How long does Covid immunity last?

This is still up for grabs, but the Covid vaccines–or some of them anyway–may not need yearly booster shots. Or may only need them every few years. 

To understand this, you have to know that the body’s immune system is a hierarchy.

Well, no, it isn’t really, but it’s a workable way to think of it. At the bottom are the antibodies, which swarm in and kill things, and they get most of the press because they fly flags and have marching bands and we notice that. But they don’t have long memories, so we have to worry: If the same enemy–in this case, Covid–comes back, will they recognize it?

Above the antibodies, though, are other bits of the immune system–plasma cells, memory B cells, memory T cells–and they have longer memories and they’re the bits of the system that crank up the antibodies, show them pictures, say, “That’s what the enemy looks like,” and send them out to kill and die.

It’s not a nice world out there. Or in here, on the inside of our bodies. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

Immunologists also have long memories, and they’ve been busy working out how long Covid immunity lasts, both after an infection and after vaccination. The answer depends on understanding the actions and interactions of all those different ranks. 

They’d also, I’m sure, hate my explanation of how this works.

The unpredictable element in all this is the rise of Covid variants. So far, they haven’t outrun our immune systems or the vaccines, but some variants do slow them down. 

The primary sign that a variant’s gotten faster than the vaccines will be if a whole lot of vaccinated people suddenly come down with Covid. 

I know, that’s not the way we’d like to get the news–a telegram would be better–but like I said, it’s not a nice world out there.

Assorted trials are underway, testing booster shots and testing the effect of mixing vaccines. It will be up to individual countries to decide if boosters are needed, but work’s underway in case they do.

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In the meantime, studies from northern Italy, which was the first part of Europe to be hit hard by Covid, say that immunity lasts at least a year and may last longer, only there hasn’t been time yet to find out. Reinfection is rare. But the experts are still urging people who had the disease to get vaccinated. It will boost their protection and make them more likely to resist variants. 

As for the vaccines, they’re protective for at least a year and possibly for a lifetime. 

Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, said, “People who were infected and get vaccinated really have a terrific response, a terrific set of antibodies, because they continue to evolve their antibodies,” Nussenzweig told The Times. “I expect that they will last for a long time.”

 

So that’s the good news out of the way. Let’s have some bad news for dessert.

The Delta variant (no I don’t know why we capitalize Delta; I do it because the papers do) is now the dominant U.K. variant. As many as 75% of the new U.K. cases may be Deltas. That’s the variant formerly known at the Indian variant, or B.1.617.2, but India changed its name to Delta and the variant’s followed along behind.

No, you really shouldn’t believe everything I say.

Annoying as the name changes are, it’s a good thing, given the human propensity for stupidity in the form of blaming other countries and peoples whatever goes wrong, that they’ve stopped naming variants after countries. Unfortunately, it’ll take some of us a while to catch up. 

So. Delta variant. Dominant strain in U.K. It seems to carry a higher risk of hospitalization (2.61 times higher) than the Alpha variant, formerly known as the Kent or British (or U.K, or English) variant. 

Sorting out the U.K.’s name is a constant problem, so I look forward to the time when the country changes its name to Alpha. It’ll be much simpler to write about. And since Alpha’s the first letter of the Greek alphabet, it should keep the nationalists happy.

Yay, Covid! We got there first!

Where were we?

The number of hospitalized Covid patients in Britain is small right now, as are the number of cases, but the number of cases is growing slowly. The worry is that this is the start of a trend.

Working against that is vaccination: 73% of the Delta cases are in people who haven’t been vaccinated. Two doses are a good protection, although not as good as against the Alpha variant. One does, though, is 17% less effective against the Delta variant. 

In the meantime, schools and colleges (if you’re American, British colleges stand somewhere between American high schools and American colleges) in England are responsible for a good deal of the spread

Why them? Partly because they collect a whole bunch of people who aren’t priorities for the vaccination programs–or even eligible for vaccines–and jam them together. Preferably in badly ventilated rooms where they nod off gently while trying to absorb important information. And also because the government lifted its mask mandate for secondary schools. That did affect primary school students because they were always considered too young to locate their noses and mouths. Adults are, demonstrably, still having trouble with that. 

Why did it lift the mandate? I’m still struggling with that one. The best I can do by way of an explanation is to suggest that they thought it would make people happy. Also possibly because they’re idiots. 

No, I don’t know. But they did, ignoring the complaints of teachers and school staff–or at least of the unions that represent them. 

That leaves repeated testing as the only way to control school outbreaks, and the number of tests (at least in secondary schools) seems to be decreasing. The government’s approved one of the vaccines for teenagers, but as far as I know that’s as far as things have gone.  

Again the number of cases isn’t huge. The fear, though, is that this is the beginning of a wave, not a few little splashes of water against the sand. It’s too early to tell.

 

So what’s the government doing? 

Well, it’s taken Portugal off its list of green countries and added it to the list of amber ones, meaning people coming into Britain from Portugal will now have to self-isolate when they get home. 

Self-Isolation? That’s quarantine on the honor system. Green and amber? They’re traffic lights. You know: Stop, go, look at the yellow light and get confused. 

All this matters because (a) the government made a lot of noise at one point about opening up foreign travel this summer and (b) some of the trashier newspapers made even more noise about it. We all want to be happy, happy, happy, so let’s declare the pandemic over.

In addition to moving Portugal off the green list, the government also moved seven countries from the amber list to the red one, so people coming from them will have to go into serious–and expensive–quarantine. 

But the story the country’s focused on isn’t the seven moves from amber to red but Portugal’s lone move from green to amber. The official explanation for it is that returning travelers risk bringing more variants home. 

So what variants is this preventing? The Delta variant–remember the Delta variant? The one that’s become dominant in Britain? Well, it’s picked up a mutation, one that’s happened before. It was seen in the South African variant (which came along too early to get itself a Greek letter). And that new mutation’s been seen in 12 cases in Portugal. 

It’s also been seen in 36 cases in Britain, so it might make more sense to quarantine travelers from Britain when they arrive in Britain but where’s the fun in that?

The last I heard, the mutation hadn’t been flagged as dangerous, although I wouldn’t say that’s definitive. Public Health England hasn’t tagged it a variant of concern, only a spike mutation of interest.

Actually, I’m in favor of being cautious about everything connected to Covid. The idea of promoting tourism right now is somewhere between stupid and criminally irresponsible. It’s the murky thinking that gets to me. First they crank people up about travel, then they try to keep out a mutation that’s already here. 

 

And what do we call the new mutation?

The new mutation is now being called–at least in Britain–the Nepal variant because the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called it that in a press conference. Thanks, Grant. The don’t-blame-this-on-other-countries campaign appreciates your support. 

There is some marginal logic to linking it to Nepal, although it’s marginal enough that after I’d spent half an hour trying to explain it I looked at the hole I’d dug and gave up. It was pretty deep by then and I was worried about getting back out if I kept on. I’ve written to Nepal, suggesting that it change its name to Epsilon.

There’s no clear line between a mutation and a variant, so we don’t have to worry much about that.

 

Yeah, but what about the green list?

The countries left on the green list (last I checked) are Australia; Brunei; Falkland Islands; Faroe Islands; Gibraltar; Iceland; Israel; New Zealand; St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha; Singapore; and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

But any number of those countries aren’t accepting random British tourists, including Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and the Falkland Islands. And Israel and Singapore sound less than thrilled about them, although I’m not sure that’s an outright ban. I should’ve done better research but I had to close the computer and feed the cat. As far as I can figure out, though, an awful lot of those green list countries are closed to British tourists.

It doesn’t sound like the list means much, does it? British tourists are welcome to come home from countries they can’t get into. Yes, friend, we’re on the other side of the looking glass here, and if you’ll pass around the slices of cake Alice will be happy to cut it as soon as you’re done. 

Think of the money those non-tourists will save by not going anywhere.

The new Covid variant, plus what Britain does during lockdown

Newscasters and British government briefings are sounding increasingly sure that the new Covid strain is more contagious than earlier versions. And it may turn out to be, but not all scientists are ready to jump on the bandwagon–especially when it’s steered by a government that outsources navigation to companies with expertise in collecting overdue parking fines. 

An article in Science magazine says that getting definitive answers could take months. What we have right now are possibilities and probabilities.

 

What’s known so far

A couple of things are known at this point. One is that the new variant is out-spreading the old ones. That could be because it spreads more effectively but it could also be because it got lucky: It found a cooperative human host, who introduced it to another cooperative host, who introduced it to a few thousand of his or her closest friends, who and so-forth’d, and before anyone had time to roast the brussels sprouts for Christmas the new strain was all over southeastern England. 

Virology professor Mark Harris, of Leeds University, said. “Unfortunately, the new variant has also become a political football.  It is being blamed by this Government for the rapid spread of the virus in London and the South-East – this is a smokescreen to distract from the failure to put these areas into Tier 3 after the national lockdown. . . .  The potential . . . [for this virus to spread through] communal activities is enormous and the rapid increase in cases of the new variant are a direct consequence.  We need to learn from the lessons of the past year and recognise that by delaying and failing to act decisively our efforts to control the pandemic are less effective, and ultimately lives are at risk.”  

The other thing that’s known is that some of the changes in the new variant are worrying. Like all viruses, Covid evolves, but it’s been known for evolving fairly slowly, making one or two changes a month. Then along comes this new strain carrying seventeen mutations, and at least from where we stand they seem to have popped up all at once.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The earliest ones are just now coming out.

Not only do the number of changes worry the scientists, so do their locations. Eight of them are on the spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to break into the human apartment, raid the refrigerator, move the furniture, play loud music, and then raise a family. The changes look like they could make it easier for the virus to break in, but that needs to be confirmed. 

Or to use that famous American (I think) saying, the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and she’s off in the wings, having a good sulk. She hasn’t even bothered to warm up yet.

 

What’s theorized

There’s speculation that the variant may be able to infect children, but that’s not clear yet. What we have at this point are hints, with no solid evidence. On the other hand, if you want to scare yourself shitless, this is good material. 

A theory on how the variant came to be holds that it could have evolved within a single patient who had a long infection, but at this point it’s just a guess.

As for where it was born, it didn’t necessarily originate in Britain. Britain’s one of a very few countries that sequences a lot of its viral samples. That translates to it being one of the countries most likely to spot a new variant, but it’s been found in other countries. One patient in the Netherlands had it in early December, and it’s been found in Denmark, Australia, and Italy. Belgium recorded four cases early in December. By the time I post this, it will probably have been spotted waiting for the train from Berne to, um, wherever trains from Berne go to. Let’s say Rome. All roads lead to Rome. Surely that includes railroads.

Finding a few (as opposed to many) cases in other countries may (or may not) be evidence that it doesn’t spread as rapidly as advertised. On the other hand, it may simply be evidence of what we (by which, of course, I mean I) already said, that Britain is ahead of most countries on identifying variants. 

Data’s a wonderful thing. Interpreting it is a bitch.

A similar variant seems to have evolved separately in South Africa. That gives some support to the possibility that the mutations give the virus a transmission advantage–or so I’ve read, although unfortunately the article didn’t explain why.

 

So what does it all mean, bartender?

I am emphatically not arguing that the new variant doesn’t spread more quickly or that any conspiracies are being built to claim that it does. (Was that a simple double negative or an implied triple one?) All I’m saying is that commonly held belief seems to have jumped ahead of the science. We have some numbers on infection rates and we have a spike protein with a fashionable new haircut. They’re worrying, especially in combination. But we don’t have the lab work to confirm the conclusions people are drawing.

I could wish the government and the scientists who appear at its briefings would say this, but I expect they think we need clarity. And since the government, at least, hasn’t been clear on anything else I can see why they might want to sink their teeth into this and shake it until it’s in shreds.

And if apparent certainty moves the government to react more decisively to the virus’s spread, that can only be a good thing. It’s a shock to find myself agreeing with anything this government does–I’ll try not to make a habit of it–but if we’re looking at even the possibility of a more aggressively spreading variant, I don’t want them sitting around saying, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.” 

Call that one wrong and people die.

People die anyway. But I think we’d all like as few of them as possible, thanks.

 

What about vaccines?

So far, the virus hasn’t moved itself outside the reach of vaccines, but BioNTech says that if that happens it could tweak its vaccine within six weeks and catch up with a new strain. 

 

And irrelevantly but importantly . . .

Researchers in Australia have documented Covid immunity eight months after an infection. No one knows yet how long immunity lasts, but the documented time keeps getting longer. 

 

And even more irrelevantly, do you know what Britons did during the last lockdown?

Given the data we have–

You remember I said (more or less) that it’s all about how you interpret your data? Well, the data we have is about food and drink, and it says we can forget all those pre-pandemic trends toward plant-based eating and healthy whatevering. Britain spent an extra £2.5 billion buying beer, wine, hard liquor (in case you think the other kinds are soft), and meat. And also tobacco–both cigarettes and roll-your-owns. 

At the top of the list was lager, but Corona beer didn’t do badly either, from which we can infer, deduce, or at least allege that the virus hasn’t affected the famously skewed British sense of humor.

Some of the expenditure can be explained by people not being able to buy drinks at the pub or duty-free wine and tobacco on trips abroad, so they may or may not have consumed more of all those things but just bought it in different places. We don’t want to jump to conclusions–at least not when they’re not any fun (she said, reveling in another double negative).

On the other side of the scales, people spent less money on prefab meals. They were suddenly rich in time, so they cooked more. They bought less bottled water and chewing gum. They spent less on cosmetics, hairstyling products, toothbrushes, and deodorants. 

I fed all of that through the invisible data interpreter that I keep on the other end of my couch and it tells me that we’ve become a nation of hard-drinking, bad-smelling cooks.

 

And finally, things you didn’t know you need to know

A gene that some small number of people inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may double or even quadruple their risk of serious Covid complications. The genetic risk, though, is much smaller than the risk that comes from social factors like poverty and poor access to health care, to name just two.

On the other hand, another bit of Neanderthal DNA may be protective. It just depends on which particular Neanderthal ancestors you might have had, and what particular bits of genetic material they left you. 

Assuming, of course, that had any Neanderthal ancestors. Most Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans do and walk around sporting some small amount of Neanderthal DNA. Anyone whose ancestors came from other places has none.

Make of that what you will. 

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And finally, translator Peter Prowse has contributed a video to the worlds’ effort to stamp out the virus. He tells us to stop using those explosive consonants (called plosives–P, T, K, and their troublemaking friends) and replace them with softer ones.

He’s well worth a listen. 

How long Covid immunity lasts, and other pandemic news from Britain

Since the start of the pandemic, 63 million of our battered planet’s inhabitants have been infected with Covid. So are they immune and can they run around bareback?

No one knows, although the occasional data-free politician says (loudly and proudly) that they are. Only a couple of reinfections have been documented, and signs of an immune response can be spotted for months after an infection, but that doesn’t exactly answer the question. We still don’t know if they could catch it a second time once their immune responses die back. We don’t know how long the immune response lasts. And we don’t know whether in spite of being able to fight off the virus they could go on to be a-symptomatic carriers, infecting other people.

Covid’s a coronavirus. So’s the common cold, and immunity to a cold doesn’t last long. On the other hand, SARS is also a coronavirus, and seventeen years after a person caught it their immune system will be ready to fight it off all over again. Covid could be in either camp or somewhere in between. Or it may have set up its camp in a whole different country than either of its relatives. No one knows what to expect from this particular coronavirus, and people who’ve had the disease are being advised to get vaccinated.

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

And people who get vaccinated are advised to wear a mask and keep their distance, because even with a vaccine-induced immunity, they could be carriers. No one knows yet.

We’re not likely to see what we so quaintly call normal for a while yet.

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I saw a summary recently of what the Great British Public asked Lord Google during the lockdown. It’s–

Excuse me while I look under the furniture and inside the microwave for a neutral word.

–it’s informative.

People asked how to cut their own hair, how to bake bread, how to make face masks and hand sanitizer, and how to cook Swedish meatballs, katsu curry, KFC-style chicken, and eels. 

Now, I’ll be the first vegetarian to admit that eating eels is no creepier than eating meatballs, but that doesn’t keep it from sounding creepier. People got interested in them, apparently, because I’m a Celebrity contestants were fed eels, presumably to gross out the participants, the viewers, and the crew. That doesn’t explain why it set off a rush on the poor damn creatures, but it seems to have.

People watch too much TV. And take it too seriously.

People also wanted to find someone who’d deliver afternoon tea. Or wine. Or compost. Or possibly all three together. 

They wanted song lyrics. 

Somewhere in all that you’ll find an insight into the soul of lockdown Britain. It was drunk, it had a bad haircut, it was on a do-it-yourself kick, and it watched too much TV, but it didn’t forget the beauty of afternoon tea. If only someone could bring it to the door, because after all that wine the eels got mixed up with the meatballs and the hand sanitizer got into the flour and no, we’re in no shape to make our own. 

And that reminds me of a song. The first word was I. Want to bet Lord Google can find it for us? 

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From the Joseph Rowntree Foundation comes news that the pandemic’s likely to push two million families into destitution. The foundation defines destitution as not being able to afford two or more of the following over the past month: shelter, food, heat, light, clothing that matches the season, or basic toiletries.

I’d have thought that not having one of those would be plenty, thanks, but I guess they’re making a distinction between garden variety poverty and complete destitution. Either way, we’re looking at a problem. 

This isn’t entirely the pandemic’s doing. It follows years of cuts to government benefits, and I bet we all know the justification for that without googling it: People who rely on government handouts are shiftless and lazy and cheats and worse than that they’re somebody other than us and they should all be out there working. If we just make living on benefits uncomfortable enough, they’ll get off their backsides, put their kids or their dying parents in the deep freeze and their disabilities in their back pockets and accept whatever underpaid job comes along, assuming one is out there to be found–or two or three three of them if need be. Then they can make ends meet as best they can. Or wrestle the ends until they’re as close as possible, anyway. Just like our grandparents so mythically did.

Truth in advertising: On one side of the family, my grandparents did do something along those lines. It’s one of the reasons they were socialists, since you ask. It doesn’t make an argument for someone else having to live that way.

I don’t want to rant about this–or I do, but not here. I also don’t want to ignore it. I’ts part of what’s happening in the country, so let’s acknowledge it. Some of us get to google Swedish meatballs and eels–and neither of them are luxuries–while other people line up at the food bank and if that sort of solves one problem for the moment they still don’t know what they’ll do about the rent and the electricity. 

Meanwhile, some of the people who financed the Brexit campaign are making money because the pound fell in response to the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

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Depressed? Oh, good. Then this is the time to look at a study from the University of Montreal on how the pandemic’s affected ordinary life. 

Do I know how to throw a party or what?

The study found that if people thought governmental messages about how to respond to the crisis were clear and coherent, then they assumed other people were following them. And the more they assumed other people were following them, the more likely they were to follow them. 

That led the researchers to recommend that government messages be clear and coherent. That may seem obvious, but it’ll surprise the inhabitants of 10 Downing Street and all the people who work there. Except possibly Larry the Cat, who is clear, coherent, and almost universally popular. He also kills mice.

The researchers also recommended that governments target their communications at the majority of people–the ones who follow the recommendations, not at the ones who don’t.

They didn’t say that government ministers and advisors should follow their own recommendations–silly people, they probably take that as a given–but it’s not something you can take for granted, can you, Mr. Cummings?

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A Geneva study of 700 Covid patients who weren’t hospitalized found that a third of them went on to develop long Covid–which they defined as still having symptoms (fatigue, loss of smell or taste, shortness of breath, coughs . . .) six weeks after they were diagnosed.

The group’s mean age was 43. That’s mean as in one form of an average, not mean as in 43 being inherently any nastier than any other age.

The researchers plan a follow-up at 7 and 12 months to see how the study participants are doing. At this point, no one seems to know how long long Covid is. 

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A study that followed over 100,000 British people reported that healthcare workers were seven times as likely to get a severe COVID-19 infection as people in other types of work. People working in social care and transportation were twice as likely. 

Black and Asian workers in what are being called non-essential jobs were more than 3 times as likely to develop a severe COVID infection as white non-essential workers, and Black and Asian essential workers were more than eight times as likely.

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Could we find some good news, please? 

You only had to ask. Researchers from the Open Bioeconomy Lab at the University of Cambridge, the Lab de Tecnología Libre at iBio/PUC Chile, the FreeGenes Project at Stanford University, and the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks collaborated on a free online toolkit that will let labs in developing countries create their own Covid diagnostic and research tools.

According to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “The collapse of global cooperation [has] shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market. . . . African countries have funds to pay for reagents but cannot buy them.”

Or, as the article I lifted this information from put it, the supply chain is broken.

The open-source toolkit will allow scientists to develop tests that are fast, cheap, adapted to needs of local health systems, and easy to manufacture.

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A 91-year-old who got one of the earliest vaccine doses was interviewed by CNN and, inevitably, the reporter asked how he felt about it. 

Reporters always ask members of the public how they feel about something or other. Your entire block was destroyed by flying saucers? Well, how do you feel about that? We the Public are, apparently, no more than ambulatory masses of feelings, so what else can they ask?

May all the gods I don’t believe in help any reporter who asks me that.

“I don’t think I feel much at all,” Martin Kenyon said, “except that I hope that I’m not going to have the bloody bug now.”

It went viral. 

And how does he feel about that?

“Have people not got better things to talk about?” he wants to know.

Long Covid, vaccine safety, and ferrets: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

A drug that’s still in the experimental stage promises to stop Covid transmission. So far, we know it works in ferrets. If you’re a ferret, you probably don’t care about this because ferrets are like young adults: They have fur and like to eat raw meat.

The similarity’s struck you before now, hasn’t it?

They also become infected with Covid and can pass the infection on, but they don’t get sick. 

Strictly and importantly speaking, that’s true of ferrets but not true of young adults (see below), because some young adults get mildly sick and then get long Covid, which is a particularly nasty kick in the head. And some are hospitalized. In fact, some die, although nowhere near as many as older adults, which is where the myth of young adult immunity comes from. 

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Or part of it. This bit was left on the mainland when the land bridge to the island collapsed. 

So let’s say that most young adults are like ferrets, and I’m told they make excellent pets and can be quite affectionate. They’re intelligent, energetic, and shouldn’t be left in cages.

If I’ve driven that joke into the ground, we’ll move on. 

How long will it be before the drug is available for humans? Well, they’ll probably want to test it in something furless before it gets to the market. I’ve read, and I’ve often written here, about all sorts of promising drugs. And that’s the last we hear about most of them. Or at least the last I hear of them. I don’t really know what you hear, do I?

I keep promising myself that I won’t write about any more early-stage drugs, but then I read about one that I can’t pass up and I break my promise. You should know better than to trust me with promises, so you have no one to blame but yourself. 

This one, I think, is worth breaking a promise for. It not only stops Covid transmission, it also stops the progression of the disease. And works against the flu.

Let us all become ferrets, friends, and put an end to this plague. 

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The news about the Moderna vaccine is that it gives people (at least the 94% it works in) an immune response that lasts at least three months. That’s from a study run by NIAID, which is not a Greek goddess of springs, rivers, fountains, and lakes (you’ll need change the vowels a bit if you’re calling the goddess) but (more helpfully at this moment in history) the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. 

Immunity may last longer, but that’s as many pages as they’ve had time to read.

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How has it been possible to develop the Covid vaccines so fast? Several factors came together.

Once the virus’s genome was decoded, it was shared immediately with the world’s scientific community. Chinese scientists published a draft of the genome of January 11. No one had to waste time repeating work that had already been done. 

After that, the world’s bad luck was put to good use: With the hounds of hell nipping at their heels, governments were willing to pour immense amounts of money into research. That translated to equipment and researchers. 

Next, it was easy for researchers to recruit participants for both the early and the later tests. That usually takes time, but people were motivated and anxious to sign up.

It usually takes a good long time before enough of the test subjects become infected to prove or disprove the vaccine’s effectiveness. But because Covid was so widespread, people got sick quickly. That comes to us compliments of the Department of Silver Linings.

On top of that, the pandemic hit just as scientists worked the kinks out of the mRNA vaccine process. I’m not going to try to explain that, but if you follow the link a few paragraphs back, someone who knows what they’re talking about will. 

Finally, a good bit of research that had already been done gave Covid research a running start: into creating  new flu vaccine; into SARS and MERS, both of which threatened to turn epidemic but didn’t; and into Zika.

Experts say no steps were missed in checking the safety and effectiveness of the Covid vaccines. I respect the well-honed skepticism that develops in a population that’s been lied to a lot, but I haven’t read any solid evidence that would lead me to wait when I’m offered a vaccine. I’m running around with one sleeve already rolled up.

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The Serum Institute of India has asked for fast-track approval of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which doesn’t need refrigeration and which–if it gets approval–it will sell in India for something in the neighborhood of $3 a dose.

India is the second hardest hit country in the world’s Covid disaster race. Or the third. I’ve seen it listed both ways. It probably depends on what you count and how.

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A British trial will play around with mixing Covid vaccines to see if a mix creates a stronger immune response than two doses of a single vaccine. It’s due to start in January.

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Less encouragingly (but entirely realistically), the World Health Organization warns that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t mean an end to the Covid crisis. The logistics and economics of getting the world’s population vaccinated are massive, especially since two of the early vaccines need super-cold storage. 

And that doesn’t touch on the issue of how many people will be willing to accept vaccination or whether the vaccine will continue to circulated in spite of vaccinations.

In the meantime:

  • Wear a mask
  • Be careful
  • Grow fur 

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A small study (40 people, with a control group of 58) from the University of Dayton shows that 51% of young adults who are diagnosed with mild to moderate Covid had complications (chest pain, breathing difficulty, headaches, exhaustion, brain fog, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste, etc.) for more than 28 days afterward, and 30% had complications for more than 50 days.

The lead researcher, Julie Walsh-Messinger, said, “The common belief in the U.S. is that COVID-19 is benign or short-lived in young adults. Our study, which we believe is the first to report on post-COVID syndrome in college students, almost exclusively between 18 and 21 years of age, suggests otherwise. More research needs to be done to confirm these findings, but until then, we urge the medical and scientific community to consider young adults vulnerable to post-COVID syndrome.”

For a brief description of what long Covid is like, this is a good place to start, although from what I’ve read it can get far worse. 

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Like ferrets, cars don’t contract Covid. Unlike ferrets, they’re inanimate. But they can spread it. They’re like schoolrooms, like bars, like supermarkets: They depend on breathing humans to help them with their work.

A study at Brown University shows that opening car windows reduces Covid transmission. This probably won’t surprise you, given what’s known about air, breath, wind, cars, and Covid. But scientists have this pesky habit of wanting to prove things instead of just asserting them. They’re the kind of people who want to know how cold it is and how long it’s been how cold before they drive the car out on the frozen lake. They’ll want to calculate the depth of the ice and find out if the lake has currents where the ice will be thinner. They can be absolute mood-killers, but if you’re driving across a frozen lake they’re the people you want to ride with. 

Speaking just for myself (as if I had a choice), I appreciate them.

Asimanshu Das, co-lead author of the car window research, said, “Driving around with the windows up and the air conditioning or heat on is definitely the worst scenario, according to our computer simulations. The best scenario we found was having all four windows open, but even having one or two open was far better than having them all closed.”

But even with all the windows open and the roof sawed off, everybody should wear masks.

The article’s full of drawings and arrows. I’m not sure what they demonstrate, but they impressed the hell out of me.

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Semi-relevantly, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital are working on a vaccine for a wide range of influenza strains. Early-stage clinical trials indicate that it could give a long-lasting immunity, eliminating the need for yearly updates. 

But it’s in the early stages. In the meantime, we’re all supposed to keep downloading our yearly flu shots. Or, in British, jabs.

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And, completely irrelevantly, an experimental drug can reverse age-related memory loss within days. So far, unfortunately, that only applies to mice, but it may work its way up to ferrets and eventually to us. 

It’s called ISRIB and it also works on traumatic injuries, noise-related hearing loss, and cognitive impairment in Down Syndrome. Yes, mice can have Down syndrome-like characteristics. I didn’t know either.

It also fights certain kinds of prostate cancer and enhances cognition in healthy animals.

And it makes coffee, but it’s pretty bad. I wouldn’t recommend drinking it.  

The pandemic update from Britain: swans, spike, and Scunthorpe

The BBC has commissioned TV shows (or maybe that’s one show–we’ll find out eventually) that will, they say, be “a powerful snapshot” of lockdown Britain. One of them is a version of Swan Lake performed in the dancers’ bathtubs and showers.

The director? He directed it from his toilet seat. Sitting there, he said, kept him conscious of the limits the dancers were working with. 

“It’s been like hanging a picture blindfolded,” he said, “a mile away.”

Stay tuned, kids. It should be a one-of-a-kind moment in British culture.

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Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

With all the flap around Dominic Cummings, why hadn’t he trended on Twitter? Because his name causes anti-porn filters to wake from their slumber and block–well, something. Possibly the tweets themselves, more likely the mass of them trending. How would I know? I’m 107 years old and even typing this much woke my anti-tech filters from their slumbers so they could block me from understanding the story. 

I do understand this much: The spam filters have driven people to all sorts of creative mis-spellings of his last name.

The problem of accidental, automated censorship is called the Scunthorpe problem. Scunthorpe is a real place, and that’s its real name. If you’re not a spam filter or a ten-year-old, it’s an inoffensive one, pronounced SCUNNthorp. 

The challenge of figuring out what to block and what not to block is also real. It’s right up there with trying to find pictures of seventeen animals hidden in the picture of a tree. Find the naughty words; don’t find the not-naughty words.

Oops. You got it wrong. Return to Scunthorpe and start over. 

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In the period that starts on the week that ended on March 20 (that’s a convoluted way to tell time, but I didn’t invent it), the U.K. has the highest excess death rate of any country with reliable statistics: 891 per million.

The highest what? 

Excess deaths: the ones that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. They matter because not all coronavirus deaths are counted as coronavirus deaths. In many countries–possibly in all; how would I know?–how they’re counted depends on what goes on the person’s death certificate, which is decided by a scattering of doctors who may make very different decisions for all sorts of reasons. 

And in the absence of testing, who’s to say who died of the virus and who didn’t?

Excess deaths also matter because people die in a pandemic of things that wouldn’t have killed them if life had been what we so airily think of as normal. So the person who has a heart attack and decides they’d be better off at home than in an overloaded hospital with a high infection rate? Or who calls an ambulance that doesn’t get there for hours? The person whose cancer surgery was postponed because the surgeons didn’t have surgical gowns and couldn’t operate safely?

They all end up as excess deaths, indirectly attributable to the virus.

The data comes from nineteen countries.

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A study in France finds that even mild Covid-19 cases leave 98% of people with protective antibodies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 2% of the population is left out and that no one knows how long it will last. At this point, they’ve seen it lasting a month.

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South Korea’s second pandemic spike is inching upward, and Jeong Eu-kyeong, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they may have to re-impose social distancing. 

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures,” she said, “but there’s a limit to such efforts.” 

A lockdown has been reimposed in Seoul.

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England’s test and trace system launched on Thursday, to the blatt of off-key trumpets and the curses of employees who couldn’t log on. It was supposed to be fully operational by this coming Monday, but Monday has been postponed till late June. Don’t fret. Every month has a solid handful of Mondays.

One contact tracer said they’d been told on Wednesday that the system would start on June 1, not Thursday, and added that there was no vetting or quality control over who was being hired. The tracers are a mix of medical professionals, people who’ve worked in call centers, students working a summer job, and I have no idea who else. They work from a script.

A doctor working as a team leader isn’t optimistic. 

“It’s difficult when you see people breaking rules,” he said. “Everyone is confused what the message is.”

The app that’s supposed to make all this work seamlessly is, um, being tweaked. I don’t think that’s classic British understatement. It’s classic governmental mumblespeak. They did a limited trial on it, discovered problems, and took it into the back of the workshop, where they’re pounding on it with sledgehammers.

Local governments, apparently, feel just as well prepared as the contact tracers, with an unnamed someone accusing the NHS and Department of Health of “control freakery.”

A lot of people are speaking out on this as unnamed someones or by first name only. 

Public health experts say they were sidelined during March and April, as the tracing campaign was being put together, and only involved in May after a behind-the-scenes campaign. 

England–not Britain this time; the overlap and divisions can make a person dizzy–has a network of contact tracers who work with TB and sexually transmitted diseases and could have shifted to the pandemic months ago. Contact tracing interviews, they say, take tact and experience, and they sound skeptical about the effectiveness of people who were hired by the truckload, trained briefly and online, and turned loose to work with a system that–. Well, one person who was supposed to use it said, “I have not been given any details of who to call if I have problems, only an email address…which largely goes unanswered.”

But this will make it safe for us all to emerge from lockdown and we’ll all be just fine, folks. And we don’t have to wait until the tracing system works. We can just go ahead on the promise.

The plan is that when testing identifies local hotspots, local governments, health people, and all the area’s chickens will work together and do something.

What will they do? It’s hard to say, because local authorities don’t have power to close down schools or workplaces, and chickens don’t even have the power to decide when to brood their eggs and when to let the humans do whatever it is they do with them.

Is anyone else feeling a bit chickenish?

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On Friday morning I promise you something unrelated to the virus.