No, vaccinated people do not shed spike proteins

The latest thing in nut theories–if it hasn’t been superseded by a newer one, and you’ll have to forgive me if I limp along behind this stuff–is that it’s dangerous for women who are still menstruating to even be around people who’ve been vaccinated.

Why’s that? So the little vaccy-things jump out of the vaccinated Person V and into still-fertile Person non-V, implanting some version of Rosemary’s baby that’s been updated to look like Bill Gates?

Quite possibly, with just the tiniest touch of exaggeration.

Utterly irrelevant photo: This is for all you British mystery fans out there. If you remember a detective called Campion, this is the flower he named himself after. It’s a wildflower–a.k.a. a weed–and grows wherever it damn well pleases. It stays in bloom for a good part of the year and is a cheery little beast. This is the red campion, in spite of being pink. It also comes in white.

The theory is that the vaccines shed the spike protein. (Please don’t ask about the mechanism for that.) Someone who described herself as a cosmic doula posted an Instagram video saying, “Women in their menstruating years are experiencing severe side effects from people around them having received this jab.” They miss their periods. They have excruciatingly painful periods. Post-menopausal women start to have periods. Cats flee from them.

Okay, I made up the bit about the cats, but you have to admit it’d be upsetting.

Someone on Facebook who likes to Capitalize stuff she Considers Important listed the side effects of being around a Vaccinated Person as bleeding, hemorrhaging, passing clots, irregular periods, miscarriages, severe cramps, abnormal pain, post-menopausal periods, and decidual casts.

Most of these things aren’t fun but they’re also not signals that an asteroid is headed for earth or that Bill Gates has implanted his own DNA into the Covid vaccines, which will turn us all into non-rich versions of him. They happen, even in non-pandemic times.

In other words, call me when men start having periods. You’ll have full attention. Until then, I’m not impressed.

Gynecologist Dr. Jennifer Gunter said, “Neither of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines . . . nor the Johnson and Johnson vaccine . . . can possibly affect a person who has not been vaccinated, and this includes their menstruation, fertility, and pregnancy. Let me be very clear. The COVID-19 vaccines cannot affect anyone by proxy.”

So she’s no fun at all. And cats flee from her.

 

Vaccination and pregnancy

If we’ve had our fun now, and if the cats have crept back into the room, allow me to mention a study of 35,000 women that says the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are safe for pregnant women–not to mention the people standing next to them. Their rates of complications, miscarriages, and premature births were the same as the rates for those things before the pandemic. 

The vaccines may also be safe for pregnant men, but it was hard to find a large enough pool for the researchers to follow. For the time being, guys, you’re on your own.

Longer-term follow-up is needed, but pregnant women face a higher risk of severe Covid and hospitalization than non-pregnant women in their age groups, although their babies don’t seem to be affected.  

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was released too late to have been included in the study.

 

Yeah, but what are we immune to?

A new study says that the Covid vaccines activate–

Oh, hell, this is complicated, so you’re going to have to pay attention, okay?  The immune system has these cells that we’ll call helper T cells, although when they appear in court they’re known by their formal name, CD4+ T lymphocytes. And to distinguish themselves from the defendants, they wear those strange, lawyerly wigs that distinguish British barristers from the normal run of human beings. But never mind all that. We’re friends here and we can afford to be informal and wigless. Helper T cells it is.

The study says that once activated by either of the two mRNA vaccines (those are the Pfizer and the Moderna), the helper T cells will recognize any of the current Covid variants and slaughter the little bastards. 

Okay, that’s not a direct quote. I get carried away with the opportunity to slaughter small and bloodless things that have no apparent nervous systems so I can do it in good conscience. 

The activated helper T cells may also protect us against one of the coronaviruses that causes the  cold. 

Sorry, not all colds. Just one form.

This is important because our antibodies are cute little things but they’re not as smart as T cells and sometimes need a phone call to tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. 

But before we get too excited, first this was a small study and second it may only mean that they’re able to prevent the variants from causing severe illness, not to prevent all infections.  

 

The Pfizer upgrade

If all goes as expected, the Pfizer vaccine will soon be easier to ship. Up to now, it’s had to be kept at the temperature of dry ice, meaning a country needed one hell of an infrastructure to use it at all. In its new form, an ordinary freezer will keep it safe. 

It’s also one of the more expensive vaccines on the market, so making it easier to ship won’t solve all the problems involved in getting it where it’s most needed.

How’s it stacking up against the variants?

Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, said “We have already data for the UK [variant]—I hate using the countries, but people know them like that—which is very prominent in Israel… efficiency was 97 percent.

“We have data from South Africa, with the South African variant, and overall the efficacy was 100 percent. And also have data from Brazil. And it looks also this is very well controlled.”

You’ll notice that he didn’t give us any numbers from Brazil. Let’s assume there’s room for improvement.

It takes, he said, 100 days to tweak a vaccine so that it’s more effective against a worrying variant. 

 

The search for a universal vaccine

So will there ever be a Covid vaccine that doesn’t need tweaking? 

Possibly, and I suspect I’ve written about it before but it’s not as if I pay attention to what’s going on here. That’s your job.

One has shown encouraging results in animal studies. It targets a part of the virus that seems stable–in other words, it doesn’t mutate–and indications are that it will protect against multiple coronaviruses, not just Covid. So it could–potentially, remember; we’re not there yet–protect against coronaviruses that have yet to make their way into our lives, and also against multiple cold viruses.

And it can be produced cheaply. If you brewed it in a keg the size of your car’s gas tank (or petrol tank if you’re speaking British), it would cost $1 a dose. That’s compared to $10 a dose for the mRNA vaccines like Pfizer. 

But if production is ramped up, you won’t be brewing it in your car’s gas tank, or even (Prohibition-style if you know your US history) in your bathtub. You’ll be using industrial-scale tanks and it’ll be a whole lot cheaper. 

“If you have two or three or four, pretty soon you get enough vaccine to immunize everybody in the world,” according to Dr. Steven Zeichner of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

The vaccine’s designed to attack a part of the Covid virus called viral fusion peptide, which sounds like it’s going to blow something up but is just another damn peptide, not a nuclear weapon.

When in your life did you hear the word peptide as much as you have this past year? 

This particular peptide is a universal coronavirus part. That means you can get from any used parts dealer, any junkyard. Etsy has it. I’d mention Amazon but I’m carrying on a one-person boycott so I won’t. It’s a part of the spike protein that hasn’t shown any changes so far and that’s unlikely to show any in the future. It’s like the headlight that’s used on this year’s model and also the 1957 model. 

Or so Zeichner says, and he knows more about this than I do–which wouldn’t be hard. Let’s say he knows considerably more than I do and trust his judgement on this. After all, he did have enough sense not to bring junkyards or headlights into the discussion. I’m to blame for that.

Even if he turns out to be wrong and under pressure from the vaccine the peptide does mutate, we will have been given some breathing room.

This doesn’t have to be a new vaccine. Existing vaccines will be able to incorporate the target as they add new tweaks.

But a universal vaccine isn’t ready for human studies yet. For one thing, in animal tests it prevented severe symptoms but not infection. The developers want to tinker, retune the engine, give it a new set of tires, do all those things that will make it more lethal to coronaviruses. The preliminary data, they say, are exciting, but these are the very early stages still.

Why countries are suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine 

An assortment of countries have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine out of fear that it might cause blood clots. That includes Norway, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Latvia, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Austria stopped using one particular batch. 

Sorry, I may have lost Bulgaria in there somewhere, and quite possibly a few other countries. I may also have added some, but every last one of the countries I listed exists. I’m almost certain of that. And unless you’re in one of them, you don’t need to worry about whether I have the full list. On the other hand, if you are in one, you’ll have already heard about it from a more reliable source.

C’mon, I’m not a newspaper. I do my best. 

Whatever the full list is, the European medicines regulator says it sees no evidence that the vaccine caused the blood clots. Suspending its use is worrying, it says, because the risk of getting Covid is greater than any risk posed by the vaccine.

It’s worth noting that a fair number of countries haven’t suspended its use and don’t think there’s a danger. And all of them also exist and are completely real. 

Irrelevant photo: alexander

The European Medical Authority’s executive director Emer Cooke said about the blood clots, “At present there is no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions, they have not come up in the clinical trials and they are not listed as known or expected side events with this vaccine.”  

The EMA is looking into the issue more closely and is due to report on Thursday, but it considers a link very unlikely. The World Health Organization also sees no link.

So what’s the story on blood clots? A woman in Denmark died after getting vaccinated. She had a low number of platelets, blood clots in small and large vessels, and bleeding. Another death was reported in Norway, along with a handful of non-fatal cases with similar “unusual” reactions, the Norwegian Medicines Agency said. 

The question in all of this is whether the blood clots are caused by the vaccine or whether they’re unrelated events that happened to happen to people who’d been vaccinated recently, sort of like people deciding to buy jelly beans after they got vaccinated. If you start counting the people who do that, you might find a surprising number, but that wouldn’t be proof that the vaccine caused them to buy jelly beans. The best way to show a link is to compare the number who bought jelly beans to the number of unvaccinated people who did. 

You’ll want to run that experiment in the US, though, where it’s easier to find jelly beans.

Britain hasn’t seen a spike in blood clots despite having pumped more than 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine into people’s arms.

AstraZeneca–and here I mean the company, not the vaccine–counted 15 incidents of post-vaccination deep-vein thrombosis (a blood clot in a vein) and 22 of pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that’s entered the lungs) in Britain. That is, they said, “much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed Covid-19 vaccines.”

You’re welcome to untangle that sentence if you want. I’m going to quote and run.

No I’m not. It’s the lower and similar that throws me. I think I know what they’re saying but they’d have done better to make two sentences out of that so their points of comparison were clear. 

I know. Everyone’s a critic.

The cheesier end of the British press–which is cheesy indeed–is treating this as an opportunity to wave the flag. We knew those Europeans had it in for us. See what they’re like? So far, though, none of them have proposed sending gunboats to support our flagship vaccine. If they do, I’ll let you know.

 

Variants news

One the other hand, a new double-blind study of 750 people exposed to the South African Covid variant found that the AZ vaccine is only 10.4% effective against mild to moderate cases. On the bright side, though, nobody was hospitalized and a second-generation AZ vaccine is in development that will close that gap in its protective fencing.

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Two cases of a Covid strain first identified in the Philippines have been found in Britain. It too may be more resistant to vaccines. 

 

And finally, an irrelevant feelgood story

After getting his second vaccination in Massachusetts, cellist Yo-Yo Ma sat down and gave a fifteen-minute concert for health workers and the people waiting in line behind him. 

Ma is internationally known and famous enough that even I know who he is. When he went for his first shot, he scoped out the surroundings, then brought his cello with him for the second shot. 

He wanted to give something back, he said.

Does lockdown damage the economy? 

If British lockdown is a song, the chorus is a sour political sound that comes from throwback Members of Parliament calling for lockdown’s end. Let’s look at lockdown and the impact it has on an economy, since that’s one of the primary arguments against it. 

 

The costs of lockdown

Those wild-eyed radicals at the International Monetary Fund looked at the changes in travel, electricity use, and unemployment claims and say the economy deteriorated before government restrictions came into force and also began to recover before they were lifted. Voluntary social distancing and lockdowns, they say, had almost exactly the same impact. In other words, the problem is the pandemic, not the lockdowns.

A different study compared Demark and Sweden and reports almost the same drop in consumer spending during the first wave of the pandemic, although Denmark locked down and Sweden didn’t. Again, they’re saying the economic damage came from the pandemic, not the lockdown.

We could go on, getting into quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), which are a particularly grisly measurement the National Health Service uses (and for all I know, so do health insurance companies or other countries’ health services) to decide if a medicine or treatment is a good buy–or at least an affordable one. It weighs additional length of life against quality of life against money. Because money’s the ultimate measure of everything in our economy, folks. Even our lives.

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses coming up in spite of our recent cold snap.

But I’ll leave you at the door of QALYs while I go home and have a nice cup of tea all by myself. Or with you if you show up and the pandemic’s over. The calculations involved are enough to scare me off. What I can tell you is that the article I’m linking to claims that the lockdown opponents are using QALYs wrong when they cite them to prove their point. 

I’d probably use them wrong too, and prove no point at all. Hence the tea. 

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Speaking of money and Covid, landlords in England can’t evict tenants who fall behind in their rent because of the pandemic, but that only holds till the end of March. After that, anything could happen. The ban could be extended. The ban could be allowed to lapse. Spaceships could land and magically implant some good sense into all of us.

I like the third possibility myself, but I admit it’s not the most likely.

Some 450,000 families are behind on their rent because of the pandemic. If you want your hair to turn as gray as mine, you can add in the number of families who’ve fallen behind on their mortgage payments. They can’t be evicted yet either, but they’re facing the same three possibilities. 

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Reopening the schools or keeping them closed is an alternative chorus of the lockdown song.

A study looking at Sweden, with it no-lockdown approach to the pandemic, reports that keeping the schools open with only minimal precautions meant the teachers faced a doubled risk of catching Covid. And their partner had a 29% higher risk. 

The point of comparison was teachers who shifted to teaching online.

The kids’ parents had a 17% higher risk. Not enough kids were tested for them to register in the study.

 

Variant news

Scientists have found some new Covid variants. One popped up in southern California. It was found in October and it’s spread around the country and into other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where we can assume it’s been stomped out thoroughly.

It’s not clear yet if it behaves any differently from the same-old, same-old variants, but it carries a change on the spike protein, which may or may not turn out to be important. 

The spike protein? It’s the key that lets the virus into human cells. The fear is that a change there may mean the virus gets better at breaking in or at evading our immune systems–or our vaccines. 

Another new Covid variant’s been found in Britain, in Denmark, in the U.S., in Australia, and in some other countries. So we don’t get to wave the flag over this one. It also has some changes to the spike protein, but it’s too early to know how significant the changes are. 

Some experts are recommending surge testing to try to stomp the beast out. Other experts are saying, “Yes, you idiots, but until you offer financial support to people who test positive, a lot of people will hide out instead of getting tested because they can’t afford to take two weeks off work. Or ten days. Or three minutes.”

That’s probably not an exact quote, but it is a good point.

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Recent newspaper articles gave people a good scare by saying that British variant–also called the Kent variant; one of our world-beating contributions to the pandemic–is linked to a higher death rate. But that’s the same as saying it causes more deaths. It’s one of those read-the-fine-print things. 

A variant being linked to a higher death rate means it may be the cause but it may just happen to be in the room when the higher death rate happens. It hangs out with a rough crowd and they’re happy to let it take the blame. The variant has spread through nursing homes, which are full of people who are particularly vulnerable. The virus wouldn’t have to be supercharged to do a lot of damage among them.

But it’s also possible–not proven, but possible–that people infected with it have higher viral loads, which could both make it more contagious and harder to treat. But even that last part, about a higher viral load making it more contagious and harder to treat, is speculation.

It’s not time to panic over this one–we’ll have all the time we need to do that later if we have to. 

The non-speculative good news is that the current vaccines do a good job of targeting the variant. 

 

A quarantine update

If England’s rules on quarantine hotels looked absurd over the weekend, with its insistence on mixing people from Group A with people from Group B and then treating only Group A as scary enough to quarantine–

We’ll start that over, okay? If they looked absurd over the weekend, Scotland’s looks almost as silly today. Scotland, we read at first, was going to have everyone do a hotel quarantine: Group A right along with Group B. Now it turns out there’s a loophole. A father and daughter who flew from the U.S. by way of Ireland can quarantine at home. Because they came through Ireland. 

I’m happy for them. The child’s eight and hasn’t seen her mother in sixteen months. But it makes no sense at all. 

 

A bit of good news

Okay, I admit that this isn’t going to give us anything immediate, but long term it could help. An antiviral called EIDD-2801 (they haven’t passed that one through a focus group yet) may fight Covid in several ways: In the lab, it keeps Covid from replicating and from infecting human cells. In a mouse trial, two days of treatment reduced virus replication 25,000-fold when they gave it two days after exposure and 100,000-fold when they gave it twelve hours before and after exposure. 

They’ll be going into phase 2 and 3 trials in humans to test its safety and effectiveness in Covid patients.

How Covid mutates and why that might be a good thing

There’s good and bad news about the way Covid mutates, and it’s all wrapped around the same bit of information. 

Like most non-experts, I use the word mutate loosely. If something genomeish leads to change, I think it’s a mutation. Which goes to show you what I know.

Covid, it turns out, doesn’t just mutate, it also recombines, meaning it mixes large chunks of its genome, not just single genes. If a mutation’s a typo, recombination is a cut-and-paste error, dumping a largish chunk of text in the wrong place. And while the virus proofreads typos fairly well, it doesn’t catch cut-and-paste problems as effectively.

I’ve had that problem myself. I still wince at something quite horrible that I let go into print because the spelling was right and my eye didn’t pick up the change in meaning. And I’m larger and (I like to think) more complicated than a virus.

Most of those recombination errors, like most mutations, make a mess and that particular virus doesn’t get to leave little virette progeny behind. But some of them work and the virus changes.

Irrelevant photo: One of Janey’s crocuses.

Is recombination what’s happening with Covid? Possibly. The Kent variant has more than a dozen mutations and they seemed to appear all at once. Emphasis on seemed. A lot of what goes on happens in the kitchen while we’re out front cleaning the dining room. Feng Gao, a virologist from China, says we don’t yet have proof of recombination. “Diversity, no matter how much, does not mean recombination. It can well be caused by huge diversification during viral evolution.”

So let’s not get carried away with this. We’re dancing at the edges of what’s known. But (damn, that tune’s catchy, so I’ll do a few more steps) recombination may be how viruses that infect one species jump to another species: by swapping a bit of genetic code .

It’s possible that recombination means a more dangerous virus will appear–either a new one or a more dangerous form of Covid. So there’s our bad news. 

But the good news is that experiments with a mouse coronavirus show that blocking a single enzyme keeps the virus from correcting its typing errors and recombination events happen much less often. If this holds for Covid, the right drug might be able to block recombination and (or maybe that should be or) push the virus to mutate so badly that it ends up in something called error catastrophe–basically, the evolutionary equivalent of falling off a cliff. While dancing to that catchy little tune.

As a way to treat Covid, blocking the enzyme could make antiviral drugs more effective.

The enzyme goes by the name of nsp14-ExoN, which isn’t particularly catchy. If we’re going to be spending time with it, it needs a nickname. But whatever we call it, it’s common in coronaviruses, so if this works it opens up the possibility of curing other coronavirus diseases as well. 

 

Covid variants

If Britain didn’t end up with the world-beating test and trace system Boris Johnson promised us–and believe me, it didn’t–it may have come up with a world-beating strain of Covid instead: the Kent variant; the variant I mentioned that has all those mutations. Sharon Peacock, the director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium tells us it looks likely to sweep the world.

And unlike the test and trace system, we didn’t pay a penny for it.

Go Britain!

The consortium is testing the genomes on a randomly selected 5% to 10% of all positive Covid samples in the country but aims to test them all in order to keep track of how the virus is mutating.

And speaking of variants, the World Health Organization says the small trial that found the AstraZeneca vaccine to be largely ineffective against the South African variant was inconclusive. They’re not saying the vaccine’s definitely effective against it, only that it isn’t definitely ineffective. 

Which is better than nothing. 

 

Covid and Coca Cola

How much space would all the Covid viruses in the world take up if they could be packed neatly for shipping? They’d fill a Coke can

They’d also fill a can of supermarket brand fizzy orange-flavored sugar water, but Covid’s a brand-name kind of virus. Coke it is. So in the scene where someone yells, “Don’t open the can!” for pete’s sake, don’t open the can. You know what happened when Pandora didn’t listen to the warnings?

I’m not telling. But I did give you a link.

 

Spreading the virus

More than half of all Covid cases are spread by people who have no symptoms. They may be less infectious than people who are sick, but they could well make up 80% of the total number of people carrying the disease. And they’re wandering through the world shedding viruses, not lying in bed at home.

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A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that wearing two masks can reduce the chance of getting Covid by 90% or more. Yes, not just transmitting but catching the damned thing. 

The study had its limits. It tested a tight-fitting cloth mask over a surgical mask, not two surgical masks and not two cloth ones, and it only looked at one type of cloth masks, although the world’s awash with different types just now. And as the article where I first read this put it, it also didn’t consider “men with beards or children.”

Does having children interfere with the fit of men’s masks more than women’s? Hard to say. The study didn’t test that. 

To keep everything in perspective, an engineering professor says that the only reason to wear two masks is to get a better fit. But the masks most of us wear do fit loosely, so double masking might be worthwhile, no matter who’s right.  

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Two weeks after U.S. states introduced mask mandates (they haven’t all), the weekly growth in hospitalization rates dropped by 2.9% among people who are 40 to 64. After three weeks it dropped 5.5% among people 18 to 64.

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Every so often, you’ll find someone saying that Covid’s no more dangerous than a bad outbreak of the flu. So do we have any figures on how much more dangerous it is? 

Yup, some. The risk of death is 3.5 times higher. That number comes from comparing people who are hospitalized with the Covid against those hospitalized with flu. It ignores whatever long- term effects Covid has on the unhospitalized, so I’d say it’s undercounting. Still, it’s a number, and numbers help. 

At least they help most people. 

Covid patients also had one and a half times greater use of the intensive care unit and one and a half times longer hospital stays. And they were more likely to need a ventilator.

In case you think Covid’s only a problem for the old and the ill, not many of the hospitalized Covid patients had other illnesses and 21% were younger than 50. People under 50 made up 24% of the intensive care admissions.

As far as I can see, that doesn’t address the problem of how easily Covid spreads compared to flu. It only compares hospitalized patients.

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Worldwide, the number of reported Covid cases is down for the fourth week in a row. Take a deep breath. The drop is uneven, it doesn’t count unreported cases, and we forgot to get a guarantee that it won’t go back up, but we have to take our good news where we can get it. This is good news.

 

Is there any news on curing the thing?

In a small study, a common asthma treatment, budesonide, cut the need for hospitalization and urgent care by 90%, and people who took it within seven days of showing symptoms recovered more quickly than the control group. Better yet, it cut the number of people with symptoms that lingered after twenty-eight days. 

As usual, it was a small study–146 people–so it’s preliminary, but budesonide is a well-known and well-studied drug, which would speed the process if it’s adopted.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a combination of two monoclonal antibodies that can keep high-risk patients from developing Covid that’s severe enough to hospitalize them. A similar drug had already been approved. Both take Covid antibodies and synthesize them so they can be given to patients as a drip. 

And it’s that drip business that’s causing trouble. Initially, getting them from vial (or whatever they come in) into human took an hour. It can now be done in sixteen minutes. But some hospitals have been so overwhelmed they haven’t had time to deal with it. 

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A team of researchers in China has identified six drugs that the FDA has already approved for other uses that could be repurposed to treat Covid. They whittled that down from 3,769. They still need to be tested in the real world, but already having FDA approval for other purposes means that if they work they could be put to use quickly.

After that, the article went over my head, but it has to do with proteases and substrates, not to mention clades. Have fun.

 

Your feelgood story

New York software developer Huge Ma tried to make his mother a Covid vaccination appointment and discovered that not only did the city and state have different systems that weren’t talking to each other but that there were dozens of separate websites, each one demanding that you sign up a different way.

So he took a couple of weeks and made a free website, TurboVax, that compiles information from the three main city and state sites and sends information on available appointments to Twitter.

It cost him $50 to make.

The difficulty of booking an appointment is one reason–although far from the only one–that vaccines are going disproportionately to white New Yorkers. 

“It’s sort of become a challenge to myself, to prove what one person with time and a little motivation can do,” he said. “This wasn’t a priority for governments, which was unfortunate. But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I’m just doing the very little that I can to make it a little bit easier.”

Covid variants, vaccines, and all our clean hands

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

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: The first spring violets.

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

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

 

British and (eek!) foreign Covid variants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Symptoms

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

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

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

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

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

 

The bad news

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

Mono-whats? 

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

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

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

 

The good news

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

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

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

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Two bits of news about the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

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

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

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

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

 

The little-bit-of-both news

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

Your Covid update for the day

Can I take time off from being snarky and welcome a moment of sanity? Any minute now, the British government’s expected to announce a hotel quarantine on returning travelers. 

Travel in the age of Covid

Up to now, we’ve had a do-it-yourself quarantine: You go home, you add water and shake vigorously, you take a Covid test or two, then you wait ten days or until the world’s ready for you to emerge blinking into the sunlight. 

Or you do none of that. Who’ll know?

And that’s the problem with the do-it-yourself system. Some unknown percent of arriving travelers go home, have a nice shower, and since they’ve added water consider the thing done, so they go out and buy groceries. And, of course, even the people who take the quarantine seriously have to get home, leaving a viral trail from the airport to wherever they live.

The noise accompanying the expected change is all about the newer, scarier Covid variants from Brazil and South Africa, so it’s not clear yet whether the quarantine will apply to everyone coming into the country or just to people coming from countries known to have the variant. 

If it’s limited to a few countries, it’ll be the policy equivalent of wearing your mask underneath your nose and pretending you’ve done your bit to battle Covid. Most countries don’t do enough virus sequencing to know which variants they’re dealing with. In other words, the variants are circulating in more countries than we know about.

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Irrelevant photo: I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think this is a viola. At any rate, it was a volunteer last summer.

In another moment of startling good sense, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said it was “far too early” to talk about people booking summer holidays. 

The travel industry is not happy about any of this.

 

Vaccine news

Moderna reports that its vaccine is effective against both the British and South African Covid variants, although it’s not as effective against the South African variant as they’d like. The company will test a second booster shot, making a total of three shots, with the third one designed specifically for the South African variant.

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If you’ve been reading stand-your-hair-on-end stories about people in Europe dying after getting a Covid vaccine, go find your comb and get your hairdo in place: There’s no evidence that their deaths had anything to do with the vaccine. 

In most countries, early vaccinations have focused on the elderly, and–well, the thing about old people is that we develop the habit of dying. In larger numbers than other age groups. So the vaccinated group included a lot of people who weren’t well to start with. And they died, but their deaths haven’t been linked to the vaccines. 

I subscribe to, among other things, a conspiracy-inflected newsletter, and it’s been counting the dead gleefully, without hinting that there might be extenuating circumstances. 

It helps me remember how crazy the world’s gotten lately.

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The fear that Covid will mutate until it’s beyond the reach of vaccines has kept the news–and I assume sensible scientists as well–focused on Covid’s new variants. So let’s talk about variants:

They happen by accident. Mutations are random–they have no plan and no goal. If you’re not a fan of evolution, this is the time to change the channel, because what I’m talking about is evolution at work, but speeded up enough that we can see it happening. Some of the variations are disasters for the virus and they fall off social media. Some don’t matter–they don’t have good publicity agents, they post on Twitter but no one likes or retweets them, and we never hear about them. 

Some, though, work well. I’m taking that from the virus’s point of view, remember, so that means they’re more infectious or they change clothes so the vaccine-primed immune system stops recognizing them. They’re the Kim Kardashians of the virus world. 

The reason I’m dragging you through all this is that the more times the virus mutates, the more chances it has to hit on a winning formula. So the more people become infected, the greater the chance the virus has of becoming even scarier. 

In people with suppressed immune systems, it may get to mutate even more freely.

Could it mutate enough times to become less scary? Of course. The process can go in any direction. But we can’t know which one it’ll take. It’s not a bet I’d like to make. If you hear someone saying that no one is safe until we’re all safe, this is what they’re talking about. 

Bjorn Meyer of the Pasteur Institute said that with vaccination and the distancing and cleaning measures that are in place around the world, the virus’s successful mutations are more likely to affect how easily it’s transmitted rather than how lethal it becomes. I have no idea why that should be true, so I’ll just have to take his word for it and skip merrily on to the next item.

 

Antibody therapy

A joint Swiss, Czech, and Italian effort has developed a second-generation double antibody that protects against Covid.

A what?

I know. Me too. Think of it as an arranged marriage. The researchers introduced two natural Covid antibodies that target separate sites on the virus and fused them into a single artificial molecule. As long as they both may live or until one of them has an affair with some other antibody, whichever comes first.

In pre-clinical trials, the artificial antibody neutralized Covid and its variants and kept the virus from changing its structure. If it changes its structure, remember, the antibody has to close its eyes and count to seven while the virus hides.

The antibody stands a good chance of both preventing and treating Covid but it still needs to go through human trials before. If it does go into use, it looks like a single injection will reduce the viral load in the lungs and minimize inflammation. 

Politics, economics, and interviews

I don’t know about you, but I was impressed that England had instituted a £500 grant for low-income people who test positive for Covid and have to self-isolate. It didn’t sound like enough, but it was better than nothing. Until I found out that three-quarters of the people who apply for it are turned down.

Local governments say they’re having to turn people down because the criteria are too narrow.

Thanks, guys, you’ve renewed my faith in the incompetence of the current government.

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Speaking of which: Britain’s work and pensions secretary walked out on a TV interview when she didn’t like the interviewer’s paraphrase of what she said.

Okay, it was a Zoom interview. It’s hard to walk out them with any flair, but she did turn off her camera. 

It started when Therese Coffey said Britain’s death rate was so high because it had an obesity problem and an older population. To translate that, it means, None of this is the government’s fault. 

The interviewer, Piers Morgan, turned it so the seams showed. So the public was too old and too fat, then?

“I think that’s a very insulting thing that you’ve just said,” Coffey answered. “I also have to point out that you started this interview late. Unfortunately I have to go to other broadcasters as well, and I wish we had more time.”

“It was you that boycotted the programme,” Morgan said. “Please don’t play the ‘we haven’t given you enough time’ card, because we gave you eight months and you didn’t turn up.”

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A recent report tells us that the wealth of the world’s ten richest people has increased enough during the pandemic to pay for the planet’s entire population to be vaccinated. And enough pocket money will be left over to make up for the income the poorest of them have lost. 

So how much is that in numbers? It’s £400 billion. Of course, if you have to split that with nine other people, all you get to take home is £40 billion.

 

The almost obligatory snippet of good news

I’m not doing well on the good news front, but research from the University of Illinois reports that the psychological problems of lockdown tend to fade with time as people adjust to the new normal. 

Sorry–best I could do today.