Some good news about Covid–and some bad

In some patients, vaccination can ease long Covid symptoms. A small study–44 patients–saw 23% of the participants showing some improvement compared to the unvaccinated group. But just so we don’t get too excited about this, 5.6% found that their symptoms got worse. It didn’t seem to matter whether they’d gotten the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Long Covid? It’s a weird range of symptoms that some percentage of people are left with after they get rid of the infection itself. In some people, the symptoms clear up in weeks and in others–well, it’s not clear how long they’ll last because they’re still hanging around. The symptoms can range from mild to pretty damn awful and they can follow either a severe infection or a mild one. 

An infectious disease specialist at Columbia University said that about a fifth of the patients he’s treated get long Covid. So anything that helps a quarter of them? We like that. 

Irrelevant photo: hyacinth

 

The bad news

With a bit of good news out of the way, let’s drop in on its old friend Bad News: In Brazil, Covid’s sending younger people to intensive care units–people who aren’t just youngish but who have no pre-existing medical problems. Younger in this case means between 30 and 60, so they’re not young-young, but that’s still an important shift in a disease that’s been known for targeting people over 60. 

This doesn’t seem to be because of a change in the disease itself, though. (Put that on the good news side of the scales.) Part of the shift may be coming from younger people’s belief that they can shrug the disease off. They’re making themselves available to get infected. Or the Brazilian government’s Covid denialism is putting them in harm’s way. Public transportation is packed. On crowded sidewalks, it’s not unusual to see people going maskless. And older people are getting vaccinated while younger people aren’t. 

Even though younger people are more likely to shrug the disease off, enough of them need hospitalization that hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s a reminder that none of us can count on being immune to this thing. 

 

The news you can interpret as good if you want to

Researchers estimate that the Covid virus was probably circulating undetected for a couple of months before it popped its nasty little head up in Wuhan at the end of 2019. This is based on modeling and I’m not going to take you through it because, let’s face it, I don’t understand it, but the researchers played out a series of scenarios and concluded that new viruses jump from animals to humans regularly but that most of them die out before they get a chance to create pandemics. Or even epidemics. 

Remember when epidemic sounded extreme? Yeah, me too. Now it’s just some kindergarten-style disaster–the kind where someone called you a bad name and you went home in tears. 

They figure that some 70% of the infections that jump from animals die out within 8 days of finding their way into the human race. If they get into an urban area, though, the odds tip further in their favor. 

So is that good news or bad? Both, I guess. It reminds us that a whole line of viruses is out there, just waiting to set up housekeeping in our bodies’ cells. On the other hand, it means that most of them, even when they find an entry point, won’t spread around the planet.

 

And a bit more good news

The unalloyed good news is that while Covid’s evolving, so are our antibodies

Let’s say you get Covid and count your antibodies just after you recover. You’ll have lots of them. (I’m writing the script, so of course you recover. I apologize for giving you the disease to begin with, but the plot demanded it. The sad truth about fiction writing is that if you don’t let anything bad happen, you don’t have a story.)

Then you count those antibodies again in six months and you don’t have as many. 

Why’s that good news? 

Because they won’t be the same naive little antibodies you had when you first got sick: 83% of them will now recognize Covid variants and be ready to kill them on sight. (It’s a nasty old world at the cellular level. Sorry.) They’ll even be learning to recognize related viruses, such as SARS. They’re sadder but wiser antibodies. If they go into a bar wanting nothing more than a drink and some virus sits down beside them and tries to chat, they won’t be flattered that it’s paying attention to them. They’ll kill it. 

I haven’t done that in bars, but believe me, I understand its appeal. 

How did they get to the point where they understood the game before the first moves were even played out? 

Let’s go back to that case of Covid I assigned you. After you got rid of the infection, you were left with some non-infectious bits of the virus scampering around your body, and they worked as reminders to your immune system: This is what the virus looks like. If this sounds like an ex who won’t stop calling–

Well, yeah, it is, but this isn’t a relationship or a breakup and the virus isn’t your ex. It’s a virus. And you aren’t you anymore, you’re an immune system, because I moved us into a different story without thinking to warn you. So it’s good that bits of the virus still have your phone number, and use it. It’s not universally true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but in this case they really are making you stronger.

The immune system has an evolutionary advantage over viruses. They mutate randomly and the ones that work well survive, which is a way of saying that the ones that survive, survive. But antibodies don’t mutate randomly. I’d love to explain that to you, but the best I can do is tell you that it has to do with B cells and activation-induced deaminase and somatic hypermutation. Or to put that more simply, I don’t understand a word of it but if I could pronounce it I’d have one hell of a snappy comeback next time some virus tries to chat me up.

What I did follow is that the lymph nodes notice which B cells make better antibodies and which ones don’t. They give the best B cells good grades and send the worst ones back to repeat the year with the same teacher who couldn’t get the lessons across the first time. 

The ones who got the top grades get to mass produce their new, improved antibodies. Which recognize variants of the virus they fought off, bringing us back to our starting point, sadder but wiser and ready to fight. 

 

Finally, a bit of Zoom news

Humans aren’t the only ones using Zoom during the pandemic. Two zoos in the Czech Republic set up a Zoom connection to let their chimpanzees watch each other’s lives on big screens while the zoos are closed. The chimps get bored without humans to watch. 

There’s no sound in their meetings (that would improve some I’ve been in), but after initially approaching the screens defensively or aggressively, they settled in to watch the show and it seems to be a great success.