New vaccines, the vaccine wars, schadenfreude, and a feel-good story

Across the world, the pandemic has slowed for the past two weeks. If anyone has an explanation for that, I haven’t found it. It could just be a statistical glitch, but let’s take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.


The new vaccines

Two new vaccines have been announced. One, from Johnson & Johnson (and, just to confuse things, Janssen) needs only a single injection. It’s 66% effective against symptomatic disease and 85% effective against the severe forms. And 100% effective against the forms that are so bad that you end up hospitalized or dead.

Only 66%? you ask. That’s pretty damn good by vaccine standards. But the earliest Covid vaccines came back with such high levels of effectiveness that we’ve started to turn up our noses at a measly 66%. Back before the first vaccine trials uncorked their sparking test results, though, 50% was considered good. And 85% and 100% against the severe forms of the disease, when you think about it? Not bad.

The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is easy to transport and doesn’t have to be kept at a zillion degrees below freezing, making it a handy addition to the vaccine armory. And it only needs one dose. That’s a major advantage.

Irrelevant photo: The daffodils are just starting to blossom. Really. In January.

A new British vaccine, Novavax, is 89% effective but needs two doses. On the positive side, it can be stored in an ordinary refrigerator and has no objections to being wedged in at the back between the peanut butter and that can of cat food you thought you’d lost.

Both are effective against the South African variant, although the numbers aren’t as high. The new Brazilian variant, I believe, came along too late to be included in any of the trials. That’s the one to keep your eye on right now.


A post or three back, I included a news snippet involving Germany, the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the elderly. I now officially wish I’d waited, because we were only halfway through the story. 

In our last episode, some anonymous source in Germany said (publicly, or we wouldn’t know about it) that the AZ vaccine wasn’t effective on the elderly, and some known source said, “Of course it is. You mixed up your numbers,” but refrained from adding, “You idiot.”

And now, in our next episode, a German official body of one sort or another said the vaccine hadn’t been shown to be effective on the elderly, and several other sources jumped into the discussion and I crawled under the bed and sulked for several days. 

Then Emmanuel Macron said something but I hadn’t included him in my post so I didn’t care.

I do take my responsibilities here seriously.

When I emerged, I was covered in dust but felt a little better because the floorboards under my bed were now spotless.

But you wanted to know about the vaccine, didn’t you? 

Is it effective on people over 65? AZ added older people to its vaccine trials later than younger people, so it has less data on them. And it turned out–predictably–that they were more likely to stay away from other people, so both the group that got the vaccine and the group that got the placebo were relatively well protected. That meant fewer deaths (good) and therefore less data (bad).

The trial did include some checks on people’s antibody levels, though, so they have every indication that the vaccine was working.


The vaccine wars replace the Brexit wars

Britain and the European Union agree on only one thing lately, and that’s that with a Brexit agreement in place they needed something new to fight about so it was time to toss vaccines into the mix.

AstraZeneca signed a contract to supply the EU with 80 million doses of its vaccine for the first quarter of 2021. Before that, it had signed a different contract to supply Britain with 2 million doses a week. Then it had production problems at its plants in Europe and said it could only supply the EU with 30 million doses. That would be for the first quarter of 2021. 

Pfizer is also producing less of its vaccine than it expected, and in a rare and impressive display of cooperation a second company, Sanofi, whose own vaccine development has been delayed, said it will use its plants to produce Pfizer’s. 

The EU wanted AZ’s plants in Britain to make up the shortfall its plants in Europe were leaving. AZ said that wasn’t not part of the contract. The EU has been slow in starting its vaccination program and is feeling ever so slightly frantic about this.

Britain said it wasn’t interested in getting less than its contracted share of the vaccine, and Boris Johnson tousled his hair and poured a lit match onto oily waters, saying, “I am very pleased at the moment that we have the fastest rollout of vaccines in Europe by some way.”

He refrained from blowing a raspberry until the press conference was over and the doors had closed behind him.

The EU said, fine, it would deal with the shortfall by refusing to allow vaccines to be exported. That would mean no Pfizer vaccine getting into Britain, although there’s a contract there too.

Then the EU said it would use a clause in the Brexit agreement and institute checks at the Irish/Northern Irish border to make double sure to keep vaccines in the EU. Then it said it wouldn’t.

Then everyone involved arched their backs, fluffed their fur, and made the kind of spitting sounds that eight-week-old kittens make when they want to look scary.

Then the EU published the text of its contract with AZ, minus a few clauses that may or may not be relevant.  

Legal experts working their way through the AZ/EU contract say it’s likely to end up either in arbitration or in court. One of them used a (translated) German phrase that means clear as mud, saying it’s clear as noodle soup. 


Department of schadenfreude

A multimillionaire couple flew into an isolated, largely indigenous community in the Yukon Territory and claimed to be local motel workers so they could get in on a vaccination program meant primarily for elders and the vulnerable. 

They also didn’t bother observing the fourteen days of quarantine that were required for incomers.

They’ve been fined C$2,300 , but given their economic status that’s not likely to hold their attention, so they also face six months in jail.

The C in C$2,300 stands for Canadian. And schadenfreude stands for a German word meaning enjoying other people’s bad fortune.

Admit it: You’ve done it at least once in your life.


Speaking of schadenfreude, Oklahoma spent $2 million buying itself a stockpile of hydroxychloroquine when Donald Trump was touting it as a miracle cure for Covid. Now it’s trying to unload the stuff. Studies show it has no effect on Covid but it could cause heart problems. It’s an accepted treatment for malaria, but you’d be hard put to catch that in Oklahoma. 

The state’s been trying to sell it for months now. If you’re interested, contact the state’s attorney general. You could probably get a bargain.


And finally, a feel-good Covid story

A group of health workers in Oregon got stranded on a highway in a snowstorm with six doses of vaccine that would become unusable if they didn’t get into six people’s arms in one hell of a hurry. They’d just finished a clinic and the shots were all committed to specific people, but they weren’t going to reach them in time.

Rather than see them go to waste, they went from up and down the road offering them to people stranded in nearby cars. An ambulance was stuck in the snow with them, so if anyone had a bad reaction, they were covered.

The county health director said it was one of the coolest operations he’d ever been part of.

Britain’s Covid deaths are now double the Blitz’s

With Britain’s Covid deaths having passed 100,000, the prime minister exuded as much feeling as he could locate and told us he’s sorry for every one of them. And that he takes full responsibility. 

That led to the predictable flurry of reminders that the government’s bungled every chance it had to get on top of the disease, but he refused to discuss that. I’ll be kind and not list the screw-ups, I’ll just ask if the government’s trying to figure out what it could have done differently.

Umm, no. Taking responsibility for what’s happened didn’t mean Boris Johnson was going to take responsibility for doing anything better. His responsibility-taking went about as deep as the apology of a seven-year-old who’s been strong-armed: I’m sorry I called you a shithead (you shithead). (And next time I see you, I’ll remind you that you’re still a shithead.)

But it seems to have been enough. He hasn’t been sent to sit in the corner. He still gets his dessert. Even though until the government looks at the ways it’s screwed up, it’ll keep right on screwing up. But the pieties have been mouthed and we can all move on.

Twice as many people have died of Covid as died during the Blitz.

Irrelevant photo: A foggy morning.


Germany, vaccines, and the elderly

You may have read somewhere that Germany said the AstraZeneca vaccine isn’t effective in anyone over 65. To which Germany, along with AstraZeneca itself, says, “Bullshit.”

In slightly more diplomatic terms.

The first statement came from a couple of news stories that quoted unnamed sources. The second one comes from Germany’s health ministry, which said that whoever made the first statement seems to have mixed up “two things . . . in the reports.

“Around eight percent of the volunteers in AstraZeneca’s efficacy studies were around 56 and 69 years old and three to four percent are above 70 years old.

“However, this does not mean that it is effective only in eight percent of older people.”

Damn, even I could’ve worked that one out, and I have a certificate in mathematical incompetence.

AstraZeneca said more or less the same thing. Both refrained from adding, “You idiot.”


New vaccines

Russia has a second vaccine, EpiVacCorona, ready to go into production. It was developed in Novosibirsk, which has no bearing on the story but it’s such a great name that I just had to toss it in. 


Russia’s health regulator says it’s 100 percent effective in early trials.


In the U.S., Johnson & Johnson is expected to report the results of its vaccine’s trials next week. Judging by the way the letters vibrate in the articles I’ve seen, a lot is expected of it.


Other Covid treatments

If you’ve been reading about monoclonal antibodies–and hey, who doesn’t read about them late at night when you’re tired and want to distract yourself from the worries of the day?

Let’s start that over: If you’ve been reading about monoclonal antibodies and all the promises they dangle before us, here’s an update. Because vaccines aren’t the only game being played, even if it is the one playing on every TV in every bar in town.

Eli Lilly has been developing monoclonal antibodies, which it hopes will keep people who’ve been exposed to Covid from developing serious forms of the disease. They can be used on people who are already ill and on people who are at high risk of becoming infected.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals has developed a similar treatment. 

They haven’t been widely used at this point because they have to be used early in the course of the infection and because they have to be infused in a hospital or a clinic. So basically, they’re clunky and they’re expensive. 

But now it looks like they might effectively prevent even a mild case of the disease, and Eli Lilly plans to ask for approval in the U.S. In a nursing home trial, they were 80% effective and there were no deaths in the group that received the antibodies. They were less effective for the nursing home’s staff than for residents, but that’s a statistical glitch: The study measured risk, and the residents were at higher risk than the staff.

That makes intuitive sense to me but don’t expect me to explain it. Certificate in mathematical incompetence, remember? World-beating mathematical incompetence.

It’s not clear how the antibody cocktails will be used, given that vaccines are available and easier to use. Possibly in nursing homes to combat outbreaks or for people with compromised immune systems, because they may not pull together a good immune response to a vaccine. And possibly not at all.   

It’s also possible that they’ll undermine the vaccines. The problem is that they target Covid’s spike protein and so do antibodies, so they could get in a vaccine’s way. That remains to be tested.