How likely is Covid reinfection?

A small study–it turns out that 3,000 people is a small group as long as they’re not all in your kitchen–hints that 10% of the people who’ve had Covid can get reinfected. 

Possibly. 

Or, of course, possibly not. First, the study (like so many in these scientifically frantic times) hasn’t been peer reviewed, so it doesn’t have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Second, the reason 3,000 people is a small group is that only 189 of them turned out to have previously had Covid. So that would mean–what?–18.9 of them got it a second time. 

Now we stir vigorously and compare that to 48% of the previously uninfected group who picked up Covid, meaning that having had the disease leaves you with a fifth the risk of getting it again compared to someone who’s never had it. Or so the study says. My brain glazed over just typing that. If there’s anything odd about the numbers, you can blame my brain, not me.

These were young people–probably in their late teens, maybe early twenties–and recent recruits to the US Marines. Interestingly, all the reinfections were from the same variant of the virus as their original infections, not the new strains that are circulating, so we don’t get to blame the reinfections of the virus’s tendency to mutate. 

All the recruits had mild symptoms, but the length of infection and risk of having symptoms was the same for both the previously infected and the previously uninfected. It may be significant that the previously infected people had lower levels of antibodies, suggesting that some people don’t generate antibodies–or don’t generate them as enthusiastically.

Irrelevant photo: A hellebore, a.k.a., a Christmas rose.

The moral of this story is that masks, distance, and vaccination still matter, even if you’ve had the damned thing. 

The whole tale ends with a warning: It’s a small study and very preliminary, so take it with a grain of salt. Why did I bother you with it, then? Because it’s interesting. And I like the idea of three thousand people in your kitchen.

Although not in mine.

 

Tests, studies, and work-in-progress

A study in Aberdeen shows that the single strongest influence on a country’s death rate from Covid during the first wave of the pandemic was international travel. The more travelers came into the country, the more deaths it had. 

And the moral of that tale is obvious and tells us what we should’ve done. There’ll be arguments, though, about how what we should be doing now. Is it too late for limiting or stopping travel to work? Discuss. 

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In an early trial, an antibody cocktail blocked 100% of symptomatic Covid cases in people who’d been exposed to the disease. On top of that, their asymptomatic infections lasted a shorter time and their viral load–the number of teeny tiny viruses attending the party inside each infected person–was significantly lower than in the control group.

And if that isn’t impressive enough, the viruses kept the music levels significantly lower at the parties and no one called the cops on any of them. 

This isn’t a vaccine, and it doesn’t prevent a later infection. It’s the first treatment to offer protection to people who are known to have been exposed–say an unvaccinated person caring for someone who has Covid. 

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Britain’s setting up a test of mix-and-match vaccines. This won’t work like those candy displays that take up a whole wall and let you pick 100 grams ( or 3.5274 ounces, give or take a few decimal places) of mixed jelly beans and 100 of (shudder) licorice, but it’s close enough. Participants will get one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and one dose of the AstraZeneca, although not necessarily in that order and they don’t get to pick which way it goes.

On the other hand, they can be sure that they won’t end up with licorice, and I don’t care what they say, it’s for their own good.

The two vaccines are very different, and use very different–well, let’s call them platforms. Mixing the two inside one human is sort of like combining  a horse race with a concert. It’s hard to know what’ll happen. One vaccine comes riding in on a small bit of genetic code. The other is played by a string quartet on a deactivated cold virus.

Okay, that metaphor went wrong. I’d take it out but it’s so wrong that I’d miss it. We’ll just move on and pretend this is a day like any other, okay? Just a perfectly normal day.

The trial hopes to recruit 800 volunteers, will run for 13 months, and will also play around with the length of time between the doses to see what effect that has. 

Volunteers have to be over 50, unvaccinated, and live in a few specific areas in Britain. If you’re interested, you can sign up at the NHS Covid vaccine signup site. It’s not specific to this one trial, so you may have to wander around a bit on your own. If you hear a string quartet, you’re in the right place. If you smell licorice, run.

 

How not to do Covid testing

Canadian otolaryngologists have lined up the Covid test instructions used in all the Canadian provinces and compared them, and they turned out to be wildly inconsistent. In fact, I’d begun to wonder if the size–and possibly shape–of Canadian heads depends on geography.

In the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, and Alberta, people are told to insert the test swab to a depth of four centimeters, or half the distance from nostril to ear. 

I have to interrupt here, because I was confused about that “distance from nostril to ear.” Are they measuring that on the outside of the head? Or is it as the crow flies, assuming a small crow that could fly through bone and whatever else Canadians keep inside their heads? And is the nostril just that hole at the tip of the nose or the whole passage that rises toward the arched eyebrows that signal confusion? If it’s the second, what part of the nostril are we talking abou?

I could go on, but I’ve probably introduced you to enough of my befuddlement. Whatever Canadians keep inside their heads, I’m telling you, it’s strange inside of mine. 

Whatever the instructions mean, the article told me that four centimeters would take the swab to the mid-nasal cavity, not the nasopharynx, which is where it’s supposed to go to find the viral gold at the end of the Covid rainbow. So done as prescribed, the test will kick up a lot of false negatives.

In British Columbia and Manitoba, people are told to get the swab seven centimeters up the nose, which would take it to the posterior nasal cavity but still not to the nasopharynx. Again, false negatives.

In Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the article I stole this from abandoned centiwhosits and just said it was two-thirds of the distance from nostril to ear, which would take it all the way to the nasopharynx. Yay! Those provinces get the viral gold and we’ll award them some jelly beans to go with it! 

We’ll give some licorice to New Brunswick and Yukon, which tell people to insert the swab from nostril to the external ear canal. That would take the swab to the nasopharynx, so they do get the viral gold, but it all sounds like the swab has to make a 90-degree turn inside your head, pierce your eardrum, and emerge triumphant from your ear. 

Licorice. Sorry.

I’m reasonably sure I misunderstood something in there, but the otolaryngologists think they could maybe improve the instructions if they got involved. I’m inclined to think they could.

 

Vaccine nationalism

Remember Covax? It’s the international plan to ensure that the world’s richest countries don’t suck up all the Covid vaccines, leaving the people of 145 other countries to (a) suffer and die and (b, in case high-minded arguments aren’t enough to move enough people and nations) become a pool in which new variants of the virus will be created before turning around to re-infect the richest countries, which will have been vaccinated but only against earlier variants. 

Was that last sentence long enough for you?

Okay, in case you didn’t remember Covax, you’ve now been introduced and you didn’t have to admit that you’d forgotten its face. Hello, Covax. Glad to meet you. How’re you doing?

Not so well, as it turns out. High income countries have reserved 60% of the vaccine supplies that have been ordered so far. That 60% will go to just 16% of the world’s population.

The International Chamber of Commerce figures that if developing countries don’t get the vaccine, it’ll end up costing rich countries $4.5 trillion. Trillion. That’s 4.5 with so many zeroes after it that I went comatose.

Compare that to Covax’s long-term cost, which is $26 billion. So far, it’s raised $6 billion and needs another $2 billion to fund its initial stage. That’s 1% of Jeff Bezos’s net worth. 

If you find a stray billion or so behind the couch cushions–yours or his–do get in touch. 

Given what will happen to the rich countries’ economies if they only look to their own populations, the article in the Atlantic that I stole these numbers from figures that if the rich countries fund the project fully they’ll get a 166-fold return on their investment. 

 

Beer, Britain, and lockdown

With lockdowns keeping Britain sober–or more probably drunk behind their own closed doors–pubs have had to throw away an estimated 87 million pints of beer since the start of the pandemic. If they’d been able to sell it, that would’ve put £331 million in their pockets.

When beer in barrels isn’t sold before its best-before date, it goes back to the breweries to be–

Um, I’m not sure what the breweries do with it. I know they don’t set it on fire. Give a pint or two to the local stray dogs and drunks, then pour the rest into the river, leaving the trout wondering why they’re so woozy? 

Well, it just so happens that I asked Lord Google, who referred me to the Morning Advertiser, which told me that it gets poured it down the drain. Why does it have to go back to the brewery to go down the drain? Can’t the pub do that? The M. A. was talking about pub drains, not brewery drains, and about water companies wanting to charge them for adding huge amounts of beer to the sewage system.

So we’ve got some conflicting information, but it’s not our topic, so let’s just set it aside and talk about how long beer stays best-before: Pasteurized beers keep for three to four months after they reach the pubs and unpasteurized ones keep for six to nine weeks. 

After that, the dogs outside the breweries start wagging their tails.

How much beer is 87 million pints? It would fill 20 Olympic-size swimming pools, 33 million kettles (standard size, please, because it’s important to get this right), or 495,000 bathtubs. 

The bathtubs, though, aren’t a reliable measure, because they have to be filled to “the usual level required for a bather,” which is worryingly vague. We all have our standards, and I have never yet let a statistician or a beer brewer into the tub with me–at least not knowingly; people do lie about these things–so they’re guessing at how high I fill the tub. They’re probably guessing about  your tub too. 

I’m less selective about who gets near my tea kettle. I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to trust them on that. 

The Cornish diaspora

Cornwall–that nobbly foot sticking its toes into the waters of southwestern Britain–lost about a third of its population in the nineteenth century. 

 

The background stuff

To come up with that number, we have to use a flexible definition of the nineteenth century, then we have to admit that no one actually counted heads. Yes, you can document the number of people who left Britain, which ports they left from, and where their ships were bound, but no one asked where they were from. Or if they did, they didn’t write it down. 

You can guess more or less reasonably that most people leaving from Cornish ports were Cornish, since Cornwall (being foot-shaped and sticking into the ocean) isn’t on the way from anywhere except Cornwall, but not everyone would’ve left Cornwall from Cornish ports. Plymouth, which is in Devon, is temptingly close. 

Never mind. A third is close enough, so let’s call that calculated.

Irrelevant photo: A wild primrose. Although it’s in Cornwall, so let’s call it semi-relevant.

Are we ready to start yet?

Nope. To understand the story, you need to know although England swallowed Cornwall centuries ago, it never managed to digest it completely. 

Cornwall was once its own country, with its own language, and even today it holds onto its identity. The last native speaker of the Cornish language, Dolly Portreath, died in 1777, not all that long before the period we’re talking about, and I’m reasonably sure that “native speaker” here means that Cornish was her only language, not that she was the last person who spoke it fluently, because the language survived in isolated communities into the nineteenth century.

If we’ve got the pieces in place now, we’ll go on.

 

Early emigration

In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and instead of joy and relief, peace brought a depression. For farm workers, that meant low wages and unemployment. For farmers, it meant being squeezed between high rents and high taxes. 

In Britain, remember farmers were likely to rent their land, not own it. 

For Cornwall, it meant the start of wholesale emigration, with families headed to the U.S. and Canada. 

The West Briton (that’s a newspaper) wrote in 1843, “The spirit of emigration continues active in the neighbourhood of Stratton. High rents, heavy rates, and obnoxious and impoverishing taxes are driving some of the best of our agriculturalists to climes where these demons of robbery and ruin are unknown.”

Agriculturalists? That translates to farmers. And Stratton’s in North Cornwall, not all that far from where I live.

But if poverty and depression were the primary forces driving people out, they weren’t the only ones. Cornwall was a stronghold of Methodism, and even though they no longer belonged to the Church of England, they still owed it a tithe, which was basically a tax the church levied. You could quit the church if you liked, but your money couldn’t. If you left England, though, you could shuck off that history and those obligations and be free in your religion. 

Still, if leaving England gave people a whiff of freedom and the promise of a decent living, or at least a full meal, it also meant leaving their families, their homes, and their culture. It’s the story of immigrants everywhere, and as always, hope mingled with grief.

Between 1815 and 1830, Latin American countries were winning their independence, and some of them drew Cornish emigrants. Copper, gold, and silver were being mined in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, and Cornwall was hard-rock mining country, from prehistory onwards. Cornish miners had the experience mine owners were looking for. The saying is that you can go anywhere in the world and if you look into a hole in the ground you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom, digging. 

In the 1840s, the same potato blight that devastated Ireland hit Cornwall. Potatoes had become a staple in the Cornish diet as well as a cash crop and pig food. With the blight, people faced starvation in Cornwall, although not in the same devastating numbers as in Ireland. But if you’re starving, you don’t stop to argue if somewhere else more people are even closer to the edge than you are. There were food riots.

At about the same time, the Australian government offered free passage to anyone who met their standards. They wanted people who were “healthy, sober, industrious and in the habit of working for wages.” To prove that they qualified, applicants needed two signatures from “respectable householders,” one from a physician or surgeon, and one from a clergyman. Presumably the clergyman was supposed to attest to the sober and industrious part.

Don’t get me started.

They wouldn’t have needed to say this, but they also wanted people who were white. 

 

And the later waves

In 1859, Australian mines started producing copper–lots of copper–and the price dropped worldwide. Cornish mines closed. Then in the 1870s, the price of tin collapsed. More jobs lost. More emigration. 

Reverend Hawker, from a North Cornwall parish, wrote in 1862,

“They come to me for advice. If they have a few pounds out of the wreck my advice always is ‘Emigrate!’ And accordingly nearly a hundred in the current year go across the seas. Our population in 1851 was 1,074 in 1861 it was 868.”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Cornish began emigrating to South Africa to mine diamonds and gold. By then, steamships had made the trip faster, and miners were more likely to go abroad and return home rather than sink permanent roots in new countries. 

Wherever they went, though, and for however long, many emigrants sent money home. At the end of the nineteenth century, 7,000 miners in South Africa  sent £1 million a year to Cornwall. In 1898, the West Briton reported a rush to the banks after mail came from South Africa. 

By the time World War I ended, emigration had slowed down, but the population of Cornwall kept on shrinking until the late 1960s. By one estimate, between 1815 and 1920, 250,000 people left Cornwall for other countries and almost the same number left to find work–mostly in mining–in other parts of Britain and in Ireland. 

A different source estimates that between 1861 and 1900 44.8% of the Cornish male population who were between fifteen and twenty-four left to work overseas. So did 26.2% of the female population in the same age group. Another 30% of men and 35.5% of women left for other parts of Britain. 

By the time you add all that up, you have something like half a dozen people left at home to keep the fire going.

 

Cousin Jack

Outside of Cornwall, the non-Cornish considered the Cornish to be clannish. Somehow immigrants are always accused of being clannish. They cluster together to share their customs, their food, their memories, their language, their joys, and their grief. They lean into each other for familiarity and for help–material and emotional–in negotiating the transition. And they’re resented for it. It’s an old story, and it seems to play on a loop throughout–well, I can’t speak for all of human history but the parts of it that I know about.

This led to the belief that Cousin Jack, the common name for a Cornishman, especially a miner, came from Cornish miners always lobbying for some other Cornishman to be hired–his cousin Jack. 

The parallel name for a Cornishwoman is Cousin Jenny.

The story’s vivid enough to be convincing, although that doesn’t make it true. Especially since different sources trace the origin of the phrase to Australia, to the California gold fields, and to Devon, Cornwall’s neighboring county. 

The historian and archeologist Caitlin Green traces it to either Cornwall itself or to Devon and wonders if it didn’t start out as a name to mock Cornishmen, which was then stolen and repurposed by the community it was meant to mock. 

Cousin, she reminds us, didn’t just mean a family member at the time. It was a friendly way to address someone who was close but not family.

I’ll leave you with a link to a beautiful and heartbreaking song about Cornwall, mining, and emigration, “Cousin Jack.” It’s by the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish singers who are the subject of a movie made a few years ago. It’s got a joke embedded in it about Cornish and English nationalism, although maybe you have to have spent time in Cornwall to get it.

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My thanks to Pete Cooper for sending me a link about the origin of the phrase Cousin Jack, which got me going on this.

Covid variants, vaccines, and all our clean hands

An assistant professor of food science says that all the hand washing, surface cleaning, and food washing we’re doing may or may not keep Covid in check but has kept us from spreading salmonella, e.coli, and listeria.

It’s not what we’re trying to do, but it is good for us.

There’s no evidence that Covid is spread through food, although that’s not the same as saying that it isn’t spread that way. 

But having (with her team) overdosed on US and Canadian internet videos telling us how to clean everything in sight, Yaohua “Betty” Feng reports that a bunch of them have it wrong. Of the videos telling people how to wash their hands, only 41% of the presenters used soap. The remainder, presumably, relied on good wishes and intense looks. Less than 33% mentioned hand sanitizer. And how many of us, since the start of the pandemic, can get through a day without mentioning hand sanitizer?

Like–I’m going to assume–you, I thought I knew how to wash my hands. I’ve been doing it for better than 70 years now, most of the time without supervision, but there’s no predicting what people will feel the need to learn in these difficult times. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe, for instance, I’ve mistaken my hands for some other body parts.

Irrelevant photo: The first spring violets.

Other videos were about washing produce, and 16% of the presenters used soap while 12% used other chemical cleansers. That sounds promising, but they’re both no-nos. If you don’t rinse them off completely, they can cause diarrhea.

Feng didn’t say this, but you might draw the conclusion that random internet videos aren’t the best places to look for reliable information. Or you might not. 

 

British and (eek!) foreign Covid variants

The British Covid variant, which to make things more complicated is now called the Kent variant, after the part of England where it was first found–

Let’s start that over: The Kent Covid variant has mutated since it was first identified. That’s standard operating procedure in the viral world. Every new infection is a chance for the disease to pick up a mutation. Some of those won’t work well for it and will die out and others will make the disease better at hiding from the immune system. Those are the ones that will spread.

So the Kent variant has picked up a new mutation, and it’s similar to one of the mutations on the South African variant. The going theory is that it evolved the change on its own rather than picking it up like an STD after a one-night stand with the South African variant. Which basically means that two strains of the virus have found the same way to partially evade the human immune system. 

There’s been a lot of focus on stopping, or at least getting control of, the imported Covid variants. In parts of the UK, house-to-house testing is looking for the South African variant.

But that may be a sideshow. Virologist Julian Tang wrote, “Unfortunately, the lack of control of these different variants in the UK may lead this population to become a melting pot for different emerging SARS-COV-2/COVID-19 variants–so we really need to reduce our contact rates to reduce the opportunities for viral spread/replication to reduce the speed with which these different virus variants can evolve.

“Closing borders/restricting travel may help a little with this, but there is now probably already a sufficient critical mass of virus-infected people within the endemic UK population to allow this natural selection/evolution to proceed . . . so we really need to stick to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions as much as possible.”

In other words, the more the people get infected, the more times the virus gets to mutate, and the more times it mutates the more chances it has of presenting us with a more difficult problem.

There’s something tempting about focusing on imported strains of the virus–Eek! South African! Argh, Brazilian!–but all Covid infections are dangerous. That’s what we need to focus on. 

 

Symptoms

In England–possibly in all of Britain, but don’t trust me on that; I’m at least as confused as you are–the only way to book a Covid test is to claim at least one of three symptoms: cough, loss of smell or taste, and a high temperature. But a GP and senior lecturer in primary care, Alex Sohal, writes that the list should include a runny or blocked nose, a sore throat, hoarseness, muscle pain, fatigue, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. She’s seen patients come in with them and go on to test positive for Covid.

“These patients have frequently not even considered that they may have Covid-19 and have not self-isolated in the crucial early days when they were most infectious.”

She advocates telling “the public, especially those who have to go out to work and their employers, that even those with mild symptoms . . . should not go out, prioritizing the first five days of self-isolation when they are most likely to be infectious.

“This will help to get—and keep—us out of this indefinite lockdown, as Covid-19 becomes increasingly endemic globally. Ignoring this will be at our peril.”

As it stands, if you have good reason to book a Covid test and don’t have the magic three symptoms, the best thing to do is lie. And almost none of us recognize the full list she gives as possible Covid symptoms.

 

The bad news

Some of the recent Covid mutations have outpaced the monoclonal antibodies we’d all been counting on as a treatment in case we did catch it. 

Mono-whats? 

Okay, if you have to ask, that says we haven’t all been counting on them, but let’s pretend we were so I can explain what’s happening.

Basically, monoclonal antibodies are human antibodies that have been cloned. In this case, they’re antibodies to Covid, and they’ve been used to treat serious Covid cases. The problem is that the humans who developed them did so in the presence of one form of Covid, not all of them. As the virus mutates, they can get left behind.  

They also have another problem, which is that they’re expensive and not easy to make. Other than that, though, they’re great.

 

The good news

At the beginning of February, after a 25-day lockdown, the Isle of Man (population 84,000) lifted almost all  its Covid restrictions. The exceptions are its border controls, which–well, I was going to say they take no prisoners, but in fact taking prisoners is exactly what they do. Someone who tried to get onto the island on a jet ski was jailed for four weeks. 

They seem to have eliminated the virus. Before the lockdown, the island had 400 cases and it’s had 25 deaths. 

The Isle of Man is in the water somewhere between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It’s a self-governing British crown dependency, and don’t ask what that means because it’s complicated and we’re running out of space here in the infinite internet.  

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Two bits of news about the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

One, a single dose (which is what the UK is focused on at the moment, with the second one delayed for up to twelve weeks) is still 76% effective after three months. That’s not as good as the 82% protection it offers after the second dose, but it ain’t bad, and there’s finally some data backing up the government’s decision to focus on getting an initial dose to as many people as possible–at least for this vaccine.

Delaying the second dose may strengthen the protection, but that’s not definite.

Two, the vaccine may reduce the number of Covid transmissions by two-thirds. That’s not definite–it’s still preliminary–but it’s promising. 

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A late-stage trial reports that Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is both safe and 92% effective. It can be stored in a normal refrigerator and comes in two doses, but the second dose is slightly different than the first one. They use different vectors–the neutralized viruses that they ride on. The idea is that this will give the immune system an extra boost and protect people for longer.

 

The little-bit-of-both news

Britain’s vaccinated over 10 million people with at least one dose of one vaccine or another, and the number of hospitalized Covid patients is coming down, but it’s still higher than it was during the first peak of the pandemic. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said infection rates are also coming down“but they are still incredibly high.” That may mean, in the American tradition of Groundhog Day, that we get six more weeks of winter. Or lockdown. 

Nutburgers, Covid variants, and yes, good news stories

Back in December, an overnight pharmacist at a Wisconsin hospital left 57 Covid vaccine vials–each holding enough for 10 doses– out of the refrigerator so they’d spoil. He was convinced they’d make people infertile and implant them with microchips. He also believed the earth is flat and the sky isn’t real. Seriously. That wasn’t me saying something absurd to make you laugh, and I put his beliefs in the past tense, but for all I know he still believes that.

What is the sky if it’s not real? It’s a shield that the government put up to keep people from seeing god. What the microchips do is anyone’s guess. Make you dance like a carrot, maybe.

He pled guilty to deliberately spoiling the vaccine. Do I need to say that he doesn’t work at the hospital anymore?

Irrelevant photo: a hellebore.

…and meanwhile in Britain

Some dozen hospitals around Britain have seen Covid deniers barging in, denouncing the staff, and taking photos for social media. At one, a group of I’m not sure how many insisted that a Covid patient be sent home and treated with vitamins and zinc. 

“He will die if he is taken from from here,” a doctor told them before they were thrown out. 

Some of the photos they’ve posted on social media have been of empty hospital corridors, which are shown as proof that the hospitals, and intensive care units in particular, aren’t overstretched. NHS staff are being denounced as “ventilator killers,” and are being harassed and threatened on social media.

Seven people have faced fines and arrests, and posts have been taken off social media but more keep cropping up. 

“Staff are exhausted and are running on fumes,” said said Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, the president of the Doctors Association UK. “They should not be having to deal with abuse and even death threats on social media. Nor should they be worried about turning up for their shift due to crowds of people chanting ‘Covid is a hoax’ outside hospitals full of patients who are sick and dying. This is decimating morale, but worse still, could be obstructing patient care.”

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The Wales office of Britain’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency turned itself into a pandemic hotspot by–employees say–encouraging workers to come back to work while they still had symptoms and turning down the requests to work from home, even when the people involved were vulnerable. The IT systems, apparently, are so outdated that it’s not always possible for people to use them from home.

One complaint to Public Health Wales said the DVLA had asked people to turn off their test and trace apps so that their phones wouldn’t ping. Because who wants to be bothered at work with news that you’ve been exposed to Covid and should get yourself tested? 

People who did take time off for Covid-related reasons had that time taken off their sick leave. If they took more than ten days off, they got a warning.

The office has had more than 500 Covid cases since September, in an office with 1,800 employees.

A DVLA spokesperson said that safety is a priority. Want to bet whoever it is is working from home, or at least in a different office?

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The Covid variant first found in Britain seems to have somewhat different symptoms than the earlier variants. Coughs, sore throats, fatigue, and muscle pain are common, but loss of smell and taste are less likely.

As for the South African variant, over 100 cases have been identified in England. It’s not known to be more dangerous, but it has mutations that may–emphasis on may–make the current crop of vaccines less effective. It also may not. The experts are working frantically to figure that out right now. 

It’s not time to panic over this one. A couple of the vaccines may be less effective against it, but they’re not ineffective. One, the Pfizer, looks like it will be fine, but that’s in early tests. And keep in mind that when they talk about the vaccines being effective, they’re talking about people not getting sick at all, not about preventing hospitalization and death and all those things that have a way of focusing our attention on the disease. The statistics on the most severe aspects of the disease are better. 

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And having learned nothing from the Covid spike that followed the Christmas loosening of restrictions, caused the current lockdown, and brought our stats up to more than 100,000 deaths, Boris Johnson, Britain’s booster-in-chief and part-time prime minister, tells us that we may all be able to go on vacation–or in British, on holiday–this summer. Because, yeah, that’s what we should really be thinking about right now. 

I won’t even mention last summer’s encouragement to go on holiday, go out for a drink, go out for a meal, and join in the great germ exchange.

 

What are people doing in lockdown?

In the first lockdown, we read about people baking. Not people who’d been baking since they were twelve, but people who had to call helplines before they could reliably recognize their ovens. Flour was hard to buy unless you were buying in industrial quantities. Experimental banana bread loaves were, some of them, so heavy that if they’d been dropped from third-floor windows they’d have been more dangerous than Covid itself. 

This time, sure, some people are baking, but we’re not talking about that anymore. The focus has moved on and we’re talking about people fitting itty bitty jigsaw pieces together. 

In 2020, sales of jigsaw puzzles were up 38% in Britain compared to 2019. That’s over £100 million spent on something that’s completely useless. Unless, of course, you consider it useful to save your sanity and keep your family members from spilling each other’s blood. People, understandably, have different opinions about that. 

Traditionally, the jigsaw market (a phrase I never expected to find myself typing) skews heavily toward kids, but the best sellers last year were the thousand-piece ones that are meant for adults. I’ll skip the breakdown of what graphics are most popular, but manufacturers reported that they could sell just about any image, even plain white.

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Scandinavia’s biggest film festival, the Gothenburg Film Festival, will go ahead this year, in spite of the pandemic, but it’ll be held on an isolated island and movies will be screened for an audience of one. They invited applications and got 12,000, and I’m not sure if they chose Lisa Enroth because she’s a nurse or because someone drew her name out of a hat, but the festival’s chief exec said, “It feels particularly right to be able to give this unique experience to one of the many heroes of the healthcare system who are all working so hard against Covid-19.”

Enroth will watch a week’s worth of movies and post a daily video diary on the festival’s website, and I’m sure we’ll all be welcome to read it, so polish up your Swedish. (Parts of the website are in English, but the audience member is Swedish. I admit, I’m making assumptions here.)

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We can all take a more active part in the Great Big Art Exhibition, which is inviting people to make art at home and display it in their windows or on balconies or porches, or wherever their neighbors can appreciate it. The first theme, launched at the end of January, is animals. 

The arts organization sponsoring it, FirstSite, has organized British galleries to make work available for people to download as inspiration. When I looked, a handful of people had already posted their work on the site, and it’s wonderful. 

The project will run through April.

New vaccines, the vaccine wars, schadenfreude, and a feel-good story

Across the world, the pandemic has slowed for the past two weeks. If anyone has an explanation for that, I haven’t found it. It could just be a statistical glitch, but let’s take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.

 

The new vaccines

Two new vaccines have been announced. One, from Johnson & Johnson (and, just to confuse things, Janssen) needs only a single injection. It’s 66% effective against symptomatic disease and 85% effective against the severe forms. And 100% effective against the forms that are so bad that you end up hospitalized or dead.

Only 66%? you ask. That’s pretty damn good by vaccine standards. But the earliest Covid vaccines came back with such high levels of effectiveness that we’ve started to turn up our noses at a measly 66%. Back before the first vaccine trials uncorked their sparking test results, though, 50% was considered good. And 85% and 100% against the severe forms of the disease, when you think about it? Not bad.

The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is easy to transport and doesn’t have to be kept at a zillion degrees below freezing, making it a handy addition to the vaccine armory. And it only needs one dose. That’s a major advantage.

Irrelevant photo: The daffodils are just starting to blossom. Really. In January.

A new British vaccine, Novavax, is 89% effective but needs two doses. On the positive side, it can be stored in an ordinary refrigerator and has no objections to being wedged in at the back between the peanut butter and that can of cat food you thought you’d lost.

Both are effective against the South African variant, although the numbers aren’t as high. The new Brazilian variant, I believe, came along too late to be included in any of the trials. That’s the one to keep your eye on right now.

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A post or three back, I included a news snippet involving Germany, the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the elderly. I now officially wish I’d waited, because we were only halfway through the story. 

In our last episode, some anonymous source in Germany said (publicly, or we wouldn’t know about it) that the AZ vaccine wasn’t effective on the elderly, and some known source said, “Of course it is. You mixed up your numbers,” but refrained from adding, “You idiot.”

And now, in our next episode, a German official body of one sort or another said the vaccine hadn’t been shown to be effective on the elderly, and several other sources jumped into the discussion and I crawled under the bed and sulked for several days. 

Then Emmanuel Macron said something but I hadn’t included him in my post so I didn’t care.

I do take my responsibilities here seriously.

When I emerged, I was covered in dust but felt a little better because the floorboards under my bed were now spotless.

But you wanted to know about the vaccine, didn’t you? 

Is it effective on people over 65? AZ added older people to its vaccine trials later than younger people, so it has less data on them. And it turned out–predictably–that they were more likely to stay away from other people, so both the group that got the vaccine and the group that got the placebo were relatively well protected. That meant fewer deaths (good) and therefore less data (bad).

The trial did include some checks on people’s antibody levels, though, so they have every indication that the vaccine was working.

 

The vaccine wars replace the Brexit wars

Britain and the European Union agree on only one thing lately, and that’s that with a Brexit agreement in place they needed something new to fight about so it was time to toss vaccines into the mix.

AstraZeneca signed a contract to supply the EU with 80 million doses of its vaccine for the first quarter of 2021. Before that, it had signed a different contract to supply Britain with 2 million doses a week. Then it had production problems at its plants in Europe and said it could only supply the EU with 30 million doses. That would be for the first quarter of 2021. 

Pfizer is also producing less of its vaccine than it expected, and in a rare and impressive display of cooperation a second company, Sanofi, whose own vaccine development has been delayed, said it will use its plants to produce Pfizer’s. 

The EU wanted AZ’s plants in Britain to make up the shortfall its plants in Europe were leaving. AZ said that wasn’t not part of the contract. The EU has been slow in starting its vaccination program and is feeling ever so slightly frantic about this.

Britain said it wasn’t interested in getting less than its contracted share of the vaccine, and Boris Johnson tousled his hair and poured a lit match onto oily waters, saying, “I am very pleased at the moment that we have the fastest rollout of vaccines in Europe by some way.”

He refrained from blowing a raspberry until the press conference was over and the doors had closed behind him.

The EU said, fine, it would deal with the shortfall by refusing to allow vaccines to be exported. That would mean no Pfizer vaccine getting into Britain, although there’s a contract there too.

Then the EU said it would use a clause in the Brexit agreement and institute checks at the Irish/Northern Irish border to make double sure to keep vaccines in the EU. Then it said it wouldn’t.

Then everyone involved arched their backs, fluffed their fur, and made the kind of spitting sounds that eight-week-old kittens make when they want to look scary.

Then the EU published the text of its contract with AZ, minus a few clauses that may or may not be relevant.  

Legal experts working their way through the AZ/EU contract say it’s likely to end up either in arbitration or in court. One of them used a (translated) German phrase that means clear as mud, saying it’s clear as noodle soup. 

 

Department of schadenfreude

A multimillionaire couple flew into an isolated, largely indigenous community in the Yukon Territory and claimed to be local motel workers so they could get in on a vaccination program meant primarily for elders and the vulnerable. 

They also didn’t bother observing the fourteen days of quarantine that were required for incomers.

They’ve been fined C$2,300 , but given their economic status that’s not likely to hold their attention, so they also face six months in jail.

The C in C$2,300 stands for Canadian. And schadenfreude stands for a German word meaning enjoying other people’s bad fortune.

Admit it: You’ve done it at least once in your life.

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Speaking of schadenfreude, Oklahoma spent $2 million buying itself a stockpile of hydroxychloroquine when Donald Trump was touting it as a miracle cure for Covid. Now it’s trying to unload the stuff. Studies show it has no effect on Covid but it could cause heart problems. It’s an accepted treatment for malaria, but you’d be hard put to catch that in Oklahoma. 

The state’s been trying to sell it for months now. If you’re interested, contact the state’s attorney general. You could probably get a bargain.

 

And finally, a feel-good Covid story

A group of health workers in Oregon got stranded on a highway in a snowstorm with six doses of vaccine that would become unusable if they didn’t get into six people’s arms in one hell of a hurry. They’d just finished a clinic and the shots were all committed to specific people, but they weren’t going to reach them in time.

Rather than see them go to waste, they went from up and down the road offering them to people stranded in nearby cars. An ambulance was stuck in the snow with them, so if anyone had a bad reaction, they were covered.

The county health director said it was one of the coolest operations he’d ever been part of.

Brexiteria, grownup politics, and the Plymouth Hoe

A few years ago, when Britain voted to leave the European Union, Scotland voted heavily to stay but got dragged away like a teenager whose parents show up just when the party’s getting going. That strengthened what was already a fairly strong inclination in Scotland to leave not the EU but the UK, or to put that another way, to disunite the United Kingdom. 

Yeah, it’s been interesting around here lately.

So what does our prime minister do? The other day he took his tousled head of blond hair up to Scotland to see if he couldn’t charm them out of their sulk. Even though he’d just extended the British lockdown and shouldn’t have let himself be caught going anywhere he didn’t absolutely, seriously need to go. Even though only essential travel between England and Scotland is allowed these days.

“If I do it,” Johnson didn’t say but looked like he wanted to, “it’s essential.” 

That’s not a real  quote, you understand, but he really did remind reporters that he’s the prime minister of the entire UK. 

When a prime minister has to remind people of that, he could well be in trouble. 

The Scottish National Party holds a majority in Scotland’s parliament and is likely to still hold one after the next election, and it’s talking about holding a second independence referendum, regardless of whether the prime minister of Wherever-he’s-the-prime-minister gives his approval. The polls at the moment say independence would win.

Did I mention how interesting it’s been around here lately?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud.

More Brexiteria

These next snippets deserve more space, but they won’t get it just now. At least not here. 

When the Brexit campaigners sold the country on leaving the EU, it was going to save us money, rejuvenate British business, and make palm trees grow from London rooftops. Although somehow they forgot to mention the palm trees. 

So what’s happened? British businesses that export to Europe are getting hit by extra charges, paperwork, and taxes. And what does our Brexit-boosting government recommend? The Department of International Trade tells them to set up separate companies inside the EU. 

Won’t that mean layoffs in Britain? Well, yeah, but the vote’s over, so who cares?

Consumers who buy stuff from Europe are getting hit by charges they didn’t expect. Customs duties, a value added tax, and to add insult to injury, a fee from the shipping company for handling the paperwork. And EU trucking companies are refusing to haul goods to Britain because they’re asked to come up with thousands of pounds to cover taxes and potential tariffs. For small- and medium-size companies, it’s not worth it.

Welcome to the Brexiteria. When we were looking in through the window, the food was more appealing than it is now that we’re inside. 

 

The Plymouth Hoe

Facebook is taking its role as a publisher seriously. 

That’s publisher as opposed to platform. A publisher’s responsible for what it pours into the world. A platform? It shrugs its shoulders and says, “Not my responsibility,” when someone advocates blowing up the planet and then manages to do it. It may be the end of the world, but at least the platform can’t be sued.

Will you get to the point, Ellen?

Of course. Facebook gave a good scolding to people who mentioned a Plymouth landmark, the hoe, and it took their posts down. And banned at least one of them. The posts sounded suspiciously like sexist bullying, and they could well have been except that hoe is an Anglo-Saxon word for a sloping ridge shaped like an inverted foot and heel. Which is a lot of highly specific description to wedge into three letters. If it can do all that in three letters, why aren’t we still speaking Anglo-Saxon.

Never mind. That’s a different post.

I haven’t been able to confirm the specifics of that definition, mind you. Ask Lord Google about hoe and as soon as you get past the line that says it’s a garden tool, the definitions go off in all those directions Facebook was trying to ban. Even when you add “Anglo-Saxon.”

The Plymouth Hoe genuinely is a sloping area, a grassy  one where the Pilgrims–the ones who settled in Massachusetts, not pilgrims in general–embarked. I have no idea if it’s shaped like an inverted foot and heel, but you might want to ask yourself if it would be shaped like a foot if it didn’t have a heel.

So has Facebook gotten its publisher act completely together? I doubt it. If you look, you can still find people on Facebook saying Covid’s no more of a threat than the flu (I just tried) and I have no idea what else because that’s as far as I went, but at least they’re not calling a landmark by a word properly belonging to a garden tool. 

Facebook has apologized to the people whose hands it slapped. 

I can’t wait to hear what happens next Christmas when some bully quotes Santa’s laugh.

 

The pharaoh’s passport

Back in prehistory–or to be specific, in 1974–a French doctor was studying the mummified remains of Ramesses II, because what doctor doesn’t poke around under a mummy’s wrappings when the chance comes his or her way? That led him to realize they were being taken over by a fungus. That’s they, since remains are plural, but maybe it should be he, since Ramesses may have been the second but he was still singular. Anyway, he or they needed treatment, which seems to have been available only in France. 

The articles I’ve found don’t explain why France. They take it as a given. Maybe the work could’ve been done anywhere but Ramsesses spoke better French than, say, German or Tagalog. Maybe it could’ve been done in Egypt but after all those years he was dying to travel.

Whatever. To get into France, he needed a passport. Just because you’re dead, that doesn’t mean you can go where you like. Even the dead need documents. So Ramesses became the only pharaoh (to the best of my limited knowledge) ever to be issued a passport by the Egyptian government. 

 

Playing politics the grownup way

In a classic moment of grownup politics, Jacob Rees-Mogg called Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, Moanalot. 

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And speaking of grownup politics, now that the UK’s left the European Union, Britain’s refused to grant the EU’s representative in Britain the privileges and immunity that go with diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention. And ditto the twenty-five people who came with him. It claims the EU is an international body, not a nation state, and if it treated it like a nation state every other international body in the world would want the same privileges.

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the British negotiator referred to the EU as “your organization,” irritating the hell out of the EU’s chief negotiator.

A hundred and forty-three other countries around the world give the EU full diplomatic status and don’t seem to be having a problem with international organizations trying to pile into that same space. But you never do know. They might, and a nation-state can’t be too careful.

 

Human originality

New Zealand’s tourism agency launched a campaign against tourists “travelling under the social influence.” It takes aim at people traveling halfway across the world to take the same pictures everyone else takes. You know, the ones they’ve seen on social media. Same poses, same spots, same illusion that they’ve found bliss and their lives will be perfect forever after. Or at least, same message that they have enough money to get their asses halfway around the world and are therefore happier than their friends.

Human beings really can be idiots. Sorry. I know how likely it is that you, dear reader, are human. And you may be aware that I’m human as well. Still, the fact remains–

New Zealand’s invited us all to send creative travel shots to #DoSomethingNewNZ. You could win a NZ$500 voucher–which you won’t be able to spend until this whole Covid mess ends and New Zealand opens its borders. In the meantime, you can sit back and think of a few hundred ways to spend that money without ever silhouetting yourself against the sky on a mountain peak or pretending to meditate on a rock by the ocean. Or indulging in what the tourism agency calls the run-me-over shot, where someone walks down the middle of an apparently deserted highway.

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The popularity of the TV series Bridgerton has had an unexpected side effect: viewers running to their computers looking for corsets. 

No, my computer doesn’t have a corset either. They’re using the computer to look on the internet. Searches went up 1,000%. 

Have we all lost our minds? Probably, but for whatever it’s worth, the Smithsonian Magazine says most of us misunderstand the Regency era corset. They were comfortable. Or at least comfortable in terms of what women learn to expect from their clothes, which take my word for it ain’t much. And a range of corsets would’ve infested–

Sorry. A range of corsets would’ve been available to the discerning buyer of the time, ranging from informal and comfortable to I’m-going-to-a-ball and I don’t care how uncomfortable it makes me. But in an era when women’s dresses were waistless, no one would’ve tightened her corset to the point of fainting. What would the point have been?

What people are buying, though, is anyone’s guess. 

 

Edward Colston and the statue in Bristol’s harbor

In June of 2020, a Bristol crowd looped a rope around the statue of Edward Colston, pulled it down, and dumped it in the harbor, firing a British version of the usual debate around who owns history, although as far as I know no one put it that way. 

But let’s put history in general to one side and start with who Edward Colston was and why he ended up in the drink.

 

The bio

Colston was born in 1636. You’ll forget that within seconds, but it gives you a century and a set of clothes to imagine him into. He came from a prosperous merchant family whose links to Bristol went back to the thirteenth century. The family bet its chips on the Royalist side of the Civil War, which was first a bad move and then a good one. Somehow they ended up in London. When the king was restored, Eddie’s father went back into business trading in oil, wine, and raisins. 

That isn’t particularly relevant, but it is thorough. Are you impressed?

Irrelevant photo: A snowdrop. In bloom in January. Unbelievable. With a nice hardy weed growing at its feet.

Edward was apprenticed to and then became a member of the Mercers’ Company. In London. He never did move back to Bristol. Except as a statue.

Mercers? They dealt in fabrics, usually expensive ones–silks, velvets, that kind of thing. 

Colston established his own business, trading mostly in cloth and wine and acting as a money lender. He had interest in St. Kitts, in the West Indies, and that should send send up red flags: Britain controlled much of the West Indies, and the economy was based on plantations worked by slave labor. Britons made profits both from selling slaves and from selling the products of their work. Slavery was an important slice of Britain’s economy and the people who ran both the trade in slaves and the slave plantations wielded a hefty slice of political power. 

In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company. More red flags, waving wildly. The company held the British monopoly on the slave trade between African and the Americas. During his time with it, its ships embarked 84,500 people from west Africa, bound to the Caribbean. 

Notice the wording there–embarked. By one estimate, a quarter of the people who boarded the ships as slaves–or cargo–died en route from disease, from murder, from the occasional suicide, although in the conditions suicide wasn’t easy. They were branded and shackled so tightly together that they lay in their own filth. 

The crossing took six to eight weeks.

I’ve shifted focus from Colston to the company because no one seems to have sorted out how much of his fortune came from the slave trade and what came from ordinary mercerizing. By one account, he owned forty ships. By all accounts, he made what’s commonly known as a shitload of money. What is known is that he played a major role in the company, becoming a deputy governor. 

The profits from his slave trading financed his money lending. 

During the 1690s and 1700s, he sold off his ships, withdrew from the RAC, settled into retirement in Surrey, and got to work philanthropizing. He was High Church, and he knit that tightly into the fabric of his philanthropy. 

High Church translates to–oh, hell, someone else should really be the one to explain this, but it’s the Catholicky end of Anglicanism. It’s formal and heavy on ritual and priests and fancy clothes. That should hold us until someone better educated in churchly stuff comes along. 

One scholarly paper describes his brand of both Christianity and philanthropy as authoritarian, and that seems fair. A foundation he set up required students “‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism.” 

The Whigs? They were the politicians who weren’t the Tories. The differences between them were both political and religious.

His approach to religion was that the “holy doctrines, if we follow, will teach us obedience to our governors, as well civil as ecclesiastical, and to support the rights of both, to which that God will incline us all.”

If you have nothing better to do, you might want to see if you can untangle that sentence. I gave up. What the hell, it’s a quotation, I can claim not to be responsible. But we could fairly safely sum up the content as, Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told. 

Philanthropy sounds selfless, but it gave (and still gives) a person a lot of political clout, and his made him a revered figure in Bristol. 

He never married. I found one intriguing quote saying, “he prefers good works to purity of life, by laying out some thousands of pounds in building hospitals here, while himself lived very much at his ease with a Tory, though of a different sex, at M[ortla]ke.” 

You figure it out. I got lost trying to figure out which sex is the opposite of Tory. Whatever his purity or sexual interests, he left his money to a niece–and of course her husband, because in those days a lady didn’t soil her hands with money, even if she wanted to.

 

Colston’s legacy

Bristol was a focus of Colston’s philanthropy and over the years it got to be thoroughly be-Colstoned. Buildings were named after him, along with streets, schools, pubs, a hill, an almshouse, and of course that statue. I could go on, but enough. Twenty things have carried his name according to a local paper

And for ages Colston was commemorated in a yearly service at St. Stephen’s Church, where he was buried. Three charity groups held a procession from his statue to the church, complete with top hats and tails and double lines of expensive-looking men. All of them white. They did that until 2017, when Colston’s reputation was getting too ripe and the church refused to host the service, although it offered to hold one thanking the groups themselves for their charitable work.

In what seems to have been a separate commemoration, schoolkids were rounded up to sit in the cathedral, contemplate a window in Colston’s memory, and listen to a sermon about his good works. 

My point here is that it wasn’t just Colston’s statue, standing there and minding its own business. This was in-your-face, behold-the-great-man Colstonizing. I’m not sure the statue wouldn’t have been torn down anyway, but with all that worshipfulness, you could argue extenuating circumstances.

 

Why people didn’t use legal channels

It’s not like people didn’t try to get rid of it legally. Over the years, petitions to have the statue removed had been created, circulated, signed, submitted, and ignored. Demonstrations had been held, not necessarily aimed at the statue but at other bits of the Colston cult.

Okay, that’s unfair. It’s not exactly a cult, but the alliteration was so tempting.

At some point, a home-made plaque appeared on the statue, noting that Colston was a slave trader and filling in as much of his history as you can fit on a plaque, and that sparked several years of effort to replace it with an official plaque. 

What should the official plaque say, though? A group of historians were asked for a draft, which was nitpicked to dust. Someone objected to the word trafficking being used to describe the slave trade. Couldn’t it just say Africans were transported? And that word enslaved. Doesn’t that sound kind of harsh?

No blood was shed in those meetings, although I don’t know why.

Okay, I don’t know if they actually held meetings. If they didn’t, that might explain it.

When a compromise was finally–somehow–reached, the mayor took a look at the wording and ordered a rewrite.

At his point, they were fifteen months into the project. They’d agreed on the words and and but, but not the.

Then some ten thousand Black Lives Matter protesters converged on Colston Square. It took them four minutes to topple the statue. 

And at various points along the way, some of the things named after Colston were quietly renamed, including one of the pubs. Some organizations are still working on it and some dug a hole and pulled it in over themselves. 

 

But what about History, with a capital H?

You can’t talk about people toppling statues without someone saying that they’re erasing history. 

No. Let me try that again: You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter protesters toppling statues without etc., because when statues of Sadam Hussein were torn down–with the help of the US Army, if memory serves, because the crowd wasn’t large enough and maybe he was glued down, because he didn’t leave his pedestal without a fight–I didn’t hear any complaints about rewriting history. It was all whoopee! The dictator was being torn down. The people were taking revenge.

Ditto the statues of Lenin. Or Stalin. No articles in the paper saying that it was an attempt to erase history. 

But statues aren’t history any more than my junior high history textbooks were history. They’re mythology. At best, they’re one version of history–the version convenient to whoever’s in power. At worst, they’re bullshit–an attempt to glorify the inglorious, simplify the complicated, cover up the inconvenient, and (although this never gets said) remind the governed who still rules them. 

When Black Lives Matter protesters pull down the statues of slave owners and slave traders, they’re making history. They’re demanding that the official history of their city, their country, their world include them, not just the people who made fortunes by driving and selling their ancestors. 

Colston’s statue will end up in a museum–when they open again–where it can be presented as part of genuine, difficult, complicated history. 

Britain’s Covid deaths are now double the Blitz’s

With Britain’s Covid deaths having passed 100,000, the prime minister exuded as much feeling as he could locate and told us he’s sorry for every one of them. And that he takes full responsibility. 

That led to the predictable flurry of reminders that the government’s bungled every chance it had to get on top of the disease, but he refused to discuss that. I’ll be kind and not list the screw-ups, I’ll just ask if the government’s trying to figure out what it could have done differently.

Umm, no. Taking responsibility for what’s happened didn’t mean Boris Johnson was going to take responsibility for doing anything better. His responsibility-taking went about as deep as the apology of a seven-year-old who’s been strong-armed: I’m sorry I called you a shithead (you shithead). (And next time I see you, I’ll remind you that you’re still a shithead.)

But it seems to have been enough. He hasn’t been sent to sit in the corner. He still gets his dessert. Even though until the government looks at the ways it’s screwed up, it’ll keep right on screwing up. But the pieties have been mouthed and we can all move on.

Twice as many people have died of Covid as died during the Blitz.

Irrelevant photo: A foggy morning.

 

Germany, vaccines, and the elderly

You may have read somewhere that Germany said the AstraZeneca vaccine isn’t effective in anyone over 65. To which Germany, along with AstraZeneca itself, says, “Bullshit.”

In slightly more diplomatic terms.

The first statement came from a couple of news stories that quoted unnamed sources. The second one comes from Germany’s health ministry, which said that whoever made the first statement seems to have mixed up “two things . . . in the reports.

“Around eight percent of the volunteers in AstraZeneca’s efficacy studies were around 56 and 69 years old and three to four percent are above 70 years old.

“However, this does not mean that it is effective only in eight percent of older people.”

Damn, even I could’ve worked that one out, and I have a certificate in mathematical incompetence.

AstraZeneca said more or less the same thing. Both refrained from adding, “You idiot.”

 

New vaccines

Russia has a second vaccine, EpiVacCorona, ready to go into production. It was developed in Novosibirsk, which has no bearing on the story but it’s such a great name that I just had to toss it in. 

Novosibirsk. 

Russia’s health regulator says it’s 100 percent effective in early trials.

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In the U.S., Johnson & Johnson is expected to report the results of its vaccine’s trials next week. Judging by the way the letters vibrate in the articles I’ve seen, a lot is expected of it.

 

Other Covid treatments

If you’ve been reading about monoclonal antibodies–and hey, who doesn’t read about them late at night when you’re tired and want to distract yourself from the worries of the day?

Let’s start that over: If you’ve been reading about monoclonal antibodies and all the promises they dangle before us, here’s an update. Because vaccines aren’t the only game being played, even if it is the one playing on every TV in every bar in town.

Eli Lilly has been developing monoclonal antibodies, which it hopes will keep people who’ve been exposed to Covid from developing serious forms of the disease. They can be used on people who are already ill and on people who are at high risk of becoming infected.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals has developed a similar treatment. 

They haven’t been widely used at this point because they have to be used early in the course of the infection and because they have to be infused in a hospital or a clinic. So basically, they’re clunky and they’re expensive. 

But now it looks like they might effectively prevent even a mild case of the disease, and Eli Lilly plans to ask for approval in the U.S. In a nursing home trial, they were 80% effective and there were no deaths in the group that received the antibodies. They were less effective for the nursing home’s staff than for residents, but that’s a statistical glitch: The study measured risk, and the residents were at higher risk than the staff.

That makes intuitive sense to me but don’t expect me to explain it. Certificate in mathematical incompetence, remember? World-beating mathematical incompetence.

It’s not clear how the antibody cocktails will be used, given that vaccines are available and easier to use. Possibly in nursing homes to combat outbreaks or for people with compromised immune systems, because they may not pull together a good immune response to a vaccine. And possibly not at all.   

It’s also possible that they’ll undermine the vaccines. The problem is that they target Covid’s spike protein and so do antibodies, so they could get in a vaccine’s way. That remains to be tested. 

Your Covid update for the day

Can I take time off from being snarky and welcome a moment of sanity? Any minute now, the British government’s expected to announce a hotel quarantine on returning travelers. 

Travel in the age of Covid

Up to now, we’ve had a do-it-yourself quarantine: You go home, you add water and shake vigorously, you take a Covid test or two, then you wait ten days or until the world’s ready for you to emerge blinking into the sunlight. 

Or you do none of that. Who’ll know?

And that’s the problem with the do-it-yourself system. Some unknown percent of arriving travelers go home, have a nice shower, and since they’ve added water consider the thing done, so they go out and buy groceries. And, of course, even the people who take the quarantine seriously have to get home, leaving a viral trail from the airport to wherever they live.

The noise accompanying the expected change is all about the newer, scarier Covid variants from Brazil and South Africa, so it’s not clear yet whether the quarantine will apply to everyone coming into the country or just to people coming from countries known to have the variant. 

If it’s limited to a few countries, it’ll be the policy equivalent of wearing your mask underneath your nose and pretending you’ve done your bit to battle Covid. Most countries don’t do enough virus sequencing to know which variants they’re dealing with. In other words, the variants are circulating in more countries than we know about.

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Irrelevant photo: I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think this is a viola. At any rate, it was a volunteer last summer.

In another moment of startling good sense, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said it was “far too early” to talk about people booking summer holidays. 

The travel industry is not happy about any of this.

 

Vaccine news

Moderna reports that its vaccine is effective against both the British and South African Covid variants, although it’s not as effective against the South African variant as they’d like. The company will test a second booster shot, making a total of three shots, with the third one designed specifically for the South African variant.

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If you’ve been reading stand-your-hair-on-end stories about people in Europe dying after getting a Covid vaccine, go find your comb and get your hairdo in place: There’s no evidence that their deaths had anything to do with the vaccine. 

In most countries, early vaccinations have focused on the elderly, and–well, the thing about old people is that we develop the habit of dying. In larger numbers than other age groups. So the vaccinated group included a lot of people who weren’t well to start with. And they died, but their deaths haven’t been linked to the vaccines. 

I subscribe to, among other things, a conspiracy-inflected newsletter, and it’s been counting the dead gleefully, without hinting that there might be extenuating circumstances. 

It helps me remember how crazy the world’s gotten lately.

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The fear that Covid will mutate until it’s beyond the reach of vaccines has kept the news–and I assume sensible scientists as well–focused on Covid’s new variants. So let’s talk about variants:

They happen by accident. Mutations are random–they have no plan and no goal. If you’re not a fan of evolution, this is the time to change the channel, because what I’m talking about is evolution at work, but speeded up enough that we can see it happening. Some of the variations are disasters for the virus and they fall off social media. Some don’t matter–they don’t have good publicity agents, they post on Twitter but no one likes or retweets them, and we never hear about them. 

Some, though, work well. I’m taking that from the virus’s point of view, remember, so that means they’re more infectious or they change clothes so the vaccine-primed immune system stops recognizing them. They’re the Kim Kardashians of the virus world. 

The reason I’m dragging you through all this is that the more times the virus mutates, the more chances it has to hit on a winning formula. So the more people become infected, the greater the chance the virus has of becoming even scarier. 

In people with suppressed immune systems, it may get to mutate even more freely.

Could it mutate enough times to become less scary? Of course. The process can go in any direction. But we can’t know which one it’ll take. It’s not a bet I’d like to make. If you hear someone saying that no one is safe until we’re all safe, this is what they’re talking about. 

Bjorn Meyer of the Pasteur Institute said that with vaccination and the distancing and cleaning measures that are in place around the world, the virus’s successful mutations are more likely to affect how easily it’s transmitted rather than how lethal it becomes. I have no idea why that should be true, so I’ll just have to take his word for it and skip merrily on to the next item.

 

Antibody therapy

A joint Swiss, Czech, and Italian effort has developed a second-generation double antibody that protects against Covid.

A what?

I know. Me too. Think of it as an arranged marriage. The researchers introduced two natural Covid antibodies that target separate sites on the virus and fused them into a single artificial molecule. As long as they both may live or until one of them has an affair with some other antibody, whichever comes first.

In pre-clinical trials, the artificial antibody neutralized Covid and its variants and kept the virus from changing its structure. If it changes its structure, remember, the antibody has to close its eyes and count to seven while the virus hides.

The antibody stands a good chance of both preventing and treating Covid but it still needs to go through human trials before. If it does go into use, it looks like a single injection will reduce the viral load in the lungs and minimize inflammation. 

Politics, economics, and interviews

I don’t know about you, but I was impressed that England had instituted a £500 grant for low-income people who test positive for Covid and have to self-isolate. It didn’t sound like enough, but it was better than nothing. Until I found out that three-quarters of the people who apply for it are turned down.

Local governments say they’re having to turn people down because the criteria are too narrow.

Thanks, guys, you’ve renewed my faith in the incompetence of the current government.

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Speaking of which: Britain’s work and pensions secretary walked out on a TV interview when she didn’t like the interviewer’s paraphrase of what she said.

Okay, it was a Zoom interview. It’s hard to walk out them with any flair, but she did turn off her camera. 

It started when Therese Coffey said Britain’s death rate was so high because it had an obesity problem and an older population. To translate that, it means, None of this is the government’s fault. 

The interviewer, Piers Morgan, turned it so the seams showed. So the public was too old and too fat, then?

“I think that’s a very insulting thing that you’ve just said,” Coffey answered. “I also have to point out that you started this interview late. Unfortunately I have to go to other broadcasters as well, and I wish we had more time.”

“It was you that boycotted the programme,” Morgan said. “Please don’t play the ‘we haven’t given you enough time’ card, because we gave you eight months and you didn’t turn up.”

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A recent report tells us that the wealth of the world’s ten richest people has increased enough during the pandemic to pay for the planet’s entire population to be vaccinated. And enough pocket money will be left over to make up for the income the poorest of them have lost. 

So how much is that in numbers? It’s £400 billion. Of course, if you have to split that with nine other people, all you get to take home is £40 billion.

 

The almost obligatory snippet of good news

I’m not doing well on the good news front, but research from the University of Illinois reports that the psychological problems of lockdown tend to fade with time as people adjust to the new normal. 

Sorry–best I could do today. 

How much should we worry about the British Covid variant?

Whoopee! It’s another moment when Britain gets to claim world-beating status. Its new Covid variant may be more deadly than the old ones. In addition to maybe being more transmissible.

Maybe. (Also may be, if you want to split hairs and words.) Nothing’s certain yet, although we’d be smart to act as if the possible bad news is rock-solid certain bad news. Otherwise even more people might die. That has a way of focusing a person’s attention. Or at least it should. 

But that doesn’t mean that the evidence on it is clear.

Nervtag–the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–says there’s a “realistic possibility” that it’s more deadly, but it’s by no means a sure thing, and the government’s chief science advisor, Patrick Vallance (known as Sir to his friends and family), said the data on this is “not yet strong.” 

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are both expected to work against the new variant, but they may be less effective against the variants from South Africa and Brazil. Not completely ineffective, just less effective. 

So it is time to be careful but it’s not time to panic. We can always do that later.

Irrelevant photo: A winter tree.

 

If we don’t panic, what should we do?

Susan Michie, an adviser on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours says Britain’s lockdown rules aren’t strong enough, so she’d recommend strengthening them. 

There’s been a lot of focus on people who break the rules, and government ads urge people to stay home, “But actually,” she said, “all the data show that the overwhelming number of people are sticking to the rules with one exception which is self-isolation.

“In fact I would say that it’s not so much people not sticking to the rules, but it’s the rules themselves that are the problem.”

Compared to the first lockdown, twice as many people are going to work and using public transportation, and more kids are in school because the definition of key worker has been broadened.

“The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be,” she said.

And the problem with self-isolation doesn’t seem to be that people don’t care but that so many of them can’t afford to miss work.

 

Your feel-bad stories for the day

Just when you think the government might be taking the pandemic seriously and understanding how important the people who work in the National Health Service are–

Nah, I won’t go on. It’s too silly. Foreign and minority group NHS workers in England might be disproportionately ineligible for Covid vaccines because guidelines on who hospitals should vaccinate rule out anyone without an NHS number.

Who’s that going to affect? Disproportionately, foreign-born workers and people from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds. They’re all less likely to have registered with a doctor’s practice, which means they haven’t gotten a number.

Some hospitals are working around the guidelines and vaccinating them anyway. 

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In case you’ve wondered how Britain’s £22 billion test and trace system manages to spend so much money while barely functioning–and I have–its bottom line gets a boost from a consulting company, Deloitte, which has 900 consultants on the test-and-trace books, each earning £1,000 a day.

Maybe that’s an average. Do we care? Nah, not really.

That’s a savings from last year, when the number of contractors was over 1,000. I can’t find the hourly wage for people working the test and trace phone system, but memory insists it’s minimum wage.

 

Your feel-good story for the day

On January 14, Dzhemal Senturk was hospitalized with Covid in Trabazon, Turkey, and his dog, Boncuk, ran after the ambulance all the way to the hospital and waited for him.

Senturk’s family took her home.

The next day, she came back, and she came back every day, waiting from 9 a.m. until dark. 

On January 20th, the man was released and she went home with him. And they lived happily ever after. Except that some papers spell the man’s name Cemal. It’s okay, though. Boncuk can’t spell.

 

And your information-packed snippet for the day

And now down to serious business: A British survey reports a lot of uncertainty about what key pandemic words and phrases mean, and as ever I’m here to help. 

Epidemiologist: These are doctors who treat the epidermis–your skin. Why is the news making such a fuss over them when the skin is one of the few things Covid isn’t interested in? Because so many people observing the current lockdown have gained weight and are desperate to get skinnier.

Flattening the curve: See above. 

Antibody: This is how people feel after failing to flatten the curve.

R number: This is the plural of the Is number, but abbreviated.

Is number: This is a secret metric kept by the deep state. You won’t hear about it anywhere but here. Doesn’t metric sound more worrying than measurement

Support bubble: This is the collection of imaginary friends you’ve gathered around you during the pandemic. They offer emotional support from within the confines of  your four walls.

Stay alert: This is a government slogan–or at least it was. It may have been retired by now and it’s okay not to know what it means because it never did mean anything, it just filled space while the government dithered.

The interesting thing about the survey–at least as far as I could tell from the article about it (my research didn’t take me as far as reading the survey itself)–is that it seems to have asked people if they could confidently explain the terms. It doesn’t seem to have cross-referenced their explanations with reality. In other words, were they even remotely right or only confident? It’s the perfect survey for our fact-free world.