Love at first sight, antibodies, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The British government’s wants a fast Covid antibody test to use in mass screenings before the end of the year, and it’s focused on the test made by Abingdon Health, which uses blood from a finger prick, and is, Abingdon says, 99.4% accurate.

But Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics and head of the University of Birmingham’s test evaluation research group, says Abingdon hasn’t published enough data to show that the test can be trusted. Without that, no one can know if Abingdon gamed the system by selecting blood samples with high antibody levels. Doing that is sort of like showing someone the top line of the eye chart, the one with a single big letter. They may read 100% of the letters correctly, but that doesn’t mean they should be driving.

Other companies have antibody tests that UK universities have validated and that are selling around the world, but they can’t seem to get the government’s attention. It saw Abingdon across a crowded room, fell in love, and has eyes for no one else. 

I can’t offer you any statistics on how many of those relationships work out in the long term, but I’m going to claim that, after a few passionate and agonizing months they turn out to be the disaster that everyone else predicted.

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You know what this country really needs to raise morale as we face a season of shorter days and slowly rising infection rates? Another governmental fuckup. Because I don’t know about anyone else, but I have moments of madness when I ask myself, What will I write about if they start getting this thing right?

Those moments. They don’t last long, but they’re disturbing.

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Irrelevant photo: As we inch toward fall (or autumn, if you like), we have red and orange berries. So here are red berries. I have no idea what they are.

Reassuringly, as researchers, governments, and companies the wide world ‘round rush to find not just a vaccine but the vaccine–by which I mean the first vaccine–the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Vaccines Trial Expert Group warns that a bad vaccine could manage to make this mess worse.

Is that cheering I hear? Yes. Thank you. I will have no shortage of things to write about. All I need is time and energy.

So what’s the group’s problem? 

“Deployment of a weakly effective vaccine could actually worsen the Covid-19 pandemic if authorities wrongly assume it causes a substantial reduction in risk, or if vaccinated individuals wrongly believe they are immune, hence reducing implementation of, or compliance with, other Covid-19 control measures.” 

In other words, people will get the vaccine, think the pandemic’s over, and rush out to scoop up some virii and spread the little bastards. I’ve imagined myself acting in ways that would accomplish that. 

The group says any vaccine should be 30% effective to get approval, but it recommends at least 50% effectiveness. Allowing for 95% accuracy, that translates to 30% in practice.

Did that make any sense of you? Me neither, but then it involves numbers, so I wouldn’t expect it to. I’m a word person.

They point to the danger of governments pressing for quick approvals for their own political reasons rather than comparing vaccines and finding the best one–which may not be the first. 

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As parts of England face localized spikes and people are told to self-isolate (who invented that phrase and can I slap them?), the government has noticed that people still need money when they can’t work. At least they do if they plan to pay the rent and put food on the table. If they can’t do those things, they may be oddly reluctant to stay home. 

This is a step forward, but not a big one, because a trial program will offer people who meet certain criteria the princely sum of £13 a day. 

What criteria? They’re complicated. I sank. I do not get to pass Go. Or collect £13. 

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Human adaptability knows no limits. When forced to cope with the unnatural situation that we called lockdown, Britons bought boxed wine–300% more from the Co-op, 40% more from Marks & Spencer, 41% more from Sainsbury’s. 

Human credulity also knows no limits. A study by Avaaz (“a U.S.-based nonprofit organization . . .  [that] promotes global activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, animal rights, corruption, poverty, and conflict) reports that in April the top ten Facebook pages with false information and conspiracy theories had four times as many views as the top ten reputable sites.

A separate study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found 2,000 claims about Covid on social media, and 1,800 of them were false. That covered 87 countries. 

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Boris Johnson spoke to schoolkids as part of his effort to appear to be doing something in the midst of the pandemic, and the Twittosphere noticed that the books behind him sent an interesting message. The titles included The Twits, Betrayed, Resistance, and Fahrenheit 451.

It turns out they did indeed send a message, but it wasn’t meant for Johnson. The librarian had set them up six months ago, when she resigned, and no one had noticed. 

Sometimes if you want to make a point, subtlety isn’t your best bet.

Johnson’s speech, standing in front of the books, wasn’t subtle but it was largely incomprehensible. He blamed a mutant algorithm for messing up the grades in a test the kids hadn’t taken because he hadn’t bothered to check how old they were, told them Harry Potter wasn’t sexist, blithered a bit about his own school experience, and made a passing reference to the supine stem of confiteor in order presumably, to let them know that he studied Latin and was better than them.

It’s a pointless story, which unfortunately doesn’t have a punchline, but then it was a pointless moment in the career of a politician who seems like a good fit for pointlessness.

Face masks, baronets, and a parallel universe: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Britain’s subsidy on eating out is due to end this month, and it sounds like servers will breathe a sigh of relief. It’s brought money into pubs, cafes, and restaurants, and along with it, crabby, demanding customers. 

One server said, “Last week I had someone swearing at me on the phone. They wanted to book a party of 20. I tried to explain there’s no way we could book in 20, the only thing we could do is we have got tables outside. He told me I’d ruined his day.”

You know how it is: Nothing says “Let’s have a good day” the way ruining someone else’s does. 

I don’t know what it is about having part of your meal subsidized that puts people in a temper, but any number of servers report that it’s been horrible.

Irrelevant photo: It’s blackberry season.

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Having advised English secondary schools against using face masks when they reopen, the government has now changed its mind and is giving head teachers (if you’re American, that means principals) discretion over whether to require them or encourage them, although how much encouragement a mask needs is anyone’s guess. 

A fair number of schools had already said they were going to require (or encourage) masks anyway and the World Health Organization has said it’s a good idea. (Okay, I’ve simplified WHO’s advice, but we’re in the neighborhood.) So the government’s avoided the embarrassment of a showdown with the schools and instead is having a showdown with its own MPS, who are saying things like: 

“Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff. It is time to end the fear. And keep it away from our kids, thank you very much.”

“We need to embed Covid and proportionately live with it.”

My favorite is the statement that Boris Johnson–that’s our alleged prime minister–has been “reprogrammed by aliens.”

So yes, we’ve confused WHO and Dr. Who, but we’re on top of this. It’ll be fine.

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Speaking of our alleged prime minister: Dominic Cummings, who is Johnson’s brain and quite possibly his programmer, although I don’t think he’s an alien, already caused a lot of trouble by breaking his own lockdown rules, getting caught, and swearing blind that he drove 60 miles to make sure his eyesight was good enough to drive–.

Should we start that over? Dominic Cummings hasn’t been an easy presence in 10 Downing Street, and I don’t think anyone would argue that he’s united the country. Today, though, it’s his father-in-law in the news. He told a visitor (who told the world) that Johnson will be stepping down in six months because he’s struggling with the aftereffects of Covid-19, which he caught by being an idiot. 

Not that I blame people who catch the disease. Only the ones who think the rules of epidemiology don’t apply to them.

Johnson denies that he’ll step down. Number 10 denies that he’ll step down. The father-in-law’s in hiding. Cummings has stolen a tardis and is not available for comment.

The father-in-law’s a baronet. That’s not a weapon, it’s a title–the lowest order of hereditary title, and it’s available to commoners, so feel free to be snobbish about it. It gives you–or him, really–the right to be called sir. But only by people willing to call him that. Its rare female equivalent is a baronetess, and if you find one with your birdwatcher’s field glasses she will probably not want to be addressed as sir. Or siress. 

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The Oxford Vaccine Group says it just might have enough data gathered before the end of the year to bring its vaccine before the regulator for approval. 

And that doesn’t say the regulator will approve it. 

Anything leaning that heavily on the word might is a kind of non-news item, but it appeared in a large enough range of publications to make it look like news. Presumably they put out a press release. Maybe they decided we all need cheering up and a press release is cheaper and more practical than tea and cookies. Or maybe they’re afraid we’ll forget them and start looking to Russia and China for salvation. Either way, please join me in a cup of tea, a cookie, and a shred of hope.

Or a biscuit if you’re holding out for British English. I’m very nearly bilingual and happy to work with either version of good cheer.

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Okay, that’s enough with the good cheer. You knew it couldn’t last, didn’t you?

The world now has the first fully documented case of someone getting Covid a second time. The man’s 35 and was diagnosed in March and again in August. The two infections have some genetic differences, which says that this isn’t a single infection that hung around.

It’s not clear whether the genetic differences are enough to have made his body not recognize the second version. All anyone can say so far is that nobody should count on being immune. Beyond that, no one’s drawing sweeping conclusions.

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At least in Europe, the coronavirus is becoming less deadly, although it’s not clear why. 

If you divide England’s Covid deaths by its cases (and England follows the European pattern in this), you get a fatality rate of 1% in August but 18% in April. And if you take those figures too seriously, you’ll be misled, because deaths lag a couple of weeks behind infections and because testing has changed during that time. 

Still, something seems to be going on.  It could be that the disease is infecting a younger group, who are, wisely, less prone to dying to if. It could also be that hospitals are treating it more effectively. 

One set of scientists thinks a variant of the virus, known by its friends and family as D614G, is more infectious but less deadly. A second set thinks that’s not so. I think we’ll find out occasionally, so let’s wait and see. 

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For a while there, it looked like scientists in Antarctica might have found a parallel universe, created in the big bang right with ours. In it, left is right, up is down, and time runs backward.

Then it looked like they hadn’t found one at all, damn it. A new paper argues that the pulses that hinted at the parallel universe were reflections off the ice formations. 

Am I disappointed? Damn right. If time was running backwards, there’d be a way out of the pandemic. Not to mention climate change and anything else we’ve screwed up, although I’ll admit there’s an awful lot of stuff in the past to not look forward to. 

The pandemic news from Britain, with a side of cultural appropriation

With English schools set to reopen in September, the papers are crammed with discussions about the safety of kids, of their families, and of school staff during the pandemic. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make their own rules on this, so let’s keep it simple by pretending we’ve never heard of any of them. We’ll focus on England’s schools and preparations. Or lack thereof.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said there’s not much evidence of the virus being transmitted in schools. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has–hang on; I’m looking for a diplomatic way to say this–his head up his ass. But when you’re part of a government like the current one, that’s sometimes the best place to keep it, so we can’t entirely blame the man. 

As far as I can figure out, the evidence on how readily kids transmit the virus isn’t clear. Here’s what I think I know. Emphasis on think.

Irrelevant photo: Cotoneaster–pronounced kuh-tone-ee-ASS-ter, not cot-ton-EAST-er. The mysteries of English spelling.

One outbreak in a French high school ended up with 38% of students, 43% of teachers, and  59% of the non-teaching staff being infected. But a primary school in the same city had a much lower rate of infection in both students and staff. But don’t worry, Gavin. All of that happened in French and French isn’t a required subject, so we don’t need to worry about it.

Older kids seem to transmit it more often than younger ones. No one is sure why, since young kids, cute as they are, are usually little germ factories. It might be because younger kids are less likely to get sick, so they’re less likely to cough and sneeze. It also might not be. 

Before anyone sorts out how extensively younger kids transmit the virus, we need a better understanding of who’s catching it from who. Or from whom, if you want to be like that. The studies indicating that young kids don’t transmit it widely are still pretty limited.

There’s some discussion of opening schools and counterbalancing that by closing pubs and restaurants. The idea is to trade one place of transmission for the other, keeping the overall national rate the same.

Possibly.

The Association of School and College Leaders said that in the absence of clear guidance from the government, schools are making their own plans.

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Why don’t younger kids catch Covid more often? One theory is that the ACE2 receptors that Covid uses to invade the lungs haven’t developed much in young kids. (Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about here?) But then kids get older and wiser and they make more of those nifty little receptors, because hey, that’s what grownups do, and in marches the virus until, lucky them, they have enough that they can get sick too.

Remember when we all taught ourselves to smoke because it made us look grown up? We never seem to learn, do we?

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Would it help control the virus if staff and students were tested regularly once the schools reopen? Possibly, but the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said the government’s not going to do it. They’ll stick to testing people with symptoms. Because that’s the way they’re going to do it and by god it will work. 

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But forget about the schools for a minute. Let’s talk about England’s world-beating test and trace system. It’s laying off 6,000 people.

Take that, world.

While the world lies on the mat recovering and the umpire counts, let me explain: The track and trace system was centralized and contracted out to mega-companies who know zilch about public health. It’s generated reports of people having been hired, minimally trained, and then given next to no work. It hasn’t done well at tracing the contacts of people who test positive for the disease. 

The contact tracers who haven’t been canned will now be assigned to work with local public health teams, who have a much better success rate and who (I’m speculating here) might offer them some training, since they actually know a bit about public health. 

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We are, of course, all hoping for a vaccine that will make the rest of this nonsense irrelevant, which is a nifty lead-in to this next item: The trials of the Oxford and Moderna vaccines could be undermined by too monochrome a test group. The Oxford trial group was only 1% black and 5% Asian. In Moderna’s test group–and here I have to shift from percentages to numbers because that’s what the article I’m linking to did and I’m too numerically incompetent to shift them over myself, although mixing them is senseless and makes comparison harder–40 of the 45 participants were white. 

As researcher and surgeon Oluwadamilola Fayanju of Duke University explained it, “Diversity is important to ensure pockets of people don’t have adverse side-effects.”

Anyone who’s still countering Black Lives Matter by saying that all lives matter, please take in the implications of that. It might help explain why the focus is on black lives just now.

Based on the numbers, I think we’re talking about the safety trials there, not the larger ones that test for effectiveness.

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Best of luck with that link, by the way. Several publications–New Scientist, the BBC, the Guardian–keep ongoing pandemic updates. They’re incredibly useful, but I’m never sure that the link I drop here will take anyone to quite the place where I found the information. 

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It must be time for a non-Covid break here. We’ve been almost serious for long enough to have earned one.

A couple of Canadian businesses thought they’d swipe a bit of the Maori language to make their products look cool. Which is how a brewery and a leather store ended up naming their ale / entire outlet Pubic Hair–or huruhuru, in te reo Maori, the Maori language. 

The brewery’s cofounder said he thought huruhuru meant feather. 

To be fair–and I am sometimes–huruhuru has a number of meanings, and feather is one of them. I don’t speak Maori, but I’ve brushed up against it enough to wonder if everything doesn’t have a number of meanings. But according to  TeHamua Nikora, who used Facebook to explain the problem, the first thing Maori speakers will think of when they see the brand is not going to be feather. 

“It’s that entitlement disease they’ve got,” he said. “Stop it. Use your own language.” 

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Heinz, on the other hand, was using its own language when it named its combined ketchup-mayonnaise Mayochup, but it put its foot in it anyway. Cree speakers went on–what else?–Twitter to say that in Cree that means shit-face.

Enjoy your burger. 

Tea, biscuits, and sewage: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

How did the  Great British Public cope with lockdown? By spending an extra £24m on tea and coffee in the last three months, and they splurged an extra £19m on biscuits–or to put that in American, on cookies. 

Alcohol? Sales were up by 41% this month. And people are reading more, although based on the alcohol sales they can’t remember a word of it come morning.

A number of readers have written that they look for something upbeat in these posts. I hope that qualifies. I’m vain enough that I want people to remember what I write, but let’s face it, I’ve written–yea, and published–some stuff that if they couldn’t remember it by morning they’d be doing me a favor.

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Screamingly irrelevant flowers. Whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful–the slugs don’t eat them.

By the end of October, the Great British Government will have some Great British Walk-In Testing Centers open in the hope that they’ll persuade more people to get tested. According to Great Government Estimates, the current testing program is picking up only a third of the estimated 1,700 Great New Infections per day.

Why? For starters, they’re testing either primarily or only people with symptoms. That leaves the symptomless carriers walking around shedding their germs. The rumor mill insists that if you go deeply enough into the small print of the government website you’ll find that symptomless people can be tested, but the font must be too small for my aging eyes. I haven’t found it. 

Of course, you can also just lie about having symptoms, and if I thought I’d been exposed I’d do it with no hesitation, but most people aren’t as [fill in your choice of adjective(s) here] as I am, and counting on people lying when it’s necessary isn’t the best way to set up a program.

Meanwhile, the centralized Test and Trace system is missing 45% of infected people’s close contacts. Or according to a different source, 20%. (Those may cover different areas. They may not. Go figure.)Local teams miss 2%, but we can’t rely on them because it’s important to privatize the service so someone can make a profit.

Does my writing look bitter in this?

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With twelve hours to go before face masks became compulsory in some places in England but not in others, the government released details on who-what-when-where-how. 

Okay, less than twelve hours, but I like round numbers.

We won’t do all the details. If you need them, go someplace sensible. But to give you a sense of how well thought out the guidelines are, if you’re a shop worker, you don’t have to wear a mask but if you’re a shop customer you do. However, they’re strongly recommended for shop workers. Where appropriate. 

What’s appropriate? The shop has to figure that out.

You do have to wear a mask in a bank. You don’t have to wear one in a movie theater. The virus is highly distractible. Give it a good shoot-em-up and it forgets its goal, which is to spread. Money, on the other hand, bores it shitless, so in a bank it continues to methodically infect your cells and spew forth its colleagues to infect new people.

Assuming, of course, that you’re a carrier. Which I don’t wish on any of us, but we can’t cover all the possible variations here. We’ll sink under the weight of verbiage. It’s bad enough as it is.

You do have to wear a mask when you go into a sandwich shop or cafe, but when you sit down to eat you can take it off. There’s no need to liquidize your sandwich and infuse through the layers or shove the mask into your mouth as you bite into your sandwich. If there’s table service, though, the virus getss lazy, so again, no mask.

Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis explained that this is all “clear, good common sense.” 

I hope he and I have cleared things up.

Some chains have announced that they won’t be enforcing the rules. The police have said they can’t be bothered. 

Thanks, everyone. Speaking only for myself and a few hundred of my closest friends, we appreciate everything you’re doing to keep us safe. We’ll have to rely on the Great British Institutions of quiet social pressure and tutting. According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, they work. My partner stopped at the store today and everyone was wearing a mask except for one man. He looked around uneasily and tied a sweatshirt around his face. So that’s 100% out of a sample of one.

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Early studies in several countries make it look like sewage sampling will give an early warning of local coronavirus flare ups, even before people notice any symptoms. That bit of news comes from the most romantic of cities, Paris. From Eau de Paris, in fact, which sounds like something ladies dabbed behind their ears and on their wrists when I was a kid but is, in fact, the water and sewage company.

Who said the virus hasn’t brought us anything to enjoy?

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As long as we’re in France, a hospital in Lyon is running trials on a breathalyzer-like Covid detector that gives a result in seconds. They hope to have it up and running by the end of the year so they can test patients as they come in. If it gets through the early tests, the next hurdle will be making it affordable. At the moment, it’s too expensive to distribute widely.

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An international team has identified what seem to be the most powerful anti-Covid antibodies. Some of them, they think, hold promise as treatments. You may be able to get more out of the article than I could, so I’ll give  you a link. I didn’t even understand enough to make jokes. What little I’m telling you comes from a dumbed-down summary. What I do understand–or think I understand–is that the antibodies could be reproduced on a large scale and work as a treatment. 

Potentially.

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And finally, 84 of the world’s richest people have called for governments to tax the world’s wealthiest people–including them–more heavily to fund the world’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic’s economic impact, they say, could last for decades and “push half a billion more people into poverty” while they–the world’s wealthiest–have money and it’s desperately needed. 

Masks, anti-masks, treatments, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

I shouldn’t keep telling you about small, promising trials of one thing or another that’ll prevent or cure  Covid-19, should I? Or the ones that will–it they work–roll time backward so humanity wiped the virus out before it sank its teeth into our immune systems. Because most of them, inevitably, won’t come to anything.

But you know what? I will anyway. Because I can’t help myself. Because one just might work. And because we need some hope, no matter how badly shredded it is these days. As long as it’s not total bullshit.

A company in Britain has run a small trial on a protein called interferon beta, which patients inhale through a nebuliser–one of those things that people with serious asthma use when it gets particularly bad. That puts the protein deep into the lung, where–apologies for using heavy-duty scientific language–it gives the immune system a swift kick in the pants and tells it to get back to work. 

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

Interferon beta was tried on hospitalized patients and they were 79% less likely to develop severe disease. Their hospital stays were shorter, and (better yet) they were two or three times more likely to recover well enough to handle everyday activities.

One of the particularly frightening things about Covid-19 is that not everyone who survives can go back to handling everyday activities. 

Interferon beta may be even more effective on patients who aren’t as sick. It’s on its way to a larger trial. 

And an early trial of an Oxford University vaccine shows that it makes both antibodies and white blood cells that fight the coronavirus. It appears to be safe. The question, though, is how well it will work in the real world. 

The answer is a resounding we dunno. Now they need to set volunteers loose to toddle through the real world, some with the real vaccine in their systems and some with a placebo, and then wait to see how many get infected. 

Let’s hope it does, because Britain’s ordered 100 million doses. Plus 90 million doses split between two other vaccines that are still in development. 

Do they pay for those in advance? Or do they pony up some small amount of money to prove they know where their wallets are and promise the rest if the things works out? They pay in advance.

All told, 163 vaccines are in various stages of testing. They may be as promising as the Oxford one, or more so, but Oxford’s the one getting a lot of ink in Britain just now.

C’mon, admit it: You’re glad to know some of that, aren’t you?

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A hundred or so people gathered in London for an anti-mask rally. They hugged each other. They posed for photos. They carried signs saying things like “Flu world order” and “Spread love, not fear.” 

They spread fear all the way down here to me in Cornwall. In the most loving possible way.

One of the organizers said they were “campaigning for the return of our rights and liberties.” 

Ah, yes, those traditional rights and liberties set out in the  Magna Carta. You know, the part where it says, “No Briton shall be compelled to wear a mask, or even shamed into it, yea, even during a plague year. Even if it would save another person’s life.”

Except that since the Magna C. was written when spelling was still a liquid, nothing except  the word a was spelled the way you’d expect. Which is why no one’s ever drawn attention to that clause before.

You won’t find news like that in the press. What are they covering up? Have you ever asked yourself that?

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In spite of the many ways Britain has mishandled the pandemic, the number of infections is, generally, falling. Speaking for myself and several thousand of my closest friends, we’d feel more confident about those numbers if the test and trace program was testing everyone it could convince to stick a swab up their nose instead of concentrating on people with symptoms. But even if we don’t know how many cases we really have, fewer people are dying. That can only be a good thing. 

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However. 

An assortment of doctors are basically (and I’m doing just the tiniest bit of paraphrasing here) giving up on government leadership and hoping the public stays (or in some cases, becomes) sane, understanding “that [the virus] has certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering.”

That’s Carrie MacEwen that I’m quoting, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Try typing that three times quickly. She expects a second surge in the winter, which could be larger than the first.

“The public has begun to think we are free of this,” she said, “but we are not.”

Why are they giving up on the government?

On the one hand, it’s finally telling people they have to wear masks in shops and on public transportation when on the other hand they’re saying people don’t have to wear one at work because “when you’re in close proximity with somebody that you have to work closely to, if you’re there for a long time with them, then a mask doesn’t offer that protection.”

That incisive bit of explanation comes from our health secretary, Matt Hancock, and if you followed his logic you might be eligible for a cabinet post yourself, because not many people could. 

In case you can’t, it works like this: Masks keep people from spreading the virus, but if you share a workplace with someone for eight hours a day, they stop offering any protection because familiarity breeds contempt. Even in the virus world. Once you and I get to know each other, my germs lose interest in you. And yours–it’s dismaying but it’s true–see right through me and look for someone more exciting to infect.

I might be eligible for a cabinet post myself, and may all the gods I don’t believe in protect us.

The noises coming from government ministers haven’t consistently supported even the government’s half-hearted policy on wearing masks in shops. Michael Gove, the cabinet minister, said it was best to “trust people’s common sense” on mask wearing instead of mandating it. 

Indeed. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, common sensically posed for one of those press photos where he pretended to serve food to restaurant customers, with his naked face smiling over two plates of food. I like to think the customers got up and fled, but they may not have been real, in which case they didn’t.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, wore a mask out of doors when she met her French counterpart and then took it off for their indoor meeting.

Well, of course she did. It’s a workplace. Germs got bored during meetings. 

Conservative MP Desmond Swayne called masks a “monstrous imposition.”

All of which helps explain why Chaand Nagpaul of the British Medical Association said, “There needs to be clear, concise public messaging. To introduce measures for shops but not other situations where physical distancing is not possible–including some workplaces –is illogical and adds to confusion and the risk of the virus spreading.”

A poll shows that 71% of the public support making masks mandatory in shops. Another 13% oppose it. The remaining 16%? (It is 16%, isn’t it?) They’re still trying to work out which part of the face a mask is supposed to cover and haven’t formed an opinion yet. 

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I keep reading King-Kong-meets-Godzilla warnings about what will happen when the current pandemic meets the upcoming flu season, and I finally found an explanation of what that’s about. The worry goes like this:

There’s this thing called viral interference. It happens when you (or an entire population) get one virus and it keeps you (or that same population) from getting a second one at the same time. 

Yes, that really happens. Think of it as professional courtesy. But it doesn’t happen with all viruses. Some of them don’t play nice. They push other viruses off the monkey bars. They steal their lunch money.

What no one knows for sure is what kind of virus Covid is. In one early case from China, it infected a man who also had the flu. Beyond that, not much is known. In Australia, lockdown short-circuited the winter flu season, so we didn’t get any information from it. 

It’s not impossible that when kids go back to school in the fall (assuming they do) and start trading all their usual seasonal colds, they’ll short-circuit the coronavirus. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

It’s not clear what the effect of having the flu and Covid-19 at the same time would be, but the assumption is that it wouldn’t be good. The worst scenario would be if this winter’s flu turns out to be a pandemic in its own right and, to pick up our opening metaphor, if Godzilla and King Kong join forces. Who made the rule that they have to fight each other? They don’t. 

And that, at long last, brings us to another bit of good news: For years, researchers–unrealistic souls that they are–have been working on a universal flu vaccine. The idea behind it is to target the viral bits shared by all versions of the flu. It’s good science but, in the current system, bad economics. The researchers haven’t been able to run the expensive trials that are needed to show that it’s safe and effective so it can be marketed. Because where’s the profit in selling people a vaccine they’ll only need once or twice in their lives when you can sell them one every damn year?

All of a sudden, though, a universal flu vaccine looks profitable, and one is being tested. Expect results by the end of the year.

Traffic cones, pubs, and coronavirus testing: It’s the news from Britain

According to a small and deeply meaningful study, fans of apocalyptic movies may be handling the pandemic better than the rest of us. 

I wasn’t part of the study, but I’ve watched one or possibly two movie apocalumps (that’s the not-quite-official plural of apocalypse), and I don’t know about other people, but I come out thinking, Live? Die? Does it really matter? I can see where take some of the angst out of the pandemic.

*

There’s a bit more news about remdesivir, the drug that shortens people’s Covid-19 recovery time: The studies showing that shortening turn out to be small, preliminary, and ambiguous. In one small study that was cut short, it didn’t outperform a placebo. In another, patients on remdesivir recovered an average of four days ahead of the control group, but there was no difference in their death rates. 

But, according to the Medical Express, “That study was also stopped early, which can lead to exaggerated estimates of treatment benefits. A British Medical Journal editorial highlighted the study’s financial links to Gilead [the drug’s manufacturer] as another source of bias.”

The U.S. has bought out almost three months’ worth of Gilead’s production of remdesivir, for a sizable sum of money.

Now we have to wait and see how useful it’ll be.

*

This isn’t, as you’ll probably have noticed, the Duke of Wellington on his horse. (Wellington appears just below, with his horse). It’s a wild horse on the Cornish cliffs, but it’s as close as I could come. No traffic cones were injured in the making of this photo.

Let’s take a break from the coronavirus. We owe ourselves that.

In Glasgow, a statue of the Duke of Wellington generally wears a traffic cone on his head, and he looks quite fetching in it. Go on, click both links here. This is important.

The city authorities generally take it down.

And someone generally puts it back on. 

This has been going on since the 1980s. That’s a lot of traffic cones. I like to think the city puts them back into its working stash of traffic cones instead of throwing them away, and if today weren’t Saturday I’d play intrepid reporter and make a phone call or two, but as things stand I just don’t know. And, you know, we have to go to press. We have deadlines to meet. The world is counting on us.

And by us, of course, I mean me.

The city estimates that it spends £10,000 a year taking traffic cones off the duke’s head. That’s £100 per cone. 

The city may or may not be padding its expenses. That’s another thing I don’t know. Let’s pretend we believe them. It’ll keep the story flowing.

In 2011, the Lonely Planet included the Coneheid (as Duke W. is known locally) on a list of the world’s ten most bizarre monuments, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, just try getting something on the list by your own self.

In 2013, the council decided to stop all this fooling around once and for all by doubling the height of the statue’s base–called a plinth in case you ever need to know that–to the tune of £65,000. By the next day, 72,000 people had signed onto a Facebook page supporting the cone. Before much more time had passed, a petition had 100,000 signatures. A demonstration was held.

How many people showed up? Somewhere between 3 and several million.

The cone was local culture, they said, and the council had better keep its hands off it.

It all settled down for a while, with the cone staying in place, but a July 3 tweet showed that in retaliation for the cone being taken down again someone had put a whole stack of cones on the duke’s head. And one on the horse’s. 

And the pubs in Scotland hadn’t even re-opened yet. 

My thanks to Pete Cooper, who was entirely sober when he sent me these links. As–I would never imply anything else–he generally is. 

*

A new coronavirus testing program worth £5 billion looks like it will go to private companies, although the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science said, “We are campaigning for NHS labs to be allowed to bid for these contracts. This should not be exclusive to commercial partners.”

Translation? Britain’s own National Health Service is blocked from the bidding. Why? Because.

NHS sources say the money will go to expand the Lighthouse laboratory program, which has successfully kept communities from getting early notice of local spikes, making it impossible for them to respond to them. For two months, IT and data protection problems meant they didn’t let local governments, hospitals, or doctors know about growing clusters of cases in their areas. They’ve also (anecdotally: I wasn’t there and I can’t prove it) lost samples, left them sitting until they were too old to be tested, and generally made themselves beloved of the medical community.

Some of those problems have been sorted out, but if a patient’s test was processed by a Lighthouse lab, hospitals still can’t find out the result. 

The number of Covid cases and deaths have both gone down in Britain–and in England, where I think this program is running. The more I read about it, though, the more I wonder how.

*

Locally, a friend who drives people to medical and hospital appointments was exposed to the virus by a symptomatic passenger and spent ”a silly part of the day trying to find out how this works, with no joy at all.” 

She called 111, the number for medical advice. They told her to phone 119, “even though 119 is supposed to be to book a test only.” 

She called anyway and the “operator only knew how to book a test but couldn’t as I didn’t have any symptoms.” 

Government advice is that you shouldn’t get tested unless you have symptoms. The test, they say, is most accurate in a relatively short window of time after the symptoms appear.

That left my friend with no idea of what to do next. She went into isolation, which she’d have to do anyway, since the test comes up with a fair percentage of false negatives. But she would like to know if she has a life-threatening disease. You know how these whims can be.

She tried to find out how long it would be before the woman who’d exposed her would get a test and how long would it be before she herself would be contacted if the woman tested positive.

No answers.

She gave up and phoned the doctor’s office–called, in British, a surgery. They were in the dark, they said. The test and trace program doesn’t talk to them. Or write. Or email. You could say it was a bad breakup, but they’d never been married.

She phoned the woman who’d exposed her. She hadn’t been contacted about having a test.

If I weren’t a better person, I’d remind you that all that only costs us £5 billion. But I won’t because that wouldn’t be accurate. The £5 billion’s to expand this wondrous program, not fund its current work of saving our sorry asses.

*

So how can a country find asymptomatic cases if the tests are most accurate after symptoms appear? 

By massive testing. With the same type of test the government’s using–a PCR test. As far as I can follow this, the tests may be more accurate once symptoms appear, but they’re very much worth doing beforehand.

According to Healthline“ ‘People exposed to the virus who have had close contact with a confirmed case should get tested whether or not they have symptoms,’ Amira Roess, PhD, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, told Healthline.

“ ‘By identifying individuals who are positive early in disease progression before they develop symptoms and implementing public health interventions, we can prevent a large percentage of infections. This is key, because we have learned that asymptomatic infection is a key driver of this epidemic,’ she said. ‘Finding asymptomatic individuals will allow us to prevent them from spreading the virus.’ ”

As far as I can sort this mess out, it seems to be true that early testing comes up with some false negatives (the test has a fair number of those anyway), but Antibiotics Research UK talks about the importance of mass testing to identify asymptomatic carriers, meaning both people with symptoms and people without, and notes that the World Health Organization has called for it.

“Doing so has seen South Korea handle the outbreak with exceptional efficacy. A similar project in Iceland has shown that around half of the people who tested positive are showing no symptoms, too. Mass testing is the example we should be following here in the UK. This should be followed by tracking and quarantining the people who have been in contact with those found to have the virus. We need to be able to identify asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to further limit the spread.”

And we’re not doing that.

*

On the other hand, the virus must be under control, because England’s pubs are opening today. The prime minister’s urging us all not to be silly about it, and of course we won’t be. But I would recommend putting the traffic cones someplace safe for a few days.

*

Finally, Florida State University sent out an email saying that starting on August 7 it would “no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”

Predictably enough, the shit started flying in all directions. So they sent out new announcement, saying, “We want to be clear—our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children.”

And that upset the people who’d already cleared out space in their freezers to stash their kids in. All that ice cream gone to waste.

Moles, pizza, and remdesivir: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A local spike in coronavirus cases in Leicester has been handled with all the grace and efficiency we expect of our government. It announced a local lockdown. The health secretary said the police would enforce it as needed. The message was, we’re tough. We’re efficient. We’re gonna win this thing.

The local police and crime commissioner still didn’t know where he was supposed to enforce the lockdown, though, because he hadn’t been sent a map. Then he got a map but still didn’t know the details of what they were supposed to enforce. 

But it’s okay, because we have a prime minister who can do at least one pushup while keeping two yards away from a photographer.

*

Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy of dealing with local outbreaks will be no use if the local people who are expected to contain them aren’t given the data they need. 

I could have said that, but it sounds better coming from someone with a medical degree. Leicester could’ve responded earlier if they’d been told they had a problem, and where and how and why.

When Johnson introduced his strategy of containing local outbreaks, he described it as whack-a-mole–a game where you whack a plastic mole with a plastic hammer and even if you’re fast enough to hit it, it pops up out of another hole. 

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

While we wait to see where the mole’s going to pop up next, Johnson tells us that local authorities have been sent the data they need. 

And the check is in the mail.

*

You’ve probably heard by now that the U.S. bought up almost the entire stock of remdesivir–500,000 doses: 100% of the manufacturer’s July production, 90% of August’s and 90% of September’s.

Remdesivir cuts Covid-19 recovery times, although it’s not clear whether it improves survival rates. Other counties have pointed out that buying up almost the entire stock might, um, undercut international cooperation in the face of the pandemic. 

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

Okay, he didn’t actually say that. I can’t remember ever seeing a quote in which he asks a question. 

The sale makes it sound like other countries are thoroughly screwed, but in fact they should be able to get the drug via compulsory license, which allows countries to override patents and buy generic versions from countries where the patent isn’t registered. This one is widely registered, but there will, it seems, be gaps.

The drug is made by Gilead, which sounds like it escaped from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d love to tell you that it didn’t, but I don’t really know that. Lots of things have escaped from fiction lately, and nothing is more bizarre than reality. 

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care tells us it’ll be fine and it has enough remdesivir “to treat every patient who needs the drug.” 

For how long?

They didn’t say.

*

The New Scientist says, “There is no longer any serious doubt that our bodies can form an immune memory to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” 

The bad news is that we still don’t know how effective that memory will be. In other words, we don’t know if an immune memory’s the same thing as immunity.

Don’t you just love to hear from me? Don’t I just lift your spirits?

And from the Department of Confusing Information comes this snippet: For every person testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies, two more turn out to have specific T-cells that identify and destroy Covid-infected cells. That’s true even in people who had asymptomatic cases or mild ones.

What does that mean in everyday English? It means that for every person who registers positive on an antibody test, two more have some sort of immune response that doesn’t register. 

Those T-cells the two people have might give them some immunity to the disease. They might keep them from passing the disease on to other people.

They also might not.

The reason T-cells don’t register on an antibody test is antibodies are a whole ‘nother part of the immune system. Expecting to notice T-cells on an antibody test is like making yourself a pizza and wondering why it doesn’t come out of the oven with a side salad.

Basically, antibodies–that’s the pizza–attack the virus before it enters the body’s cells. T-cells–they’re  the salad, and it’s important to remember which is which–go into action once cells have been infected, attacking  them so they won’t infect  new ones. A balanced immune system meal needs both pizza and that salad.

You’re welcome. I’m here to clarify every baffling bit of our world, just for you.

What does all that mean for herd immunity? Not much, because for all anyone knows at this point, those T-cells could protect the bearer without keeping him or her from passing the virus on. 

If you worked this many twists into a pandemic movie, I’d throw my popcorn at the screen and stomp out, muttering, “Enough already.” 

Then I’d go out for pizza and a salad.

I’m just about old enough to remember a world where it was safe to go to movies and pizza joints. 

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

*

He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

*

You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

*

A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

*

Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

*

A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

You’ve probably heard this by now, but good news is hard to come by so let’s not waste it: A cheap, easily available steroid, dexamethasone, can cut the risk of death in seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The bad news? It doesn’t help in milder cases. Still, this is a bit of genuine good news. Gift horse; mouth.

*

Faced with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through Britain, our rumpled and (lately) not entirely present prime minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to study inequality.

That’ll slow down those pesky protesters, right? By the time it reports back, everyone will have forgotten how to even spell inequality.

So what was his first move? He appointed Munira Mirza to set it up. And she’s on record as having said that institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality,” not to mention as having complained that earlier inquiries (there’ve been six in four years) fostered a culture of grievance.

If all goes according to plan, the commission’s report will be referred to the Department of Cynicism and Bitter Irony. They do a lot of filing there.

*

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Astronomers report that our galaxy may be home to as many as thirty advanced civilizations.

Sorry, but the link won’t lead you to any information about them. All it does is confirm that I don’t make this shit up.

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

Well, they’ve been smart enough to stay away from us.

Okay, that isn’t necessarily by choice. They’d be, on an average, 17,000 light years away. Too far for them to drop by casually for a cup of tea. Too far, most likely, to even know about tea. Quite possibly too far for us to pick up any signs of their existence. And vice versa, although if they get close enough to pick up a hint of what’s going on here, they’ll decide no cup of tea is worth it. 

*

And since we’re talking about the whole galaxy, let’s forget Britain for another minute and talk about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

The autonomous zone was set up after clashes in which the police used pepper spray, teargas, and flash bangs while Black Lives Matter protesters threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Then someone drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot one of them. I’m not sure what impact this had on events, but I’d bet a bowl of popcorn that it didn’t lower the tension level.

Eventually, the police withdrew from the neighborhood, boarding up the police station and leaving protesters to set up the CHAZ, which covers a few blocks. CNN describes it as more like a festival than a protest. It’s stocked with all the essentials: granola bars, water, toilet paper, and toothpaste.

The mayor, Jenny Durkan said, ”It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time. . . . There is no threat right now to the public.”

Reporting on the situation, Fox News mistook a joke on Reddit for a split in the organization running the CHAZ.

Okay, I have no idea if any organization really is running things or if it’s all evolving on the fly–or if an organization thinks it’s running it and things are also (or instead) evolving on the fly. I also don’t know if I’m supposed to call it just CHAZ or the CHAZ , but never mind the many things I don’t know. (Why do you listen to me anyway?) What matters is that Fox News thought a group was in charge and reported on the split, reading the Reddit post on the air: “I thought we had an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least, we should take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

What the post’s doing there isn’t commenting on a split but playing off Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur introduces himself to a peasant, saying he’s the king, and the peasant announces that they already have their own government.

“We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of purely external affairs.”

I’d have missed the Python reference myself. Unlike a few people I’ve known and worked with, I don’t have the dialogue memorized. But I like to think that a line Fox News left out would have made me think that something other than a mail-order organizational squabble might be going on: that the king couldn’t “simply expect to wield supreme executive power just because someone threw a sword at him,”

I’ve been in more than one strange political conflict, but none of them have involved swords. Everyone has their limits, and I’m pretty firm about that one, although I did, for a long time, have a friend’s (American) Civil War-era sword hanging on my wall. It was blunt and wouldn’t have been any use in political disputes, but no, I would not have been tempted.

I did once sit in a meeting and consider whether a crochet hook would be any use as a murder weapon, but that’s a different story.

*

Back to Britain: There’s lots of flap here about when, how, and where the kids are going back to school.

In the first plan, two age groups were going back, then the rest of at least the primary school kids would follow before the school year ended. The British school year runs later into the summer than the American one does, but even so it wasn’t clear that they’d be in school long enough to do more than exchange germs.

This was all handled by the Ministry of Impulsive Decisions, which didn’t do any serious consulting with the schools or the teachers’ unions, so a lot of the schools said they couldn’t open safely even for the first group, and some parents, in the interest of safety, kept their kids home from the schools that did open.

But some kids from two age groups went back, and the rest of the plan was sent to the Ministry of Lost Ideals.

Cue calls–including some from within the Conservative Party, which is all that matters since it has a huge majority and doesn’t really have to listen to anyone else–for emergency measures: a summer tutoring program, possibly, or what are being called Nightingale schools, mirroring the Nightingale hospitals, which were basically field hospitals set up at the beginning of the pandemic and barely used, partly because they turned out not to be needed and partly because no one had figured out how to magic up the staff a hospital relies on.

Who knew that hospitals aren’t just buildings–that if you don’t have staff you don’t have a hospital?

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

So long ago that I’ve lost track of the date, the Department of Good Intentions promised both internet access and computers to any kids in year 10 who didn’t have them.

Why year 10? Why not year 10? It’s random enough to sound like it has some research behind it.

Many headteachers report not having seen so much as a computer cable.

And none of that solves the problem of what the kids in other age groups are supposed to do.

A recent study reports that a third of students have done no lessons at all while the schools are closed and that less than half have sent work to their teachers. Students in what they call the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to be doing any schoolwork.

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

Let’s move on before I get started on the mind that classifies schools as disadvantaged, as if somehow their problems came from a combination of bad luck and birth trauma.

*

After having said that the free school meals for the most vulnerable kids would stop at the end of the school year, the Department of We Never Said That and if We Did We Didn’t Mean It That Way has announced that free school meals will continue.

How come? A footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for them.

*

Dozens of hospitals are still reporting a shortage of scrubs. This much, you’d think, the Department of We’ve Been Here Before could get right by now. They’re not high-tech equipment. Volunteers have been supplying some. Any place with a sewing machine could turn them out.

Some doctors report that they’re taking their home to wash, which is what they’ve been advised to do even though it risks spreading infection.

The NHS says there’s no shortage of scrubs and asks everyone to go have a cup of tea and think about all those intelligent civilizations somewhere in the galaxy, who see us on Instagram and wish they had such a nice cup of tea.

*

Speaking of Instagram, it’s time for everyone who’s feeling bad because they’re not in a relationship to stop fretting. In Britain, married people and people in civil partnerships reported the highest rise in anxiety levels during lockdown.

That’s not the same as saying they have the highest level of anxiety, only the highest increase. But still.

*

In the Caribbean and South and Central America, the pandemic is kicking off an epidemic of hunger, the U.N. warns.

And in France, a demonstration by healthcare workers demanding more funding for the health system ended with some people in black setting fire to a car (actually, a vehicle–it could be a tank for all the word gives away) and throwing things at the police, at which point the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, although as far as I can tell from a short mention they didn’t start the violence.

*

Britain’s health secretary was on Sky News talking about how quarantine would protect us from countries where the coronavirus rate of infection is higher than ours.

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

Um, well [insert vague blither here, along with the word science].

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

It’s all about the science, folks. That’s why we’ve imposed a quarantine at a time when we’re the folks other countries want to quarantine.

*

A professor of cardio-vascular science, Mauro Giacca, says, “What you find in the lungs of people who have [died of Covid-19 after 30 to 40 days in intensive care] . . . is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the Sars virus. You see . . . a complete disruption of the lung architecture.”

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

And a professor of medicine, John Bell, says that a second wave of the virus, which he considers likely now that Britain’s lockdown is being released, should at least allow scientists to measure whether people who survived one bout of the virus become immune to it.

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

*

I can’t let you go until you’ve read this: In Vienna, a man has been fined 500 euros for farting loudly at the police–or, to be formal about this, for offending public decency. He got up from a park bench, looked at the cops, and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.”

He also behaved “provocatively and uncooperatively” beforehand, but that doesn’t seem to be why they arrested him.

The pandemic update, in which Britain tries to beat the world

Let’s start in France instead of Britain:

Because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, wine sales have been down. Bar and restaurant closures hit the industry hard, and if that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump got mad at the whole damn country and slapped a 25% tariff on French wine. 

What’s a wine-producing country to do?

Make hand sanitizer. Some 200 million liters of unsold wine will be–or possibly already has been; it’s hard to know how to read this–made into hand sanitizing gel. That will free up space in the wine caves for this year’s vintage. 

The gel will not sport its vintage on the label, although up-market wines were hit particularly hard, so you could be rubbing your hands with some really great wines. Or at least some really expensive ones. 

You can’t turn it back into wine, though, no matter how hard you try. 

Sorry.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

*

In Britain, shutting down the pubs–and also opening them back up, which will happen eventually–is all about beer, and beer (I’ve just learned) doesn’t last forever

So how do you get rid of it? You can’t just dump it down the drain. You have to talk to the water board. You have to record everything and verify everything, because you’re going to want to get your beer duty back from the brewers. 

Beer duty? You don’t want to know. It’s a tax. And you have to  submit a Beer Duty (in caps) form by the fifteenth day of the month after your accounting period. 

After you do all that, presumably, you can dump it down the drain.

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New Zealand is now free of Covid-19. You probably already heard that, but good news is hard to come by and I can’t let it go to waste: New Zealand. Covid free.

If you’re not New Zealandish, though, you can’t go there. They’re keeping tight control of the borders, and even incoming New Zealanders will be quarantined–by which I don’t mean the mythical quarantine Britain’s imposed (ride public transportation, go shopping, lick a few door handles, then stay kind of vaguely inside, mostly, unless you need something), but the real kind, where you don’t breathe on people or touch them or lick their door handles.

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With that out of the way, let’s talk about the world-beating track and trace system that Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised us. 

Why do we want to beat the world on this? Because we’re coming second in our official count of coronavirus deaths (the US is ahead, the wretches, and Brazil’s rushing up the charts just behind us). Well, by gum, that’s not good enough. We need to beat someone at something. 

How are we doing at beating the world with our track and trace system, then? 

Um. 

Our custom-built track and trace app should be ready next month, the government says. It was supposed to be ready last month, but never mind. One month is a lot like another when you’re in lockdown. And the calling system that’s supposed to back it up, or possibly substitute for it until it’s working, is a privatized shambles. 

An independent science advisory group, formed by the government’s former chief non-independent science advisor, Sir David King, says the system isn’t–in that very British phrase–fit for purpose. To prevent the infection rate rising, he says, it needs to detect 80% of an infected person’s contacts, and it won’t. He’s called for it to be scrapped.

“This is the critical moment for the government to act now or risk further spikes. We believe that a new approach is required, one that moves away from a centralised system that utilises a local-first approach. We are calling on the government to urgently rethink their course to ensure that we have a system in place that will help and not hinder the country’s recovery.”

Why’s the government stuck on the idea of a centralized system? My best guess is because there’s money to be made that way, and contracts to be handed out, and the god of privatization to be placated with large offerings.

One contactor in the tracing program is Serco, which has an impressive record of disaster. A few months back, it was fined £1 million for failures on a contract.

And £3 million for messing up another contract

And £122.9 million (plus repaying £68.5 million) for another. That’s for the contract that saw them billing the government for all the work involved in monitoring the movements of the dead.

No, that’s not a joke. They really did that.

Anyway, they’re working on the contact tracing program. We’re in good hands here.

The junior health minister, Edward Argar, is a former Serco lobbyist. Which has nothing to do with anything. Don’t give it a minute’s thought. I only mentioned it because I’m biased.

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A small pest-control company–small as in 16 staff members and £18,000 in assets–was awarded a £108 million Department of Health contract, making it the government’s largest supplier of protective equipment. 

A coffee, tea, and spice wholesaler got a £2.15 million contract to supply medical and surgical face masks. 

All told, £340 million in contracts were signed in April, most of them without a competitive process. Some of the companies may be doing exactly what they’re being paid to do. Others–. Well, you do get the sense that a lot of money was spent without adult supervision.

I was going to give you a link to Pest Magazine for this story, because how many times in a life does a person get a chance to link to Pest Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s not much of an article. I only added the paragraph to justify the link.

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But we don’t need to go to a pest control company to buy a mask. A full-page newspaper ad tells me that we can all order our own, and since they’re not the kind the NHS uses, we’re not taking anything they need. The masks come in packs of three, they’re reusable, and the ad doesn’t say how much they cost.

But no mask is complete without face mask sanitizing spray, which is designed to “eliminate and reduce the spread of harmful germs and viruses.” So first we eliminate the little bastards and then, in case that isn’t enough, we reduce them. And it all comes with a 100% money back guarantee. The fine print is too small for human eyes, but I think it says that if you die from the virus, you get your money back.

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But we were talking about Britain beating the world, and it still could. Or at least it could lead the world’s major economies in being hardest hit by the pandemic, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Go, us!

The current guess is that we’ll be looking at an 11.5% fall. 

And even better, the Covid Crash should hide whatever disasters a no-deal or last-minute-deal Brexit brings us.