What does it mean that a Covid vaccine is, say, 70% effective?

Let’s start by talking about what it doesn’t mean. If a vaccine is 70% effective against a virus it doesn’t mean that 30% of the people who’ve been vaccinated will get infected. That’s an assumption that only people whose math is as bad as mine would make. The kind of people who juggle the numbers 70, 30, and 100 and come up with an answer that’s as likely looking as it is meaningless.

It turns out that the number doesn’t compare the vaccinated people who stay well to the  vaccinated people who get sick. Nay, verily, it compares the vaccinated people who get sick (or who stay well) to the unvaccinated people who get sick (or who stay well). To put that a different way (because I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling with this), it compares the risk vaccinated people run in the presence of Covid to the risk unvaccinated people run.

This matters because it leaves us with a much smaller pool of people who are vulnerable.

If you’d care to read about that with actual numbers and sensible writers, follow the link. I have a severe allergy to math and I know better than to attempt a full explanation. 

Irrelevant photo: Red clover. I’ll come back with more kitten photos soon.

 

Who gets sick with the Delta variant and can the vaccinated spread it?

In the US, 95% to 98% of the people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated, and 99.5% of the deaths are of the unvaccinated. Even with the Delta variant circulating, that seems to be holding true.

But some numbers have changed since the initial vaccine studies, and they have to do with what Dr. Robert Schooley, from the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, calls “the asymptomatic shedding rate among vaccinated individuals,” which in human speech means how much of the virus is spread by vaccinated people who get infected but don’t get sick.

Or to push that one step further, how dangerous they are to the unvaccinated.

When the vaccines were tested, the Delta variant wasn’t around yet. They were dealing with a less infectious beast. On top of which, no one thought to investigate the odd sniffles and colds that people in the study cooked up. They were allergies. They were colds. They were flu. 

Remember the old days, when people caught colds? 

So the study didn’t track them.

Now, though, they’re realizing that those mild symptoms could be nearly asymptomatic Covid, and what’s known so far is that some fully vaccinated people who get infected carry enough of the virus to spread it, even though it’s not making them sick.

How do they compare with unvaccinated people as far as spreading the thing goes? The numbers aren’t in yet. I mean, they’re out there. Numbers always are. But nobody’s assembled them yet. On average, though, Schooley says the infected vaccinated person will shed less virus for a shorter time. And the odds that they’ll become infected are lower, so whatever the eventual picture turns out to be, vaccinating people does slow the spread of the disease.

 

Are the vaccines losing their effectiveness? 

As has become usual since the pandemic started, we’re not likely to find a definitive answer yet, but it does look like the number of breakthrough cases in vaccinated people is growing.

What’s a breakthrough case? A Covid case in someone who’s vaccinated. Getting one doesn’t mean you’re dead, hospitalized, or even necessarily sick. It just means you’re carrying the infection, when if the vaccines were 100% effective (very few are and no one expected these to be), you wouldn’t be. 

So if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s not time to panic yet. You can always do that later. 

Why’s this happening? The experts are still debating that, but it doesn’t look like the Delta variant is evading either the vaccines or immunity from earlier infections. 

That’s another reason to wait before you panic.

If Delta hasn’t broken through the vaccines’ protective lines, that leaves us with two possibilities. One, the vaccines’ effectiveness is fading, or two, Delta’s high transmissibility is responsible.

Several studies show what could be a waning in vaccine effectiveness, but it’s hard to know if the numbers really mean that. They could also mean that vaccinated people are taking more risks–going to bars or gyms or other Covid exchange sites–and giving themselves more chances to meet the virus.

And protection against getting so sick that you need to be hospitalized, though, is holding steady, which may mean effectiveness isn’t waning. All this will be perfectly clear in hindsight, but for now we have to make do with what we can see from where we are.

So do booster shots make sense? 

On the side of saying no are the many countries that the vaccines have barely reached. How can rich countries be talking about booster shots when initial doses are desperately needed elsewhere?

On the side of saying yes is that in people with weakened immune systems, because of either age or disease, they can make a difference, although the evidence on that is still preliminary.

 

Testing news

A new study shows that testing saliva for Covid is as reliable as testing nasal swabs. So at some point we may be able to stop puncturing our brain pans with sticks that are allegedly softened with cotton wool–or something that looks vaguely like cotton wool.

If Covid tests shift to using saliva, they won’t have to rely on patents’ willingness to make themselves uncomfortable, which will make them more reliable. And we won’t have to worry about a shortage of swabs.

If, in fact, worrying about that is one of the things that’s keeping you up at night.

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Several times now, I’ve sworn off writing about newer, faster, cheaper Covid tests because although I keep reading about them, they never seem to be adopted–at least not anywhere I read about, and certainly not where I live. But you know how it is when you swear off something multiple times: It’s a sign that you keep breaking your word. So here we go again:

A newer, faster, cheaper Covid test has been developed. And it uses the same stuff that pencil lead is made from, which isn’t lead at all, it’s graphite. It cuts the cost to $1.50 per test, takes six and a half minutes, and is 100% accurate using a saliva sample and 88% using one of those evil nasal thingies.

The system can be adapted to test for other transmissible diseases. Now all we have to do is wait and see whether we hear of it again.

Younger, sicker, quicker: does the Delta variant target young people?

An article in the New York Times considers why the Covid Delta variant is hospitalizing more young people than the beginning-of-the-alphabet variants did. The answers are still a bit iffy, since the numbers involved haven’t had the time or money to hold a convention yet, but the phrase front-line doctors are whispering to each other, at least in the US, is younger, sicker, quicker: The patients are younger and sicker and they’re deteriorating faster. Or quicker. Or more quickly. Or possibly in a greater hurry.

The article’s talking about patients in their twenties and thirties. And these aren’t people with risk factors like diabetes or obesity. What they are is unvaccinated.

Some doctors think the Delta variant is what’s making the difference. It’s suspected of causing more severe disease, although that’s still educated guesswork. See above about the numbers. It may also be hitting an age group that was thought to have a Get out of Covid Free card. But as the Times puts it, “There is no definitive data showing that the new variant is somehow worse for young adults.”

I don’t often get to correct the Times, but technically that should be “definitive data…are.” It sounds awful, but it’s right.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

So we don’t have solid data. It could be that the high percentage of younger patients is a result of older people being vaccinated in higher numbers than younger people. Take, say, 90% of old people out of your hospital emergency rooms and your patients’ average age falls dramatically. 

It’s also possible that the numbers are a result of people mixing more just when a more contagious variant is circulating, a significant pool of people remain unvaccinated, and many people aren’t wearing masks.

However.

According to an internal Centers for Disease Control document that somehow wandered into the Times newsroom with a sign saying, “Read me,” the Delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox and “may cause more severe disease than Alpha or ancestral strains.” If that turns out to be true, it would account for those hospitalized patients who are sicker and deteriorating more quickly.

According to  Dr. Catherine O’Neal, of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, “Something about this virus is different in this age group. We always saw some people who we just said, ‘Why the heck did this get them?’ But that was rare. Now we’re seeing it more commonly.

“I think it is a new Covid.”

Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said, “Our sense is that younger, healthier people are more susceptible to the Delta variant than those that were circulating earlier. . . .

“The transition we saw toward younger patients and toward people getting sick more quickly coincided almost precisely with the emergence of Delta here in Arkansas. This to us feels like an entirely different disease.”

 

Meanwhile back in Downing Street 

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, was exposed to Covid last week. Or else he wasn’t exposed. Either way, he’s not going to go into isolation because, basically, he doesn’t want to. He went into isolation before (under protest) and he’s bored with it.

Besides, what’s the point of being the prime minister if you have to follow the same rules as everyone else?

The exposure happened when one of his aides tested positive on a political visit to Scotland. The aide dutifully went into isolation. A Downing Street spokesperson informed us, with a straight face, that he and Johnson weren’t in close contact. Yes, they were in a plane together, but Johnson didn’t inhale. And neither did anyone else on the plane.

The rules on isolation are set to change on August 16. After that, vaccinated people will be exempt. Before Johnson was exposed himself, he’d resisted calls to move the date forward, saying it was important that everyone follow the rules.

Unless they happen to be him. 

 

Vaccine news

Of the 100 Covid vaccines now in development, 7 of them are nasal sprays, and nasal sprays have advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, they act more quickly and if you’re twitchy about needles they won’t make you twitch. Since Covid tends to enter the body through the nose, nasal sprays deliver the vaccine to the site of the infection. They act faster than injected vaccines. And “ they can elicit mucosal immunity in the lungs.”

You might want to notice that, for fear of screwing it up, I’m not rewording that. I think I understand it but I don’t want to find out I’m wrong. You’re on your own.

On the down side, the immunity created by nasal spray vaccines doesn’t last as long. And they use live viruses that have had the hell kicked out of them so that they won’t make most people sick, but with a very, very few they will.

Using both forms of vaccine isn’t out of the question–one for its fast action, the other for its long life.

One trial gave infected animals the AstraZeneca vaccine as a nasal spray, and it decreased their viral load, which doesn’t prove–but does suggest–that it decreases the amount of virus they shed.

To translate that, they might be less likely to infect anyone else. 

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Let’s end on a hopeful note. Scientists are working on a vaccine that targets a huge category of coronaviruses known for jumping from animals to humans. They’re called sarbecoviruses, and Covid’s one of them. The idea is that this would work not just against whatever variant Covid can cook up but against whatever coronavirus the world might throw at us next. 

So far, the vaccine’s been effective in mice. The hope is that after more animal testing it’ll be tried in humans next year.

How kids learned to fake positive Covid tests–and why

TikTok videos have taught kids that they can get out of school by faking positive Covid tests. All they have to do is pour lemon juice or Coke on them. Or apple sauce, or vinegar, or hand sanitiser, or assorted other acidic liquids. Or they can rub a kiwi across them.

And here I thought TikTok was about dancing.

In Britain, at least, if they do that it means other kids in their imaginary school bubbles get sent home for ten days along with them. And their families have to stay home. But hey, if you’ve got a math test coming up–

It’s a short-term strategy, because in Britain a positive lateral flow test has to be followed up with a PCR test, which you can’t take home and use as a stir-stick for your Coke. Still, it’s a strange enough story to earn its word count here.

Irrelevant photo: Another wildflower I can’t identify. [It’s an elderflower. Thanks to DinahMow for identifying it. Somewhere in this strange thing I call my brain, I knew that.]

A spokesperson for the National Education Union suggested that Covid tests be taken in school. But that wasn’t about lemon juice and Coke. Many kids have simply stopped using the ones they’re sent home with. 

A determined spoilsport, it turns out, can override a faked positive. You can pursue that one on your own if you’re interested. The link is here.

But the story doesn’t end there. A claim’s making the rounds that lateral flow tests are useless because if you test a glass or Coke and a kiwi it will register as having Covid. And since any reasonable person knows Coke and kiwis are immune, there must be something wrong with the tests.

Shout, “Conspiracy,” here if you would.

Thank you.

A fact-checking site called, factually enough, Fact Check points to the directions from one test, which say, “This kit has been evaluated for use with human specimen material only.” This goes to the root of the problem, which is that neither the kiwi nor the Coke is human.

You can shout, “Conspiracy,” again if you want, but I won’t orchestrate it this time. I don’t think it takes a conspiracy to prove that claim. 

Alexander Edwards, associate professor in Biomedical Technology and professional spoilsport, puts it another way: “If you completely ignore the manufacturer’s instructions or in fact use the test for something completely different, then you shouldn’t really be surprised if you get a silly result.” 

 

At last: a way that Covid doesn’t spread

A study of Covid samples from hospital surfaces found that they weren’t likely to infect anyone. That lends support to the belief that contaminated surfaces aren’t a major way to spread Covid. I’d love to explain that to you in more depth but the explanation went over my head. You’ll have to follow the link and see where your head is in relation to the information.

Even without understanding the explanation, though, it reassured  me to know that the damn virus has found a way not to spread. 

 

High fashion in the Covid era

With British kids back in school (when they can’t talk their parents into parting with a lemon) and Covid restrictions easing (in spite of a more aggressive form of the virus), colds are coming back into fashion. 

I’m not basing this on personal experience. I haven’t seen anyone with a cold in a year and a half, but then I’ve never been in the front ranks of fashion. When a style starts making sense to me, that’s a signal that it’s on its way out. But I read this in multiple publications, and those of you who care about trends need to go out and get yourselves a cold. 

Parents haven’t quite caught onto this, so they’re dragging their kids into Britain’s A&E departments. (A&E stands for accident and emergency and it’s the equivalent of US emergency room.) They–that’s the panicky parents–have forgotten what it is to have a kid with a fever, a cough, and a runny nose. 

In fairness to everyone, those are also Covid symptoms and I might panic myself.

Britain’s hospitals are already overwhelmed and have been for the past year and a half. Or for the past decade or so–ever since the government started cutting funds and saying, cheerily, “We’ve never given the NHS so much money.” So they’re not in shape to add kids with minor problems to the major-problem mix. Last month, fewer than 1% of children under 15 who went to A&E needed immediate attention and more than 72% weren’t seriously ill.

And 4.36% asked their parents if they couldn’t get a Coke from the vending machine, please.

The US is also seeing a rise in the number of colds as face masks come off. 

 

A petri dish for the world

The British government’s gone sports mad lately. We’re in the midst of the Euro tournament where they play–oh, I don’t know. Some damn thing involving a ball. The game’s not the point; the crowds are, because fans travel here and there to watch the games. They eat out. They drink. For all I know, they get happy and hug.

Then they go home, and so does Covid.

In Scotland, nearly 2,000 cases have now been linked to people gathering in public fanzones, pubs, and house parties to watch the games–not to mention stadiums. Some two-thirds of those are among the 1,300 people who went to London to watch the Scottish team play there. 

For a semifinal game in Wembley, the British government plans to allow the stadium to reach 75% of its capacity–the largest crowd at a sports event in over a year. 

The World Health Organization has warned that tournament crowds (in general, not specifically this one) can act as Covid amplifiers. And the European parliament’s committee on public health warned that such a large crowd at Wembley would be “a recipe for disaster.” But Britain’s left the European Union, so we don’t have to listen to them. The reason we left the EU was so we’d be free to spread our own germs in any way we want.

If the EU passes the law of gravity, we don’t have to follow that either.

The government’s making noises about lifting most of the remaining Covid restrictions in mid-July. When it isn’t saying that we may have to take some precautions. It’s hard to know which Boris Johnson to believe, but my money’s on him lifting most restrictions. I’m basing that on how many decibels are devoted to each side.

It’s not a prospect that makes me happy. As Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology, said, “The UK is in a unique position. We’ve the biggest Delta outbreak in a well-vaccinated country. We are a petri dish for the world.”

The question is whether vaccination breaks the link between infection on the one hand and hospitalization and death on the other. The government seems to be betting that it will. My best guess is that vaccination will weaken the link but that without other controls–masks; an effective contact tracing system; reasonable sick pay for people who are supposed to stay off work–it won’t be enough.

 

Updating the list of Covid symptoms

Assorted experts are calling for the UK to expand its list of Covid symptoms. It currently lists only the Big Three: cough, loss of the senses of smell and taste, and a high fever. 

Europe’s list includes headache, weakness, tiredness, muscle aches, runny nose, loss of appetite, and sore throat–symptoms that often begin before the Big Three and are more common in young, unvaccinated people. 

But hey, we left Europe. We get to enact our own symptoms.

 

Your small dose of hopeful news

A small study showed the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine to be effective against the Delta variant.

It’s the sex, not the money: a small political scandal hits Britain

Nothing’s as delicious as a scandal unless it’s a scandal involving a government you dislike. So forgive me, but I’m enjoying the resignation of Britain’s former secretary of state for health. 

What brought Matt Hancock down was sharing a kiss with an aide. Or more accurately, sharing a kiss with an aide within range of the office CCTV, which an anonymous someone released to the press. Or even more accurately than that, sharing a kiss with an aide within range of the office CCTV during LockdownLite, when people weren’t supposed to even be hugging people outside their household (or “bubble,” in pandemic-speak), nevermind trading long and apparently passionate (CCTV can only tell us so much) kisses with them.

It was the pandemic hypocrisy that gave it resonance. Lots of people wouldn’t have minded making physical contact with a wider range of humans, but they were sticking to government guidance and here was the person allegedly responsible for that guidance conducting an extensive germ exchange with someone he was supposed to stay two meters away from. Because the health of the nation was at stake. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose.

Both Hancock and the aide are both married. To other people. So it’s a safe bet that their bubbles burst at the point where they wedged each other inside.

And just to give the story a bit more resonance, in the early stages of the pandemic Hancock criticized a scientist on the government’s scientific advisory board for breaking lockdown by getting together with someone he was in a long-term relationship with. Hancock said at the time that it left him speechless. 

The scientist resigned, taking his expertise with him. 

The real scandal, though, is that Hancock had appointed his aide to a (well paid) position as a non-executive director of the Department of Health and Social Care, which ever so incidentally oversaw his performance as secretary of state for et cetera. Without either of them mentioning their relationship. But that’s less fun than two people playing grab-ass in the office, so although it gets mentioned I doubt it’s what brought him down. 

How well paid is well paid? For 15 hours of work a year, the position pays £15,000 pounds. Unless I’m hallucinating, that’s £1,000 an hour. The aide has now resigned too. 

The role of the non-executive directors is to challenge the government as well as provide oversight, and fifteen other people with tight connections to the Conservative Party hold the positions in various departments. They include donors, former Members of Parliament, and peers. Let’s say it all gives the appearance that it wasn’t their expertise that got them their jobs.

But that’s nowhere near as much fun. 

 

A report from the Not out of the Woods Yet Department

One of the world’s most highly vaccinated countries, Israel, has reimposed indoor mask rules as the Delta variant becomes Covid’s dominant strain. The number of Covid cases was doubling every few days. Admittedly, it was starting from a low number, but so does any spike. 

And the same thing’s happening in other highly vaccinated countries–and even more so in largely unvaccinated countries. Delta has raised the stakes in the herd immunity poker game. People who’ve recovered from earlier Covid infections–the kind caused by other variants–seem to be vulnerable to Delta. 

A good news/bad news study shows that while two doses of the vaccines that Britain’s using are 96% effective against hospitalization and 79% effective against symptomatic infection, one dose is only 35% effective against Delta. 

Delta is so contagious that over 80% of a population would need to be fully vaccinated in order to contain it. So far, only 1% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated, and the Delta variant has been identified in 14 African countries. 

In spite of all the promises to get vaccines to poorer countries, contributions to the Covax vaccine program have dried up. “The world is failing,” a spokesperson for the World Health Organization said. “Just give us the vaccines.”

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Six cases of the Lambda variant have been identified in Britain. That’s a variant that the World Health Organization has labeled a variant of interest, which translates to Don’t panic yet, but we’re watching it. It was first identified in Peru and has now been found in 26 countries. 

Don’t panic yet. At this point, it’s just something to know.

 

And a counter-report from the On the Other Hand Department

In the US, according to a study, almost all Covid deaths are of unvaccinated people. Breakthrough infections–the ones that happen to people who’ve been vaccinated–are 0.1% of the total hospitalizations. Of the Covid deaths recorded in May, 0.8% were among people who’d been vaccinated.

If I’m not mistaken (and I can’t be trusted with numbers), the second percentage is larger than the first, which does seem odd. I’m guessing here, but it could be because breakthrough infections happen in people whose immune systems are in one way or another out of order, so they’re not only vulnerable to infections in spite of vaccination, but having once gotten infected, are more vulnerable to the disease–again, in spite of being vaccinated. But that comes with a wild-ass guesswork alert. If anyone has some solid information on that, I’d love to hear it.

How long does Covid immunity last?

This is still up for grabs, but the Covid vaccines–or some of them anyway–may not need yearly booster shots. Or may only need them every few years. 

To understand this, you have to know that the body’s immune system is a hierarchy.

Well, no, it isn’t really, but it’s a workable way to think of it. At the bottom are the antibodies, which swarm in and kill things, and they get most of the press because they fly flags and have marching bands and we notice that. But they don’t have long memories, so we have to worry: If the same enemy–in this case, Covid–comes back, will they recognize it?

Above the antibodies, though, are other bits of the immune system–plasma cells, memory B cells, memory T cells–and they have longer memories and they’re the bits of the system that crank up the antibodies, show them pictures, say, “That’s what the enemy looks like,” and send them out to kill and die.

It’s not a nice world out there. Or in here, on the inside of our bodies. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

Immunologists also have long memories, and they’ve been busy working out how long Covid immunity lasts, both after an infection and after vaccination. The answer depends on understanding the actions and interactions of all those different ranks. 

They’d also, I’m sure, hate my explanation of how this works.

The unpredictable element in all this is the rise of Covid variants. So far, they haven’t outrun our immune systems or the vaccines, but some variants do slow them down. 

The primary sign that a variant’s gotten faster than the vaccines will be if a whole lot of vaccinated people suddenly come down with Covid. 

I know, that’s not the way we’d like to get the news–a telegram would be better–but like I said, it’s not a nice world out there.

Assorted trials are underway, testing booster shots and testing the effect of mixing vaccines. It will be up to individual countries to decide if boosters are needed, but work’s underway in case they do.

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In the meantime, studies from northern Italy, which was the first part of Europe to be hit hard by Covid, say that immunity lasts at least a year and may last longer, only there hasn’t been time yet to find out. Reinfection is rare. But the experts are still urging people who had the disease to get vaccinated. It will boost their protection and make them more likely to resist variants. 

As for the vaccines, they’re protective for at least a year and possibly for a lifetime. 

Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, said, “People who were infected and get vaccinated really have a terrific response, a terrific set of antibodies, because they continue to evolve their antibodies,” Nussenzweig told The Times. “I expect that they will last for a long time.”

 

So that’s the good news out of the way. Let’s have some bad news for dessert.

The Delta variant (no I don’t know why we capitalize Delta; I do it because the papers do) is now the dominant U.K. variant. As many as 75% of the new U.K. cases may be Deltas. That’s the variant formerly known at the Indian variant, or B.1.617.2, but India changed its name to Delta and the variant’s followed along behind.

No, you really shouldn’t believe everything I say.

Annoying as the name changes are, it’s a good thing, given the human propensity for stupidity in the form of blaming other countries and peoples whatever goes wrong, that they’ve stopped naming variants after countries. Unfortunately, it’ll take some of us a while to catch up. 

So. Delta variant. Dominant strain in U.K. It seems to carry a higher risk of hospitalization (2.61 times higher) than the Alpha variant, formerly known as the Kent or British (or U.K, or English) variant. 

Sorting out the U.K.’s name is a constant problem, so I look forward to the time when the country changes its name to Alpha. It’ll be much simpler to write about. And since Alpha’s the first letter of the Greek alphabet, it should keep the nationalists happy.

Yay, Covid! We got there first!

Where were we?

The number of hospitalized Covid patients in Britain is small right now, as are the number of cases, but the number of cases is growing slowly. The worry is that this is the start of a trend.

Working against that is vaccination: 73% of the Delta cases are in people who haven’t been vaccinated. Two doses are a good protection, although not as good as against the Alpha variant. One does, though, is 17% less effective against the Delta variant. 

In the meantime, schools and colleges (if you’re American, British colleges stand somewhere between American high schools and American colleges) in England are responsible for a good deal of the spread

Why them? Partly because they collect a whole bunch of people who aren’t priorities for the vaccination programs–or even eligible for vaccines–and jam them together. Preferably in badly ventilated rooms where they nod off gently while trying to absorb important information. And also because the government lifted its mask mandate for secondary schools. That did affect primary school students because they were always considered too young to locate their noses and mouths. Adults are, demonstrably, still having trouble with that. 

Why did it lift the mandate? I’m still struggling with that one. The best I can do by way of an explanation is to suggest that they thought it would make people happy. Also possibly because they’re idiots. 

No, I don’t know. But they did, ignoring the complaints of teachers and school staff–or at least of the unions that represent them. 

That leaves repeated testing as the only way to control school outbreaks, and the number of tests (at least in secondary schools) seems to be decreasing. The government’s approved one of the vaccines for teenagers, but as far as I know that’s as far as things have gone.  

Again the number of cases isn’t huge. The fear, though, is that this is the beginning of a wave, not a few little splashes of water against the sand. It’s too early to tell.

 

So what’s the government doing? 

Well, it’s taken Portugal off its list of green countries and added it to the list of amber ones, meaning people coming into Britain from Portugal will now have to self-isolate when they get home. 

Self-Isolation? That’s quarantine on the honor system. Green and amber? They’re traffic lights. You know: Stop, go, look at the yellow light and get confused. 

All this matters because (a) the government made a lot of noise at one point about opening up foreign travel this summer and (b) some of the trashier newspapers made even more noise about it. We all want to be happy, happy, happy, so let’s declare the pandemic over.

In addition to moving Portugal off the green list, the government also moved seven countries from the amber list to the red one, so people coming from them will have to go into serious–and expensive–quarantine. 

But the story the country’s focused on isn’t the seven moves from amber to red but Portugal’s lone move from green to amber. The official explanation for it is that returning travelers risk bringing more variants home. 

So what variants is this preventing? The Delta variant–remember the Delta variant? The one that’s become dominant in Britain? Well, it’s picked up a mutation, one that’s happened before. It was seen in the South African variant (which came along too early to get itself a Greek letter). And that new mutation’s been seen in 12 cases in Portugal. 

It’s also been seen in 36 cases in Britain, so it might make more sense to quarantine travelers from Britain when they arrive in Britain but where’s the fun in that?

The last I heard, the mutation hadn’t been flagged as dangerous, although I wouldn’t say that’s definitive. Public Health England hasn’t tagged it a variant of concern, only a spike mutation of interest.

Actually, I’m in favor of being cautious about everything connected to Covid. The idea of promoting tourism right now is somewhere between stupid and criminally irresponsible. It’s the murky thinking that gets to me. First they crank people up about travel, then they try to keep out a mutation that’s already here. 

 

And what do we call the new mutation?

The new mutation is now being called–at least in Britain–the Nepal variant because the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called it that in a press conference. Thanks, Grant. The don’t-blame-this-on-other-countries campaign appreciates your support. 

There is some marginal logic to linking it to Nepal, although it’s marginal enough that after I’d spent half an hour trying to explain it I looked at the hole I’d dug and gave up. It was pretty deep by then and I was worried about getting back out if I kept on. I’ve written to Nepal, suggesting that it change its name to Epsilon.

There’s no clear line between a mutation and a variant, so we don’t have to worry much about that.

 

Yeah, but what about the green list?

The countries left on the green list (last I checked) are Australia; Brunei; Falkland Islands; Faroe Islands; Gibraltar; Iceland; Israel; New Zealand; St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha; Singapore; and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

But any number of those countries aren’t accepting random British tourists, including Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and the Falkland Islands. And Israel and Singapore sound less than thrilled about them, although I’m not sure that’s an outright ban. I should’ve done better research but I had to close the computer and feed the cat. As far as I can figure out, though, an awful lot of those green list countries are closed to British tourists.

It doesn’t sound like the list means much, does it? British tourists are welcome to come home from countries they can’t get into. Yes, friend, we’re on the other side of the looking glass here, and if you’ll pass around the slices of cake Alice will be happy to cut it as soon as you’re done. 

Think of the money those non-tourists will save by not going anywhere.

When Covid proximity sensors go wrong

Wanting to be responsible journalists–and responsible bureaucrats who are responsible for responsible journalists–the BBC bought proximity sensors in January. Thousands of them. They were to protect the newsroom staff during the pandemic. Because not everyone could work from home. Some of them had to show up, so they’d wear these gizmos and if anyone got too close to anyone, they’d scream.

Not the people, the sensors. 

It was a great plan, and it worked: The sensors screamed. Especially when people were recording. You know: “This afternoon in Birmingham–” 

“Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah, nyee-ah.”

Take two.

“This aftern–”

“Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah.”

Before long, most people had stopped using them. Not everyone, though, because one started smoking and threatened to set itself on fire. Why? No other sensors were being around to scream at and it lost its sense of purpose and became suicidal. 

Irrelevant photo: strawberry blossoms

A BBC spokesperson said staff were still using them.

Staff members stopped giggling long enough to say they weren’t. 

“We are surprised that a problem with a single electronic device is a news story,” the spokesperson said

Her or his proximity sensor said, “Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah.”

Here at Notes, we aren’t surprised that a single sensor that entered a smoldering, screaming state of despair is a good story. We’ve all been there during this past year and a fraction. At least once. It spoke for us all.

 

Britain wonders if it’s out of the woods yet

June 1 was the first day since last summer that no Covid deaths were reported in Britain for twenty-four hours. But before we celebrate being out of the woods, let’s check in with the scientists peskily pointing to trees and saying, “Woods, people. If we have enough trees, that means we’re in the woods.”

What’s the problem? We do have an effective (although distinctly incomplete) vaccination campaign. We also have a new Covid variant that seems to spread faster than the dominant variant that used to scare the pants off us because it spread more rapidly than the one before it but that we now look back at nostalgically and think of as our old friend. 

Never mind if you didn’t entirely follow that. We can say the new variant’s scary and leave it at that. The day before we had no deaths, the country reported 3,000 new Covid cases for six days running. We hadn’t been at those levels since early April. 

So which way is the country going to tip? Herd immunity? Third wave?

Several experts that the Relevant Authorities don’t particularly want to hear from are sending out warnings. A third wave, they say, is likely. 

Nyeee-ah. Nyeee-ah. 

Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he thinks the third wave had already started. 

“The current measures are not stopping cases rising rapidly in many parts of the country,” he said. “Unless there is a miracle, opening up further in June is a huge risk.”

Why June? The 21st is the still somewhat tentative target date for the next stage of opening up. 

Ravi Gupta, who’s on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–called Nervtag, said, “If things go as I think they are going to go, we will likely end up with a third wave. It will be a big wave of infections and there will be deaths and severe illness.”

All waves, he reminded us, start small. 

My best guess is that the government will open the country up regardless of the warnings, regardless of what’s happening as the date comes closer. Because the business community’s pushing for it. Because there’s money to be made. Because they want to deliver good news. Because they seem to be wired for it. 

I would love to be wrong about this.

 

Renaming the Covid variants

The World Health Organization is renaming the Covid variants to avoid calling them by names no one outside the field can remember (B.1.617.2, anyone?) or after the places they were first identified, which has led people to blame them on the places. So the former Kent (or UK, or British) variant is now Alpha. The former South African variant is Beta. The former Brazilian variant is Gamma. And the former Indian variant is Delta.

It follows from this that the world will have to beat this beast before the Greek alphabet runs out of letters. It has twenty-four. Get with it, people.