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. 

The pandemic update from Britain: money, vaccines, and killing the virus

With Italy’s Covid death toll rising (it just beat Britain to Europe’s top spot), a bar in Rome banned any conversation about Covid, viruses, and lockdown. 

“We’ve been talking about the same thing for months,” manager Cristina Mattioli said. “It’s not at all about denial or not understanding the difficulty of what the world is going through, but just about giving yourself a break.”

They don’t throw people out if they break the rules, but they do show them a poster with a list of alternative topics they might want to consider.

“Customers found it funny,” Mattioli said, “with some saying they could finally have a coffee in peace. They started to have other conversations. What was also lovely is that it gave a cue to customers who don’t know each other to start chatting. Yes, we have to maintain a physical distance, but we can still chat to each other.”

I’m not ready to do that here at Notes, but I do know a reader or three who’s bailed out of the Covid posts. I understand the impulse. If I could bail out on the whole damn virus, I’d be happy to. I’m sure it’s a learning experience and all that, but ignorance wasn’t all that bad, really, was it?

Irrelevant photo: a day lily. Each flower blooms for a single day. We could spin all kinds of metaphors about the transience of all things, including beauty and including the pandemic (I hope), but we’ll skip that. It’s a flower. I needed a photo to fill the space.

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An Australian vaccine, the University of Queensland/CSL vaccine, has been abandoned because it set off false positives on HIV tests. It didn’t give anyone HIV–that’s the beast that causes AIDS–but somehow it made them look, on tests, as if it had. Which, given that HIV is still out there in the world and people do still get it, and more to the point if you have it you’ll damn well want to do something about it–

Yeah. You’d want a false positive only slightly less than a real one. So we have one less vaccine in the works, but many others still in development.

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The Peruvian trial of a Chinese vaccine was suspended after a volunteer developed neurological problems–trouble moving his arms (in two articles) and weakness in his legs (in one, which said that was among other symptoms, so these may not contradict each other). That “could correspond to a condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome,” the National Institute of Health said. They’re investigating to see if it’s related to the vaccine or has some other explanation.

The vaccine’s also being tested in Argentina, Russia, and Saudi Arabia–as far as I’ve read without this happening.

Peru has one of the world’s highest per capita Covid death rates.

China has four other vaccines in development, some of which are already being used on an emergency basis.

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British and Russian scientists will test a combination of the Oxford and Sputnik vaccines to see if that gives better protection than either one singly. The trials will start at the end of the year.

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Barcelona gave rapid Covid testing a serious challenge by throwing a free five-hour concert but only allowing people in if they tested negative–on the spot. People danced, bumped up against each other, hugged, and generally did things we wouldn’t have found remotely shocking last year at this time. 

They used hand sanitizer and they (mostly) wore masks, except in one area where they could have a single free drink.

A control group with the same number of people didn’t get in. The researchers will keep an eye on both groups to see if one has a higher incidence of the virus than the other. If I see any more news about how this works out, I’ll let you know. 

Why is this worth doing? Because rapid tests miss a fairly high percent of Covid cases. It’s possible that those people aren’t highly infectious. It’s also possible that they are. It all sounds like Russian roulette to me, but then I’m a zillion years old, on the cautious end of the spectrum, and never did take my music loud. 

Besides, I wasn’t invited. I’m sure it was an oversight. 

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The issue of who’s contagious for how long is a live one. Britain’s cutting the quarantine period for people who’ve tested positive or who’ve been in contact with someone who positive. It’ll go from fourteen days to ten. The theory is that in the last few days only 1% to 2% of infected people can still pass on the virus.

That’s 1% to 2% too many for me, but see above about the cautious end of the spectrum.

People, they say, are most infectious in the day or two before they develop symptoms. 

I suspect cutting the quarantine period is also about hoping more people will respect it if there’s less to respect, although at least part of the problem comes from people not being able to afford time off work. That won’t be fixed by shaving off four days off the recommended time.

There’s talk of eliminating the blanket quarantine altogether for people who’ve been exposed to someone who tests positive, replacing it with daily testing, and only asking people to quarantine only if they test positive themselves. 

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A system that uses LED lights to emit ultraviolet radiation may be a quick, cheap way to eliminate Covid (and pretty much anything else) from indoor air systems. The snag is that you can’t use it in the presence of actual human beings–or, presumably, non-human beings. I’m not sure what it does to them–or us, more accurately–but probably something not unlike what it does to the virus.

The only way to use it would be in an air conditioning or ventilation system. 

A related use of ultraviolet light involves using conjugated polymers and oligomers (whatever they may be), which when activated by UV light almost completely kill the coronavirus. They can be added to masks, clothes, paint, even sprays. They don’t wash away–at least not with plain water–and don’t leave a toxic residue when they break down. 

They could also be used–and this may be a potential use or an immediate one; I’m not sure which–to combat colds, flu, low grades, and cakes that don’t rise properly.

Yes, we’re playing spot-the-exaggeration today. I got myself into deep water with something I thought was so obviously a joke that no one would believe it. Next thing I knew, someone had referenced my claim that Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout. 

I’m sadder but wiser now. So yes, part of that paragraph is a joke. And yes, it’s very sad when you have to tell people you’re making jokes.

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Matt Hancock, Britain’s health minister, announced that a new Covid variant may be associated with a faster spread of the disease.

Notice the wiggle words there: may be; associated with. If you dig into the speech he made to a massively bored-looking House of Commons, he even said, “We don’t know . . . ” But he also said the new Covid variant was growing faster than the version that we’ve come to know and love.

He didn’t say that growing faster may not mean that it spreads more easily or that it makes people sicker, but it would’ve been true if he had. Measuring the danger by comparing the spread of the variants would be like kicking over two cans of paint, looking at the pools on the floor, and deducing that blue spreads faster than red. 

Never mind. What he said wasn’t exactly inaccurate but it was misleading enough to sow bits of panic here and there: Covid’s mutating! Help, help, a horrible heffalump. 

The New Scientist reports that researchers are skeptical. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute said, “This is going to require rigorous assessment before it can be confirmed. New variant sure, functionally significant unlikely. Suspect it will be refuted or seriously questioned.”

Missing words in quote to be found under couch. Have gone free range. From whence they send the news that coronaviruses generally need more than one mutation to hide from a well primed immune system. A lot more than one mutation.

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What else is happening in Britain? Well, the BMJ reports that it hasn’t been able to get information on the financial interests of the doctors, scientists, and academics who give the government pandemic advice. Do they have conflicts of interest? Do they stand to benefit from companies with government contracts?

Dunno. 

At first, the government wouldn’t even release their names. They’ve now done that but refused to let the BMJ see the financial interest forms they’d filled out, although in the interest of complete transparency the government did release a blank copy of the form.

At least someone has a sense of humor. Or else no sense of humor. I can’t tell which.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and head of its Vaccine Taskforce, is reported to have had £600,000 worth of shares in GlaxoSmithKline, which signed a vaccine deal with the government worth we don’t know how much.

Another member of the taskforce, John Bell of Oxford University—who also headed the National COVID Testing Scientific Advisory Panel and chaired the government’s new test approvals group—was reported to have £773,000 worth of shares in Roche, which had sold the government £13.5 million of antibody tests.

The government assures us that neither of them had any involvement in those deals, so it’s okay. 

And I assure you that any resemblance to individual persons, either living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

Bell may or may not also be part of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. A press release said he was. A spokesperson said he wasn’t.