Covid variants, vaccines, and all our clean hands

An assistant professor of food science says that all the hand washing, surface cleaning, and food washing we’re doing may or may not keep Covid in check but has kept us from spreading salmonella, e.coli, and listeria.

It’s not what we’re trying to do, but it is good for us.

There’s no evidence that Covid is spread through food, although that’s not the same as saying that it isn’t spread that way. 

But having (with her team) overdosed on US and Canadian internet videos telling us how to clean everything in sight, Yaohua “Betty” Feng reports that a bunch of them have it wrong. Of the videos telling people how to wash their hands, only 41% of the presenters used soap. The remainder, presumably, relied on good wishes and intense looks. Less than 33% mentioned hand sanitizer. And how many of us, since the start of the pandemic, can get through a day without mentioning hand sanitizer?

Like–I’m going to assume–you, I thought I knew how to wash my hands. I’ve been doing it for better than 70 years now, most of the time without supervision, but there’s no predicting what people will feel the need to learn in these difficult times. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe, for instance, I’ve mistaken my hands for some other body parts.

Irrelevant photo: The first spring violets.

Other videos were about washing produce, and 16% of the presenters used soap while 12% used other chemical cleansers. That sounds promising, but they’re both no-nos. If you don’t rinse them off completely, they can cause diarrhea.

Feng didn’t say this, but you might draw the conclusion that random internet videos aren’t the best places to look for reliable information. Or you might not. 

 

British and (eek!) foreign Covid variants

The British Covid variant, which to make things more complicated is now called the Kent variant, after the part of England where it was first found–

Let’s start that over: The Kent Covid variant has mutated since it was first identified. That’s standard operating procedure in the viral world. Every new infection is a chance for the disease to pick up a mutation. Some of those won’t work well for it and will die out and others will make the disease better at hiding from the immune system. Those are the ones that will spread.

So the Kent variant has picked up a new mutation, and it’s similar to one of the mutations on the South African variant. The going theory is that it evolved the change on its own rather than picking it up like an STD after a one-night stand with the South African variant. Which basically means that two strains of the virus have found the same way to partially evade the human immune system. 

There’s been a lot of focus on stopping, or at least getting control of, the imported Covid variants. In parts of the UK, house-to-house testing is looking for the South African variant.

But that may be a sideshow. Virologist Julian Tang wrote, “Unfortunately, the lack of control of these different variants in the UK may lead this population to become a melting pot for different emerging SARS-COV-2/COVID-19 variants–so we really need to reduce our contact rates to reduce the opportunities for viral spread/replication to reduce the speed with which these different virus variants can evolve.

“Closing borders/restricting travel may help a little with this, but there is now probably already a sufficient critical mass of virus-infected people within the endemic UK population to allow this natural selection/evolution to proceed . . . so we really need to stick to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions as much as possible.”

In other words, the more the people get infected, the more times the virus gets to mutate, and the more times it mutates the more chances it has of presenting us with a more difficult problem.

There’s something tempting about focusing on imported strains of the virus–Eek! South African! Argh, Brazilian!–but all Covid infections are dangerous. That’s what we need to focus on. 

 

Symptoms

In England–possibly in all of Britain, but don’t trust me on that; I’m at least as confused as you are–the only way to book a Covid test is to claim at least one of three symptoms: cough, loss of smell or taste, and a high temperature. But a GP and senior lecturer in primary care, Alex Sohal, writes that the list should include a runny or blocked nose, a sore throat, hoarseness, muscle pain, fatigue, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. She’s seen patients come in with them and go on to test positive for Covid.

“These patients have frequently not even considered that they may have Covid-19 and have not self-isolated in the crucial early days when they were most infectious.”

She advocates telling “the public, especially those who have to go out to work and their employers, that even those with mild symptoms . . . should not go out, prioritizing the first five days of self-isolation when they are most likely to be infectious.

“This will help to get—and keep—us out of this indefinite lockdown, as Covid-19 becomes increasingly endemic globally. Ignoring this will be at our peril.”

As it stands, if you have good reason to book a Covid test and don’t have the magic three symptoms, the best thing to do is lie. And almost none of us recognize the full list she gives as possible Covid symptoms.

 

The bad news

Some of the recent Covid mutations have outpaced the monoclonal antibodies we’d all been counting on as a treatment in case we did catch it. 

Mono-whats? 

Okay, if you have to ask, that says we haven’t all been counting on them, but let’s pretend we were so I can explain what’s happening.

Basically, monoclonal antibodies are human antibodies that have been cloned. In this case, they’re antibodies to Covid, and they’ve been used to treat serious Covid cases. The problem is that the humans who developed them did so in the presence of one form of Covid, not all of them. As the virus mutates, they can get left behind.  

They also have another problem, which is that they’re expensive and not easy to make. Other than that, though, they’re great.

 

The good news

At the beginning of February, after a 25-day lockdown, the Isle of Man (population 84,000) lifted almost all  its Covid restrictions. The exceptions are its border controls, which–well, I was going to say they take no prisoners, but in fact taking prisoners is exactly what they do. Someone who tried to get onto the island on a jet ski was jailed for four weeks. 

They seem to have eliminated the virus. Before the lockdown, the island had 400 cases and it’s had 25 deaths. 

The Isle of Man is in the water somewhere between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It’s a self-governing British crown dependency, and don’t ask what that means because it’s complicated and we’re running out of space here in the infinite internet.  

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Two bits of news about the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

One, a single dose (which is what the UK is focused on at the moment, with the second one delayed for up to twelve weeks) is still 76% effective after three months. That’s not as good as the 82% protection it offers after the second dose, but it ain’t bad, and there’s finally some data backing up the government’s decision to focus on getting an initial dose to as many people as possible–at least for this vaccine.

Delaying the second dose may strengthen the protection, but that’s not definite.

Two, the vaccine may reduce the number of Covid transmissions by two-thirds. That’s not definite–it’s still preliminary–but it’s promising. 

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A late-stage trial reports that Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is both safe and 92% effective. It can be stored in a normal refrigerator and comes in two doses, but the second dose is slightly different than the first one. They use different vectors–the neutralized viruses that they ride on. The idea is that this will give the immune system an extra boost and protect people for longer.

 

The little-bit-of-both news

Britain’s vaccinated over 10 million people with at least one dose of one vaccine or another, and the number of hospitalized Covid patients is coming down, but it’s still higher than it was during the first peak of the pandemic. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said infection rates are also coming down“but they are still incredibly high.” That may mean, in the American tradition of Groundhog Day, that we get six more weeks of winter. Or lockdown. 

The pandemic update from Britain (and elsewhere): arms, archeology, and apps

Rest easy, people. Someone is addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The Academie Francaise has announced that we’re dealing with la Covid, not le Covid. In other words, the virus is grammatically female.

The French language divides its nouns into male and female, and which gender a noun belongs to has nothing to do with any intrinsic quality of the thing itself. Nobody knows whether a sandwich considers itself more female than male, and nobody except the sandwich cares. A linguist could explain it all to you (and I’m looking forward to whatever comments you leave, my friends), but in the meantime, as far as I can see, you deduce the word’s femininity or masculinity out of a sixty-forty mix of thin air and history, which you whip until the resulting froth looks inevitable. 

In this case, the Academie decided that the root of the word Covid is maladie–illness–which is already feminine, so Covid is also feminine. And since this is all about getting the language right, I apologize for missing the accent mark in Academie: I’m writing this first thing in the morning and my accent marks are asleep.  

Irrelevant photos: Hydrangeas.

In the absence of the Academie’s decision, though, people started calling it le Covid, making it masculine. Will they change? No idea. On the one hand, French speakers seem to take the Academie seriously. On the other hand, language is a slippery beast and it can slither out of even the most powerful hands. 

Spanish is (I think–let me know if I’m wrong) closer to English in not recognizing anyone’s final authority over the language, but the Real Academia de la Lengua Española has just decided that Covid is feminine. To date, it’s been predominantly masculine, or at least people have written and spoken it as if it is. What’ll happen next? You’re on the edge of your chair, aren’t you? We’ll just have to wait and see–if we can remember to check back.

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So what’s the news on coronavirus immunity? Not much. No one knows yet if having had the virus gives you immunity. I mention that because so many people are sure they know what the scientists don’t.

Arne Akbar of the British Society of Immunology said that an antibody test “does not tell us if these antibodies will stop you getting sick from Covid-19 in the future or how long any protection generated might last.” And just to complicate the picture, he also said, “The immune system is extremely complex and there are lots of ways that it can generate immunity, antibodies being only one.”

So what good does antibody testing do? It can help experts figure out how many people have had Covid-19 and what its spread is. 

Some 10% of Londoners may (emphasis on may) have been infected with it, and maybe 4% of the rest of the country. At this stage, so much isn’t known (and so many people talk as if it was) that you’d be wise to stock up on wishy-washy words: suggests, probably, may, might, and could, possibly are all available from my Etsy shop. I’ll give you 20% off if you let me know that I referred you to me.

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And while we’re talking about bargains, the British government spent almost £20 million buying up drugs that Donald Trump claimed would cure Covid-19. I can’t say for sure that the two things are linked, only that they both happened.

What did it get for its money? Chloroquinine phosphate, choloroquinine, hydroxycholoroquinine (those are normally used for malaria and other diseases), and lopinavir/ritonavir (normally used for HIV). 

What’s my problem with that? As yet, there’s no scientific evidence that they’re any use against Covid-19. They might be. They also might not be. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that one trial of lopinaetc. showed no “observable benefit.” 

But that’s a minor objection. The real one is that they’re horrible words to type. You have no idea why I have to go through here. On top of which, lupus patients use hydroxyetc. and are worried about a drug they depend on being snapped up on the theory that something just might pan out.

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Want more bargains? Who wouldn’t. Britain’s given £1 billion worth of contracts to companies without any competitive bidding process. Because we’re in a crisis.  

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Enough about Britain. Let’s talk about Texas, which has always been a little crazy. I’m originally from New York, but I can claim half a right to say that because my partner is a Texan born and raised. If I get in trouble on this, I’m calling her as my witness.

The state recently eased its coronavirus restrictions, allowing restaurants, malls, and some other businesses to open, but it didn’t include bars, tattoo parlors, and other essential services, outraging some half a dozen business owners, who called in heavily and visibly armed civilians to stand around looking heavily armed and threatening. Then they opened up for business. 

I don’t know where it’s all headed. Not anyplace good.

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But I shouldn’t single out Texas. In Turkey, as elsewhere, teachers have encouraged kids to draw rainbows and put them in their windows during the lockdown. Then some of the local education boards told them to stop. Rainbows are part of a plot to turn the kids gay. 

Oh, sure, you can laugh if you want, but I’m gay–okay, lesbian; that’s close enough–and I saw rainbows as a kid. And not just one rainbow but lots of them, both the kind in the sky and the kind on paper. That happened repeatedly. And look where it led.

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In Spain, informal groups of parents are stepping in to help families whose kids are going hungry during the lockdown. And neighborhood associations and other local groups are supplying food, medicine, cleaning products, and (in one case) a tablet so a teenager could keep up with her school work. Social services are overwhelmed and haven’t been able to keep up with the need.  

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Back to Britain: With people in lockdown getting bored enough to name their socks and teach them to leap through dog collars, a landscape archeologist from Exeter University, Chris Smart, has harnessed their skills and their boredom. He has them looking at aerial surveys of the Devon-Cornwall border for signs of ancient settlements. 

So far, they’ve found thirty settlements that date back to sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE, along with twenty miles of road that linked Roman forts. 

“It will be hundreds [of settlements] by the time the volunteers are finished,” Smart said. “We’re seeing a much greater density of population than we thought.”

They’ve also found twenty prehistoric burial mounds, plus hundreds of medieval farms, field systems, and quarries. And so far, they’ve only worked on a tenth of the area.

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In the village where I live, all our socks are named and yesterday morning my neighbor and I got excited about the possibility that the dump had reopened. Or as everyone but me calls it, the tip. If it has, we could all load up our green waste and take it for a drive.

I don’t actually have any green waste to take up there, but I was excited about Jane going.

Admit it: You understand. You know you do.

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Every Thursday, Britain goes through the ritual of clapping for NHS and other frontline workers. They’re risking their lives for us. We love them all indiscriminately. Cynics see the cynicism of it–the government encourages us to clap but can’t manage to get them the protective gear or the equipment they need–but we do it anyway. Because we mean it. Because it feels right. Because a moment of solidarity with your neighbors just feels good.

Now a leaked document tells us the government’s considering a three-year freeze on public sector workers’ pay, including the pay of those heroic folks they encourage us to go out and clap for. Because someone has to be sacrificed to make up for the deficit we’re running and if it’s not going to be the people who can afford it most easily (and it’s not), then it’ll have to be the people who aren’t in a position to fight it effectively.

And I think I’m cynical.

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A professor of infectious diseases, Paul Garner, caught Covid-19 and has been blogging about its effects. More than seven weeks later, he’s still sick.

The disease stays with some people like that. They call it the long tail of the virus. Garner says it kept coming up with new, disturbing symptoms. He had a muggy head, tinnitus, an upset stomach, pins and needles, breathlessness, dizziness, arthritic symptoms–. The list goes on.

And it would seem to get better and then come back. 

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To learn more about the disease outside of hospital settings, King’s College, London, has introduced a tracker app where people can log their symptoms. 

There’s good clinical data for people in the hospital but not in the community, Professor Tim Spector said, but “there is a whole other side of the virus which has not had attention because of the idea that ‘if you are not dead you are fine.’ “

Rather than the cough, fever, and loss of the sense of smell that we’re told to watch for, some people get muscle aches, a sore throat, a headache. And Professor Lynne Turner-Stokes, also of King’s College, said Covid is capable of attacking any organ, including the lungs, brain, skin, kidneys, and nervous system. It can cause blood clots or confusion, delirium, and coma. 

“I’ve studied 100 diseases,” Spector said. “Covid is the strangest one I have seen in my medical career.”