Home brew Covid research meets Goldilocks

When Vittorio Saggiomo, a scientist in the Netherlands, couldn’t work in his lab during lockdown, he invented a rapid Covid test using the materials he had at home: coffee pods. You know, those pretty, nonrecyclable things that–well, if you use them at all, you have plenty of them.

The reason he wanted to do this is because Covid tests give you a choice between a slow but accurate one and a fast but inaccurate one. The slow ones take time because–

Oh, hell, do you really want to know this? They take time because tiny scientists have to take the swab you jammed up your nose, extract the DNA you left on it, and multiply it until they have enough to work with. And it’s not easy to find tiny scientists–they have to be small enough to fit inside a test tube. 

The fast one is inaccurate because it bypasses the tiny scientists and works with just that bit of DNA you left on the swab. 

Irrelevant photo: These are either what you think they are–dandelions–or one of the half dozen or so flowers that look just like them but aren’t. Damned if I can tell them apart.

Listen, if you want a serious explanation, you should follow the link. I didn’t flunk high school science, but that was only because I was hiding behind the bunsen burner when they handed out grades.

Onward. There’s a third way of testing, a process called Lamp, which stands for, um, loop-mediated isothermal amplification.

You just had to ask, didn’t you?

It does the same thing as the PCR test, multiplying that stingy bit of DNA you sacrificed, but unlike the PCR test it doesn’t have to be done at a bunch of different temperatures. One will do.

So Saggiomo’s problem was how to create the right temperature at home. He found a wax that would melt at the right temperature, so that would keep the DNA at a constant temperature. Next he needed something to put it in. At this point, he turned to the coffee pods. 

The final problem was finding a way to heat the pods. In the dishwasher, they got lost. In the microwave, they overheated and the lids popped off. Cups of hot water didn’t control the temperature well enough and the porridge was too cold. Or possibly too hot. The bears got hungry. 

A pan of water simmering on the stove was perfect, though, and Goldilocks and the three bears sat at the table together and said, “Yeah, but where’s our coffee?”

“Shut up,” the scientist said. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough and all you can think of is caffeine.”

They ate him.

The tests can be made for .20 euros each (don’t miss the decimal point on the left), but whether anyone’s actually going to produce it is up for grabs. 

Anyone ready for porridge?

[For anyone visiting from a culture with a different set of folk tales, the references are to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If I have to explain them, they won’t be remotely funny, but Lord Google will be happy to help you find the tale if you’re interested.]

 

 

More at-home research

From the start of the pandemic, a professor’s thirteen-year-old son watched his father disinfect the groceries and afte a while he questioned whether it really needed to be done. 

“I just told Anand, ‘If you want to do a science project, this is a perfect one,'” the father, Vishal Shah, said.

They took the project seriously enough to quarantine for fourteen days so they wouldn’t contaminate the test subjects, then gathered produce from ten stores in the Philadelphia area, where high levels of community Covid spread were reported, and they went at peak times. They took produce that people touch a lot–apples, avocados, bananas, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, lettuce–and swabbed them five times.

“One of the first things I realized once I told my dad I wanted to do this project was that I had no means of testing for the virus on my own,” Anand said. “My dad’s lab was closed, so I contacted labs across the country and gave presentations that discussed what the project was.”

He found one  in Tennessee that would do his testing. Of the 140 pieces of produce it tested, only one apple had traces of the virus on its surface. 

The study has been published in ACS Food Science and Technology.

Not bad for a thirteen-year-old, even if he did have help.

 

A bit about long Covid

At the beginning of March, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in Britain had long Covid.

So gets long Covid? It was most common among people between 35 and 49 and more common in women than men. It followed Covid’s pattern of hitting hardest in the poorest areas, and health and social care workers are the most likely occupational group to have it. That could be because they–like people who live in the poorest parts of the country–are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

People with preexisting health conditions were also more likely to get long Covid.

In round numbers, out of seven people who test positive for Covid, one will still have symptoms three months later. 

But there’s still no official definition of long Covid, and that leaves a lot of questions about what happens to people who get it, financially speaking. If they use up their sick leave and lose their jobs, do they have a medically recognized condition so they can apply for support? How is long Covid diagnosed when there’s no definition and no diagnostic code? 

You’ll notice I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, so here’s one I can answer: What’s a diagnostic code? It’s something terribly important that you put into a little blank square. If you don’t have one, please apply to the Department of Diagnostic Codes. As soon as you get it, your life will become more fulfilling.

So are people who get long Covid disabled? In practical terms, some are and some aren’t. Some will be able to work full time, some only part time, and some not at all. Are they officially disabled, though? Gray zone. The short answer is that it’s too early to tell, and figuring it out is going to be messy. If they become officially disabled, an employer’s expected to make “reasonable adjustments” for them. If not–

Gray zone. 

Among those 1.1 million people in Britain with long Covid are 122,000 people who work for the NHS, 114,000 teachers, and 30,000 social workers. I didn’t find statistics on what percentage of teachers that is, but it’s close to 4% of the NHS staff, and their illness is hitting the NHS hard. 

It’s also hitting the people with long Covid hard. Some haven’t been able to go back to work and have lost their jobs. 

Or I think that’s what the article I read is saying. The exact quote is about losing their “roles.” Maybe they’re talking about being downgraded to other roles, but I wouldn’t count on that. If you take enough sick leave–even if it’s your job that exposed you to the sickness–most employers will find a way to show you where the door is. 

One MP is trying to get long Covid recognized as an occupational disease, and to compensate and support workers in health care, social care, and key public services who catch it. I wouldn’t hold your breath, but it would be the right thing to do.

I should also mention the thousands of people who caught Covid in less prestigious jobs in transportation and meat packing and supermarkets–all those people who used to be cheered as key workers and who’ve now been officially reclassified as Remind-me-why-we-cared-about-you.

 

How not to break lockdown rules

An unnamed man broke the Covid rules by traveling from England into Scotland for no better reason than to camp out on Inchtavannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Once there, he didn’t sing “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes” (as far as anyone knows, anyway). Instead, he lost his paddle and got his silly self stranded. 

(Again, if you’ve visiting from a culture with a different set of overused songs, that’s from “Loch Lomond.”)

What happened to the unnamed man isn’t quite the same as, in the famous American phrase, up shit crick without a paddle, but it’s close enough. (That phrase, by the way, is said to date back to the 1860s. You can take it back half a century or so to the days of Admiral Nelson, but you might or might not have to sacrifice the word shit. You needed to know that.)  

It’s not clear what happened to the paddle. The man went for a walk and when he came back he discovered that it had gone for a walk of its own. He and his true love never met again, and someone called the cops–probably him but the article I found doesn’t commit itself. A rescue boat picked him up. I don’t know if he was fined, but I’m reasonably sure that he was teased within an inch of his life.

Nanobodies and jellyfish: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The optimists among us have been counting to see how many horsemen the current apocalypse has brought, and they’ve been able to chalk them up at an impressive rate as long as no one insists that they all ride through in the same place at the same time. We’ve got war, we’ve got famine, we’ve got plague, and now–ah, yes, the satisfaction of getting the complete set–we’ve got jellyfish.

Yes, friends, the fourth horseman looks sloppy on a horse but makes up for with his powerful ick factor.

He–that’s the fourth horseman–also stings, so horses aren’t crazy about carrying him, but that’s the thing about apocalypses, they don’t care what anyone thinks of the arrangements. They don’t even care about the proper plural of their key word, which may be apocalii or apocalump.  

Britain’s (and Ireland’s–let’s not be selfish) seas have been warm and calm this summer, and that’s brought jellyfish blooms–a mile-long cluster of compass jellyfish off Devon, although admittedly that was an estimate; masses of lion’s mane jellyfish off the Isle of Lewis and off Galway. And, presumably, others. The Marine Conservation Society said, “Already, some areas of the UK’s seas resemble a ‘jellyfish soup.’ ”

Which also sounds pretty apocalyptic.

*

Semi-relevant photo: What’s the best place to face down an apocalypse? Bed. Minnie the Moocher is ready to face anything.

From Australia comes the news that alpacas (along with other relatives of the camel) make two types of antibodies, the usual kind and a kind called nanobodies, which aren’t (or so they claim) escapees from a trashy science fiction series but an, um, you know, alternative antibody by a different name.

Okay, it’s a single-domain antibody, which makes it sounds like the expensive version of a plain old antibody but is actually an antibody fragment. They can be easier to mass produce. Or so says WikiWhatsia. I don’t know a thing about this myself and we can only hope WikiWhatsia wasn’t deep in one of its occasional bouts of madness when it told me that.

The reason I mention this is that researchers are trying to convince an alpaca to produce a nanobody that attacks Covid-19, then test it (the nanobody not the alpaca) to see if it’s safe and effective enough to turn into a vaccine. 

Don’t be in any hurry for this to happen, but don’t rule it out either. 

My thanks to Doug Jacquier for putting me onto this. I now know that not only do alpacas spit, they make nanobodies in their spare time.

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Thursday’s papers brought more news on why scientists are worried about the Russian vaccine:

Once upon a time, in the long-ago year of 1977 (is anyone other than me old enough to think that’s recent?), a virologist named Scott Halstead was studying dengue fever and he discovered that if you caught dengue fever once and it left with antibodies, the antibodies not only wouldn’t protect you from a second bout, they’d help you get sicker. 

Thank you, antibodies.

That’s called antibody-dependent enhancement, or ADE, and one worry about the Russian vaccine is that Covid might behave like dengue fever. Why shouldn’t it? It’s outsmarted us at every other turn. 

ADE’s one of the things researchers look for in phase III trials of a vaccine–the phase the Russian vaccine skipped over. 

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology, said the work behind the Russian vaccine has been opaque.

“I don’t think the Russian researchers have done anything wrong, but I think they’ve jumped the gun. If we’re talking about safety, then you have to be looking at issues like ADE, which was a concern that scuppered some efforts to develop a Sars vaccine, where it exacerbated an asthma-like response in the lungs.”

Ideally, he said, scientists would be able to compare all the vaccine candidates being worked on around the world, using the same criteria, and find the best vaccine, not the first.

“No two of these candidates is going to be alike in terms of safety, how effective they are or how cheap they are to produce. . . . There have been too many debacles in this pandemic. This is not another occasion to blunder in. You want to line up the candidates side by side.”

*

England has quietly subtracted 1.3 million from the number of Covid tests it claims to have carried out.

Or–wait–not carried out. Made available. 

What does made available mean? Less than it sounds like it means, but don’t worry about it. They’re discontinuing the category anyway.

Are we clear about everything now?

*

New countries have been added to Britain’s Oops List. That’s the list of countries we were told, with lots of celebration, that it was safe to travel to. Then some of us traveled to them and they turned out not to be safe after all because, oops, the rate at which the pandemic spreads isn’t static, it spikes and forms second and (if it gets a chance) third waves. So the people who traveled to those countries will come home to a 14-day quarantine that they didn’t count on.

A spike of Covid cases in France saw it become an Oops Country and anyone coming to Britain from France now has to quarantine for 14 days unless they touched their feet on British soil before4 a.m. on Saturday, August 15. 

It strikes me as counterproductive, if you’re genuinely worried about people importing the virus, to give them a few days to rush home so they can beat the quarantine. If the germ’s circulating where they’ve been, it’s circulating. Germs don’t own calendars and don’t care what day it is. 

Isn’t it lucky I’m not in charge here?

Headlines reported a rush of people trying to beat the deadline. Sort of like Cinderella running from the palace with the clock madly striking midnight. 

Larry the Cat (@Nnumber10cat) reported on Twitter that Grant Shapps, the transport secretary (who unlike Larry claims to be human), thinks that 4 a.m. Saturday falls on Sunday, and reproduced Shapps’ tweet to prove it.

Shapps did not introduce the Cinderella image and neither did Larry, but has anyone ever wondered why her dress turned to rags but her shoe continued to be its fine and fancy self? Not to mention how she got her foot into a rigid crystal shoe and how she danced in it?

*

Someone in New Zealand went on Trade Me, “The news of Level 2 lockdown came as shock to me. During my unnecessary panic, I decided to get a test. After testing negative, I figured I’d share my gift of Covid free air with the world.

“Enjoy this free range, gluten free bag of air from the lungs of a 100% New Zealand made boy lol.”

The top bid when I checked, on Saturday night, August 15, was $80,200 NZ. Whether the seller will ever collect that is beyond me. 

Surely not.