The search for normalcy: can a vaccine block Covid transmission?

With the number of vaccinated people in Britain growing, let’s talk about whether those of us who’ve had that magic needle stuck in our arms still need to be careful, and if so, who we’re being careful of. 

Answer number one is yes, damn it all, and answer number two is other people. Which you probably already know, so let’s take half a step to the side and talk about why.

The primary job of a vaccine is to keep people from getting sick, and the Covid vaccines do a better job than most. But very few vaccines get the infecting agent out of people’s systems completely. What they do is keep the infection at a level the body can deal with it. 

The rare vaccines that completely block an infection give us sterilizing immunity. The measles vaccine does that, and there may be others but I haven’t found a list and I’ve started to suspect that’s because the measles vaccine is the only one that would be on it. So no one–or no one who understood the situation–really expected sterilizing immunity from the Covid vaccines.

Irrelevant photo: hellebore.

What makes sterilizing immunity so hard to achieve? For Covid, the vaccine goes into the muscle but the virus goes into all those snotty places where our bodies create mucus. To expect sterilizing immunity from that combination is asking a lot. That’s not my interpretation. You don’t want my interpretation on this. I stole it from an article by someone who knew what they were talking about, but it does make an intuitive kind of sense. 

No, I don’t trust intuitive kind of sense any more than I trust my interpretation on this kind of thing. It can lead us so far into the dense fog.

An early trial involving rhesus macaques and the AstraZeneca vaccine suggested that sterilizing immunity was possible, but they were using a nasal spray. Why the nasal spray was abandoned I don’t know, but researchers are once again (or maybe that’s still) playing with the possibilities of nasal sprays. As usual, there’s no guarantee that they’ll work, but if they do they may prevent transmission. 

Or they may not. If you don’t hear about them again, they didn’t.

The current theory is that the vaccines we’re using can slow transmission but can’t stop it completely. They lower the amount of virus an infected person is carrying around, and that lowers the amount of virus the infected person spews out in the course of a day. 

But that’s a theory. Why don’t we know that for sure? 

Because the vaccine trials were set up to look for two things: bad reactions to the vaccine and symptomatic Covid cases. They didn’t look for asymptomatic infections. Finding asymptomatic infections would’ve meant testing tens of thousands of participants every time they walked through a doorway or found lint in their pockets. .

Some of the trials that are still running do test occasionally, and they’ll pick up some asymptomatic infections, and with them some useful information. The Johnson & Johnson trial suggests that the vaccine’s causing a significant drop in transmission. That’s still only a suggestion, though, not rock solid proof. It tells us whether the virus is present in people’s noses but not how infectious it is. For all we know, the virus could be sitting in there with its feet up, drinking tea, and having no plans at all for world conquest. 

The only way to be sure about transmissibility is through a challenge trial–one of those things where you deliberately infect people, or at least risk infecting them. With a disease that kills people and that we don’t have reliable treatments for, that’s hard to justify.

 

Challenge trials

Did I just make it sound like challenge trials have been ruled out? They haven’t been.

Challenge trials–and I’m quoting someone or other here, although I’ve lost track of who it is–are an ethical minefield and only justifiable if the benefits absolutely outweigh the risks. But Britain’s approved a Covid challenge trial involving 90 young, healthy volunteers.

The point of the trial is to figure out the smallest amount of virus needed to cause an infection. That–for reasons that haven’t filtered down to me (and yes, my feelings are hurt, but I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually)–will help doctors understand Covid better and also boost vaccine and treatment research. 

But again, with new variants imitating popcorn kernels in a hot kettle, any information we get from the trial is likely to be out of date by the time it’s published. Or even gathered. 

Add to that the knowledge that young, healthy people aren’t guaranteed to come through a bout of Covid untouched and you do have to wonder what the point here is. They can come away with long-term lung damage. They can be landed with lifelong problems that range from the annoying to the crippling. I won’t reprint the full menu of long Covid symptoms. Let’s just say that it’s one scary fucking menu, that not a lot is known about long Covid yet, and that you absolutely don’t want it. If people are going to roll those dice, it should be for something worthwhile.

 

Have I failed in my duty to complain about the government?

I get tired of complaining about Britain’s current government–its incompetence, its corruption, its sheer inexcusable existence, and I skip a lot of things that really are worth covering because I don’t want to do the blog equivalent of pounding a single note on the piano with a hammer. 

But with England’s schools set to reopen next week, it’s time to take a peek at the government’s plan to help kids catch up with lost schooling. The most disadvantaged kids, who’ve on average fallen behind more affluent kids during lockdown, will get tutored in small groups. 

Glorious. 

Only to get their hands on the funding, schools have to use an organization on the approved list of the “tuition partners.” 

Tuition partners? Yes, and someone got paid to come up with that phrase. It’s so bad that I went ahead and splurged on a set of quotation marks to keep it from leaking out into the rest of the post. 

Most of our friendly tuition partners are for-profit companies. One will charge £84 an hour to teach a group of three kids. And its pay for teachers–

Is it okay if we’ll call them teachers, not tuition partner self-employed contractors? 

Its pay scale starts at £15 an hour. I’m not sure what the top rate is, but you could take what the company collects for one hour’s tutoring and pay five starting-rate teachers (or tuition partner self-employed contractors if you insist) and still have enough left over for ice cream.

Another company is charging £72 an hour and paying a teacher with 16 years’ experience £31 an hour–43% of what the company’s getting paid. I don’t know what the starting rate is.

I seem to remember that the argument for privatizing absolutely everything was that private companies would be more efficient than government and save the taxpayer money. Tell me I’m not the only person who remembers that.

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As long as  I’m grousing about the general nastiness of the government we happen to have on hand, I just read that after announcing that it would extend the eviction ban–that thing that keeps tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent because of the pandemic in their homes–they wrote in a big honkin’ loophole so that the ban doesn’t cover you if you’ve fallen more than six months behind.

Did they notice that there’s a difference between six months and a year-long pandemic? Probably. These are the numbers people.  

So, fanfare about no one getting evicted because of Covid, and people will get evicted because of Covid anyway.

In January, 750,000 families were behind on their housing payments (that category sounds like a combination of mortgage payments and rent), and pandemic rent debts added up £375 million. 

The National Residential Landlords Association wants the government to give tenants interest-free loans, which oddly enough will help the landlords but tenants who’ve been out of work for the past year to figure out how they’ll repay the loan.

Some sort of thought does need to be given to the debt that’s piling up on all sides. Maybe what we need is an approved list of companies that will help tenants file loan applications. The companies can take 57% of the money in payment for their services and the tenants can pay back 100%. 

We can call them loan application partners. And everyone will be happy.

Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.

The pandemic news from Britain, with a side of cultural appropriation

With English schools set to reopen in September, the papers are crammed with discussions about the safety of kids, of their families, and of school staff during the pandemic. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make their own rules on this, so let’s keep it simple by pretending we’ve never heard of any of them. We’ll focus on England’s schools and preparations. Or lack thereof.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said there’s not much evidence of the virus being transmitted in schools. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has–hang on; I’m looking for a diplomatic way to say this–his head up his ass. But when you’re part of a government like the current one, that’s sometimes the best place to keep it, so we can’t entirely blame the man. 

As far as I can figure out, the evidence on how readily kids transmit the virus isn’t clear. Here’s what I think I know. Emphasis on think.

Irrelevant photo: Cotoneaster–pronounced kuh-tone-ee-ASS-ter, not cot-ton-EAST-er. The mysteries of English spelling.

One outbreak in a French high school ended up with 38% of students, 43% of teachers, and  59% of the non-teaching staff being infected. But a primary school in the same city had a much lower rate of infection in both students and staff. But don’t worry, Gavin. All of that happened in French and French isn’t a required subject, so we don’t need to worry about it.

Older kids seem to transmit it more often than younger ones. No one is sure why, since young kids, cute as they are, are usually little germ factories. It might be because younger kids are less likely to get sick, so they’re less likely to cough and sneeze. It also might not be. 

Before anyone sorts out how extensively younger kids transmit the virus, we need a better understanding of who’s catching it from who. Or from whom, if you want to be like that. The studies indicating that young kids don’t transmit it widely are still pretty limited.

There’s some discussion of opening schools and counterbalancing that by closing pubs and restaurants. The idea is to trade one place of transmission for the other, keeping the overall national rate the same.

Possibly.

The Association of School and College Leaders said that in the absence of clear guidance from the government, schools are making their own plans.

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Why don’t younger kids catch Covid more often? One theory is that the ACE2 receptors that Covid uses to invade the lungs haven’t developed much in young kids. (Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about here?) But then kids get older and wiser and they make more of those nifty little receptors, because hey, that’s what grownups do, and in marches the virus until, lucky them, they have enough that they can get sick too.

Remember when we all taught ourselves to smoke because it made us look grown up? We never seem to learn, do we?

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Would it help control the virus if staff and students were tested regularly once the schools reopen? Possibly, but the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said the government’s not going to do it. They’ll stick to testing people with symptoms. Because that’s the way they’re going to do it and by god it will work. 

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But forget about the schools for a minute. Let’s talk about England’s world-beating test and trace system. It’s laying off 6,000 people.

Take that, world.

While the world lies on the mat recovering and the umpire counts, let me explain: The track and trace system was centralized and contracted out to mega-companies who know zilch about public health. It’s generated reports of people having been hired, minimally trained, and then given next to no work. It hasn’t done well at tracing the contacts of people who test positive for the disease. 

The contact tracers who haven’t been canned will now be assigned to work with local public health teams, who have a much better success rate and who (I’m speculating here) might offer them some training, since they actually know a bit about public health. 

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We are, of course, all hoping for a vaccine that will make the rest of this nonsense irrelevant, which is a nifty lead-in to this next item: The trials of the Oxford and Moderna vaccines could be undermined by too monochrome a test group. The Oxford trial group was only 1% black and 5% Asian. In Moderna’s test group–and here I have to shift from percentages to numbers because that’s what the article I’m linking to did and I’m too numerically incompetent to shift them over myself, although mixing them is senseless and makes comparison harder–40 of the 45 participants were white. 

As researcher and surgeon Oluwadamilola Fayanju of Duke University explained it, “Diversity is important to ensure pockets of people don’t have adverse side-effects.”

Anyone who’s still countering Black Lives Matter by saying that all lives matter, please take in the implications of that. It might help explain why the focus is on black lives just now.

Based on the numbers, I think we’re talking about the safety trials there, not the larger ones that test for effectiveness.

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Best of luck with that link, by the way. Several publications–New Scientist, the BBC, the Guardian–keep ongoing pandemic updates. They’re incredibly useful, but I’m never sure that the link I drop here will take anyone to quite the place where I found the information. 

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It must be time for a non-Covid break here. We’ve been almost serious for long enough to have earned one.

A couple of Canadian businesses thought they’d swipe a bit of the Maori language to make their products look cool. Which is how a brewery and a leather store ended up naming their ale / entire outlet Pubic Hair–or huruhuru, in te reo Maori, the Maori language. 

The brewery’s cofounder said he thought huruhuru meant feather. 

To be fair–and I am sometimes–huruhuru has a number of meanings, and feather is one of them. I don’t speak Maori, but I’ve brushed up against it enough to wonder if everything doesn’t have a number of meanings. But according to  TeHamua Nikora, who used Facebook to explain the problem, the first thing Maori speakers will think of when they see the brand is not going to be feather. 

“It’s that entitlement disease they’ve got,” he said. “Stop it. Use your own language.” 

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Heinz, on the other hand, was using its own language when it named its combined ketchup-mayonnaise Mayochup, but it put its foot in it anyway. Cree speakers went on–what else?–Twitter to say that in Cree that means shit-face.

Enjoy your burger.