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.