Good news, goat news, and some dry stuff: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

The goats

With more and more people using Zoom to stay in touch or to hold work meetings, a goat farm, Cronkshaw Fold Farm in Lancashire, has figured out a way to make some money during the lockdown. They’re offering a book-a-goat service for Zoom meetings. 

Dot McCarthy, who runs the farm, said, “People are just in hysterics because they’ve sneaked a goat into a business meeting and the boss hasn’t noticed.”

You can even choose your goat. Let’s meet three.

What to expect from Mary: ambivalence, limited attention span, totally fine peeing in front of you.

“What to expect from Lisa: passive aggressive bleating, ferocious hunger, lack of any form of patience or tolerance of anything.”

To be fair, Lisa was pregnant when they wrote that. She has since had two kids and mellowed out a bit.

Sorry, I should have a picture of a goat here. Will a cat do? This is Fast Eddie, in his most typical pose.

“What to expect from Bret: all the energy, all the opinions, none of the substance.”

That’s not pure sex-role stereotyping, even if it sounds like it is. Some of the males are described as lovely, with velvety ears, although the ears may not be a big draw on Zoom.

The cost’s £5.99 for a ten-minute cameo. 

Other farms offer Zoom alpaca visits. 

You’re welcome.

Containment and testing in poor countries

You’ll forgive me for a couple of hopeful stories about the pandemic, right? Even if they’re not funny? 

Senegal’s working on a testing kit that will cost $1 per patient, doesn’t need a lab, and gives a result in less than ten minutes. Using saliva it will detect current infections and using blood, antibodies from past ones. If the trials go well, it should be in use next month. 

The country started planning its response to the pandemic in January, closing its borders and doing intensive contact tracing. Because people tend not to live alone, it organized a bed for every Covid-19 patient, either in a hospital or a community clinic. It’s had 30 deaths out of a population of 16 million. That’s in a country whose gross domestic product was $1,546 per capita in 2018. By way of contrast, the UK’s was $46,827 in 2019. The US’s was $62,794.59 in 2018.

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Ghana has used community health workers and volunteers to do contact tracing and tests by combining multiple blood samples and only doing individual tests if the pool tests positive. It’s had 31 deaths in a population of 30 million. It’s gross domestic product is $1,807 per capita.

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In various parts of Africa, traditional herbal remedies are being investigated, and one, sweet wormwood, has drawn some attention. The Max Planck Institute in Germany is interested in a different variety of the plant and is doing trials on it.

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The Indian state of Kerala has 690 cases and 4 deaths. It has a gross domestic product of £2,200 per capita in–oh, hell, some recent year. Their rapid response team met in January. By the time the first case came in on a plane from Wuhan, they met the plane, sending anyone without a fever home to quarantine themselves, hospitalizing the one who was feverish. 

A bit later, the virus did spread (somebody had been in Italy and dodged the checks), and they traced hundreds of contacts and before they contained it. 

Repeat the story as workers returned home from the Gulf states and as the country went into lockdown and jobless migrant workers began walking home. They found housing and food for 150,000 migrant workers, and when the lockdown lifted they chartered trains to send them home. They’ve supervised the quarantine of 170,000 people and improvised isolation units for people whose homes don’t have inside toilets. 

Shreds of hope

People in the U.K. is also working on a ten-minute test, along with a two-minute test, both using saliva to check for current infections. The test that’s in use right now not only has to be processed in a lab but (if you send for one to use at home) asks you to swab your nostrils and, according to someone who used one, tonsils. Or the place where your tonsils used to be. 

I do have tonsils but have no idea where they are. I haven’t heard from them in years. They could be living in Argentina for all I know. 

Because so many people are as out of touch with their tonsils as I am (sorry–it’s a sad tale but it has to be told), the test may come back with false negatives as much as 30% of the time. And that’s not just the tests people use at home. Some of the official testing centers are handing people a nine-page booklet and telling them to do the swab themselves. So a test that relies on saliva would be a big step forward. Even I know where my saliva is. 

A twenty-minute antibody test is also being worked on. 

If you get the sense that everything’s being tried simultaneously, you’re probably right. There has to be a way out of this mess. 

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A new treatment for the most seriously ill patients is also being tested. It’s based on the observation that the people who get sickest are seriously low on an immune system component called T-cells. The idea is to use interleukin 7 to boost T-cell production. 

The observation could also lead to a test predicting who will go on to have the most serious reactions to the virus.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been good about staying in touch with my T-cells. I’m doing what I can to patch up our relationship, though, starting with a card and a heartfelt apology. The tonsil thing, that can happen to anyone and they were at fault as much as I was. But the T-cells, that was me. All I can do is hope they accept the apology.

My card end with, “Multiply like hell, you little bastards.”

Who could resist?

Other news, good and bad and goatless

During the potato famine, the Choctaw Nation heard that people were starving in Ireland and sent $170 to the Society of Friends in Dublin, which was distributing food. That would be about $5,000 in today’s money. Sixteen years before, the Choctaw had been forced off their land and relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears and they’d barely begun to rebuild their lives. But they knew starvation and disease and they sent what they could.

Now Ireland is returning their generosity, even if it’s to a different tribe. Some 24,000 Irish donors have given $820,000 to an online fundraiser to buy food and supplies for the Navajo and Hopi reservations, which have been hit hard by the virus. It will go to people who are raising grandkids, have underlying health conditions, or are positive for the virus.

Thanks to Electrica in the Desert for tweeting this one.

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A study of 15,000 patients given hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or one of those drugs combined with an antibiotic found that with any of those four treatments patients were more likely to die in the hospital (1 in 11 compared to 1 in 6 1 in 5, and 1 in 4). 

No comment. 

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In the face of a rebellion not just from the opposition (which is to be expected) but from its own MPs, the British government has backed away from charging foreign NHS and care workers a yearly fee to use the National Health Service–£400 per family member per year. 

The government spent a day or two arguing that of course it was right to charge them, the money goes into the NHS and the NHS needs it, but at a certain point it was just too embarrassing a position to defend. Government officials must be seen to clap for NHS and care every Thursday at 8 pm. Any politician who skips the 8 pm roll call or  shows up but looking less than appreciative is liable to be chopped up and added to Larry the 10 Downing Street Cat’s food bowl.

And if that isn’t enough, NHS and care workers already pay taxes, which are what fund the NHS. Many of them are low paid. They’re risking their lives in the pandemic and are holding the NHS and the care system together. 

Enough. That’s ended. 

Not the roll call and not their role; the surcharge. 

Pandemic reports from the Departments of Health, Bad Planning, and Unlikely Allies

The Guardian interviewed past British health ministers about their experiences. The best bit of advice came from Kenneth Clarke: “Get the prime minister to take as little interest in the subject as possible.” The best demonstration of cluelessness came from Jeremy Hunt: “I was gobsmacked to find that 150 patients a week die in the NHS because of treatment errors. Then I discovered that this was actually true all over the world, it’s what happens in medicine.”

Ah, Jeremy, it does me good to see that you came into the job with a real grounding in the subject.

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Medical staff from the St. Peter Hospital turned out to meet Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmès. As her car rolled majestically between the two evenly spaced lines of people wearing scrubs, they turned their backs. It was to criticize staff shortages, low pay, budget cuts to health care, and the use of less qualified staff to do part of nurses’ jobs. I don’t know if it’ll change government policy, but it’ll sure as hell change the way the government organizes Wilmès’s public appearances.

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Irrelevant photo: These are called, um, something. I always forget. They’re wonderful to touch, though.

Britain’s wrestling with the question of whether to reopen schools in June. So what does science have to tell us? 

Not much.

Only a few useful studies have been done, and they point in opposite directions. An Italian one from the town of Vo, which had a major outbreak, didn’t find a single kid under ten who’d been infected, even though plenty of them lived with people who were sick. Studies from Iceland, Norway, and Korea have similar findings.

But.

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

A British Office of National Statistic study looked at 10,000 people and found that the same proportion of people tested positive for the virus across all age groups. Or at least it found “no evidence” of differences, which may or may not be the same thing. (There’s always an or as well as a but. Or there is around here.) If you’re willing to trust a non-professional’s translation of that–and I admit, it’s a risk–kids get infected at the same rate as adults.

A German study seems to back that up. 

So is it safe to reopen the schools? I have no idea. If serious testing and contact tracing were in place, they could make a better argument for it.

Has the government studied the situation? It’s not impossible, but studying the situation has a way of bringing out all kinds of inconvenient information, so I wouldn’t put a lot of money on it.

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So what’s happening with contact tracing? You would have to ask, wouldn’t you? A company that has a contract to recruit contact tracers emailed applicants to say that the jobs they were applying for had been put on hold because the government’s considering an alternative to the app that it had bet its chips on.

At which point the Department of Health said the email was wrong. The chips are still on the existing app. And the company that sent the email said it was all a miscommunication. 

So how’s the app performing on the Isle of Wight, where it’s being tested? Slightly under half of the population has downloaded it, although that may include people who downloaded it twice (that would’ve been me, but I don’t live there and don’t use a smartphone) or who are from the mainland and so don’t count. Still, it’s a better take up than in Singapore (20%) or Australia (25%). 

On the other hand, it’s an early, dumbed-down version of the app. It only asks about two symptoms. If a person’s answers send up red flag, their contacts get a warning. But there’s no way for the person to enter a test result (assuming that the government gets its testing centers working well enough for the person to get their results back in a reasonable time). So contacts get warned but then they’re left to wander around wondering what they should do. Isolate? Go to work? Write their wills?

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And now a report from the Department of Bad Planning: Not only didn’t the government talk to teachers’ unions before announcing that the schools would reopen, it didn’t talk to city governments before announcing that the lockdown would be loosened. 

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The Department of Unlikely Allies reports that a hundred people (or several hundred, depending on your source) demonstrated in London on Saturday, protesting (variously) the lockdown, 5G, the fake virus, contact tracing, and the vaccine that doesn’t exist yet, although to be fair they didn’t say that it did, they were just getting their licks in in advance. 

The protest was called by the UK Freedom Movement, which circulated a flyer on Facebook, saying, “We say no to the coronavirus bill, no to mandatory vaccines, no to the new normal and no to the unlawful lockdown.”

It called sixty mass gatherings around the country, but it’s not clear how many of them gathered. A dozen people micro-massed in Southampton. 

The group Hope Not Hate, which “uses research, education, and public engagement to challenge mistrust and racism,” said, “It is notable how diverse the people leading the groups appear to be, with some groups moderated entirely by vegan activists, others by committed Brexiteers and still others by full-blown conspiracy theorists.”

If I can translate that, these are people who wouldn’t normally talk to each other. Lockdown’s driving people to discover all sorts of new possibilities. Isn’t it wonderful?

Overall, a recent poll shows that the British public not only supports the lockdown but is uneasy about easing it.

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After the leak of a report indicating that the government was thinking about freezing public sector wages, Boris Johnson has said no one has had that thought, even in passing. I only mention that because I caught a few drops of the leak and squeezed them out here, so I thought I should mop them up. I should also get out of the metaphor before I drown in it.

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A new study makes singing look–well, nothing’s safe these days but as safe as anything else is. Anecdotal evidence had been pointing to it as a great way to spread little virii.

The anecdotes? A number of choirs popped up as virus hotspots, leading to the logical assumption that singing caused the spread. It’s common sense. Singers breathe deeply and exhale powerfully, so why wouldn’t they both spread and take in better than your average amateur breather? 

Well, because it doesn’t work that way–or it doesn’t seem to. I won’t rule out a contradictory report coming in next week. In the meantime, though, a specialist in fluid mechanics experimented to see how far singers and instrumentalists could shoot air, with all its virus-carrying droplets and aerosols.

Singers propel air about half a meter–maybe a foot and a half. His best guess is that the choir outbreaks came from socializing before or after singing, although the director of one choir swore they’d all been careful about both distance and sanitizing their hands.

The study also showed that flutes, oboes, and clarinets propelled air further than larger wind instruments. 

Stay away from people carrying flutes, please. They’re dangerous.

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The U.S. Navy reports that thirteen sailors who’d apparently recovered from Covid-19, testing negative, tested positive for a second time. The same thing has been reported in South Korea. It’s possible, but far from certain, that the disease becomes dormant in a person’s system and then reactivates. 

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The Department of Greed and Despair wishes to inform you that some of the protective gear that’s being sold comes with phony documentation. So as people return to work, they can’t know if they’re being handed workable protective gear or not. 

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And finally, from the Ray of Hope Department, two vaccine updates:

A vaccine being worked on in the U.S. shows that the vaccine did create antibodies in eight people in the test, although this stage of the test is about safety, not effectiveness. 

Another vaccine being tested in Oxford protected monkeys against pneumonia and the most severe symptoms of the virus, but it hasn’t been tested in humans yet.