How well are China’s vaccines working?

China is exporting two vaccines, and although they’re less effective than the gold standard vaccines like Pfizer and AstraZeneca, they do work. Sinopharm is 78% effective and Sinovac is somewhere between 50% and 78%. I’m not sure why the range is so large there. Sorry. And while I’m apologizing, apologies for not having a link on this. It’s from an email newsletter the New York Times sends out. It usually has links. Maybe I’m being particularly dense today.

There’ve been questions about the vaccines, especially after vaccinated people in the Seychelles became infected, but they do seem to be useful. In the Seychelles, when vaccinated people got Covid they had mild cases and recovered at home. It’s not what we’d all hope for, but it’s a lot better than being hospitalized. Or dying. China says it can make 5 billion doses a year. The U.S. has promised to donate 500 million doses of other vaccines (I don’t think they’ve specified which) to poorer countries. Britain has promised 100 million. 

The world’s population–since this is relevant to the discussion–is 7.6 billion. Or it was in 2019. I haven’t counted it since. I did try last month but I lost track somewhere around 5 billion and didn’t have the heart to start over. The vaccine rollout in poorer countries is beyond dismal. The vaccines are going to rich countries and poor ones just can’t get them.

So weigh 600 million against 5 billion, then weigh both of those against the number of countries that can’t get hold of any useful amount of vaccine and it makes the two Sino- vaccines appealing. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Not much is known yet about how well they protect against the variants. There seems to be some reduction against the Beta and Gamma variants, but that’s still not solidly established. 

China, having gotten off to a slow start in vaccinating its population, is now working at high speed. 

I had links for all that and have succeeded in losing them. Apologies.

*

Early reports are that mixing vaccines–I think they were playing mix-and-match with the Pfizer and AstraZeneca, although the Moderna might have slipped in as well–may make them more effective, and Canada and a few European countries have started doing that. 

 

How times have changed

To boost the number of people getting vaccinated, Washington State is allowing marijuana retailers to offer a free joint to anyone who can show proof that they’ve had either their first shot or second shot. Or both at once. What the hell. If the stuff they’re offering is strong enough, who can count that high?

It also allows other businesses to offer a beer, a cocktail, or a glass of wine. Arizona and New Jersey have done similar things. Other states are running lotteries.

What are they up against in their effort to promote the vaccine? People who think getting vaccinated will cause keys to stick to their faces and forks to–

I stopped listening right about there, so I’m not sure where the forks stick. I’ve heard of food that sticks to your ribs, but we seem to have entered new territory here.  

Whether or not you’ve been vaccinated, plastic forks will not attack you. Covid restrictions allowing, you can go back to the food courts.

Antiviral drug update

If an antiviral drug that’s in late-stage testing works–and that’s not guaranteed–it could stop a Covid infection in its early stages. It could be available by the end of 2021–again, if it works.

With all those coulds in there, that sentence has a lot of wiggle room. Still, as everything we read lately says repeatedly, it could (there’s that word again) be a game changer. 

Cards? Jenga? A football team crashing through the front door and out the back?

The drug is one of several attempts to tackle Covid by treating the infection rather than vaccinating people, so let’s not bother to name this particular one and instead hope one of them comes through. Even the people weren’t cranking themselves up to be afraid of flying forks might accept this.

Or possibly not. It’s gotten so crazy out there that I’ve given up trying to predict where we’re headed.

Fighting Covid: the useless gestures and the useful ones

An article in a Canadian medical journal notes that the country’s Covid prevention advice hasn’t caught up with the current knowledge about how the disease spreads. It’s airborne, so the advice, the article says, should focus on ventilation, filtration, and better masks. 

Having recently been at a meeting where before going home we dutifully sprayed and wiped the furniture, even though it’s pointless–

Yeah. How many other people are ending meetings that way? It’s like sanitizing our hands when we walk into a shop. It’s not a useful way to keep Covid from spreading, but it’s basic politeness these days–one of those many meaningless gestures that you do to keep from scaring people.

Irrelevant photo: I wish I could tell you what this is. It’s one of a whole set of large white wildflowers that I’ve never been able to tell apart. They don’t look all that much alike, but somehow I just can’t sort out large white flowers.

A fair number of people seem to think of masks the same way, putting on masks only when other people come in, even though if they have any virus to share the breathing they did when they were alone in the room would go a long way toward sharing it.

At the meeting, we did at least open the windows, keep a decent distance, and wear masks, although not all the masks covered all the relevant body parts. You have to hope people do better with the placement of their underwear. 

As far as I know, Britain’s advice hasn’t caught up with what’s now known any better than Canada’s has.

*

Someone I know likes to tell me, with great confidence, that face masks funnel air–along with whatever germs the wearer’s sporting–off to the sides and from there to whoever’s behind the wearer. 

Okay, when I say “likes,” what I mean is “seems to like,” basing that on how often she talks about it. Maybe it’s just that my caution annoys her. I have that effect on some people.

So allow me to smugly report on a new study that measured the leakage from the sides of everyday masks. These weren’t the surgical masks that are made to have a tight fit but the ones civilians buy and, with luck, wear. They reduced the escape of particles–and that would include the Covid virus if it’s present–by an average of 93% They reduce escape from the bottom by 91%, from the sides by 85%, and from the top by 47%.

The moral of this story is that if you’re worried about masks funneling the virus toward you, do not lie on top of a mask-wearer’s head. 

You’re welcome.

The protection’s best when both people are wearing masks.

Covid and kids

During the first half of 2020, no one had reliable information about Covid’s effect on kids. Early reports on the hospitalization rate among kids spanned a jaw-dropping range from 5.7% to 63%. Estimates of its impact ranged from “it’s no worse than the flu” to fears that kids’ immature immune systems would be overwhelmed.

What can I tell you? It was new on the scene and they were working with limited information. 

So now there’s a study of 242,000 kids and adolescents from five countries who’ve been diagnosed with Covid. It compares them with 2 million who’ve been diagnosed with the flu.

What do we now know?

Epidemiologist Talita Duarte-Salles said, “It was a relief to see that fatality was rare, but clearly both complications and symptoms showed the COVID-19 was no flu in children and adolescents.” To translate that (forgive me: I just have to), kids aren’t likely to die of it, but the symptoms and complications can be serious.

We’re switching sources here, so bear with me. I had a very useful article on this that I accidentally deleted and now can’t find, so I’ll slip backwards to a somewhat less useful one that came out in April. It has estimates for the number of kids who had Covid symptoms five weeks after they were diagnosed. 

The percentages clearly aren’t of all kids, and I’m reasonably sure it’s not of all kids diagnosed with Covid. Let’s put our chips on the number of kids who got symptomatic Covid. Five weeks after they were diagnosed, 12.9% of kids between 2 and 11 still had symptoms, as did 14.5% of kids between 12 and 15 and 17.!% of teenagers and young adults. That’s a bizarre set of age categories, since the last one includes one of the earlier ones plus a few other random folks. 

Don’t worry about it. Any statisticians who accidentally read Notes have long since fled.

Another study followed 129 children who’d had Covid and found that 52.7% had at least one symptom four months later.

Some of the individual stories are frightening. They’re typical–they’re rare–but they do happen and it’s important to know that. One nine-year-old developed long Covid that included severe fatigue, sensitive skin, painful rashes, headaches, and indigestion. She lost her senses of taste and smell. Another–also a nine-year-old–had slurred speech, tremors, and brain fog. He became so weak that he had to use first a walker and then a wheelchair.

Again, none of that is typical, but as the epidemiologist said, this is not the flu.

The Covid chronicles: Is herd immunity still possible?

With Covid raging in India and Brazil, it’s a strange time to be talking about herd immunity, but a cluster of scientific articles are doing just that. 

How many people need to be immune to a disease in order for the population as a whole to be protected? The answer varies with the disease. For measles, which is very contagious, the estimate is 95%. Vaccinate that many (or wait till they get sick and grow their own immunity) and the other 5% will get protection simply from not being around anyone covered with itchy little spots. 

For the initial Covid strain, the best guess was that herd immunity would come when 70% of the population was immune. But as a planet, we handled the disease so badly that we’re not dealing with that strain anymore. Instead, we have a small raft of more contagious strains, so the bar we have to jump over before we reach herd immunity has probably gone from–oh, let’s say waist height to shoulder height. 

Oh, yes, lucky us.

Irrelevant photo: Wood anemones.

So far, the countries with widespread vaccination programs also have groups of people who refuse to be vaccinated–that’s in addition to some who for medical reasons can’t be. They also have groups who for social and political reasons haven’t been reached. The US and UK haven’t done as well at vaccinating ethnic minority groups as they have at vaccinating whites. When I last checked, in April, Israel had gotten only dribbles of vaccine to the occupied territories, saying they weren’t its problem.

And most importantly, the world at large has done a shit job of getting vaccine to the poorer countries. So all those pools of unvaccinated people are where the disease will spread and mutate and create new variants, each of which carries in its itty bitty little pockets the possibility of outrunning the vaccines that those of us who are vaccinated are so relieved to have. 

Israel has vaccinated just upwards of 60% of its population and has in large part returned to normal life, but that normality depends on keeping its borders largely closed and wearing masks indoors. Countries like New Zealand and Australia, which have in large part stamped out the virus, rely on tight border control and strict quarantine. How long they can or have the will to keep those barriers in place remains to be seen.

One article (the link’s above) says that the trick will be keeping restrictions in place once case and hospitalization numbers drop. Primarily, it says, these will be Covid tests and masks. 

And just so’s you know: There’s no agreed-upon definition of herd immunity. I’m going to skip the details and say only that this doesn’t make the conversation about it any clearer. For a sensible discussion, go here.

Some of the articles I’ve read say we’re unlikely to ever completely eliminate Covid. In countries that have been heavily (but not completely) vaccinated, it’s likely to continue circulating and causing deaths, but at dramatically lower rates.  

Sorry. It’s not the knock-out punch we were all hoping for, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci tells us not to worry about herd immunity.

“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is.

“That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”

 

The search for a Covid pill

At least three of the big drug companies are working on pills to keep mild Covid from turning into severe Covid. If they succeed, they’d make Covid’s continued presence in our lives a hell of a lot more manageable.

The first days after the virus moves into a human host are its busiest. It sets up housekeeping in a cell and creates a family to admire its work. And then the family spreads out, setting up housekeeping in new cells. And so forth. It multiplies like mad, and that’s when we’d need to drop that little pill–you know: the one that doesn’t quite exist yet–down our throats to disrupt the sequence. 

Researchers have trolled through existing drugs, hoping to find one that would, by chance, do the job but so far haven’t come up with anything. Hence the search for new ones.

One that’s in development is a protease inhibitor, which would interfere with the enzymes the virus needs to multiply. (No, don’t ask me. I’m just playing parrot here.) Drugs that treat AIDS and hepatitis C are protease inhibitors, in case that gives you the same illusion of understanding that glowed so nicely in my brain until I realizes I didn’t really understand a thing.

Other drugs in development target the virus itself. That does’t glow quite as nicely and I’d love to say more about the process but that’s all I’ve got, although I can repeat that they’d disrupt the virus’s ability to replicate itself.

The companies are hoping to have the first of the drugs on the market by the end of the year. And they may end up being used in combination to keep the virus from evolving some form of resistance. 

Don’t give up, folks. We’ll get through this, even if life isn’t quite the same as it used to be.

It wasn’t perfect then either, was it?

Is a universal coronavirus vaccine a pipe dream?

Scientists are in the (very) early stages of working out a universal vaccine against coronaviruses–one that would block not only Covid’s existing and future variants but any new coronaviruses that emerge.

Okay, let’s call that a possible vaccine. It could easily not work out, but on the other hand no law of nature says that it can’t. Scientists have been doing the next-to-impossible a lot lately. I’ve started to take it for granted. 

IMG_0082 (1)

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud, stolen from an old post because I’m trapped in WordPress’s horrible new editing program and haven’t found a way to drop in new photos at full size. I had a way to avoid the new system, but they’ve blocked it.  

They can approach the task in two ways. One is to make a mosaic vaccine. That has nothing to do with Moses–you know, the guy with the stone tablets. It’s from the word for those tiny pieces of colored tile that make up a picture. The vaccine takes particles from several Covid variants or other coronaviruses and sticks them onto a nanoparticle–a very tiny biological structure made up of proteins. Think of it as sticking some olives on a toothpick.

Or don’t. It’s your mind. I’ll never know. But if you do want to go out on that imaginary limb with me, watch while I saw it off behind us: We’re going to take that toothpick with its olives and drop it into the martini of your immune system.

Thwack. That was the sound of us hitting the ground, olives and all.

It would make a nice lullabye, don’t you think?

Now that we’ve dusted ourselves off, we can let our immune systems figure out what those bits of virus have in common and arm itself–and us–against that.

When this was tried in mice, their immune systems created a broad range of neutralizing antibodies. And creating neutralizing antibodies is the main goal of any vaccine.

Mice–as no doubt you already know–are not humans. They’re also not martinis, so this may not transfer seamlessly from them to us. But it holds some promise.

If you’ll let me brush those twigs out of your hair, we can go on.

The second approach has the scientists looking for features that are common to all coronaviruses. That could mean analyzing their genetic sequences to see where they overlap. It could also mean looking for immune cells that react to either all coronaviruses or to a number of variants, and then mapping the parts of the virus that they target. After that, all that’s left is to create a vaccine aimed at that spot.

Nothing to it.

Those of you who don’t drink will be relieved to know that no martinis are involved in this approach.

Now I’ll throw cold water on the whole project and tell you that scientists have been trying to come up with a universal flu vaccine and a universal HIV vaccine for years. The candidates have been safe but not impressively effective. Still, Covid doesn’t mutate as quickly as either HIV or the flu.

Yes, really. In spite of everything we’ve been reading about variants. This is what’s called slow mutation. 

So no one’s offering guarantees that this will work, but it’s a bright spot on the horizon. 

The horizon, unfortunately, is a good long way away.

Policy-type stuff

An international survey of how countries handled the pandemic shows that autocracies and democracies did equally well and equally badly, as did rich countries and poor countries and countries governed by populists and countries governed by technocrats. In other words, none of those were decisive factors.

Lockdowns of one sort or another do break the chain of infection, but they’re not universally successful. If the population doesn’t trust the government, they don’t seem to work. (I’m stretching the study’s conclusion a bit there. It sounds more tentative about it.) Economic support may make lockdowns more effective. (“May”? I can’t imagine the part of the world where making sure people who can’t work can still eat and pay their rent wouldn’t help. Never mind. It’s not my study. They’re not my conclusions.)

Some countries with strong scientific capacity and healthcare systems have responded badly, and some countries with far less (Mongolia, Thailand, Senegal) have both kept their people healthy and the economy running. 

Some countries (Taiwan, Vietnam, and New Zealand get a mention) did well in controlling the first wave and kept control from there on. Others did well in the first wave but the waves that followed swept over them. 

I’ll get out of the way now and let the people involved in the study have the last word:

“While our work has tracked individual governments’ responses, it is clear that exiting the pandemic will require global cooperation. Until transmission is curtailed throughout the world with restrictions and vaccinations, the risk of new variants sending us back to square one cannot be ignored.”

In other words, we’re all in this together. Even when we don’t act as if we are.

*

So let’s check in on a country that’s managed well and hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity. 

Before it had its first Covid case, Iceland had a testing system and a contact-tracing team, ready to go to work as soon as they found their first case. They put everyone who tested positive into isolation and traced their contacts. The word one of the people involved uses, with no apology, is aggressively.

Isolation–as least in Reykjavik–is in a hotel that was converted for the purpose. In response to which the staff walked out. The man in charge (I have no idea what his title is–sorry; let’s call him Gylfi Thor Thorsteinsson, since that’s his name) coaxed them back. They work in full protective gear. Thorsteinsson at least goes into people’s rooms to keep them company.  I assume many of the others go in as well, but the article I read didn’t say. In the past year, the hotel’s taken care of more patients than all the hospitals in Iceland rolled into one.

After Iceland got its first wave under control, they closed the hotel. Then they immediately had to reopen it when two tourists who’d tested positive went a-wandering. And by immediately, I do mean immediately. They just had a goodbye party for the staff when they had to say hello again. 

Now anyone who lands at the airport is tested and put into quarantine. As a result, Iceland is a country where people can go to bars, eat out, and generally wander the world without masks, as if life was normal. Not because they’re risking their lives and other people’s but because it’s safe.

At one point, someone carrying the UK Covid variant slipped through the net and spread it to a second person, who went to work in a hospital and in case that wasn’t bad enough went to a concert with 800 other people, who all crammed into the bar during the intermission. 

Whee. Viral playtime.

Within hours, the tracing system had contacted every one of them. Within days, they’d tested 1,000 people, finding two cases, and they were taken to the isolation hotel. 

And that was it. The virus was contained. 

Why has Iceland been so successful? Thorsteinsson said it’s because “it has been the scientists making up the rules, not the politicians. That matters. They know what they are talking about, the politicians do not.”

The prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, seconded that. 

I think it’s important for a politician to realize what is politics and what needs to be solved by scientific means. It’s my firm belief that we need to listen more to the experts.”

 

A short technical rant

WordPress in its wisdom has blocked the back road that once allowed me to use its manageable Classic Editor, so I’m now trapped in the new one. If anyone knows how to size photos (or knows a back road), pleasepleaseplease let me know. Thanks.

How countries respond to a pandemic: from the competent to the stupid

What’s the best way to respond to a pandemic? I’m asking out of purely academic interest, you understand, but a study of how twenty-seven countries responded to the pandemic–

Oh, hell, let’s drop twenty-two of those. Life’s complicated enough, and the article I’m relying on already dropped them for us, but let’s pretend we had a choice. We’ll look at two that handled it well and three that blew it. It’s not in depth, but it’s interesting all the same. 

The two? South Korea and Ghana–which is to say, one that I knew about and one that I didn’t. Ghana hasn’t been in any of the news that I’ve seen until now.

South Korea acknowledged the threat in January 2020, encouraged people to wear masks, and introduced a contact-tracing app. They avoided a lockdown. 

Let me quote the article here: “Each change in official alert level, accompanied by new advice regarding social contact, was carefully communicated by Jung Eun-Kyung, the head of the country’s Centre for Disease Control, who used changes in her own life to demonstrate how new guidance should work in practice.”

In other words, they had a human being leading them through it and acting like a human being. Yes, the advice changed over time, but it wasn’t rocket science.

Then Ghana comes in and ruins my theory that politicians should get out of the way and let the public health people handle public health communications. The president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, “took responsibility for coronavirus policy and explained carefully each measure required, being honest about the challenges the nation faced. Simple demonstrations of empathy earned him acclaim within his nation and also around the world.”

One of the things he said resonates strongly with me, because it’s the opposite of the approach Britain took: “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life.”

On the other hand, we have Brazil, India, and the UK, which gave out inconsistent messages about the threat, downplayed the dangers, made impulsive decisions, and ended up with high on the list of deaths per capita. 

In Britain, Boris Johnson prioritized the economy over controlling the virus, and before he came down with Covid himself he was tap dancing through hospitals and shaking hands with infected people. Against all public health advice.

If I were giving out public health advice, I’d advise him not to tap dance. Certainly not in public.

For clarity: I made up the tap dancing in an effort to be funny. It’s been a long week here. Sometimes the jokes work and sometimes they don’t.

A rare relevant photo: Fast Eddie, following the sleep experts’ advice. I know, you haven’t gotten to that part yet, but it’s in here somewhere.

Britain has one of the highest per capita death rates.

Yay us! We’re the envy of the world.

A year into the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro (who also managed to catch Covid) is still criticizing attempts to control the disease and at the beginning of March told Brazilians to stop whining about it. Well let that stand in from his approach from the beginning.

Brazil’s death rate is behind Britain’s and the US’s, but it’s high.

And in India, Narendra Modi at least took the virus seriously, but he called a lockdown with four hours notice, doing nothing to support people who would be out of work and desperate. That set off a mass migration of the poorest laborers, who left the cities for their home villages. The choice was to was walk home or starve. Those who were carrying the virus spread it. 

India has an impressive death rate too.

The article’s summary is that countries that politicized the virus, made last-minute decisions, or were stupidly optimistic had the most cases and the most deaths. 

They don’t say “stupidly.” They’re professionals. They can’t. 

 

News from assorted scientists

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention, but with some U.S. states dropping their mask mandates, it might be worth mentioning a study that shows a correlation between wearing masks and a lower number of Covid cases and deaths.

I know. I’m shocked too. Who’d have imagined wearing masks would cut transmission of an air-borne virus? 

The same study also shows that opening restaurants correlates with a rise in the number of cases and deaths. Probably because it’s hard to eat without taking your mask off. 

The study has its limits. It’s hard to isolate a single cause when a lot of factors are bouncing around in the dark and smashing into each other. But we got where we are by not listening to health information that didn’t make us happy. We might outta listen to this.

*

A different study–a small one–suggests that it’s safe for healthy people to wear face masks when they exercise indoors–even when they do vigorous workouts. Which is good to know, although I’m still trying to figure out why anyone thought it wouldn’t be. If we were being asked to stuff masks down our throats and up our noses, I’d expect problems, but unless I’m seriously misunderstanding the situation, no one’s asking that.

Masks did have a small effect on the workouts–they reduced people’s peak oxygen uptake by 10%.

“This reduction is modest,” one of the researchers said, “and, crucially, it does not suggest a risk to healthy people doing exercise in a face mask, even when they are working to their highest capacity. While we wait for more people to be vaccinated against COIVD-19, this finding could have practical implications in daily life, for example potentially making it safer to open indoor gyms.

“However, we should not assume that the same is true for people with a heart or lung condition. We need to do more research to investigate this question.”

*

Yet another study reports that spacing out the first and second doses of a vaccine does reduce the number of Covid cases in the short term but that in the long term–well, basically no one knows what impact it’ll have. It’s not clear how long immunity from a single dose will last or how (as they put it) robust it’ll be. If the immune response after one dose isn’t as robust as it would be after two, it could increase the size of a later outbreak. 

And then there’s the possibility that people with partial immunity could increase the odds that the virus will mutate in ways that allow it to escape the vaccine.

Isn’t this fun?

Don’t loose sleep over this yet. They’re only raising possibilities.

*

Still, though, if you’re feeling paranoid about Covid, sleep experts in Australia have reminded us all that sleep is essential to our immune systems.

Yeah, thanks, folks. We kind of knew that.

Just before I got vaccinated (or half vaccinated, since that’s the way Britain’s handling it) I read that to maximize the vaccine’s impact I should get a good night’s sleep beforehand. That was enough to guarantee that I didn’t. 

One of the many oddities of getting older has been that I–lifelong insomniac that I was–now sleep well. Except when someone tells me that I really need a good night’s sleep before some particularly important event. 

But never mind me. Sleep well. Your health depends on it. 

 

An update on Huge Ma

Remember Huge Ma, a New York programer who spent two weeks and $50 creating a free website, TurboVax, that would simplify the tangle of websites New Yorkers needed to negotiate to get a vaccination appointment? Well, he’s been overwhelmed with gratitude, with requests to set up similar sites in other places, and with so much traffic that the site’s buckling. 

I’m not sure what it means, specifically, when they say the site’s buckling, but when he created it he took shortcuts so he could get it working quickly.

I think that’s a trade-off that I would still make,” he said. “The response has been incredibly overwhelming. There’s been so much gratitude. Hundreds, thousands of emails from people who have gotten appointments through TurboVax, which is honestly kind of just mind-blowing, and humbling as well. . . .

“I would never have thought that I could have built something that has such tangible impact on other people’s lives.”

Other citizen-led sites have appeared around the U.S., but it’s very much hit and miss. “There is a huge need for tools like this,” Ma said. “But I’m just one developer who did a side project that went viral.”

Ma did suspend the site for a weekend to protest hate crimes against Asian Americans, which have increased recently. 

“While I have this platform,” he said, “as an Asian American myself I can do more than what is expected and highlight a group and an environment that needs changing.”

Cold combustion as a way to kill Covid

A German project called CoClean-up (which sounds English to me, but what do I know?) has developed an air filtration system that doesn’t capture the Covid virus but destroys it, meaning that no one has to change air filters or figure out what to do with dirty filters once they’re removed.  All the process leaves behind is CO2 and hydrogen, neither of which is toxic.

The system uses cold combustion, and I never heard of it either. Air’s fed through a saline solution (basically, salt water of one sort or another). That filters out any organic particles, which includes Covid. Two electrodes run zap the saline solution. Tiny amounts of CO2 forms around one electrode and hydrogen at the other. They disperse into the room, along with the cleaned air. 

It’s still being tested, and a demonstrator model should be introduced in April. If all goes well, they expect to launch the thing commercially in another eighteen months.

Irrelevant photo: crocuses

 

A follow-up on vaccines and transmission

After falling for just long enough to tempt a person into optimism, worldwide Covid infection rates are rising again. The only exception at the moment is Africa. 

So let’s grab what good news we can: A study following vaccinated and unvaccinated health care workers reports that the Pfizer vaccine sharply reduced the number of asymptomatic Covid cases. That means that it also reduced the chances that a vaccinated person would transmit the virus: If you’re not carrying the disease, you don’t get to pass it on. Look it up in the handbook. Those are the rules. You can take it up with the management if you don’t like them.

From here on, I warn you, a lot of numbers have pushed their way in. It’s not my fault. They got in the door before I could slam it.

Ready?

In the unvaccinated group, 0.8% of the group tested positive for Covid but had no symptoms. Compare that to 0.37% in the group that had been vaccinated less than 12 days before. 

Why 12 days? That’s the number of days after vaccination when the immune system’s believed to wake up and get to work. That’s in the handbook too. It’s also the number of days in a traditional Christmas–the kind almost no one in English-speaking countries celebrates anymore. And the number of months in the calendar.

More than 12 days after vaccination, 0.2% tested positive. 

That’s not sterilizing immunity, but it does give the virus fewer chances to migrate from person to person–and with that, fewer chances to mutate. Take a deep breath. We’re making a bit of progress here. We still need masks. We still need distance. We don’t have reports on how the other vaccines are doing as far as transmission goes, and anyone who’s lucky enough to have been vaccinated needs to remember that not everyone has been and they could still pass it on. But we’re making a bit of progress.

 

Variants

A variant found in the Brazilian city of Manaus–the P.1 variant–has infected people who had recovered from an earlier strain of Covid. Out of a hundred people who recovered from an earlier strain, the estimate is that somewhere between 25 and 61 people could be reinfected. That’s a hell of a range, so we’re still dealing with rough estimates, but it’s sobering all the same, and a reminder to anyone who still believes that herd immunity will save our asses that herd immunity is not our mother and does not love us. If the big kids on the block pick on us, it will not come swooping down and send them home crying.

It’s also a reminder that until everyone is safe, no one is safe. And did I happen to mention that just ten countries have gotten three-quarters of the 191 million Covid vaccinations that have been delivered to date?)

The new variant may also weaken the effect of the vaccine being used in Brazil–one of the Chinese ones. The vaccine will still prevent severe Covid, and masks and distancing will still reduce transmission, so it’s not time to roll over and play dead, but the variant is spreading in Brazil and has popped up in other countries–24 of them at last count.  

*

With talk of Covid variants spreading at roughly the same rate as Covid itself, the question of what to call them has gotten serious. Someone who speaks medicalese will have no problem remembering the difference between B.1.351 and VOC 202012/02, but the rest of us tend to glaze over when we hear the official names. We fall back on place names: The British variant (a.k.a the Kent variant). The South African variant. The Brazilian variant, only, oops, that’s now two variants. 

Why’s that a problem? First, because in a place as big as Brazil with as many cases as it has is almost bound to come up with more than one variant if it’s given enough time. Second, because humans are a difficult species and when a place is associated with a scary variant they tend to blame the place, along with the people who come from there. And third, because the places where the variants were found aren’t necessarily the places where the variants emerged. They just happen to be the places where they were first noticed.

So the World Health Organization has put together a committee to come up with a more sensible naming system. Not for every variant, only for the worrying ones. The names have to be easy to pronounce and easy to remember, and they have to avoid badmouthing the regions where the variants were found.  

One possibility is to name them in the order they were identified, giving us V1, V2, and so on. It’s not as much fun as naming storms, but it does avoid the problem of keeping an even balance of genders and languages.

 

Kids, Covid, Catholics, and Dolly Parton

For perfectly sensible reasons, researchers set out to discover what kids know about Covid, along with what they want to know and how they feel. They had some good questions. They knew some perfectly sensible things. We’ll ignore all of that to focus on one memorable quote.

“It is a stupid virus.”  

*

The Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans told its parishioners to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it was developed using a “morally compromised” cell line that originated from aborted fetuses. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are okay, even though some lab testing involved “abortion-derived cell lines.”

What’s the difference? Beats me. 

Pope Francis has already said it’s “morally acceptable” to get any of the vaccines. So we‘ve finally found someone who really is more Catholic than the Pope.

*

Dolly Parton got vaccinated and sang–to the tune of “Jolene”–“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, / I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. / Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, / because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

To people who are hesitating, she said, “I just want to say to all of you cowards out there – don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot.” Click on the link and you can hear her. 

Last year, she donated $1 million to help fund research on the Moderna vaccine. 

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. 

*

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.

Will Britain go into full Covid lockdown?

Covid cases are rising across Britain, with ambulances backing up outside the hospital doors and hospitals reporting that the rivets are popping out of their metaphorical bluejeans. The Independent Sage group is calling for another national lockdown. 

What’s Independent Sage? It’s a scientific advisory group that the government doesn’t listen to because it’s independent. The government has its own fully domesticated Sage group, but I can’t guarantee that it listens to them either.

 

Current Covid restrictions

As I write, 40% of England is in the highest Covid restriction tier–that’s tier 4–with the devolved governments (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland) setting assorted their own standards and if I had a shred of decency I’d cover them as well but it’s hard enough to keep this mess straight without taking in all its complications. I live in Cornwall, which legally speaking is part of England. That sets my focus. 

Apologies. I’m not a real newspaper, I just suffer from the occasional delusion that I should be. 

Irrelevant photo: A tree, pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

One of the primary differences between tier 4 and the lockdown we had earlier in the year, when the government woke up and noticed that the pandemic hadn’t skipped merrily over Britain on its way to the US or Ireland, is that under tier 4 the schools stay open. 

The cabinet office minister, Michael Gove–a man who looks like a balloon wearing a bowtie–says England’s secondary schools will be safe to reopen after the holidays if the kids come back in stages instead of all at once. They’ll be protected by rapid-results Covid testing, which is roughly 50% accurate (not to mention 50% inaccurate, which sounds 51% more shocking than if you put it the other way around). 

Teachers unions and an organization of school governors say the testing can’t realistically be set up in the time they’ve been given. Other than those small problems, though, it’s a great plan.

As an aside, I agree that it’s cheesy to attack people for their looks, but you have to make an exception for some people. Not because of their looks. Because of their actions. 

Okay, it’s cheesy in all situations. What can I tell you? I’m not a good person. 

The cabinet is reported to be split over reopening the schools, and Independent Sage has called for schools to be reopened only when smaller classes, adequate ventilation, and free masks can be organized. That will all happen the minute someone locks the current government in a back room–I understand there’s a small one available underneath Big Ben–and launches a coup.

 

Assorted recommendations

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says the only way for the country not to exceed the levels of intensive care unit usage set during the first Covid peak is to impose nationwide tier 4 restrictions after Boxing Day (that was December 26, which has come and gone without the advice being followed); keep the schools closed throughout January; and vaccinate 2 million people a week. 

I can’t find any ongoing vaccination figures, but in the first week roughly 138,000 people were vaccinated. I’m not good with numbers, but I’m reasonably sure that’s less than 2 million.

 Independent Sage has called for: 

  • Covid tracing to be run by local public health staff, since contracting it out has been a staggeringly expensive disaster, and for it to trace not just who the identified carriers gave the disease to but also who they got it from. 
  • Practical support to be given to people who have to isolate. They cite New York as an example, where support can range from money to a hotel room to pet care.  In Britain, they say, less than 20% of people with symptoms self-isolate.
  • Workplaces to be adapted to prevent transmission. This would involve funding, inspection, and certification of all workplaces.
  • Financial support to be available to the public. Inequality, they say, plays a central role in the pandemic. 

 

Who gets the vaccine?

Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, has called for a public debate about vaccination priorities. National Health Service staff weren’t in the top priority group, although their work exposes them to the virus and staffing shortages are one of the reasons the hospitals’ rivets are popping out of place. 

They are in the second group, which is now being vaccinated, but they’re getting just 5% of the doses, which translates, in expert language, to nowhere near enough to go around. 

 

Life under lockdown 

A new report on what Britons did during the height of lockdown tells us that they spent 40% of their waking time watching TV–90 minutes a day more than in the comparable month last year. 

How much time is that? If 90 minutes leaves London traveling west at a speed of 65 miles per hour and Arabella British stays awake watching 40% of her TV from her couch–which she may call a sofa or a settee or a davenport, depending on what class she comes from or wants to sound like she comes from–

Sorry, where were we? All I have to do is catch a whiff of how class affects British word choice and I get disoriented. And extremely American.

The couch. I was trying to work out how much time, in absolute numbers, Arabella British spent watching TV during (or was it before?) lockdown, but I’m beginning to understand that I won’t come up with the number. Possibly not with the figures I’ve been given and definitely not the mind I so impulsively bought. She watched a lot of TV. Let’s leave it there. With a second full-scale lockdown looking possible, you have to wonder if we’ll keep in touch with reality at all or just give in and lose ourselves in our screens. 

*

A small group of Britons lurched into the cold brick wall of reality just hard enough to decide they didn’t like it, so they packed up and fled.

What am I talking about? A bunch of British tourists at a Swiss ski resort were told to quarantine for ten days from the date of their arrival to avoid spreading Britain’s new Covid variant all over Switzerland. 

Or maybe they were staying in several Swiss ski resorts, not one. It doesn’t matter. Swiss officials found about 420 British tourists, told them to stay in their rooms to avoid infecting anyone else, and about half of them packed up and snuck away in the night, leaving a trail of their possible germs all the way to the French border and from there back to Britain.

In case that doesn’t offend you sufficiently, I’ll add that once they got home some of them called the hotel to ask if they still had to pay for the nights they’d booked but not used. Or if I’m guessing right about the sort of people they are, they called not to ask but to demand a refund. 

 

Update

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved for use in Britain. It’s cheaper and easier to produce and store than the Pfizer vaccine, although the statistics on how effective it is are a bit on the murky side. It’s far better than nothing. Right now, that looks pretty good.

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. 

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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 

*

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. 

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.  

The Oxford vaccine: a quick update

Thanksgiving brings less than great news on the Oxford vaccine: Its tests used control groups that weren’t comparable, and its initial report kind of glossed over that by averaging the two together. One group got two equal doses of the vaccine. The other got an initial half dose, then a second full dose, and it responded better than the first.

But that second group also had a top age of 55 and the other group included older people. So what was responsible for the difference, age or dosage? 

The control groups in the two different tests–those are the people who didn’t get the real vaccine–also got different placebos, which may or may not make a difference.

That initial half dose wasn’t a deliberate decision but a manufacturing mistake that seems to have paid off. Regulators were told about it at the time.

I’m not sure how much of a problem any of this is. An article in Wired makes it sound damn near skulldugerous. One in the Financial Times is more ho-hum about it. At this point, it’s worth knowing while we wait and see what the experts have to say.