The pandemic update from Britain: golf balls, antibodies, and shreds of hope

As the English coronavirus policy wanders off in a different direction than the one Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are following, things are getting predictably strange around here. But first, some background. 

Anyone who isn’t from the U.K. could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s all one country, with one government, one flag, and one national anthem, and one national policy. And it is. But it also isn’t.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England are all nations within that one country, with their own flags, and (except for England) their own national anthems, and (except for England) their own governments. So the British government governs Britain, but it also governs England. 

We won’t get into national anthems right now. The British–or maybe that’s the English; I’m American originally, so I get dizzy when we talk about this stuff–only sing when they’re drunk anyway.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Are you making any sense of this at all? 

No, I didn’t think so. The problem is, it could easily take up the whole post, but we need to move on to the important stuff, which is golf, so let’s condense it and say that the British government devolved some powers to the national (which you could call regional if it makes you happier) governments, and because of that when the prime minister announced to a baffled public that instead of staying home to beat the virus everyone now had to stay alert to beat the virus, the regional governments said, effectively, “You’re out of your mind.” They’re keeping both the lockdown and the stay-home slogan.

As a result (and we’ve finally gotten to the point), a golf course that straddles the border between England and Wales can’t figure out whether it’s open or closed. The Llanymynech golf club has fifteen holes that are in Wales, two that are in England, and one that starts in Wales and ends in England. Its official policy at the moment is, “We don’t know what we can do.”

I suggest opening the English holes but warning players that if a ball crosses into Wales, pffft, it will disappear in midair. 

*

In case my explanation of British politics doesn’t leave you confused enough, allow me to add that Britain isn’t really a country. We just call it that to confuse outsiders. The country’s full name is the United Kingdom of a Bunch of Random Places.

*

J.K. Rowling loved England’s new “stay alert” slogan enough to tweet, “Is Coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean?”

Dave Ward, of the Communication Workers Union, loved it too. He said, “Stay alert? It’s a deadly virus not a zebra crossing.”

A zebra crossing? That’s not a place where zebras cross. Zebras aren’t native to the country allegedly known as Britain. It’s a place where pedestrians cross a street, and it’s marked with white stripes that make it look nothing like a zebra.

It’s pronounced ZEBBra, not ZEEbra.

And the British spell mustache with an O, moustache, as if a small rodent had crawled in.

*

A healthcare company, Randox, was awarded a £133 million contract to produce Covid-19 testing kits for the Department of Health and Social care, without any competitive bidding. And the company just happens to pay Owen Paterson, who’s a Conservative MP, a former cabinet minister, and a big-league Brexiteer, £500 an hour to consult about the consulty-type things that consultants consult about. That adds up, in his case, to about £100,000 a year, and if a person was careful about the small things she or he could probably live on that. Although mercifully he doesn’t have to, since he also has his MP’s salary and expenses, plus I have no idea what else.

It’s not illegal for MPs to consult with or lobby for companies that do business with the government as long as their lobbying doesn’t (and I’m going to quote from an article in the Guardian here, because, A, I trust them to get their facts straight, and, B, I don’t understand a word of it, so I can’t paraphrase) “help to give an exclusive financial benefit to the client and the client [didn’t initiate] the lobbying.” 

So who can initiate the lobbying? The planet Saturn when it’s in the house of cocaine, because that’s always conducive to profit. 

I kind of thought, silly me, that the whole point of lobbying was to gain an exclusive financial benefit. But it’s all okay, beause the Department of Health and Social Care says it’s increased its testing capacity at phenomenal speed. 

Clap your hands and say with me: “I do believe in fairies. I do believe in fairies.”

*

The coronavirus tests that the National Health Service currently uses look for the presence of the virus itself in a person’s system. But there’s a different kind of test, which can pick up the presence of antibodies, spotting people who have the virus now but also people who used to have it and are better. Using it would let you test a sample population and figure out how far the beast has spread, which would let policymakers figure out what they’re actually dealing with. And (forgive me, I know this is a huge leap) let them make  sensible decisions about how to handle it. 

It could also provide useful information to people working on vaccines, including whether immunity exists at all and if it does whether it will be lifelong or short lived. A study from Shanghai hints that people who had a lighter case of the bug may come away with a lighter immune response. Widespread testing should give a better picture of that as well.

Antibody tests are evaluated on the basis of two things: their specificity and their sensitivity. 

Specificity means the proportion of healthy people the test recognizes as healthy, and for the test to be useful this has to be close to 100%. I’m going to explain this without understanding it myself, so if you have a seat belt, this would be a good time to fasten it. You could also stick your fingers in your ears and hum. It just might help.

If a test is 90% accurate, instead of mislabeling 10% of the population, it would (if 5% of the population had been infected) mislabel 70%. I’ve gone over that several times and it almost makes sense to me, but then it slips away. 

I’ll tell you what, don’t worry about it. It won’t make you happy. Numbers so seldom do. Let’s talk about sensitivity instead. 

Sensitivity is how many people who’ve had the virus the test is able to spot and (if I understood this correctly, which I can’t guarantee) how strong an antibody response to the virus a person has to have to register on the test. 

Two U.S. companies now have Food and Drug Administration approval for antibody tests that have 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The problem with them both is that they can’t be done at home. Someone medical has to take a blood sample and a lab has to process it.

Britain (remember than imaginary country, Britain, the one that’s really called the United Kingdom of Several Other Places?)–

Let’s start over: Britain has been chasing after a test that can be done at home and sold by the million, cheaply. In April, the government of our imaginary country spent £16 million buying 4 million tests, which turned out to fail on both sensitivity and specificity but other than that were great. 

Something in the neighborhood of 17.5 million more tests have been ordered provisionally from other suppliers. If they work, and if they’re used in a competent, coordinated way, we might find a way out of this mess. 

I was feeling good until I typed competent and coordinated

Still, the possibility of widespread testing, especially if it can be combined with tracing and sanity, does bring us a quick glimpse of hope.

*

Poland had a presidential election on Sunday with a record turnout of 0%. Even someone as mathematically impaired as I am can take that in. 

The vote wasn’t canceled, but on the other hand the polling stations stayed closed. 

What’s that got to do with the coronavirus? Opposition politicians had been pushing to postpone the election because of the pandemic, asking the government to declare either a state of emergency or a national disaster. The government refused, saying the situation wasn’t serious enough.   

The electoral commission now says it has two weeks to set a new date. 

*

A Republican state representative from Ohio, Nino Vitale, is refusing to wear a face mask because it would hide the image of god.

If you want to decide for yourself whether he looks like god, you can find photos of him here. Including one where he’s pointing a handgun. As gods do.

The White House is now requiring staff to wear masks. The president? He doesn’t have to.

Meanwhile, Kam Buckner, a Democratic state representative from Illinois was stopped by police as he came out of a store wearing a mask and gloves. Do I need to tell you that Buckner’s black and Vitale’s white?

He asked why he was being stopped and the cop (allegedly) said, “People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.”

*

And finally, some those shreds of good news that I promised you.

In Germany, the R number–basically, the rate at which the virus spreads–has fallen below 1. I want to keep this brief, so just take my word that this is good.

Iceland plans to let people coming into the country avoid quarantine by taking a Covid-19 test.

In Athens, the pandemic has led to pedestrians and cyclists taking over the public spaces abandoned by cars, and it’s such a hit that the city plans to ban cars from the city center permanently.

The World Health Organization says four or five treatments offer a shred of a hint of a possibility of hope for the fight against the virus. They don’t stop the virus, but they do seem–in very early trials–to limit the disease’s severity or shorten the time a person stays ill. That’s progress, people, or at least a faint whiff of it.

I hope the link at the top of the paragraph works–it’s from the Guardian‘s news update, which will inevitably move on.

The pandemic news from Britain: tracing, testing, and goals no one expects to meet

Britain’s Prime Blusterer, Boris Johnson, set a new coronavirus testing goal: 200,000 tests a day by the end of May.

Did we meet our last testing goal? Well, no. We were supposed to be testing 100,000 people by the end of April and the government mythically met the goal for one day–the last day April had to offer–by counting tests that hadn’t been tested yet. After that, the numbers dropped down again.

But hey, They’re all all numbers. What’s your problem? When you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ’em all.

Anyway, we now have a newer, cheerier, even more unreachable goal. And we’re happy.

*

Irrelevant photo, because we all need something cheery in our lives: This is an odd geranium that a friend gave us. It only flowers after three years. Then it kicks the bucket and you have to hope you save some seeds.

Starting on Monday, the lockdown will be eased slightly, allowing people to leave the house more often and for a wider range of activities as long as they keep their distance from other people, although if localized infection rates go up, the restrictions may be adapted for those areas. (The link for that is that same as the one above. We’re all about efficiency here.)

Adapting the restrictions to smaller ares makes sense (as Almost Iowa pointed out in comments he left on an earlier post) but it’s also likely to mean that richer areas, which allow for more space between people when they’re outside and where people are statistically less likely to be hit as hard by the virus, will have an easier lockdown than poor areas.

And by areas, of course, I mean people.

*

I’ve been hearing tales, from here in Cornwall, about people who book Covid-19 tests, show up, and then can’t get tested. One person got to her test to find out that the testing team had already gone home, presumably because they ran out of tests but who really knows?

Instead of doing what Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey says half the population would do, which is , “Fuck it,” she booked a second test. But they didn’t get the results back to her, so she followed up. they were backed up, They said. It might take as much as five days before they could test her sample.

After five days, I’m told, the sample has to be thrown away.

But it’s all privatized, so it’s all good. Because when private industry runs things, it’s more efficient.

*

Okay, sooner or later I’ve got to write about the contract-tracing app that’s being introduced. I’ve been avoiding it because I’m too damn old to be at ease in the virtual world. Here’s about as much I can follow:

The National Cyber Security Centre says it’s good, and it says it in as down-homey a way as it can, given that it’s British and I’ve never heard anyone British say “down home.” It’s got to be an Americanism. Someone British might say “homely,” meaning not ugly (which is what an American would mean) but homey, but they wouldn’t say it in this context. I only tossed it in because I thought we needed a break. Homely isn’t the same thing as down home.

I’m sorry, but I have to ask: Why do you read this stuff?

Now, back to our point: The app’s so good that it won’t drain your battery, steal your data, or invade your privacy. It won’t even make you flip the E and R if you write center instead of centre. But that’s because it can’t–nothing’s that powerful yet. I only spelled it that way because, hey, I figure it can spell its name any way it wants.

Do I believe them about the privacy thing?

Umm. I think I’m gonna have to hear it from someone else first, and some experts have raised concerns about it. They know all sorts of things about this that I don’t, so in my ignorance I lean in the direction of listening to them. Especially since one of the reassurances about privacy is that the app asks your permission before it can do various things, and we all know how well we read the fine print when an app asks our permission before it can do something.

The app is a centralized one, so all the information your phone collects goes through whoever’s running this beast–a private company, as it happens, so it will be handled efficiently.

But forget privacy. I’ve clicked okay on so many websites that I doubt I have a scrap of the stuff left. Or if you can’t forget it, set it aside for a minute. Both the Health Service Journal and Business Insider say it won’t work on newer phones and Androids.

Both Google and Apple have dedicated tracing apps that we’re not using.

Downloading it isn’t mandatory, which is a good thing since I have a dumb phone, which is no better with apps than I am.

*

At a virtual summit organized by the World Health Organization, a global alliance pledged $8 billion to develop vaccines and treatments for the virus and distribute them fairly.

The U.S. didn’t take part.

Why not? As the kids all said where I grew up, “Because.”

That was enough to explain pretty much anything.

*

Stay safe out there if you can. I’ve explained this before, but it’s worth repeating: I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.


The pandemic update from Britain: testing, protective gear, and condom sales

Britain’s still in lockdown, but the government–after a good bit of pushing–has announced that it’s preparing an exit strategy.

That’s not pushing from people who want the freedom to infect their neighbors and loved ones but from people who accept that lockdown’s necessary but want to end it in some way that doesn’t undo the progress. Along, predictably, with pushing from business people who get to sleep at night by counting money disappearing over the fence instead of sheep.  

Stay tuned. We’re told we’ve passed the peak of the epidemic. Stay tuned on that too. I hope it’s true.

Testing & Protective Gear

Britain’s been frantically trying to test more people because the government set an arbitrary goal for itself and doesn’t want to look like the kind of government that can’t meet its own arbitrary goals. Also (and I can’t help thinking it’s their secondary concern, but then I’m getting more cynical by the minute) because testing’s necessary if we’re ever going to get the virus under control. 

Irrelevant photo: begonia

The government is managing to perform more tests. It may even meet its goal. But the testing’s a shambles. To get a test, people are having to drive all over hell and gone and wait in a long line of cars only for some of them to be told that the tests have run out and then (by the computer) that they can’t rebook because they were just tested. (Yes, that seems to have happened to at least one someone.)

A statement from NHS Providers, the organization of National Health Service hospitals, says, “NHS trust leaders…feel they are on the end of a series of frequent tactical announcements extending the testing criteria to new groups with no visibility on any longer term strategy, and are being expected at the drop of a hat to accommodate these changes with no advance notice of planning.”

*

Britain had a chance to buy 50,000 home testing kits from a company in the U.S. but wrote back to say, “Ho, hum, boring boring boring. Not interested.”

The test is less invasive than and at least as accurate as what it’s using now, and it allows people to test themselves at home instead of booking an appointment, driving, waiting, being told they’ve run out of test kits, and all the rest of that joy. And all that sounds good, but the home testing kits didn’t come with a side of fries, so why bother?

And as long as the right number of tests get performed–or at least logged–it’s all good.

*

British coroners have been told not to look at systemic failures to provide protective gear when they consider deaths among NHS workers. They can consider human failure, though. So basically, they can blame the individual but not the system. 

And they wonder why people break windows.

*

Britain isn’t the only country struggling to get protective gear to frontline staff. German doctors have posed naked to draw attention to how vulnerable the lack of protective equipment has left them.  

But Britain is probably the only country that, in order to boost the amount of protective equipment it can boast about providing, counts each glove separately instead of counting them in pairs. It also counted body bags, paper towels, and cleaning equipment as protective gear.

*

A British textile factory belonging to the department store chain John Lewis has at long last been contracted to make 8,000 clinical gowns, but other textile firms say they’re desperate to help and can’t get the government to respond.

See breaking windows, above.

Other Triumphs in the Supply Chain

A batch of 250 ventilators that were bought from China on April 4 have turned out to be unusable and possibly dangerous. They supplied a variable level of oxygen and the oxygen connection base was marked “non-EU.” Technical staff spent days trying to make them work and couldn’t.

They also had a fabric case that made them hard to clean and were designed for ambulances, not hospitals.

Other than that, they were great, though.

They cost somewhere between £1,000 and £2,500 each. I’m not sure why there’s a range of prices but if you’re in the market for a few hundred, you’ll want to hold out for the lower price.

Light Relief and Good News

Three London roommates missed their commute so much that they recreated it in their shower and posted it on TikTok. 

Yeah, go on, follow the link. 

*

Captain Tom Moore, the 99-year-old (now 100-year-old) who raised £33 million for the NHS by walking laps around his garden, supported by his walker, received 125,000 birthday cards. By now it’s probably more. The post office was overwhelmed and his grandson’s school offered to open and display them. 

They found £60,000 inside the cards.

*

This probably won’t surprise you, but condom sales are down since the lockdown started. 

‘Nuff said. 

Drug Dealing

Not long ago (time’s adrift in lockdown, or at least I am, so let’s keep it vague) I wrote that a test of remdesivir had been abandoned because it wasn’t helping and the side effects (liver and kidney problems) were too damaging. But the preliminary results of a different test show more promise: It cut recovery time from 15 days to 11 and the death rate in the group on remdesivir was 8% compared with 11.6% in the control group.

The full data from the trial hasn’t been released and it’s not a knockout blow in any case, so I wouldn’t set off any fireworks yet, but the drug hasn’t been ruled out.

More Light Relief and Good News

A 7-year-old, dressed as a tricertops, has been riding his toy tractor to deliver food to neighbors. Who could fail to be nourished?

I’d love to give you a link for that but you’ll just have to take my word and say “Awww,” because he looked very cute. It was on the evening news and all Lord Google wanted to talk about when I looked for a picture of the kid was a 65-million-year-old triceratops skull that was found somewhere or other and isn’t going to deliver lunch to anyone. 

*

A couple of companies have come together to refurbish bikes that have been abandoned at train stations so they can be donated to key workers. 

No, I don’t know why anyone would abandon a bike at a train station, but some 20 are left behind every month. And they’re lonely. So this is good news for everyone. 

Religion and the Coronavirus

Germany’s government and religious groups are trying to work out safety guidelines for religious services as the lockdown there eases, and one sticking point is how to handle singing, which is not only an important part of many services but a great way to spread the virus. You know all that business about projecting your voice? When you do it, you also project tiny droplets of spit, and riding on them, if you happen to be harboring the virus, are even tinier little viral warriors, looking for new humans to assault, all of them yelling some viral version of “Yee ha!” but they’re so small that you can’t hear them.

I don’t think any controlled studies of this have been done yet, but I can offer you an impressive bit of anecdotal evidence from one Protestant cathedral in Berlin: 59 out of 78 choir members became infected.

*

Many evangelical churches in the U.S. have pushed their members to keep on showing up to services, and they’re logging–this may not surprise you–a high incidence of coronavirus. And hinting that there might be some sort of cosmic justice, that includes their ministers. 

The All-Important R Number

Germany, having slowed the spread of the virus, is warning about the danger of a second wave in the summer or fall. It all has to do with the R number.

You know: the R number. 

Okay, I didn’t know the R number either. It sounds like one of those things from algebra class that helped make high school such a misery, but it’s not. Or if it is, I’m damned if I’ll admit it.

The R number measures how many people an infected person passes the bug on to–in other words, the reproduction rate of the virus. Without controls, an infected person passes it on to two or three people. The German R number is now below one. That means it’s spreading, but slowly. 

If it stays below one, the theory goes, the virus will eventually fizzle out. Anything above one and it will grow exponentially: I give it to, let’s say, one and a quarter people (c’mon–we’re dealing with averages here), they all give it to one and quarter people, and those people all and so forth, and before you know what’s hit you, a lot of people are sick.

German researchers recommend using this time while the spread has been slowed down to massively expand testing capacities and contact tracing.

A German coronavirus expert writes that “to achieve herd immunity we need 60-70% of the population to carry antibodies to the virus. The results of antibody tests suggest that in Europe and the U.S. in general, we are in the low single digits, but the tests are not reliable.” 

A second wave of infections, he says, can’t be contained only by humans handling the contact tracing. Electronic contract tracing will be needed.

*

The British R number right about now is estimated to be somewhere between 0.6 and 0.9. Keep your eye on that word estimated.

*

A study from Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori will follow 100,000 people to see if transmission rates are low enough to come out of lockdown safely. The participants will be given home test kits to see if they’re currently infected, then tested again in four to six weeks, or when it loooks like lockdown restrictions are ready to be relaxed. 

The International Grab Bag

As of April 28, Hong Kong had had just four Covid-19 deaths and 811 recoveries.

Worldwide, there had been 220,000 known deaths and 957,000 recoveries. When you look at those numbers, though, remember that not all coronavirus deaths are officially attributed to the virus. In Britain, for example people who died of Covid-19 in care homes are only now being added to the list of pandemic deaths. It’s a small victory for sanity and reliable statistics, although I’m not sure how much practical difference it makes. I’ve been trying to find out if deaths in the community are being counted and I’m still not sure. 

That still leaves the problem of deciding who’s a coronavirus death when testing isn’t available. To a large extent, it’s up the doctor who signs the death certificate, which could easily lead to undercounting.

*

In the U.S., the number of known coronavirus deaths is now larger than the total number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. If you feel the need for a statistic, 58,220 died in the war

*

Brazil’s response to the virus has been in a category of its own. It’s had 50,000 deaths. When reporters asked its president, Jair Bolsonaro, about the death rate having reached 474 in a day, he said, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do about it? I’m a Messiah, but I don’t do a miracle

Only he said it in Portuguese, so you’ll find varying translations.

*

Meanwhile, China is trying to contain a new outbreak in a northeastern province, Heilongjiang. 

Money and the Virus

The British government, in its wisdom, has rejected a call to bar companies that use offshore tax havens from receiving bailouts and support packages resulting from the pandemic. 

It was a silly idea anyway. I mean, just because they avoid taxes, why should that keep them from getting taxpayer support?

***

I’ve gone on longer than I meant to, even after booting out a lot of news. I’m going to try posting shorter updates more often and see how that works. In the meantime, stay well. It’s crazy out there.