The future of Covid, and some updates on the fight against it

A while back, I summarized a theory that the Covid virus is unlikely to pick up the number of mutations it would need if it’s going to evade the vaccines. I felt a lot better after reading that, but let’s look at an opposing theory so we can all get depressed together.

This theory raises the possibility that in addition to the virus picking up small mutations over time (that’s called antigenic drift), there’s the possibility of antigenic shift, which involves more dramatic changes caused by the virus recombining with other human coronaviruses. Viruses do that. Basically, they hold a swap meet. Or a bring and buy sale if you’re more used to them. They don’t actually use money–their evolution hasn’t brought them to that exalted stage–but they do trade strategies for making money-using creatures sick.

If they swap the right bits of knowledge, the current crop of vaccines will need to be re-engineered. We’ll all move back to Go and start the game over again.

It’s also possible that Covid will infect animals we share space with and then cross back to humans in some more powerful form. That’s reverse zoonosis.

Irrelevant photo: Japanese anemone, with a bite out of it. That’s to prove the beauty of imperfection and all that deep philosophical stuff.

As a general rule, long-term evolution favors viruses that don’t make their hosts too sick. The very sick tend to crawl away somewhere and keep their germs to themselves, which (seeing this from the germs’ point of view) isn’t an efficient use of a host. And the dead die, which also limits their opportunities to share. That’s even more inefficient. 

From that base, any number of people argue that (after a trail of death and destruction) epidemic diseases get milder over time. Everyone who doesn’t die lives happily ever after. They point to the 1918 flu epidemic (or the Black Death, or some other cheery moment in human history) and assure us that this is the natural order of things. 

According to this theory, that is indeed one possibility but it’s not the only one. 

The British government’s group of scientific advisors, SAGE, thinks the virus isn’t likely to become less virulent in the short term. (Virulence isn’t about a disease’s ability to spread–that’s transmissibility. It’s about how sick it makes a person.) SAGE considers that a long-term possibility, but it also considers it a realistic possibility that a more virulent strain will emerge. 

Sorry. I don’t create the possibilities, I just write about them.

So what direction will it evolve in? Basically, no one’s sure.  

However, all isn’t lost. A lot of work’s being done on how to cope with Covid.

 

The Covid-killing mask 

A group of researchers have created a surgical mask that deactivates not just the Covid virus but any enveloped virus (that includes the flu), plus some antibiotic-resistant bacteria like a couple of the staphylococci. 

What’s an enveloped virus? I’m so glad you asked, because I have an answer right here in my pocket. It’s “any virus in which a nucleoprotein core is surrounded by a lipoprotein envelope consisting of a closed bilayer of lipid derived from that of the host cell’s membrane(s), with glycoprotein.”

You’re welcome. I didn’t understand it either, but I’m glad to get it out of my pocket.

The masks are the first ones that don’t just protect both the rest of the world from the wearer but also protect the wearer from the rest of the world. 

Okay, not completely, but virus- and staphylococcuses-wise, it will. If someone’s trying to hit you on the head with a hammer, the masks are no help at all.

I’ve seen masks promoted as antiviral. Advertising copy for masks with a copper layer, for example, talks about copper’s antiviral properties without actually claiming that the masks will kill Covid. From what I’ve read, they don’t have enough copper to do more than provide carefully worded hype.

The new masks are called FFP Covid masks, they come in adult and child sizes, and according to the article I read they’re very affordable.

How affordable is very affordable? After bumping around the internet for a while, I found some on sale for one euro. That’s not bad, but whether it’s affordable depends on how much you have in your wallet, and how long it takes to renew itself once you pull some of it out to buy masks.

Not to mention how many other calls you have on it.

Are the masks reusable? That’ll affect people’s opinion of their affordability, and the definitive answer is, I’m not sure. They look disposable, but that’s strictly a guess. 

Another limiting factor for most of us–since this is an English-language site–is that the only place I could find them for sale is in Spain, which is where they were developed. Presumably they’ll make their way into the rest of the world at some point. 

Still, whatever the mask’s immediate impact, it’s an important step.

 

Quick updates

Multiple new Covid treatments and vaccines are in the works. Here’s a sampling:

An inhalable powder works against Covid, MERS, and one version of the flu. In animals. It has yet to be tried in  humans–at least in this form. As a pill, it’s used against leukemia, but when you turn it into a powder and inhale it, it becomes a whole ‘nother thing. In addition to landing in a different part of the body and possibly needing a different dose, it opens up the possibility of Covid treatment taking on some bad-boy chic: You roll up a hundred-dollar bill and snort your meds.  

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Repurposing a drug that’s already in use to treat a new disease isn’t, it turns out, as simple as it sounds. You may have to shift from a pill to a powder. You may need a dose so high that it turns toxic, at which point you may need to rethink the whole idea.

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Another drug that’s already in use, this one to treat fatty substances in the blood (no, don’t ask me), could reduce Covid infection by 70%. Could. So far, it’s worked only in human cells in the lab. Two clinical trials are underway, though.

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An antiviral called molnupiravir halves the chances of an infected, high-risk person needing hospitalization or dying from Covid, and Merck will be asking for emergency approval in the U.S. Molnupiravir doesn’t seem to be as effective as monoclonal antibodies, but because it’s a pill it can be used outside of hospital settings, so it’s much easier to use.. 

Down sides? It costs $700 for a five-day course of treatment, which makes it cheaper than and easier to type than monoclonal antibodies, but it’s still expensive. And some experts are warning about potential side effects. Plus it doesn’t seem to help patients who are already sick enough to be hospitalized. So although it’s gotten a lot of press coverage and is, without question, important, it’s not the answer to all problems.

Other antiviral pills are also in the works. 

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Vaccines? Why yes. A new vaccine in development uses only a single shot and can be stored at room temperature for up to a month. In trials with primates, it gave near-complete immunity that stayed at its peak level for eleven months.

It’s called an AAVCOVID vaccine, AAV being the vector the vaccine uses. 

What am I talking about? The vector’s the horse the vaccine rides in on. Or if you want to sound marginally more sensible, it’s the  strategy the developers use. I’m not going to try to explain this one, because I’m pretty sure I’ll get it wrong. Let’s just say that if this strategy works, it’ll help get the vaccine out to places where refrigeration’s a barrier. 

The team that’s developing it is also exploring needle-less delivery systems.

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Another vaccine in the works is using a new model that I’d love to explain but I’m not even close to understanding it, so let me quote: It combines “the advantages of the two types of traditional vaccines—virus-based vaccines and protein-based vaccines—by preparing a bacterial protein that self-assembles into a virus-like particle. By displaying a COVID-19 protein on the surface of this virus-like particle, researchers produced a novel vaccine that is well recognized by the mammalian immune system, but yet does not have any viral infectivity.”

If I understand that correctly, it behaves like one of those transformers kids used to play with, and for all I know still do. You introduce it into a body as a motorcycle, it clicks a few of its own pieces, turns green, and suddenly it’s the Hulk, chasing down unsuspecting Covid viruses.

Early tests show it being effective against the Covid variants and setting up a strong immune response.

Come to me anytime you need a high-grade scientific explanation.

 

Long Covid numbers

I’ve found some numbers on long Covid, finally: About a third of the people who come down with Covid get at least one long Covid  symptom. 

First question, who are we talking about when we say people who get Covid? As far as I can tell, it’s people who actually got sick, because the article talks about them recovering. So I think we can rule out anyone who gets infected but stays asymptomatic. 

We need all the good news we can get, so let’s play nice and say thanks for that.

Second question, how are they defining long Covid? You get to pick from nine core symptoms, and they have (or it has, if you only get one) to last at least 90 days. The most common ones are breathing problems, abdominal symptoms, fatigue, pain, and anxiety and depression.They’re more common in people who’ve been hospitalized and slightly more common in women than in men. The same symptoms occur after the flu, but they’re 1.5 times more common after Covid.

Next shred of good news? If long Covid symptoms are more common in people who’ve been hospitalized, less than a third of people with milder symptoms are likely to come down with it. 

Do vaccines keep us from transmitting Covid?

One of the endless unanswered Covid questions has been whether people who’ve been vaccinated will still spread the disease, and evidence is piling up that they’ll spread it less. 

During their early trials, Pfizer didn’t test for asymptomatic cases, but AstraZeneca did and they fell by 50%. That matters, because asymptomatic people can still spread the disease, so fewer cases means less spread. Not to be outdone, Pfizer did its own study and reported that one dose of vaccine cut the risk of transmission by 70% and two doses by 85%. 

Don’t put too much weight on the differences in those numbers. They were measuring different things.

In Scotland, people living with vaccinated NHS staff were considerably less likely to catch the virus than people living with unvaccinated NHS staff. 

How much less likely? Considerably. Will you stop asking awkward questions?

Irrelevant photo: More daffodils.

Hospital workers in Cambridge showed a 75% decrease in asymptomatic infections, and an Israeli study showed that when vaccinated people did have infections they had lower viral loads, which would make them less infectious than people with higher viral loads. 

So if we’ve been vaccinated, can we throw a party for a few hundred of our closest friends as long as they’ve also been vaccinated? ‘Fraid not. The British government’s advice is that “the full impact on infection rates will not become clear until a large number of people have been vaccinated” and we should please keep our heads on straight and be cautious. 

Why? Well, consider what’s happened in Chile. 

 

Okay, what has happened in Chile?

It’s vaccinated about a third of its population with at least one dose–it’s vaccination program has been impressive–and even so it’s going into another wave of the pandemic. Both deaths and case numbers are rising and they’re threatening to overwhelm the health system. Some 20% to 30% of the country’s medical professionals have gone on leave because they’re exhausted, wrestling with health problems of their own and with thoughts of suicide.

“When transmission rates are high, the vaccine does not rein in new infections right away,” said Dr. Denise Garrett, an epidemiologist at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. “And with the new variants, which are more contagious, we’re not likely to see a big impact until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated.”

According to Dr. Francisca Crispi of the Chilean medical association, the government unlocked the country too quickly. It reopened its borders and loosened restrictions on businesses. It introduced a permit system that let people go on summer vacations–or holidays, if you speak British. So people came into the country. People went out of the country. People traveled around the country. Gyms, churches, malls, restaurants, and casinos reopened. Experts fretted, but the government stuck with it, reopening the schools at the beginning of March. 

Nobody traced anybody.

And it all felt so good.

So no. No parties for the time being. Sorry.

 

The mass testing report

A study of mass Covid testing in British universities and colleges reports that it was haphazard, expensive, and a lost opportunity.

The BMJ–a medical journal–sent freedom of information requests to 216 schools and got full information from only 16, leading me to think that information may be free but it’s still elusive. But never mind that. They got partial information from others and it was enough to draw some tentative conclusions.

The testing was part of the government’s Operation Moonshot, which was going to make the country Covid safe and avoid a second lockdown by testing people–lots of people–whether they had symptoms or not. Since it started, we’ve had not just a second lockdown but also a third.

Never mind, though. It’s been a good use of £100 billion. 

The university and college testing was just a small part of Op Moonshot, and the study estimates that every positive test result cost £3,000. It also says that’s likely to be a massive underestimate because it doesn’t include the staffing of test sites and whatever other costs are hidden under the rug. 

You’d noticed that the rug was lumpy? I tripped on it just this morning.

Angela Raffle, consultant in Public Health and honorary senior lecturer at Bristol University, said the testing program was “a desperate exercise in trying to get favourable publicity for number 10, trying to get rid of the Innova test mountain, and trying to change the culture in this country so that we start to think that regular tests for everybody is a worthwhile use of public resources, which it isn’t.”

Number 10? That’s the center of the British government.

And the Innova test mountain? It’s made up of £1 billion (as far as I could figure out) worth of quick-result Covid tests that the government bought and which turn out to work best on people who have a high viral load. In other words, they’re exactly what you don’t want to use on asymptomatic people–the program’s target audience. 

And they’re even less accurate in the hands of non-experts. 

So who’s using them? Non-experts. 

We’ll skip the most confusing of the numbers involved in this and settle for these: Let’s say you use them to test 100,000 people and get 630 positives. Of those, 400 of those will be false positives, and you will have missed half the positive cases (that should, I think, be 230) in your sample. If that isn’t worth £1 billion, I don’t know what is. Or even £100 billion. Because what’s £99 billion between friends? 

Regular testing of secondary school students was rolled out this spring, although it’s too early for anyone to have statistics on how effective or expensive that will be. The program was sold to us as a way to reopen the schools safely. 

Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage, the government’s science advisory group, said, “The government keeps on seeking quick fixes based on one intervention. What they consistently fail to do is build a system in which all the parts work together to contain the virus.” 

 

Vaccine passports vs. mass testing 

All of this is particularly relevant because Boris Johnson–our prime minister when he’s working, which he does sometimes do–just backed off his plan to introduce vaccine passports and announced that we’ll use mass testing instead. But only in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are doing whatever the hell they want because that’s how it works around here. 

Are you confused? Then you understand the situation.

The vaccine passports were supposed to allow people into crowded events, but MPs from across the political spectrum opposed them, including a good number from his own party, and they were joined by an assortment of civil liberties groups he wouldn’t normally listen to but what the hell, let’s mention them anyway. They’re particularly problematic because not everyone’s eligible for the vaccine yet. 

So instead of vaccination passports, everyone in Britain is going to be offered two rapid Covid tests a week. 

How many of us will use them? My best guess is not many, given the odds of coming up with a false positive and having to self-isolate. For someone who’s retired, that’s a minor inconvenience. For someone who’s working and can’t afford to miss a paycheck, that’s a disaster. 

The usual suspects are saying this would work better if people were paid enough to live on when they can’t work. And if the contacts of anyone who tests positive were traced effectively.

The usual suspects will be ignored. 

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Last weekend, the government announced a pilot program of nine events to try out Covid passports. Presumably that was before it abandoned the idea, who your guess is as good as mine, which is roughly as good as theirs. Five of the nine venues said they had nothing to do with the program. 

You have to love this government. It’s a gift to satirists everywhere. If only it wasn’t supposed to run the country as well.

 

Other vaccine news

Russia has announced a Covid vaccine for animals, Carnivak-Cov. The idea is to prevent the virus circulating in dense animal populations, where it can mutate and spread back to humans. 

And Pfizer reports that its vaccine is effective in kids between 12 and 15. It’s still testing kids between 5 and 11 and any minute now will begin tests with kids between 2 and 5. All of that’s important because although kids are less susceptible to Covid, they can sometimes get very sick indeed and can less rarely get long Covid after a mild bout of the disease. 

They can also form a nice reservoir where the disease can sit and breed before returning to the more susceptible adult population.

 

And your light relief for the day is…

An art director, David Marriott, was stuck in Australian quarantine after flying back from his father’s funeral and was going ever so slightly nuts with boredom, so he made himself a cowboy outfit out of the brown bags that his meals came in when they were left at his door.

Then–as anyone would do–he realized that any serious cowboy needs a horse, so he made one, also from brown paper, but plus the ironing board and a lamp. Its–or, I guess, his–name is Russell, and Marriott’s asked for a pet walking service.

The photos are worth clicking through for–not just Marriott brushing Russell’s teeth, but Russell lined up to use the toilet since the management turned down the pet walking request. Russell’s in quarantine too.

Marriott’s thinking about adding a cat and a dog next. 

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.

Two ways Covid isn’t transmitted

A study says there’s no evidence that Covid’s passed on by what researchers so delicately describe as fecal-oral transmission. 

Tell me I don’t need to translate that for you. 

Diarrhea can be a Covid symptom, and testing sewage is a way to track the presence of Covid and its variants in a community. And toilets really do send up a plume of aerosols when you flush them (unless there’s a lid and you close it–and sit on it to make sure it doesn’t open spontaneously and facilitate a jailbreak). But even so, there’s no evidence that a toilet’s to blame for anyone having caught the virus. 

It sounds like the only danger public toilets present is if they’re unventilated: You’ll be sharing air with other people. But then you would in a store. Or a workplace.  

Food is also looking like an unlikely way to transmit the disease. Several things work against Covid being transmitted by food. It can’t multiply there–it needs to be inside a host. It hates heat (although it likes cold). And it’s unlikely to survive in any place as acidic as the stomach. 

People whose Covid infections take the form of digestive problems probably didn’t get it from anything they ate. It’s a question of whether the virus turned right or left once it got into their bodies by way of the nose or mouth. 

Irrelevant photo: A cheery yellow flower to take your mind off toilets. This is a lesser celandine–one of the year’s early flowers.

To keep Covid out of our digestive tracts, we might borrow Britain’s idea way of foiling the German invasion they were afraid would happen in World War II: They took down all the road signs and railroad station signs. If Germany really had invaded, its soldiers would still be wandering around Cornwall and wondering if they were in Pityme or Splatt.

Yes, both towns are real.

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Last summer, a cluster of England’s beaches were mobbed by people who’d traveled from elsewhere for a day out. And we’re using elsewhere as a code word for anyone who in the middle of a pandemic isn’t welcome wherever here happens to be. The news was full of photos of people packed so close together that they looked like their heads were popping out of each other’s pockets.

Some of that, presumably, was the magical foreshortening that comes from using a telephoto lense, but never mind that. There were still a lot of people. 

We all talked about the photos. We tutted. We battened down the hatches–whatever that involves–and waited for the local outbreaks to hit.

We, you understand, means anyone who didn’t take a day off to go to the beach. Plus anyone who lived locally and could get to the beach without a day trip. Speaking as a lives-locally myself, we have a yes-no relationship with visitors. The economy depends on them. And it’s awfully nice when they’re not around. Especially during a pandemic.

But the outbreak never came–not from the beaches. Admittedly, the test and trace system here is beyond useless, but still. According to Dr. Muge Cevik, a lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology, “We have known for some time that only about 10% of transmission events are linked to outdoor activities. Even those events generally involve either prolonged close contact or a mixture of indoor and outdoor time.”

The message, basically, is that the important places for transmission are indoors.

 

Long Covid

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study tells us (and of course no one else; we’re their special friends) that 35% of people with mild Covid don’t get back to their earlier state of health within two to three weeks. That’s counting from when the symptoms started. That may not sound as scary as it is. It can go on for a hell of a lot longer than two or three weeks and may mean they can’t go back to work, can’t get back to what used to be normal life, can’t walk to the corner and back. 

That 35% isn’t just the old and the disabled. It includes previously healthy 18- to 34-year-olds: 20% of them end up in the category. And 33% of people who had Covid but weren’t hospitalized (I think at this point we’ve included people who had moderate Covid, not just mild) still have symptoms up to three months later. 

How are we supposed to read “up to” in this context? 

Beats me. 

How does that compare with the flu? 

Only 10% of people who catch the flu are sick after two weeks days. But if you’re determined to catch the flu as a way to avoid Covid, you should understand that (1) it’s not an either/or choice; you’re more than welcome to catch both, and (B) at least in Britain just now, the flu is hard to catch. Lockdown’s turning it into an endangered species. Or maybe that’s Brexit–it’s still wrestling with the customs forms. Either way, the stores are finding it hard to keep in stock.

The better news is that long Covid is starting to get attention from researchers, doctors, and scientists. And opera singers

 

The cost of Covid

The planet’s lost an estimated 20.5 million years of life to Covid. That works out to an average of 16 years of life per death.

 

Pubs and an end to lockdown

Is there a safe way for pubs to reopen? 

A British study from the last time they opened up leaves me skeptical. At least until you find a way to keep drinkers first from getting drunk or if they will get drunk, from acting like drunks. But that wasn’t the scientific answer, so let’s back up and take another run at it.

At the end of Britain’s first lockdown, pubs were given guidelines to keep everyone safe (or to at least gave the illusion that everyone was safe). And pubs did try to adapt. They made more room between the tables–that sort of thing. But in some staff didn’t wear masks and in others they wore them only until they needed to talk, when they’d pull them off. Which sort of defeats the purpose of wearing masks, but then customers weren’t wearing the when they ate or drank, so I could see why they might not have taken this thing seriously.

Lines formed because rooms were laid out and the way people moved through them. It created pinch points. And customers shouted, projecting the virus into the air if they had it. They hugged each other. They table-hopped. They sang. 

Give the British alcohol and they sing. 

Staff rarely intevened, or they made gestures in that direction but didn’t change anything. Maybe they didn’t take the issue seriously. Maybe they didn’t think they had much authority. Maybe they really didn’t.

The study didn’t address the underlying problem, which is that you can’t wear a mask and eat or drink, and if you get a bunch of maskless people in an enclosed space during a Covid pandemic you’re not running a pub, you’re running a germ exchange. 

 

Vaccine news

Research on the Pfizer vaccine reports that a single injection is 85% effective after 15 to 28 days, which means that putting off the second shot won’t be a disaster. That’s a relief for Britain, which bet its chips–every last one of them–on that. The study left some loopholes that a creative virus could wiggle through if it had the determination, but never mind, we’ll take our good news where we can find it.

Pfizer itself now says its vaccine will survive in a standard freezer for as long as two weeks–longer than it had originally thought. That makes it easier for pharmacies and doctors’ offices to work with.

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Our friends the scientists are working on vaccines that will target not just the spike protein but a new spot on the Covid virus, the N protein. Since the mutations we’ve been seeing–at least the worrying ones–are on the spike proteins, this may put us a step ahead of the virus, at least for a while. They’re hoping to start clinical trials soon. 

And a different group of scientists is working on a vaccine that would–if all goes well–create an immunity in the nose and throat, which are Covid’s superhighway. Convince the antibodies to set up shop there and you could keep the virus from infecting anyone else. Once that happens, you’re well on the way toward ending the pandemic.

Or at least slowing it down. Let’s not get too enthusiastic about this.

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Britain’s vaccination project has worked its way from the old and creaky to the somewhat old and not-yet-creaky, as well as to the medically vulnerable–people with diabetes, say, or heart conditions. People who are severely overweight. And it was the last condition that led a doctor’s office to contact Liam Thorpe and say he was eligible for a vaccination. They calculated that he had a body mass index of 28,000.

The body mass index? Oh, that’s simple. You take your weight in kilos and your height in meters and you square one of them and draw a line under the other and then do some terrifying mathematicky things with it all. Then you look grimly at the result, because whatever it is, if you’re part of the culture I live in, you’ll figure you need to lose weight. At least you will if you’re female. The ideal woman is so thin she’s invisible. 

Invisibility is sexy. And gets a lot of social approval. It’s the rare woman who–even if she knows this is bullshit–who’s completely immune.

If your body mass index is over 25, official statistics agree with you: You’re overweight. But a bmi over 28,000 is–should we say it’s unusual? 

How did Thorpe get to that size? Well, he’s 6’2”, but the computer system was speaking metric when his height was entered, so he ended up measuring 6.2 centimeters. Which (or so I’ve read) is roughly the length of your thumb. Or someone’s thumb. I haven’t met yours. For all I know, your thumb is 6’2”. 

It must be awkward buying gloves. 

Somehow during the phone call Thorpe unraveled the problem and said he should wait for his real category to be called before he got vaccinated.

In an article about it, he wrote, “If I had been less stunned I would have asked why no one was more concerned that a man of these remarkable dimensions was slithering around south Liverpool.”

After his story ran in the Guardian,a letter to the editor said that the writer’s daughter’s height had been entered into the computer as 1.7 cm. She figures that gives her the body mass index of five blue whales. 

How much should we worry about the British Covid variant?

Whoopee! It’s another moment when Britain gets to claim world-beating status. Its new Covid variant may be more deadly than the old ones. In addition to maybe being more transmissible.

Maybe. (Also may be, if you want to split hairs and words.) Nothing’s certain yet, although we’d be smart to act as if the possible bad news is rock-solid certain bad news. Otherwise even more people might die. That has a way of focusing a person’s attention. Or at least it should. 

But that doesn’t mean that the evidence on it is clear.

Nervtag–the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–says there’s a “realistic possibility” that it’s more deadly, but it’s by no means a sure thing, and the government’s chief science advisor, Patrick Vallance (known as Sir to his friends and family), said the data on this is “not yet strong.” 

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are both expected to work against the new variant, but they may be less effective against the variants from South Africa and Brazil. Not completely ineffective, just less effective. 

So it is time to be careful but it’s not time to panic. We can always do that later.

Irrelevant photo: A winter tree.

 

If we don’t panic, what should we do?

Susan Michie, an adviser on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours says Britain’s lockdown rules aren’t strong enough, so she’d recommend strengthening them. 

There’s been a lot of focus on people who break the rules, and government ads urge people to stay home, “But actually,” she said, “all the data show that the overwhelming number of people are sticking to the rules with one exception which is self-isolation.

“In fact I would say that it’s not so much people not sticking to the rules, but it’s the rules themselves that are the problem.”

Compared to the first lockdown, twice as many people are going to work and using public transportation, and more kids are in school because the definition of key worker has been broadened.

“The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be,” she said.

And the problem with self-isolation doesn’t seem to be that people don’t care but that so many of them can’t afford to miss work.

 

Your feel-bad stories for the day

Just when you think the government might be taking the pandemic seriously and understanding how important the people who work in the National Health Service are–

Nah, I won’t go on. It’s too silly. Foreign and minority group NHS workers in England might be disproportionately ineligible for Covid vaccines because guidelines on who hospitals should vaccinate rule out anyone without an NHS number.

Who’s that going to affect? Disproportionately, foreign-born workers and people from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds. They’re all less likely to have registered with a doctor’s practice, which means they haven’t gotten a number.

Some hospitals are working around the guidelines and vaccinating them anyway. 

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In case you’ve wondered how Britain’s £22 billion test and trace system manages to spend so much money while barely functioning–and I have–its bottom line gets a boost from a consulting company, Deloitte, which has 900 consultants on the test-and-trace books, each earning £1,000 a day.

Maybe that’s an average. Do we care? Nah, not really.

That’s a savings from last year, when the number of contractors was over 1,000. I can’t find the hourly wage for people working the test and trace phone system, but memory insists it’s minimum wage.

 

Your feel-good story for the day

On January 14, Dzhemal Senturk was hospitalized with Covid in Trabazon, Turkey, and his dog, Boncuk, ran after the ambulance all the way to the hospital and waited for him.

Senturk’s family took her home.

The next day, she came back, and she came back every day, waiting from 9 a.m. until dark. 

On January 20th, the man was released and she went home with him. And they lived happily ever after. Except that some papers spell the man’s name Cemal. It’s okay, though. Boncuk can’t spell.

 

And your information-packed snippet for the day

And now down to serious business: A British survey reports a lot of uncertainty about what key pandemic words and phrases mean, and as ever I’m here to help. 

Epidemiologist: These are doctors who treat the epidermis–your skin. Why is the news making such a fuss over them when the skin is one of the few things Covid isn’t interested in? Because so many people observing the current lockdown have gained weight and are desperate to get skinnier.

Flattening the curve: See above. 

Antibody: This is how people feel after failing to flatten the curve.

R number: This is the plural of the Is number, but abbreviated.

Is number: This is a secret metric kept by the deep state. You won’t hear about it anywhere but here. Doesn’t metric sound more worrying than measurement

Support bubble: This is the collection of imaginary friends you’ve gathered around you during the pandemic. They offer emotional support from within the confines of  your four walls.

Stay alert: This is a government slogan–or at least it was. It may have been retired by now and it’s okay not to know what it means because it never did mean anything, it just filled space while the government dithered.

The interesting thing about the survey–at least as far as I could tell from the article about it (my research didn’t take me as far as reading the survey itself)–is that it seems to have asked people if they could confidently explain the terms. It doesn’t seem to have cross-referenced their explanations with reality. In other words, were they even remotely right or only confident? It’s the perfect survey for our fact-free world.

How Boris Johnson fucks up a free lunch. Again.

In case anyone suffers from the delusion that Boris Johnson’s government learns from its mistakes, it’s proving them wrong by screwing up free school meals. Again.

 

The free school lunch saga

When schools are in session, the poorest kids are supposed to get a free lunch. Last year, though, when schools were locked down and what would normally have been a school holiday rolled around, the government announced that it’d be fine if the kids missed lunch for a few days. They weren’t the government’s problem during the holiday.

It held that position until a football player, Marcus Rashford, who grew up poor and hungry, kicked the issue squarely into social media and made the government back down. 

Now, with schools locked down again, a mother posted a picture of the sorry collection of food that was delivered for her kid. It had about £5 worth of food, although the company that’s contracted to deliver it swears it cost £10.50 to buy, package, and deliver. 

And profit from, of course. All hail the great god of privatization. 

Irrelevant photo: cotoneaster, pronounced ka-tone-ee-aster. The birds plant them.

The food was either supposed to last five or ten days, depending on who’s right about this, but either way it hasn’t impressed nutritionists or parents or the public at large. I don’t imagine it did much for kids either. 

Rashford waded in again, at which point Boris Johnson condemned the parcels and the company apologized, saying it would toss in a free breakfast starting on January 25. 

Yes, folks, it was a miracle.

Parents and campaigners are asking, Why not just give the parents a voucher? That way they can buy what their kids like, what they’re able to prepare, and what suits the family’s preferences and diet. And guess what, if you do that, nobody has to pack, deliver, and profit from it.

Last I checked, the government was ignoring the suggestion. Because what’s the point of feeding kids if no one can make a buck out of it? Or a quid, since I’m supposed to be, at least marginally, writing British here.

Has the government learned anything? Don’t be silly. When the next school holidays come up in February,  England plans to suspend the free school lunches again

But the final word on this has to go to Conservative MP Pauline Latham, who said, “It’s only their lunch, it’s not all meals every day.”

We’ll give her this week’s compassion award, okay?

And having nothing to do with free lunches but on the subject of MPs so clueless they sound like something I made up, her fellow Conservative MP, the Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, greeted the mess that Brexit’s unleashed on the fishing industry by saying, “They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.”

He’ll have to wait for gets next week’s compassion award, since I lost last week’s and, um, last week’s over. But I award him next week’s not just to honor his sympathy for dead and dying fish but also his sympathy for the fishing industry, which is losing £1 million a day because they can’t get their catch to the European markets. 

Fish are reported to be rotting on the docks. Happily and Britishly.

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We need a shift in tone here, don’t we?

Scotland’s schools run under different rules than England’s, but even without the spur of England’s mean spiritedness, a group of chefs and hospitality workers in Edinburgh have delivered a quarter of a million meals to families during the pandemic. It’s all cost 50 p. per meal. (The p. stands for pence.) Each meal includes a main course, soup, bread, and a snack, and it’s free to anyone who asks. 

And it’s for the whole family, not just kids. Because you know what? Adults need to eat too. And while more affluent people have saved money during lockdown (no night at the pub, no meals out, no cappuccino on the way to work), the poorest people don’t have those small luxuries to give up and have had to spend more on food, gas, utilities, and the costs that go with home schooling. 

The Edinburgh program is organized by run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts and funded by donations, and it’s run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts.

 

The numbers

By now, over a hundred thousand people have died of Covid in Britain since the start of the pandemic. That’s almost one in every 660 people. Or to put that another way, one in every six deaths in the country can be traced back to Covid. 

Of course, whether those numbers are right depends on what you count as a Covid death. The government started out by counting everyone who’d had Covid (as far as was known) and later died, then it switched to a system that only counts people who die within 28 days of a positive test. Both are inaccurate. There’s no perfect system, but the government’s system, conveniently, gives us a lower inaccurate number.

If I was cynical, I’d think that was why they bought it in that color.

Even using the lower figures, though, Britain’s death rate per hundred thousand people is ahead of the United States’. That surprised me enough that I checked it with a second source, which confirmed it. I thought Britain was doing better than the US. Maybe that’s because the British government gives some semblance of sanity. It recognizes that the disease is real and makes noises about fighting it. Even if it gets it wrong almost every time.  

A member of the government’s science advisory group, SAGE, said, “The UK ranks seventh in the world in terms of numbers of deaths per million population through the pandemic. During the last week, our rate is the second highest in the world–a record that is ‘world-beating’ in all the wrong ways.”

Which not only confirms that we’re in deep shit but that the government’s own advisors can’t pass up a chance to whack Johnson over the head for bragging about the world-beating ways Britain was going to respond to the virus.

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Whatever the numbers, intensive care patients are being moved from overloaded London hospitals to others as far as 300 miles away. But lockdown does seem to be working. The R number, a measure of how many people each infected person gives the disease to, seems to be going down.

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Since we were talking about kids a minute ago, let’s talk check in on their parents. Over 70% of the women who ask to be furloughed from their jobs because the schools are closed have been turned down, or so says a survey of 50,000 working women. 

Nowhere near as many men asked for furloughs because of childcare (167 compared to 3,100) but 75% of them were turned down.

How are any of them managing? Some are taking any leave they’ve accumulated. Some are cutting back their working hours. Others (I’m extrapolating here) are managing it all and either quietly or noisily losing their minds.

The difference between furlough and any of the other alternatives is that people are paid 80% of their wages or salary if they’re furloughed. The government kicks in most of that, but the employer kicks in part, and that’s where the reluctance comes from.

 

Vaccine updates

Britain’s drive to vaccinate as many people as possible is being slowed down by an inconsistent supply of vaccine. Doctors’ offices aren’t able to schedule patients more than a few days in advance because they don’t have enough notice of when the vaccine will show up.

That’s called a push model: Doctors can’t order the vaccine. Instead they have to be ready to jump in and use what appears. 

Although having said that, our local GPs are almost through vaccinating the over-80 group and are scheduling the 75- to 80-year-olds. How those two pieces of information fit together is anyone’s guess.

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Internationally, 95% of the vaccine doses that have been punched through human skin have gone to people in just ten countries: the US, China, the UK, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain, and Canada. 

It will be March before Africa gets its first vaccine doses from COVAX, an international effort to be sure vaccines reach the poorest countries. More doses are expected in June, but doses from COVAX are expected to cover just 20% of the population–by what point I can’t say.

The continent has about 30,000 new cases per day now. During the first surge, it had 18,000.

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Back in Britain, there’s talk of the second vaccine dose being postponed even further than originally planned, depending on whether the first group to be vaccinated, the over-80s, turns out to be well protected by the initial dose. Public Health England says it’ll be reviewing infection data weekly to track how well the first dose works.

Some evidence is surfacing that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may get more effective with a longer time between the two doses, but you’ll have to follow the link if you want more information on that. It involved too many numbers. I fled.

But I can tell you what the rationale is behind vaccinating the elderly before younger people: According to Professor Wei Shen Lim, for every 25 to 40 people vaccinated in a care home, one life is saved. For every 250 over-80s vaccinated, ditto: one life. You’d have to vaccinate thousands of train operators to save that one life. 

To make sense of that, though, we’d have to understand the definition of a train operator. Are we talking about the person sealed into the booth at the front who drives the train–what Americans call the engineer and the British call the train driver? Or does it mean people working with and sharing air with the public? 

Does that number hold true for bus drivers or does there have to be a train involved? What about people working in supermarkets and warehouses and meatpacking plants? People working in hospitals? I have no idea. I’m passing it along because it’s an insight into how these decisions get made. 

Long Covid, vaccine safety, and ferrets: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

A drug that’s still in the experimental stage promises to stop Covid transmission. So far, we know it works in ferrets. If you’re a ferret, you probably don’t care about this because ferrets are like young adults: They have fur and like to eat raw meat.

The similarity’s struck you before now, hasn’t it?

They also become infected with Covid and can pass the infection on, but they don’t get sick. 

Strictly and importantly speaking, that’s true of ferrets but not true of young adults (see below), because some young adults get mildly sick and then get long Covid, which is a particularly nasty kick in the head. And some are hospitalized. In fact, some die, although nowhere near as many as older adults, which is where the myth of young adult immunity comes from. 

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Or part of it. This bit was left on the mainland when the land bridge to the island collapsed. 

So let’s say that most young adults are like ferrets, and I’m told they make excellent pets and can be quite affectionate. They’re intelligent, energetic, and shouldn’t be left in cages.

If I’ve driven that joke into the ground, we’ll move on. 

How long will it be before the drug is available for humans? Well, they’ll probably want to test it in something furless before it gets to the market. I’ve read, and I’ve often written here, about all sorts of promising drugs. And that’s the last we hear about most of them. Or at least the last I hear of them. I don’t really know what you hear, do I?

I keep promising myself that I won’t write about any more early-stage drugs, but then I read about one that I can’t pass up and I break my promise. You should know better than to trust me with promises, so you have no one to blame but yourself. 

This one, I think, is worth breaking a promise for. It not only stops Covid transmission, it also stops the progression of the disease. And works against the flu.

Let us all become ferrets, friends, and put an end to this plague. 

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The news about the Moderna vaccine is that it gives people (at least the 94% it works in) an immune response that lasts at least three months. That’s from a study run by NIAID, which is not a Greek goddess of springs, rivers, fountains, and lakes (you’ll need change the vowels a bit if you’re calling the goddess) but (more helpfully at this moment in history) the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. 

Immunity may last longer, but that’s as many pages as they’ve had time to read.

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How has it been possible to develop the Covid vaccines so fast? Several factors came together.

Once the virus’s genome was decoded, it was shared immediately with the world’s scientific community. Chinese scientists published a draft of the genome of January 11. No one had to waste time repeating work that had already been done. 

After that, the world’s bad luck was put to good use: With the hounds of hell nipping at their heels, governments were willing to pour immense amounts of money into research. That translated to equipment and researchers. 

Next, it was easy for researchers to recruit participants for both the early and the later tests. That usually takes time, but people were motivated and anxious to sign up.

It usually takes a good long time before enough of the test subjects become infected to prove or disprove the vaccine’s effectiveness. But because Covid was so widespread, people got sick quickly. That comes to us compliments of the Department of Silver Linings.

On top of that, the pandemic hit just as scientists worked the kinks out of the mRNA vaccine process. I’m not going to try to explain that, but if you follow the link a few paragraphs back, someone who knows what they’re talking about will. 

Finally, a good bit of research that had already been done gave Covid research a running start: into creating  new flu vaccine; into SARS and MERS, both of which threatened to turn epidemic but didn’t; and into Zika.

Experts say no steps were missed in checking the safety and effectiveness of the Covid vaccines. I respect the well-honed skepticism that develops in a population that’s been lied to a lot, but I haven’t read any solid evidence that would lead me to wait when I’m offered a vaccine. I’m running around with one sleeve already rolled up.

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The Serum Institute of India has asked for fast-track approval of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which doesn’t need refrigeration and which–if it gets approval–it will sell in India for something in the neighborhood of $3 a dose.

India is the second hardest hit country in the world’s Covid disaster race. Or the third. I’ve seen it listed both ways. It probably depends on what you count and how.

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A British trial will play around with mixing Covid vaccines to see if a mix creates a stronger immune response than two doses of a single vaccine. It’s due to start in January.

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Less encouragingly (but entirely realistically), the World Health Organization warns that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t mean an end to the Covid crisis. The logistics and economics of getting the world’s population vaccinated are massive, especially since two of the early vaccines need super-cold storage. 

And that doesn’t touch on the issue of how many people will be willing to accept vaccination or whether the vaccine will continue to circulated in spite of vaccinations.

In the meantime:

  • Wear a mask
  • Be careful
  • Grow fur 

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A small study (40 people, with a control group of 58) from the University of Dayton shows that 51% of young adults who are diagnosed with mild to moderate Covid had complications (chest pain, breathing difficulty, headaches, exhaustion, brain fog, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste, etc.) for more than 28 days afterward, and 30% had complications for more than 50 days.

The lead researcher, Julie Walsh-Messinger, said, “The common belief in the U.S. is that COVID-19 is benign or short-lived in young adults. Our study, which we believe is the first to report on post-COVID syndrome in college students, almost exclusively between 18 and 21 years of age, suggests otherwise. More research needs to be done to confirm these findings, but until then, we urge the medical and scientific community to consider young adults vulnerable to post-COVID syndrome.”

For a brief description of what long Covid is like, this is a good place to start, although from what I’ve read it can get far worse. 

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Like ferrets, cars don’t contract Covid. Unlike ferrets, they’re inanimate. But they can spread it. They’re like schoolrooms, like bars, like supermarkets: They depend on breathing humans to help them with their work.

A study at Brown University shows that opening car windows reduces Covid transmission. This probably won’t surprise you, given what’s known about air, breath, wind, cars, and Covid. But scientists have this pesky habit of wanting to prove things instead of just asserting them. They’re the kind of people who want to know how cold it is and how long it’s been how cold before they drive the car out on the frozen lake. They’ll want to calculate the depth of the ice and find out if the lake has currents where the ice will be thinner. They can be absolute mood-killers, but if you’re driving across a frozen lake they’re the people you want to ride with. 

Speaking just for myself (as if I had a choice), I appreciate them.

Asimanshu Das, co-lead author of the car window research, said, “Driving around with the windows up and the air conditioning or heat on is definitely the worst scenario, according to our computer simulations. The best scenario we found was having all four windows open, but even having one or two open was far better than having them all closed.”

But even with all the windows open and the roof sawed off, everybody should wear masks.

The article’s full of drawings and arrows. I’m not sure what they demonstrate, but they impressed the hell out of me.

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Semi-relevantly, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital are working on a vaccine for a wide range of influenza strains. Early-stage clinical trials indicate that it could give a long-lasting immunity, eliminating the need for yearly updates. 

But it’s in the early stages. In the meantime, we’re all supposed to keep downloading our yearly flu shots. Or, in British, jabs.

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And, completely irrelevantly, an experimental drug can reverse age-related memory loss within days. So far, unfortunately, that only applies to mice, but it may work its way up to ferrets and eventually to us. 

It’s called ISRIB and it also works on traumatic injuries, noise-related hearing loss, and cognitive impairment in Down Syndrome. Yes, mice can have Down syndrome-like characteristics. I didn’t know either.

It also fights certain kinds of prostate cancer and enhances cognition in healthy animals.

And it makes coffee, but it’s pretty bad. I wouldn’t recommend drinking it.  

Covid, singing, and the London Marathon: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The London Marathon was supposed to happen last April but it was postponed until October 4 because of the pandemic, and somewhere in between those two dates they decided to make it a virtual marathon. A handful of top runners will follow the marathon’s route and have what used to be called a race. 

What do we call it now? I’m not sure. The language tested positive the other day, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful language and it’s only in the hospital because there were some people here who wanted to be cautious. Very, very cautious. 

The test’s fake anyway. The virus is a fake. 

But with all that hospital equipment beeping, it’s hard to remember words. So never mind what we call it these days. It used to be a race. A very beautiful race.

Where were we? 

All the other runners will do their miles wherever they happen to be–Cornwall, Australia, it doesn’t matter–and log their time onto an app, which will take their word for it and give them a medal. 

Okay, the app won’t give them the medal. It has humans to do that for it.

This being Britain, a certain number of the participants will run in costume, which could be anything from a tutu to a telephone box. If you’ll click the link, you’ll see someone running in a 10 kilo a rhino costume. That’s 22 pounds, or to put it simply, a shitload of weight to go running in, especially since she has to hunch forward inside there and can’t see very well. And that’s just when she’s in training. On the day of the actual marathon, her husband will be on hand to steer her around trash barrels and gawping kids. 

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Irrelevant photo: This flower is orange. You’re welcome.

A third of Britain is living with tighter-than-the-national Covid restrictions because of a localized rise in case numbers. And what really matters in all of this is who’s to blame.  

Boris Johnson blames the public’s “fraying discipline.” It has nothing to do with the government having encouraged people over the summer to travel, eat out, drink out, get out with their wallets in hand, or with guidelines and laws so murky that Johnson got them wrong when he explained how simple they were. Or with its own advisors (and more recently an MP) breaking them. Or with a heroically useless test and trace system. 

The mayor of one affected area, Middlesbrough, said the new measures were based on “factual inaccuracies and a monstrous and frightening lack of communication, and ignorance. . . . We do not accept these measures.”

Cases have managed to double in the majority of cities and towns under the tighter restrictions. I don’t have a start date for that–the restrictions started at different times in different areas–but it ended on September 20.

The best educated guess on why they haven’t been effective is that the rules are confusing and that the communities and their leaders haven’t been involved and don’t support them. Plus that when you try to talk about what’s wrong with the test and trace system the discussion quickly falls off the edge of the English language.

Okay. The expert whose opinion I’m paraphrasing, Chris Ham, said the test and trace system was “still not working well enough.” But I’m channeling what he really thinks. You know I am.

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Serious, labor-intensive contact tracing in two Indian states shows that just a few events were responsible for a disproportionate number of Covid infections. It also suggests that, contrary to what’s generally been thought, children transmit the virus quite efficiently, thanks. Every time I read a study about kids and transmission, it contradicts that last one, so let’s not rest too much weight on that frail bridge, just acknowledge that it’s all still preliminary.

Still, this is the biggest epidemiological study of the spread so far. 

What they found is that 8% of the people they followed caused 60% of the infections. The things that seem to separate an event from a superspreader event are how close people are to someone who’s infected, how long they’re close, and how good the ventilation is. 

Contact tracers followed 78 people who’d been on a bus or train with one lone infected person, sitting within three rows of them for more than six hours, and found that 80% of them had gotten the virus. In lower-risk environments–being in the same room but three feet away–only 1.6% got the virus.

Kids between the age of five and seventeen passed the virus on to 18% of the close contacts in their own age groups. That’s not exactly parallel information–how close, how long, how well or badly ventilated, or what percent of adults passed it on to close contacts –so it doesn’t tell us whether they’re passing the bug along as efficiently as their older, wiser, creakier relatives, but what the hell, it’s information. I thought I’d throw it at you. 

The study also doesn’t answer the question of whether any biological factors separate your average infected person from your superspreader. 

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Back at the start of the pandemic, the British government set up a loan program to help businesses survive. The British Business Bank warned that it was vulnerable to being scammed by people setting up fake businesses. 

Actually, not just vulnerable to: at high risk of. The British Business Bank is state owned and was supposed to supervise the program, and it sounded the warning twice.

And surprise, surprise, exactly what they warned of has happened, although I don’t think anyone knows yet how often, or how much money the government’s on the hook for because of it. What I’ve seen so far is anecdotal–the ”someone stole my name to steal money from the government” sort of thing. But I thought you might need cheering up by now, so I wanted to mention it.

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A new study of Covid spread and singing is drawing from “faith communities” to find its participants. I’m putting that in quotes because on the one hand it manages to include every religion you can think of and several you can’t, so it’s useful, but on the other hand it sounds so prim and tippy-toed that I want to throw crockery at it.  So I’ll use the phrase and disown it at the same time. 

I just hate when people do that. Which is why I’m spending more time explaining it than I am talking about the study.

Other than its focus on religious groups, the study’s inclusive: It’ll involve people from a range of heights, sizes, sexes, ages, and ethnicities. Also with and without hairy faces in case any of that affects things. They’ll sing at different volumes, chant, or hum, using assorted face coverings, while lasers measure the aerosols they spray out. 

These days I do all my singing from inside the large plastic wheelie bin that the county supplies for green waste recycling. With the lid down. As long as the green waste guys don’t come when I’m singing and the neighbors don’t get together to push me down the hill and into the ocean, it’s perfectly safe. 

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It seems to be accepted at this point that Covid can catch a ride on the aerosols that we breathe out when we do all those noisy, communicative things that human evolution has given us, but it’s not clear to what extent aerosol-borne germs actually spread the disease. 

What is known is that aerosols travel more than six feet–the magic distance that’s supposed to keep us all safe from other people’s germs. The six-foot recommendation was based on the larger particles–droplets–which fall to the ground relatively close to the breathing, singing, humming source. But aerosols can hang in the air for hours. They hold dances up there. They run marathons in rhinoceros costumes. 

Okay, we don’t know what they do up there, or how dangerous it is to us. All we know for sure is that ventilation is a good thing. So are air purifying systems.

Mind you, I don’t know what qualifies as an air purifying system and I’m not in a hurry to take any non-expert’s word on it. I do know that open windows work. I also know that in a Minnesota January open windows aren’t as simple a solution as they are in June.

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An article in Journal of General Internal Medicine surveyed 28 experts in vaccinology (yes, there is such a thing) and on an average they thought a vaccine would be available to the general public (this would be in the US or Canada) at the earliest in June 2021 but more probably in September or October.

For people at the greatest risk, the soonest would be February but more probably March or April.

But as the great Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

Berra also may or may not have said, “I never said half the things I said,” which is why I’m being cautious about attributing that quote to him. Someone will, inevitably, let me know that someone else said it. And they’ll probably be right.

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Having Neanderthal genes, as 16% of Europeans, 50% of south Asians, and 0% of Africans do, can make a person three times more likely to need ventilation if they’re infected with Covid.

But Professor Mark Maslin added a however to that: “Lots of different populations are being severely affected, many of which do not have any Neanderthal genes. We must avoid simplifying the causes and impact of Covid-19. . . . Covid-19 is a complex disease, the severity of which has been linked to age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, health, virus load among other things.”

I only mentioned it because it’s so damn weird.