Finding Covid’s weak spot

Researchers have found a vulnerable spot at the base of Covid’s spike protein. This is the medical equivalent of the moment when you found that spot right by your older sister or brother’s knee. You know the one: All you had to do was squeeze it and they were helpless. Instantly. Whatever they were doing to you (unless they were homicidal, in which case you needed something more than this trick), they stopped.

The problem–then and now–is how to reach that spot and (the knee image breaks down here) what to do when you get there.

The good part is that most beta coronaviruses, not just on Covid, have that same weak spot.

What’s a beta coronavirus? It’s a category of virus that causes everything from a cold to Covid. It includes diseases that could jump from animals to humans at some point in the future, starting the next pandemic.

Why is this a weak spot? Because it either doesn’t mutate or mutates slowly. I’m going out on a limb here (put that saw away, please), but I seem to remember reading that when a site doesn’t mutate it’s because the virus can’t function without it. Random mutations will change it, but those versions don’t survive.  

So let’s go back to the question of what to do once we find that spot. We create either a vaccine that targets it or an antiviral that does the same. And by we, of course, I mean scientists. People who–unlike me–actually know how to do this stuff. 

It won’t happen next week, but knowing where the weak spot is? It’s a step.

Irrelevant photo: “Allow me to explain why we need to keep this box.”

Speaking of antivirals 

The bark of the neem tree seems to hold promise as a Covid treatment. 

The tree’s native to India and it’s been used as a treatment for parasites, viruses, and bacteria for much longer than those categories were around to sort diseases into. 

Scientists fooling around in their labs see the bark extract as promising. The next step is to isolate the useful components, then figure out dosage and test the stuff.

Here’s wishing them–and us–luck. In the meantime, it’s probably not wise to test neem bark on yourself, although it is for sale on the internet and recommended for an assortment of ills by the (I’m guessing here) deeply alternative. 

It’s not the only antiviral being explored, just the one I happen to have landed on this week. 

I also found articles on a few new testing methods that are, or promise to be, cheaper and faster than the current ones. Now that so many countries are abandoning testing, though, I’m not sure whether they’ll be commercially viable, no matter how useful they might be.

 

Remember social distancing?

You remember the advice we got from the start of the pandemic that six feet (or two meters if your mind’s metric) is enough distance to keep you from catching (or spreading) Covid? It turns out to have been based on a 1934 model (by  William Firth Wells, if anybody asks) of how respiratory infections spread.

Just how dated is the model? Well, two meters hasn’t changed its length, and neither has two feet–at least to the best of my knowledge, although when you leave the metric system measurements can be unreliable, and if you want to take a side trip into non-metric mayhem, allow me to push you in this direction. It’s not at all relevant, but if you have nothing better to do with yourself and you enjoy a mess, it should be fun.

Back to social distancing, though: A recent study says the 1934 model was oversimplified. The new study looks not just at distance but also at temperature, humidity, viral load, and whether people were coughing, sneezing, or talking. A person talking without a mask can project droplets for one meter. If they cough, make that three meters. If they sneeze? Seven meters. 

Add a surgical, FFP2, or N95 mask, though, and ” ”the risk of infection is reduced to such an extent that it is practically negligible—even if you’re only standing one meter away from an infected person,” according to Gaetano Sardina, one of the researchers behind the study.

 

Vaccines in Africa

Six African countries–Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia–will be getting the technology to produce Covid vaccines through a World Health Organization program

Only 11% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. That compares with a global average of around 50%. And Africa  currently produces just 1% of coronavirus vaccines. An earlier program to get vaccines to poorer countries, COVAX, has missed target after target and only 10% of people in its targeted countries have received at least one dose. 

The current program replicates commercially available vaccines, somehow dodging the patent issues. Don’t ask me. I know roughly as much about patent law as I do about science. Maybe they’re just producing the stuff anyway and daring the companies to sue.

Although Doctors Without Borders welcomed the program, it pointed out that it’ll be a lot of work to recreate the vaccines and called instead on the original producers to help.

“The fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already-approved mRNA technologies to able companies,” a spokesperson said.

 

A Report from the Department of Shell Games

A research company that Pfizer contracted with to test its vaccine has been accused of messing with the data. According to the BMJ, a whistleblower reported that “the company falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial. Staff who conducted quality control checks were overwhelmed by the volume of problems they were finding.”

After more than once notifying the company, Ventavia, of the problems, the whistleblower got hold of the FDA–the US Food and Drug Administration.

She was promptly fired.

Other former employees that the BMJ talked to generally backed her claims. 

I’m printing this not in support of anti-vax arguments but because it’s from a legitimate source and seems to be true. The vaccine’s been widely used with minimal problems. But if you had any faith left in for-profit medicine, this might rattle it a bit.

 

A quick feel-good story

The Mask Nerd of Minneapolis has set up a lab in his bathroom and for the past 18 months has been testing masks there to see which ones are most effective. He’s got an air compressor on the bathroom sink and an I-don’t-know-what-but-it’s-impressive on the windowsill. 

Aaron Collins is a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science. 

“I just want better masks on more faces,” he said. “If you know the secret—if you know a piece of information that could help people—it’s your moral obligation to make sure that people are aware of that.”

You can find him on Twitter under the handle @masknerd. He also posts videos on YouTube.

“This is why we’re scientists,” he said. “This is why we’re engineers. We’re not in it for the money. … We’re in it because we have a passion for changing the world in positive ways.”

 

And on an unrelated topic

An unimportant and bizarre effect of the invasion of Ukraine is that a post of mine, “Is Berwick on Tweed at War with Russia?” is getting an absurd number of hits, going from 3 on a day at the end of January to 249 on a day in the first week of March, and then 74 the next day.

To be clear, I’m all for people educating themselves on the background of this war, but the Berwick on Tweed story? This is the kind of research that convinces people that Hilary Clinton was the head of a pedophile ring operating out of the basement of a pizza parlor that didn’t even have a basement.

But never mind the pizza. Berwick is not at war with Russia. It has no connection to Ukraine. 

Go study some real history.

I’m happy to report that, on the third day, hits on the post settled back to 3. 

News of Britain’s Royal Mail & some advice about social media 

A package with no return address that was addressed to an empty house sat around a London post office for a month, and since it was marked “Edibles,” someone opened it and found brownies. And you pretty well know what happened next: People ate them. 

Okay, full disclosure: It wasn’t just marked, “Edibles,” it was marked, “Edibles by Pablo Chocobar,” and in hindsight maybe someone should’ve guessed what that meant. Or maybe they did. Either way, everyone involved got high, especially the guy who ate four. 

Someone made a video of what happened next, and it went viral, which must’ve been satisfying. Then the people involved in the incident were suspended–reportedly–which must’ve been less satisfying. 

The Royal Mail said it would be reminding everyone of how to handle mail with no address for delivery or return. It promised to scold everyone involved thoroughly, just as soon as they stopped giggling.

Would you forgive me if I offer a bit of advice here? I know this isn’t an advice blog. I won’t tell you how to clean your house, your skin, your gut, or your mind. But we’ve stumbled into a subject I know something about, so here you go, kiddies, learn from me: When you just have to break the law or commit a fireable offense at work, don’t video it. Don’t take selfies. And if someone else videos it, stay out of the picture. Don’t grin woozily into the lens and say, “I ate four.” I know all of that is what people do these days, but it’s still incriminating evidence. 

Sheesh, the younger generation. You have to tell them everything.

Irrelevant photo: One of the first wild primroses of the year.

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On a more sober note,the Royal Mail is trying, maybe a little desperately, to be cutting edge and exciting (or at least that’s my interpretation), so it’s adding barcodes to its stamps. That’ll let people scan them and watch videos, messages, and information online.

How thrilling is that?

What kind of videos and information? Sadly, not videos of stoned postal workers wandering around London trying to remember what to do with all this paper stuff they’re lugging around. Instead, they’re offering exciting information about postal services, and when all the pieces of the new program are in place the sender will be able to choose a video for the recipient to watch, or even record a greeting. So far, though, only one video’s available. It features Shaun the Sheep. 

Will anyone care when it’s quicker, easier, and often free to send a video or a recorded message without the stamp? I’m doubtful. 

 

The queen’s jubbly

Some as-yet-unidentified business decided to cash in on Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee by ordering 10,800 cups, mugs, and plates with a hideous picture of the queen and a bit of jubilee wording. 

So far, so boring. But when they were delivered, the wording was, “To commemorate the Platinum Jubbly of Queen Elizabeth II.”

Proofreaders of the world, unite. 

All the merchandise ended up on a clearance website, and if you’d been fast enough you could’ve bought the whole mess for £32,400, but they’ve probably sold by now. Why? Because the word jubbly was made popular by a sitcom character whose catchphrase was “lovely jubbly.” That and the sheer absurdity of the stuff are probably enough to make it saleable.

Now let’s backtrack: The queen’s what

Jubilee, and to explain it I’ll lift a quote from the royal website, which takes the whole thing seriously and is maintained (I assure you, based on no insider knowledge whatsoever) by someone who’s roughly as royal as I am: “On 6th February this year Her Majesty The Queen will become the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of service to the people of the United Kingdom, the Realms and the Commonwealth.”

You’ll notice that they not only award the queen a capital Q, they also capitalize the T in the, since it’s close enough to the Q of Queen to pick up a bit of royal fairy dust. According to the convoluted rules of English-language capitalization, the T should be lowercase. 

Of course, they also capitalize just about every other noun in the sentence. Because, see, they’re really, really excited about this. And it’s all so very important. 

So important that the country’s getting an extra four-day weekend and a lot of encouragement to hold celebrations. The country’s also getting a royal jubilee pudding competition. (Sorry, the deadline’s past in case you were thinking about sending in a recipe.)

What’s a pudding? Um, yeah. Basically, a dessert, but the word’s hazy enough, even in British English, that the royal website needs two paragraphs to define it and ends up saying that, other than being sweet, it’s open to interpretation.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that an awful lot of people are taking all this royal hoopla seriously.

 

Geography, soup, and general incompetence news from all over

Can we shift to politics for a minute? Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who’s supposed to be in charge of, you know, dealing with the rest of the world, wherever it may be, publicly mixed up the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. The exact quote is, “We are supplying and offering extra support into our Baltic allies across the Black Sea.” 

That gave a Russian official the opportunity to point out that the Baltic nations are called the Baltic nations because they’re on the Baltic Sea. Still, it’s an understandable mistake. The Baltic and Black seas are 700 miles apart, but they’re both full of water, start with a B, and are somehow or other associated with a highly fraught region, or possibly two, so what the hell. 

But setting aside all that annoying geography stuff, it’s reassuring to know that we’re both supplying and offering support. And that it’s going into our allies, not just bouncing off their outer shells.

You can see how helpful our support’s turning out to be.

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Meanwhile, in the U.S., Georgia’s Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene denounced Democratic speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi’s  “gazpacho police” for “spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens.” 

If she’s issued a clarifying statement, I haven’t found it, but the going theory is that she was worrying about being spied on by something along the lines of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, not by bowls of cold vegetable soup. Although these days, you can’t rule anything out.

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If you think being spied on by cold vegetable soup is too silly for anyone to believe, consider the survey showing that one in every four Americans thinks the sun orbits the earth. Less surprisingly, almost half of them–48%–don’t believe humans evolved from other animals.

The survey was conducted by the National Science Foundation and included more than 2,200 participants. But before anyone starts drawing wide-ranging conclusions about the U.S., one in three residents of the European Union got the earth/sun question wrong. 

The small print: In most cases, one in three is more than one in four, even though it involves smaller numbers.

You’re welcome.

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In cheerier news, Northern Powergrid sent compensation checks to tens of thousands of customers who’d been left without power after a storm last November. So far, so ho hum, but 74 of them got checks for trillions of pounds. 

Unfortunately, Northern Powergrid blocked payment before the checks could be cashed. 

How’d they find out? Someone tweeted a photo of his check and asked if the company was sure it could afford it. The tweet went–you guessed it–viral, and he got a lot of attention, but you could argue that he tweeted himself out one or two trillion pounds.

The company’s mumbling about a clerical error and an electricity meter reference number being dropped into the slot where the refund amount belonged. 

It’s the kind of mistake that could happen to anyone.

 

The freedom of speech report

Last fall a Conservative member of parliament, Jonathan Gullis, suggested that anyone who uses the phrase white privilege should be reported to the Home Office’s anti-extremism program. He also said teachers who criticize the Conservative Party to their students should be fired.

“We need to start sacking people who are pushing their political ideology,” he said.

He, of course, is not pushing a political ideology. He’s just saying what everybody knows is right.

 

And finally, a report from Britain’s grocery store aisles

The pandemic increased the number of people ordering groceries online, and although it’s nice not to have to wander the aisles yourself (or some people think it is anyway), it does leave customers at the mercy of computer algorithms. 

What are people getting in place of the things they ordered? These examples come from the oddly named British consumer group Which? (The question mark is theirs, not mine. I deny all responsibility. Have you ever wondered how to make a possessive out of a name that carries its own punctuation?)

Two in five people who answered Which?’s survey had gotten odd replacements, including:

  • Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream instead of fish filets
  • Eggs from an actual chicken instead of a candy called Creme Eggs
  • Duck paste instead of duct tape
  • Scouring sponges instead of a victoria sponge cake
  • Sausage rolls instead of toilet paper (that’s not quite as insane as it sounds: they’re called toilet rolls; still, you don’t want to think about that one too much)

And more mysteriously

  • Cooking oil instead of milk
  • Tampons instead of shaving cream
  • Bleach instead of orange squash–a kind of dilute-it-yourself soft drink
  • And dog food instead of bread sticks

The people who pick the groceries off the shelves can override computer substitutions, but they’re being chased down the aisles by time targets and can’t always spare the minute it would take to dig into what’s happening, so they grab what they’re told and move on. 

Customers do have the right to reject substitutions, but if they’re like me they’ll sometimes agree to them before they’ve taken in the full insanity involved. 

What Are England’s Home Counties?

If you spend much time reading about England, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe on the phrase Home Counties. That’s what you get for reading in the dark.

But what are they?

No one’s sure. Or lots of people are sure, but they don’t agree with each other, which is what makes the question interesting. A lot of the sources I’ve found say they’re the counties around London, and that’s safe enough but doesn’t tell us which ones, so whatever consensus we pretended to have falls apart.

 

The boundless wisdom of public opinion

A polling company, YouGov, tried to shed light on the issue (someone must’ve paid them to do that) and succeeded mainly in highlighting how dark it is out there. Because although it’s easy to come up with wrong answers (Wales not only is in the wrong part of Britain, it’s not a county), no one can say what the right answer is. So let’s look for the most common candidates. 

Irrelevant photo: wild sweet peas.

The most widely recognized in the poll were Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and Berkshire. For whatever that’s worth, which I suspect is not much, especially since none of them gathered any impressive amount of support. 

Historically, YouGov says, Sussex is usually included, but only 30% of the people in their sample included West Sussex, and only 29% included East Sussex. (East and West Sussex were divided into separate counties in 1974, although no one told me until today. Which is unforgivably rude.) 

By other definitions,  the Home Counties include Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, although only a third to a quarter of YouGov’s sample were convinced of it. You could also make a case for Hertfordshire, Kent, and Essex, which got 36%. 

 

Forget polling. What else do we know?

The simplest definition of the Home Counties is that they’re the six counties surrounding London: Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Kent. (I’m taking someone else’s word for that, but I have verified that the list has six entries. You can check for yourself if you need more certainty than that.) But you could also toss in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Sussex (or the two halves of Sussex) and not be wrong. 

And although London’s the reference point for all of this, London isn’t one of the Home Counties. It’s–well, it’s London. 

 

Does any of this matter?

No. And also yes. The Home Counties aren’t an administrative entity. They’re not a governmental division. No one runs for office to represent them or sets out parking regulations for them and only them, although the phrase does show up sometimes in official usage. Or so says WikiWhatsia, which I fall back on only in desperation. That I’m leaning on it now tells you how little information I could find anywhere else.

That covers the no, it doesn’t matter part of the answer. What about the yes, it does part? It matters as a reflection of reality and as a cultural reference reinforcing that reality.

London is Britain’s economic and cultural heavyweight. It’s where the wealth and the power and the glitz come together–along with a lot of the grit and the poverty and the problems, although in fairness those last three are pretty widely distributed. But let’s stay with the wealth and the et cetera. When you concentrate enough of that stuff in a small space, it forms a gravity well, drawing everything nearby into its orbit. So whatever the hell they are, the Home Countries matter because London’s sitting there in their middle.

In fact, London’s not just sitting there, it’s been nibbling away at the  surrounding counties and by now has swallowed MIddlesex almost completely.

The broad-brush image of the Home Counties (that’s a nice way of saying “the stereotype”) is that they’re comfortable, conformist,conservative, and consumerist. Also suburban and expensive to live in, but those don’t start with C.

 

History

According to WikiWhatsia (at the moment; you never know when it’ll change), the origin of the phrase Home Counties can be traced–unreliably–back to several periods. One is Tudor times, when they were the counties close enough for a London-based functionary to have a country home and still rush back to London when needed. Another is the 18th century (more or less), which  had the “Home Counties Circuit of courts.”

A third is the Anglo-Saxon period, although the entry doesn’t offer anything to justify that, but it’s true that many English counties were originally Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so what the hell, we’re close. Let’s move on before anyone notices how little we know about this.

Again, according to WikiWhatsia, the first mention of the phrase is from 1695, when Charles Davenant wrote “An essay upon ways and means of supplying the war,” arguing that the Home Counties were thought to pay a disproportionate amount in land taxes. 

Davenant included eleven counties. 

 

Yeah, but what about the shires

As long as we’re wandering around with an edgeless topic, and as long as counties with the word -shire in their names have come up, let’s talk about what the shires are:

They’re English counties that end in -shire. 

I  took the romance out of that, didn’t I?

The word’s roots are Anglo-Saxon–that language we call Old English and that modern English speakers couldn’t understand even if someone offered them a chocolate pie as a reward for deciphering a single sentence. Shire’s basically the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the French-based county. 

Talking about the shires will set off some cultural resonances, although I’m not the best-placed person to tell you what they are. What I can do is tell you that the Collins Dictionary says they’re in the Midlands and famous for hunting. 

Do what you can with that.

What will it mean if Covid stops being a pandemic?

The talk these days is that Covid will eventually lose its pandemic status and turn into an ordinary, house-trained endemic disease–the kind of disease that circulates in a population and gets us sick but doesn’t give us nightmares, overwhelm hospitals, or kill huge numbers of people. And (they say) this will happen because of two factors: vaccination and the natural immunity that people who’ve been exposed and survived gain. 

What are the odds, though, that Covid will pull a fast one and evade our immunities

Not that high, according to a study that tried to replicate Covid’s mutation pattern using a harmless virus. To completely outrun the immunity we gain from either exposure or vaccination, the virus would have to draw twenty of the right cards out of the mutation deck. 

How many cards are we playing with? I’m not sure. As far as I can figure out, the rules of the game keep shifting. But the scientists–the people who study this stuff, as opposed to the people who read one lone article and call themselves experts–say it would be one hell of a trick for it to pick all twenty.

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast.

On top of that, the virus isn’t the only thing that evolves. So does the human immune system. After it’s met the virus, either in the form of an infection or a vaccine, it sits down and plays with its antibodies. Think of it as a kid with a Lego set. It spends months working out shapes that bind ever more tightly to Covid’s spike proteins. 

People who’ve gotten an mRNA vaccine and also have naturally occurring immunity to Covid have the strongest defense. It’s possible that booster shots will create the same flexible immunity, although that hasn’t been demonstrated yet.

So as surely as the virus doesn’t keep one single form, neither does the human immune system. We will, eventually, get through this mess, although the question is at what cost. 

 

How can we measure Covid’s impact?

In the US, Covid has now killed as many people as the 1918-19 flu epidemic. I’d love to give you comparisons for other countries, but that’s all I’ve found.

To put that into perspective, in 1918 the population of the US was a third of what it is now, so it killed a larger percentage of people. On the other hand, if we’re comparing the inherent danger of the two diseases, massive advances in medicine have kept the death toll lower than it would otherwise have been. 

There must be a dozen ways to measure Covid’s impact, but one of them is cold, hard cash. Again in the US, it’s cost almost $6 billion to hospitalize the unvaccianted in just three months, from June through August 2021

The study’s authors say that’s probably an underestimate.

Yet another study says that by March of 2021, Covid had taken 9 million years of life from the U.S. population. Instead of measuring excess deaths, it looked at the mortality burden of the pandemic. 

What the hell does that mean? You would have to ask, wouldn’t you? The study looked at QALYs, or quality adjusted life years, using them to measure the length of time people would have lived if they hadn’t, um, died. It says that people between 25 and 64 lost 4.67 million years of life, and Black and Hispanic communities were hit hardest, especially men in those groups who were 65 and older.

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be writing about Britain. What can I tell you? Bloggers are irresponsible cheats.

 

Question: If you’re not vaccinated against Covid, will gargling with iodine help? 

Answer: In a test tube, povidone-iodine kills the Covid virus. 

Further information about that answer: Humans aren’t test tubes. 

What happens in a human, then? There haven’t been many studies, but what few there are hint that iodine can inactivate Covid in the mouth for a time, but not for a long one. What happens after that? The same thing that was happening before. If you breathe in the virus, there’ll be nothing there to stop it. If you’re incubating the virus, it’ll move back into your throat and ditto–there’ll be nothing there to stop it. It’s like wiping your kitchen counters with antiseptic wipes. You kill 99 point something percent of the germs that are present in that moment. Then you and your antiseptic wipes go away and wherever the germs came from, they come back. 

In other words, unless you’re going to spend your days and nights gargling with whatsidone-iodine, this isn’t going to work. 

And have I mentioned that the stuff tastes disgusting and smells just as bad?

Other than that, is there any reason not to use it? Well, it can cause skin irritation–sometimes severe, although not necessarily. It can (rarely) cause your thyroid gland to become inactive, especially if you’re pregnant. And especially if you’re both pregnant and a woman.

The most likely side effect, though, is that it will make you think you’re done something to protect either yourself or the people around you when you haven’t. 

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On Fridays I usually post something about English or British history or culture. This week I’m doing well to do post anything at all. I hope to be back to full speed eventually. In the meantime, bear with me.

A short history of the 1918 flu pandemic

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

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

Epidemics, you might have noticed, do lower morale.

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

Irrelevant photo: a peony

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

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

 

Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spreading the flu

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

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

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

 

The pandemic’s waves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The expert advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s just a guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The pandemic’s legacy

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

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

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

The herd immunity debates

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

Should we celebrate? 

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

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

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

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

Cup of tea, anyone?

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

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

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

 

Creeping out of lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

I still didn’t have a watch.

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

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

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

 

Lockdown and the economy

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

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

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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.

Royal-watchers know all–even before it happens

A pair of internet spoofsters, Josh Pieters and Archie Manners, conned four sober-sided royal-watchers into commenting on Megan and Harry’s Oprah interview two days before it was aired–which is to say, two days before any of them had seen more than the few snippets that were used as trailers.  Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine (no I didn’t know such a thing existed either but I think I’ll see if they’re hiring),said of Markle, “To my mind this was an actress giving one of her great performances–from start to finish, Meghan was acting.”

Richard Fitzeilliams (he’s a royal commentator, whatever that may be) said it was “not a balanced interview” and that Oprah had given them “an easy ride” and was “totally sympathetic.” Markle, he said, “used extremely strong language to describe her relations with members of the royal household.”

Don’t you wish you knew what was about to happen? 

Irrelevant photo: Lesser celandine, growing between rocks.

The spoofsters also drew the experts into discussing a couple of invented topics: Markle’s refusal to get vaccinated and her support for the Balham donkey sanctuary.

As far as Lord Google will tell me, the donkey sanctuary doesn’t exist. I like to support causes that don’t exist myself. It’s so much less disappointing when things go wrong.

Or maybe it does exist but Lord Google got stars in his eyes and let the headlines about Markle’s nonexistent comments eclipse anything real. 

Fitzwilliams (whatever he does with his time when he’s not commentating) said his comments were used out of context. 

Yes, dear. They always are. That’s why you have to be careful what you say. Because they might just cut the part where you say, “Well, I could be wrong about this since it’s irresponsible speculation, but . . . ”

Anyway, keep the tale all in mind next time you read someone’s comments about what’s really going on in the royal family. 

 

And elsewhere in the world

A fishing ship caught fire off the coast of Thailand, the crew was rescued, and the navy was sent to check for oil spills. They spotted cats huddled together on a sinking ship. One of the sailors swam over and swam back with four frantic cats clinging to his shoulders. And head. 

The sailors seem to have adopted them, or at least it looked that way in the photo taken after the rescue, when the sailors were gathered around a table and the four cats were shoving their faces into food bowls. I haven’t seen an update. 

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A delivery man in Vietnam heard a child crying and someone screaming for help as he was about to deliver a package, and when he looked up saw a toddler dangling from a high-rise apartment building’s balcony. He’s not sure how, but he “found ways to climb into the nearby building. I mounted on a 2-meter-high tile roof to seek a proper position to get the girl.”

He tried to catch her in his arms, but the baby fell into his lap.

The girl was bleeding from the mouth and he rushed her to a hospital, where they found she had a broken arm and leg. She was in stable condition. He ended up with a sprain and thousands of social media followers. 

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A burglary in France went wrong when a hotel fire alarm went off. The owner woke up and followed the thieves–who’d smashed into the wine cellar, grabbing 350,000 euros worth of burgundy–down the motorway and called the police, not necessarily in that order.

When the cops closed in, the thieves started throwing bottles of wine at their windshields. What the hell, they had hundreds of them. They missed, but they did get away after hitting a toll booth and taking off on foot–presumably without the wine. 

Many flat tires went unreported on that stretch of highway–they were too tipsy to care.

*

If you were hoping for actual news today, my apologies. I needed a break and decided you probably did as well.

Does lockdown damage the economy? 

If British lockdown is a song, the chorus is a sour political sound that comes from throwback Members of Parliament calling for lockdown’s end. Let’s look at lockdown and the impact it has on an economy, since that’s one of the primary arguments against it. 

 

The costs of lockdown

Those wild-eyed radicals at the International Monetary Fund looked at the changes in travel, electricity use, and unemployment claims and say the economy deteriorated before government restrictions came into force and also began to recover before they were lifted. Voluntary social distancing and lockdowns, they say, had almost exactly the same impact. In other words, the problem is the pandemic, not the lockdowns.

A different study compared Demark and Sweden and reports almost the same drop in consumer spending during the first wave of the pandemic, although Denmark locked down and Sweden didn’t. Again, they’re saying the economic damage came from the pandemic, not the lockdown.

We could go on, getting into quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), which are a particularly grisly measurement the National Health Service uses (and for all I know, so do health insurance companies or other countries’ health services) to decide if a medicine or treatment is a good buy–or at least an affordable one. It weighs additional length of life against quality of life against money. Because money’s the ultimate measure of everything in our economy, folks. Even our lives.

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses coming up in spite of our recent cold snap.

But I’ll leave you at the door of QALYs while I go home and have a nice cup of tea all by myself. Or with you if you show up and the pandemic’s over. The calculations involved are enough to scare me off. What I can tell you is that the article I’m linking to claims that the lockdown opponents are using QALYs wrong when they cite them to prove their point. 

I’d probably use them wrong too, and prove no point at all. Hence the tea. 

*

Speaking of money and Covid, landlords in England can’t evict tenants who fall behind in their rent because of the pandemic, but that only holds till the end of March. After that, anything could happen. The ban could be extended. The ban could be allowed to lapse. Spaceships could land and magically implant some good sense into all of us.

I like the third possibility myself, but I admit it’s not the most likely.

Some 450,000 families are behind on their rent because of the pandemic. If you want your hair to turn as gray as mine, you can add in the number of families who’ve fallen behind on their mortgage payments. They can’t be evicted yet either, but they’re facing the same three possibilities. 

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Reopening the schools or keeping them closed is an alternative chorus of the lockdown song.

A study looking at Sweden, with it no-lockdown approach to the pandemic, reports that keeping the schools open with only minimal precautions meant the teachers faced a doubled risk of catching Covid. And their partner had a 29% higher risk. 

The point of comparison was teachers who shifted to teaching online.

The kids’ parents had a 17% higher risk. Not enough kids were tested for them to register in the study.

 

Variant news

Scientists have found some new Covid variants. One popped up in southern California. It was found in October and it’s spread around the country and into other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where we can assume it’s been stomped out thoroughly.

It’s not clear yet if it behaves any differently from the same-old, same-old variants, but it carries a change on the spike protein, which may or may not turn out to be important. 

The spike protein? It’s the key that lets the virus into human cells. The fear is that a change there may mean the virus gets better at breaking in or at evading our immune systems–or our vaccines. 

Another new Covid variant’s been found in Britain, in Denmark, in the U.S., in Australia, and in some other countries. So we don’t get to wave the flag over this one. It also has some changes to the spike protein, but it’s too early to know how significant the changes are. 

Some experts are recommending surge testing to try to stomp the beast out. Other experts are saying, “Yes, you idiots, but until you offer financial support to people who test positive, a lot of people will hide out instead of getting tested because they can’t afford to take two weeks off work. Or ten days. Or three minutes.”

That’s probably not an exact quote, but it is a good point.

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Recent newspaper articles gave people a good scare by saying that British variant–also called the Kent variant; one of our world-beating contributions to the pandemic–is linked to a higher death rate. But that’s the same as saying it causes more deaths. It’s one of those read-the-fine-print things. 

A variant being linked to a higher death rate means it may be the cause but it may just happen to be in the room when the higher death rate happens. It hangs out with a rough crowd and they’re happy to let it take the blame. The variant has spread through nursing homes, which are full of people who are particularly vulnerable. The virus wouldn’t have to be supercharged to do a lot of damage among them.

But it’s also possible–not proven, but possible–that people infected with it have higher viral loads, which could both make it more contagious and harder to treat. But even that last part, about a higher viral load making it more contagious and harder to treat, is speculation.

It’s not time to panic over this one–we’ll have all the time we need to do that later if we have to. 

The non-speculative good news is that the current vaccines do a good job of targeting the variant. 

 

A quarantine update

If England’s rules on quarantine hotels looked absurd over the weekend, with its insistence on mixing people from Group A with people from Group B and then treating only Group A as scary enough to quarantine–

We’ll start that over, okay? If they looked absurd over the weekend, Scotland’s looks almost as silly today. Scotland, we read at first, was going to have everyone do a hotel quarantine: Group A right along with Group B. Now it turns out there’s a loophole. A father and daughter who flew from the U.S. by way of Ireland can quarantine at home. Because they came through Ireland. 

I’m happy for them. The child’s eight and hasn’t seen her mother in sixteen months. But it makes no sense at all. 

 

A bit of good news

Okay, I admit that this isn’t going to give us anything immediate, but long term it could help. An antiviral called EIDD-2801 (they haven’t passed that one through a focus group yet) may fight Covid in several ways: In the lab, it keeps Covid from replicating and from infecting human cells. In a mouse trial, two days of treatment reduced virus replication 25,000-fold when they gave it two days after exposure and 100,000-fold when they gave it twelve hours before and after exposure. 

They’ll be going into phase 2 and 3 trials in humans to test its safety and effectiveness in Covid patients.