Researchers have found a vulnerable spot at the base of Covid’s spike protein. This is the medical equivalent of the moment when you found that spot right by your older sister or brother’s knee. You know the one: All you had to do was squeeze it and they were helpless. Instantly. Whatever they were doing to you (unless they were homicidal, in which case you needed something more than this trick), they stopped.
The problem–then and now–is how to reach that spot and (the knee image breaks down here) what to do when you get there.
The good part is that most beta coronaviruses, not just on Covid, have that same weak spot.
What’s a beta coronavirus? It’s a category of virus that causes everything from a cold to Covid. It includes diseases that could jump from animals to humans at some point in the future, starting the next pandemic.
Why is this a weak spot? Because it either doesn’t mutate or mutates slowly. I’m going out on a limb here (put that saw away, please), but I seem to remember reading that when a site doesn’t mutate it’s because the virus can’t function without it. Random mutations will change it, but those versions don’t survive.
So let’s go back to the question of what to do once we find that spot. We create either a vaccine that targets it or an antiviral that does the same. And by we, of course, I mean scientists. People who–unlike me–actually know how to do this stuff.
It won’t happen next week, but knowing where the weak spot is? It’s a step.
Speaking of antivirals
The bark of the neem tree seems to hold promise as a Covid treatment.
The tree’s native to India and it’s been used as a treatment for parasites, viruses, and bacteria for much longer than those categories were around to sort diseases into.
Scientists fooling around in their labs see the bark extract as promising. The next step is to isolate the useful components, then figure out dosage and test the stuff.
Here’s wishing them–and us–luck. In the meantime, it’s probably not wise to test neem bark on yourself, although it is for sale on the internet and recommended for an assortment of ills by the (I’m guessing here) deeply alternative.
It’s not the only antiviral being explored, just the one I happen to have landed on this week.
I also found articles on a few new testing methods that are, or promise to be, cheaper and faster than the current ones. Now that so many countries are abandoning testing, though, I’m not sure whether they’ll be commercially viable, no matter how useful they might be.
Remember social distancing?
You remember the advice we got from the start of the pandemic that six feet (or two meters if your mind’s metric) is enough distance to keep you from catching (or spreading) Covid? It turns out to have been based on a 1934 model (by William Firth Wells, if anybody asks) of how respiratory infections spread.
Just how dated is the model? Well, two meters hasn’t changed its length, and neither has two feet–at least to the best of my knowledge, although when you leave the metric system measurements can be unreliable, and if you want to take a side trip into non-metric mayhem, allow me to push you in this direction. It’s not at all relevant, but if you have nothing better to do with yourself and you enjoy a mess, it should be fun.
Back to social distancing, though: A recent study says the 1934 model was oversimplified. The new study looks not just at distance but also at temperature, humidity, viral load, and whether people were coughing, sneezing, or talking. A person talking without a mask can project droplets for one meter. If they cough, make that three meters. If they sneeze? Seven meters.
Add a surgical, FFP2, or N95 mask, though, and ” ”the risk of infection is reduced to such an extent that it is practically negligible—even if you’re only standing one meter away from an infected person,” according to Gaetano Sardina, one of the researchers behind the study.
Vaccines in Africa
Six African countries–Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia–will be getting the technology to produce Covid vaccines through a World Health Organization program.
Only 11% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. That compares with a global average of around 50%. And Africa currently produces just 1% of coronavirus vaccines. An earlier program to get vaccines to poorer countries, COVAX, has missed target after target and only 10% of people in its targeted countries have received at least one dose.
The current program replicates commercially available vaccines, somehow dodging the patent issues. Don’t ask me. I know roughly as much about patent law as I do about science. Maybe they’re just producing the stuff anyway and daring the companies to sue.
Although Doctors Without Borders welcomed the program, it pointed out that it’ll be a lot of work to recreate the vaccines and called instead on the original producers to help.
“The fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already-approved mRNA technologies to able companies,” a spokesperson said.
A Report from the Department of Shell Games
A research company that Pfizer contracted with to test its vaccine has been accused of messing with the data. According to the BMJ, a whistleblower reported that “the company falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial. Staff who conducted quality control checks were overwhelmed by the volume of problems they were finding.”
After more than once notifying the company, Ventavia, of the problems, the whistleblower got hold of the FDA–the US Food and Drug Administration.
She was promptly fired.
Other former employees that the BMJ talked to generally backed her claims.
I’m printing this not in support of anti-vax arguments but because it’s from a legitimate source and seems to be true. The vaccine’s been widely used with minimal problems. But if you had any faith left in for-profit medicine, this might rattle it a bit.
A quick feel-good story
The Mask Nerd of Minneapolis has set up a lab in his bathroom and for the past 18 months has been testing masks there to see which ones are most effective. He’s got an air compressor on the bathroom sink and an I-don’t-know-what-but-it’s-impressive on the windowsill.
Aaron Collins is a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science.
“I just want better masks on more faces,” he said. “If you know the secret—if you know a piece of information that could help people—it’s your moral obligation to make sure that people are aware of that.”
You can find him on Twitter under the handle @masknerd. He also posts videos on YouTube.
“This is why we’re scientists,” he said. “This is why we’re engineers. We’re not in it for the money. … We’re in it because we have a passion for changing the world in positive ways.”
And on an unrelated topic
An unimportant and bizarre effect of the invasion of Ukraine is that a post of mine, “Is Berwick on Tweed at War with Russia?” is getting an absurd number of hits, going from 3 on a day at the end of January to 249 on a day in the first week of March, and then 74 the next day.
To be clear, I’m all for people educating themselves on the background of this war, but the Berwick on Tweed story? This is the kind of research that convinces people that Hilary Clinton was the head of a pedophile ring operating out of the basement of a pizza parlor that didn’t even have a basement.
But never mind the pizza. Berwick is not at war with Russia. It has no connection to Ukraine.
Go study some real history.
I’m happy to report that, on the third day, hits on the post settled back to 3.