean looking for immune cells that react to either all coronaviruses or to a number of variants, and then mapping the parts of the virus that they target. After that, all that’s left is to create a vaccine aimed at that spot.

Nothing to it.

Those of you who don’t drink will be relieved to know that no martinis are involved in this approach.

Now I’ll throw cold water on the whole project and tell you that scientists have been trying to come up with a universal flu vaccine and a universal HIV vaccine for years. The candidates have been safe but not impressively effective. Still, Covid doesn’t mutate as quickly as either HIV or the flu.

Yes, really. In spite of everything we’ve been reading about variants. This is what’s called slow mutation. 

So no one’s offering guarantees that this will work, but it’s a bright spot on the horizon. 

The horizon, unfortunately, is a good long way away.

Policy-type stuff

An international survey of how countries handled the pandemic shows that autocracies and democracies did equally well and equally badly, as did rich countries and poor countries and countries governed by populists and countries governed by technocrats. In other words, none of those were decisive factors.

Lockdowns of one sort or another do break the chain of infection, but they’re not universally successful. If the population doesn’t trust the government, they don’t seem to work. (I’m stretching the study’s conclusion a bit there. It sounds more tentative about it.) Economic support may make lockdowns more effective. (“May”? I can’t imagine the part of the world where making sure people who can’t work can still eat and pay their rent wouldn’t help. Never mind. It’s not my study. They’re not my conclusions.)

Some countries with strong scientific capacity and healthcare systems have responded badly, and some countries with far less (Mongolia, Thailand, Senegal) have both kept their people healthy and the economy running. 

Some countries (Taiwan, Vietnam, and New Zealand get a mention) did well in controlling the first wave and kept control from there on. Others did well in the first wave but the waves that followed swept over them. 

I’ll get out of the way now and let the people involved in the study have the last word:

“While our work has tracked individual governments’ responses, it is clear that exiting the pandemic will require global cooperation. Until transmission is curtailed throughout the world with restrictions and vaccinations, the risk of new variants sending us back to square one cannot be ignored.”

In other words, we’re all in this together. Even when we don’t act as if we are.

*

So let’s check in on a country that’s managed well and hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity. 

Before it had its first Covid case, Iceland had a testing system and a contact-tracing team, ready to go to work as soon as they found their first case. They put everyone who tested positive into isolation and traced their contacts. The word one of the people involved uses, with no apology, is aggressively.

Isolation–as least in Reykjavik–is in a hotel that was converted for the purpose. In response to which the staff walked out. The man in charge (I have no idea what his title is–sorry; let’s call him Gylfi Thor Thorsteinsson, since that’s his name) coaxed them back. They work in full protective gear. Thorsteinsson at least goes into people’s rooms to keep them company.  I assume many of the others go in as well, but the article I read didn’t say. In the past year, the hotel’s taken care of more patients than all the hospitals in Iceland rolled into one.

After Iceland got its first wave under control, they closed the hotel. Then they immediately had to reopen it when two tourists who’d tested positive went a-wandering. And by immediately, I do mean immediately. They just had a goodbye party for the staff when they had to say hello again. 

Now anyone who lands at the airport is tested and put into quarantine. As a result, Iceland is a country where people can go to bars, eat out, and generally wander the world without masks, as if life was normal. Not because they’re risking their lives and other people’s but because it’s safe.

At one point, someone carrying the UK Covid variant slipped through the net and spread it to a second person, who went to work in a hospital and in case that wasn’t bad enough went to a concert with 800 other people, who all crammed into the bar during the intermission. 

Whee. Viral playtime.

Within hours, the tracing system had contacted every one of them. Within days, they’d tested 1,000 people, finding two cases, and they were taken to the isolation hotel. 

And that was it. The virus was contained. 

Why has Iceland been so successful? Thorsteinsson said it’s because “it has been the scientists making up the rules, not the politicians. That matters. They know what they are talking about, the politicians do not.”

The prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, seconded that. 

I think it’s important for a politician to realize what is politics and what needs to be solved by scientific means. It’s my firm belief that we need to listen more to the experts.”

 

A short technical rant

WordPress in its wisdom has blocked the back road that once allowed me to use its manageable Classic Editor, so I’m now trapped in the new one. If anyone knows how to size photos (or knows a back road), pleasepleaseplease let me know. Thanks.

The AstraZeneca vaccine update

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is back in the news, and not happily. The company handed a group of US medical experts data on its effectiveness, but when the experts looked at it, they said, “Guys, this isn’t new data. This is the old stuff.”

Except that if they’d really used those words, they’d have said “aren’t new data,” because experts use the word enough to remember that data are plural. All experts. Even experts in knitting and basketball manufacturing. The word data is in a category that includes nonbinary people who prefer to be called they instead of he or she. Those of us who are over the age of a thousand struggle to get the pronouns and the verbs right. 

In case you’re interested, data is made up of lots of itty-bitty little datums.

No, sorry, that’s wrong too. A single datum has to have at least one friend before it become data.

Where were we?

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn.

Basically, the experts were saying that AZ had cherry-picked its data to make the vaccine look like it was 79% effective. What the experts saw was between 69% and 74% effectiveness.

The craziness of all this is that a vaccine with 69% effectiveness is still damn good, and the advantage of AZ’s vaccine is that it’s easy to transport and store, so it doesn’t have to match the effectiveness of the fussier ones to be useful.

AZ said it had released interim data and that its later data (which rhymes if you pronounce your Rs the English-English way, like silent Hs) was consistent with it. Sorry: with them. It then released the lata data to the experts.

None of this is about the vaccine’s safety, but Dr. H. Cody Meissner, an infectious-disease expert at Tufts University School of Medicine who serves on a board that advises the US Food and Drug Administration on vaccine approvals, said, “You know the anti-vaccine community is going to use this as fodder to argue that pharmaceutical companies are always deceptive.” 

He said board members would be even more careful than usual to scrutinize AZ’s  data from here on, and “I will make sure I don’t skip a word.”

Which is probably not the response AZ was hoping for.

 

Yeah, but what about the AZ vaccine’s safety? 

A number of countries put the AstraZeneca vaccine on hold for fear that it was linked to a very rare blood clotting problem, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. AZ’s recent US trial involved 21,000 people and turned up no safety concerns, although when a problem’s extremely rare it could easily not show up in a sample of that size. Or of ten times that size.

But even if the vaccine does, very rarely, cause cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, the risk of not using the vaccine is much greater than the risk of using it. Either all or most (or, hell, I’ve lost count; let’s just say many) countries that put it on hold have by now started to use it again. 

 

Magical Covid solutions that may turn out to be real

I try not to write about Covid solutions that are still in the trial stage, because we may never hear of them again, but every so often I can’t stop myself, so let’s talk about protease inhibitors. They’re antiviral treatments in pill form that can be used in the early stages of an infection to keep the virus from multiplying.

What’s a protease inhibitor? It’s a–

Would you mind if I duck that question? We can all live perfectly full lives (and pretend we understand this) without understanding this fully. So a protease inhibitor is a thing–probably one that inhibits proteases–and it’s already been used to treat other viruses, including HIV and hepatitis C. It’s also been used to treat Covid, but up to now it has to be delivered into the blood stream slowly, so its use has been fairly limited.

As someone or other said, “This is really a potential game changer.”

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic has been that experts and politicians are required to use the phrase game changer at least once a week. By now, we’ve changed games so often that we don’t know if we’re playing cards or jump rope, or possibly that game involving horses, mallets, and a the head of a dead goat. But as long as we’re changing games, I should mention that they’re exploring the possibility that the treatment could also be used in people who’ve been exposed to Covid but who haven’t yet developed it.

Folks, this really does sound–ack–game changing. Have you got your goat’s head? The price is only going to go up, so if there’s room in your freezer you might want to buy now.

Because Covid’s protease doesn’t mutate much (at the moment, anyway), this would work against all the current variants.

All this made me so happy that I made myself an extra cup of tea this morning. 

Yes, I live close to the edge.

 

The lockdown report

England’s current lockdown rules are scheduled to ease up on March 29. People will be able to get together outdoors in limited but larger groups. People will be allowed to leave home for non-essential reasons. (Hands up: How many of you remembered that we haven’t been allowed to do that? I just thought there wasn’t much non-essential to do.) 

But non-essential shops and services (barbers, hairdressers, that kind of thing) won’t reopen until April 12, along with bars and cafes that have outdoor seating. (No eating or drinking indoors yet.)

Why is April 12 safer than March 29? The virus is afraid of even numbers. It’s all been worked out by people who know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, they had to run their recommendations past Boris Johnson’s government, which threw all the cards in the air and picked them up in random order. Still, some semblance of sanity may still be in there.

Okay, I’ll admit: That was unfair. The idea is to take this thing in stages and only go to the next, more open, stage if Covid stays below some unspecified level. 

The travel industry had been hoping that foreign travel would get the green light, but it hasn’t–or at least overseas vacations haven’t. Or holidays, as you’d say if you’re British. You can’t “leave England to travel to a destination outside the United Kingdom, or travel to, or be present at, an embarkation point for the purpose of travelling from there to a destination outside the United Kingdom” without a reasonable excuse.

Is that clear enough? It means you can’t leave, travel to, be present at, or consider the possibility of thinking about getting ready to go somewhere else. And if that didn’t cover all the possibilities, it’s because I nodded off after one of the ors.

But in spite of all the repetition, there are exceptions, and they’re hidden in that bit about reasonable excuses, which in spite of being outside the quotation marks is a quotation, but one that went wandering and doesn’t belong in that particular spot. 

If you need to travel for work or study, to vote, or for legal obligations, you’re okay. If you need to be present at a birth. If you’re visiting a dying relative or close friend. If you’re getting married. If you have a medical appointment. If you–well, a few other things. 

The reasonable excuse that’s raising eyebrows is that you can travel to get a second home ready to sell or rent. Or you can travel if you just have to buy or rent one. Or to do a few other things with one. Because if you have the money to buy, sell, rent, or hand Christmas lights on a second home, you’re more important than someone who’s hoping to stay in a youth hostel in Spain for a week or two. And if you’re more important, you’ll have the sense not to import some new Covid variant.

That’s being called the Stanley Johnson clause, after the prime minister’s father, who traveled to his villa in Greece to make it, he said, Covid proof. I don’t think he’s told the rest of us how that’s possible. But no, it wasn’t so he could sit in the sun and drink himself senseless. 

Sorry–I suckered myself into a stereotype there. I have no knowledge of what Johnson Sr’s drinking or sunbathing habits are. 

What’s a villa? “1. A country estate. 2. The rural or suburban residence of a wealthy person.” Or in British real estate-speak, “3. A detached or semidetached urban residence with yard and garden space.”

For Stanley Johnson, we can, I think, rule out the real estate-speak definition.

I’m happy to report that protests will be exempt from the rules banning large gatherings, but the organizers will have to work out (or encourage, or some other vaguely related verb) social distancing and mask wearing. That sounds surprisingly reasonable, although it leaves a worrying gap that allows for breaking up spontaneous demonstrations, even if people wear masks and keep their distance. 

Some good news about Covid–and some bad

In some patients, vaccination can ease long Covid symptoms. A small study–44 patients–saw 23% of the participants showing some improvement compared to the unvaccinated group. But just so we don’t get too excited about this, 5.6% found that their symptoms got worse. It didn’t seem to matter whether they’d gotten the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Long Covid? It’s a weird range of symptoms that some percentage of people are left with after they get rid of the infection itself. In some people, the symptoms clear up in weeks and in others–well, it’s not clear how long they’ll last because they’re still hanging around. The symptoms can range from mild to pretty damn awful and they can follow either a severe infection or a mild one. 

An infectious disease specialist at Columbia University said that about a fifth of the patients he’s treated get long Covid. So anything that helps a quarter of them? We like that. 

Irrelevant photo: hyacinth

 

The bad news

With a bit of good news out of the way, let’s drop in on its old friend Bad News: In Brazil, Covid’s sending younger people to intensive care units–people who aren’t just youngish but who have no pre-existing medical problems. Younger in this case means between 30 and 60, so they’re not young-young, but that’s still an important shift in a disease that’s been known for targeting people over 60. 

This doesn’t seem to be because of a change in the disease itself, though. (Put that on the good news side of the scales.) Part of the shift may be coming from younger people’s belief that they can shrug the disease off. They’re making themselves available to get infected. Or the Brazilian government’s Covid denialism is putting them in harm’s way. Public transportation is packed. On crowded sidewalks, it’s not unusual to see people going maskless. And older people are getting vaccinated while younger people aren’t. 

Even though younger people are more likely to shrug the disease off, enough of them need hospitalization that hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s a reminder that none of us can count on being immune to this thing. 

 

The news you can interpret as good if you want to

Researchers estimate that the Covid virus was probably circulating undetected for a couple of months before it popped its nasty little head up in Wuhan at the end of 2019. This is based on modeling and I’m not going to take you through it because, let’s face it, I don’t understand it, but the researchers played out a series of scenarios and concluded that new viruses jump from animals to humans regularly but that most of them die out before they get a chance to create pandemics. Or even epidemics. 

Remember when epidemic sounded extreme? Yeah, me too. Now it’s just some kindergarten-style disaster–the kind where someone called you a bad name and you went home in tears. 

They figure that some 70% of the infections that jump from animals die out within 8 days of finding their way into the human race. If they get into an urban area, though, the odds tip further in their favor. 

So is that good news or bad? Both, I guess. It reminds us that a whole line of viruses is out there, just waiting to set up housekeeping in our bodies’ cells. On the other hand, it means that most of them, even when they find an entry point, won’t spread around the planet.

 

And a bit more good news

The unalloyed good news is that while Covid’s evolving, so are our antibodies

Let’s say you get Covid and count your antibodies just after you recover. You’ll have lots of them. (I’m writing the script, so of course you recover. I apologize for giving you the disease to begin with, but the plot demanded it. The sad truth about fiction writing is that if you don’t let anything bad happen, you don’t have a story.)

Then you count those antibodies again in six months and you don’t have as many. 

Why’s that good news? 

Because they won’t be the same naive little antibodies you had when you first got sick: 83% of them will now recognize Covid variants and be ready to kill them on sight. (It’s a nasty old world at the cellular level. Sorry.) They’ll even be learning to recognize related viruses, such as SARS. They’re sadder but wiser antibodies. If they go into a bar wanting nothing more than a drink and some virus sits down beside them and tries to chat, they won’t be flattered that it’s paying attention to them. They’ll kill it. 

I haven’t done that in bars, but believe me, I understand its appeal. 

How did they get to the point where they understood the game before the first moves were even played out? 

Let’s go back to that case of Covid I assigned you. After you got rid of the infection, you were left with some non-infectious bits of the virus scampering around your body, and they worked as reminders to your immune system: This is what the virus looks like. If this sounds like an ex who won’t stop calling–

Well, yeah, it is, but this isn’t a relationship or a breakup and the virus isn’t your ex. It’s a virus. And you aren’t you anymore, you’re an immune system, because I moved us into a different story without thinking to warn you. So it’s good that bits of the virus still have your phone number, and use it. It’s not universally true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but in this case they really are making you stronger.

The immune system has an evolutionary advantage over viruses. They mutate randomly and the ones that work well survive, which is a way of saying that the ones that survive, survive. But antibodies don’t mutate randomly. I’d love to explain that to you, but the best I can do is tell you that it has to do with B cells and activation-induced deaminase and somatic hypermutation. Or to put that more simply, I don’t understand a word of it but if I could pronounce it I’d have one hell of a snappy comeback next time some virus tries to chat me up.

What I did follow is that the lymph nodes notice which B cells make better antibodies and which ones don’t. They give the best B cells good grades and send the worst ones back to repeat the year with the same teacher who couldn’t get the lessons across the first time. 

The ones who got the top grades get to mass produce their new, improved antibodies. Which recognize variants of the virus they fought off, bringing us back to our starting point, sadder but wiser and ready to fight. 

 

Finally, a bit of Zoom news

Humans aren’t the only ones using Zoom during the pandemic. Two zoos in the Czech Republic set up a Zoom connection to let their chimpanzees watch each other’s lives on big screens while the zoos are closed. The chimps get bored without humans to watch. 

There’s no sound in their meetings (that would improve some I’ve been in), but after initially approaching the screens defensively or aggressively, they settled in to watch the show and it seems to be a great success.

Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

Our tale starts in London on March 3, when Sarah Everard was abducted and killed–apparently (the official word here is allegedly) by a cop, who has since been arrested. He–the cop–served in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command and had at some point in the past been reported for indecent exposure. Twice. In a fast-food joint. 

The reports don’t seem to have interfered with either his career or his freedom.

It’s worse that the events took place in a fast-food place, isn’t it? Hamburgers can be sensitive. The man clearly had no respect.

This history raises questions about whether the police force–as they say in the blandest of bureaceaucro-speak–responded appropriately. 

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil

Policing protests during a pandemic

Now we come to the part where I remind you that all this happened in the midst of a pandemic. Remember Covid? That pandemic. Because of it, a formal vigil was denied a permit, but people–especially women–poured out anyway, both to memorialize Everard and to highlight the everyday dangers women live with and the need for change. They left flowers. They brought candles. They came together spontaneously because to have organized the vigil would’ve meant organizers facing £10,000 fines, even though the pandemic rules allow (but don’t define) “reasonable excuses” to be outside. 

Screw the permit, though. People felt the need to be out there. No one had to organize it.

For a while, the cops didn’t interfere, but toward evening speeches began and the police moved in to break it up. The police said that people had packed in to hear the speakers, “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.”

The crowd–I’m basing this on photos–was almost entirely masked, a crowd in Scotland that had turned out to celebrate a football win wasn’t bothered, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have not been linked to any Covid spikes, so if you’re going to taste the official explanation I’d suggest more than a grain of salt. Especially given various demonstrators’ descriptions of police getting right in their faces and yelling at them as well as forcing the crowd closer together than it had been. 

If you’re worried about a crowd spreading Covid, those aren’t the recommended crowd-control approaches.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the vigil had been hijacked by protestors.

I’m shocked,” she said, “that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest with photographs showing ‘ACAB’ signs, which stands for ‘all cops are bastards.’ ”

Yeah, I’m shocked too. The virus is spread by bad language, signs that insult the police, and protest in general. It’s not spread by apolitical mourning. So leave a flower, girls, then go home and behave.

A photo from the demonstration has gone viral. It shows a young woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by two cops, who are kneeling on her back. She describes herself as five-foot two and weighing nothing. Not irrelevantly in a protest about women’s safety on the streets, both were male. She had been simply standing there, she said, and that seems to be borne out by video footage.

 

The background 

Britain has a dismal track record on prosecuting rape and sexual assault. I’ve seen two figures and I don’t know which one’s correct, but honestly it doesn’t matter. According to one, only 1.4% of the rapes that are reported end up being prosecuted. According to another it’s 1 in 70. Take your choice. Both present a good argument for mourning and protest getting to know each other on a speed date and deciding that they have a lot in common.

Patel mentioned that the event involved some assaults on police and a broken mirror on a police car. Or van. Vehicle, if that’s not too bloodless a word. All of those, according to someone who trawled through videos of the event, were carried out by men. As far as I’ve been able to sort out, the four people who were arrested are of the female persuasion. 

The government has responded to Everard’s death by publicizing every quick and pointless solution that anyone thought of at a ten-minute brainstorming session involving donuts. (No, I don’t actually know where the ideas came from. They only read like they were thought up that way.) They propose more street lighting, more CCTV, more cops on the streets, undercover cops in pubs, and more other things that no one involved has called for. They haven’t called for any consideration of what’s going wrong with the way rape complaints are handled. They haven’t called for a national discussion of the pervasive, everyday harassment that women and girls face.

They haven’t even acknowledged it. 

 

The policing bill

In the midst of all this, the government is pushing through–and with an 80-seat majority, will pass–a policing bill that changes the balance between police and protesters, tipping it further in favor of the police. Protesters will face a fine of up to £2,500 for violating police directions that they should have known about, regardless of whether the police informed them. Creating a public nuisance will be an offense. Being noisy will be a reason to break up a demonstration. 

They’re setting the bar very close to the ground here. An eighty-year-old with two bad hips and a cane could get over it. And I’m close enough to eighty that I get to say that. They’re not talking about demonstrations that attack or threaten people. They’re not talking about threats to public health or safety. They’re talking about being a pain in the ass.

The police right to stop and search will also be expanded, although that’s used far more against young Black men than against white. The maximum penalty for damaging a memorial will be increased from three months to then years–longer, as may people have pointed out, than for attacking a woman. Rapists could (it’s complicated) get longer sentences under the bill, but given how few cases are even prosecuted that’s kind of beside the point.  

The parts of the bill that relate to demonstrations are a response to Extinction Rebellion, which was quite deliberate about creating a public nuisance. But then, the US civil rights movement also created a public nuisance, and by now it’s entered into public mythology in a defanged and respectable–almost sanctified–form. Sometimes being a damned nuisance is the only thing that works. When people try to make change and they run into a brick wall, they’ll stop business from being carried on as usual. It’s a law of physics. 

Is the bill a total crackdown on dissent? Probably not, although you shouldn’t take my word on that. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of British law is spotty at best. A lot of organizations are seriously worried about it, and it does give the police a lot of leeway to crack down on dissent. And when they’re given that leeway, sooner or later they’ll take it.

I don’t suppose I should be surprised when governments do what they can to keep people from opposing them. Not all of them do that, but the temptation’s got to lie just under the surface. And when they give in to it, the cost is high. Not just to protesters but to any semblance of democracy, to the possibility of peaceful progress, and sooner or later to the government itself. Because you can shut up some of the people all of the time and you can–

Hell, you know how that goes. Sooner or later, you’ll hear from them and it won’t be a pleasant discussion. 

Will the bill make women safer in the streets and their homes? 

Are you kidding me? That’s not the priority.