Home brew Covid research meets Goldilocks

When Vittorio Saggiomo, a scientist in the Netherlands, couldn’t work in his lab during lockdown, he invented a rapid Covid test using the materials he had at home: coffee pods. You know, those pretty, nonrecyclable things that–well, if you use them at all, you have plenty of them.

The reason he wanted to do this is because Covid tests give you a choice between a slow but accurate one and a fast but inaccurate one. The slow ones take time because–

Oh, hell, do you really want to know this? They take time because tiny scientists have to take the swab you jammed up your nose, extract the DNA you left on it, and multiply it until they have enough to work with. And it’s not easy to find tiny scientists–they have to be small enough to fit inside a test tube. 

The fast one is inaccurate because it bypasses the tiny scientists and works with just that bit of DNA you left on the swab. 

Irrelevant photo: These are either what you think they are–dandelions–or one of the half dozen or so flowers that look just like them but aren’t. Damned if I can tell them apart.

Listen, if you want a serious explanation, you should follow the link. I didn’t flunk high school science, but that was only because I was hiding behind the bunsen burner when they handed out grades.

Onward. There’s a third way of testing, a process called Lamp, which stands for, um, loop-mediated isothermal amplification.

You just had to ask, didn’t you?

It does the same thing as the PCR test, multiplying that stingy bit of DNA you sacrificed, but unlike the PCR test it doesn’t have to be done at a bunch of different temperatures. One will do.

So Saggiomo’s problem was how to create the right temperature at home. He found a wax that would melt at the right temperature, so that would keep the DNA at a constant temperature. Next he needed something to put it in. At this point, he turned to the coffee pods. 

The final problem was finding a way to heat the pods. In the dishwasher, they got lost. In the microwave, they overheated and the lids popped off. Cups of hot water didn’t control the temperature well enough and the porridge was too cold. Or possibly too hot. The bears got hungry. 

A pan of water simmering on the stove was perfect, though, and Goldilocks and the three bears sat at the table together and said, “Yeah, but where’s our coffee?”

“Shut up,” the scientist said. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough and all you can think of is caffeine.”

They ate him.

The tests can be made for .20 euros each (don’t miss the decimal point on the left), but whether anyone’s actually going to produce it is up for grabs. 

Anyone ready for porridge?

[For anyone visiting from a culture with a different set of folk tales, the references are to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If I have to explain them, they won’t be remotely funny, but Lord Google will be happy to help you find the tale if you’re interested.]

 

 

More at-home research

From the start of the pandemic, a professor’s thirteen-year-old son watched his father disinfect the groceries and afte a while he questioned whether it really needed to be done. 

“I just told Anand, ‘If you want to do a science project, this is a perfect one,'” the father, Vishal Shah, said.

They took the project seriously enough to quarantine for fourteen days so they wouldn’t contaminate the test subjects, then gathered produce from ten stores in the Philadelphia area, where high levels of community Covid spread were reported, and they went at peak times. They took produce that people touch a lot–apples, avocados, bananas, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, lettuce–and swabbed them five times.

“One of the first things I realized once I told my dad I wanted to do this project was that I had no means of testing for the virus on my own,” Anand said. “My dad’s lab was closed, so I contacted labs across the country and gave presentations that discussed what the project was.”

He found one  in Tennessee that would do his testing. Of the 140 pieces of produce it tested, only one apple had traces of the virus on its surface. 

The study has been published in ACS Food Science and Technology.

Not bad for a thirteen-year-old, even if he did have help.

 

A bit about long Covid

At the beginning of March, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in Britain had long Covid.

So gets long Covid? It was most common among people between 35 and 49 and more common in women than men. It followed Covid’s pattern of hitting hardest in the poorest areas, and health and social care workers are the most likely occupational group to have it. That could be because they–like people who live in the poorest parts of the country–are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

People with preexisting health conditions were also more likely to get long Covid.

In round numbers, out of seven people who test positive for Covid, one will still have symptoms three months later. 

But there’s still no official definition of long Covid, and that leaves a lot of questions about what happens to people who get it, financially speaking. If they use up their sick leave and lose their jobs, do they have a medically recognized condition so they can apply for support? How is long Covid diagnosed when there’s no definition and no diagnostic code? 

You’ll notice I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, so here’s one I can answer: What’s a diagnostic code? It’s something terribly important that you put into a little blank square. If you don’t have one, please apply to the Department of Diagnostic Codes. As soon as you get it, your life will become more fulfilling.

So are people who get long Covid disabled? In practical terms, some are and some aren’t. Some will be able to work full time, some only part time, and some not at all. Are they officially disabled, though? Gray zone. The short answer is that it’s too early to tell, and figuring it out is going to be messy. If they become officially disabled, an employer’s expected to make “reasonable adjustments” for them. If not–

Gray zone. 

Among those 1.1 million people in Britain with long Covid are 122,000 people who work for the NHS, 114,000 teachers, and 30,000 social workers. I didn’t find statistics on what percentage of teachers that is, but it’s close to 4% of the NHS staff, and their illness is hitting the NHS hard. 

It’s also hitting the people with long Covid hard. Some haven’t been able to go back to work and have lost their jobs. 

Or I think that’s what the article I read is saying. The exact quote is about losing their “roles.” Maybe they’re talking about being downgraded to other roles, but I wouldn’t count on that. If you take enough sick leave–even if it’s your job that exposed you to the sickness–most employers will find a way to show you where the door is. 

One MP is trying to get long Covid recognized as an occupational disease, and to compensate and support workers in health care, social care, and key public services who catch it. I wouldn’t hold your breath, but it would be the right thing to do.

I should also mention the thousands of people who caught Covid in less prestigious jobs in transportation and meat packing and supermarkets–all those people who used to be cheered as key workers and who’ve now been officially reclassified as Remind-me-why-we-cared-about-you.

 

How not to break lockdown rules

An unnamed man broke the Covid rules by traveling from England into Scotland for no better reason than to camp out on Inchtavannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Once there, he didn’t sing “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes” (as far as anyone knows, anyway). Instead, he lost his paddle and got his silly self stranded. 

(Again, if you’ve visiting from a culture with a different set of overused songs, that’s from “Loch Lomond.”)

What happened to the unnamed man isn’t quite the same as, in the famous American phrase, up shit crick without a paddle, but it’s close enough. (That phrase, by the way, is said to date back to the 1860s. You can take it back half a century or so to the days of Admiral Nelson, but you might or might not have to sacrifice the word shit. You needed to know that.)  

It’s not clear what happened to the paddle. The man went for a walk and when he came back he discovered that it had gone for a walk of its own. He and his true love never met again, and someone called the cops–probably him but the article I found doesn’t commit itself. A rescue boat picked him up. I don’t know if he was fined, but I’m reasonably sure that he was teased within an inch of his life.

Non-pandemic news from Britain: wallabies, archeology, and poetry

Let’s take a break from the pandemic. An island in Loch Lomond is for sale, and it comes complete with woods, rocks, and a mob of wallabies.

Yes, the collective noun for wallabies does seem to be mob. Or possibly a troupe. Or a court. They were brought there by Lady Someoneorother–Arran: Lady Arran; I have a British passport now and I’m supposed to take this stuff seriously–in the 1920s (or ‘40s, depending on who you want to believe) from the family’s estate in southern England. Where, you may have guessed, they also weren’t a native species. 

The place is a steal at £500,000. Such a deal that you might want to buy two. The catch? The only building is a 1920s ruin and anyone living there is limited to sixty days a year. 

Buyer must like wallabies.

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Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

Bristol’s science and culture center asked city residents what questions they really, really wanted answered. The plan is to pick seven questions and address them in an exhibition. They got more than 10,000 questions, including a predictable amount about “poo and wee,” but others that ranged from the nature of time and the universe to whether god lives “in heaven because he’s scared of what he’d created.”

The science and cultural center doesn’t wander through the world without capital letters. Its real name is We The Curious, although I’d have gone for a lower case T.

Just sayin’, guys, in case you want to reconsider. Or explore that in an exhibition.

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A four-year-old has gotten a book contract for his poems. I mention this in case you’d managed not to feel bad about your own writing career (assuming, of course, that you’re a writer). The particularly annoying thing about it is that they’re definitely a kid’s poems, but they aren’t easy to dismiss.

One that was quoted runs:

   Take our gloves off.

   Take our shoes off.

   Put them where they’re supposed to go.

   You take off your brave feelings

   Because there’s nothing

   To be scared of in the house.

His name is Nadim Shamma-Sourgen and he dictates his poetry to his mother. He’s still learning to read. 

How has he responded to the fuss being made over his poetry? 

“When my poems are in a book,” he said, “can I please have a copy?”

And what has he learned?

“Don’t put your finger up your nose on live telly.”

Would that all writers were so wise.

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Okay, we can’t ignore the pandemic completely. Lockdown drove a lot of Britons to work in their gardens, and Britain having a long history of lost stuff, they’ve been finding things: A medieval silver coin. A medieval belt hook shaped like a snake. A rock with writing on it, probably from the fourth century. Roman pottery. 

It reinforces my belief that anywhere you put a shovel into British soil (except outside our house) you can find something of historical significance. 

All we find at our house is slate. And a couple of plastic toys left by the last owner’s kids.

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An archeological find in a cave in Mexico may end up changing the theory of when humans first reached the Americas. The going theory is that they arrived 13,500 years ago. The new finds argue that they may have arrived 30,000 years ago. That would have been before the last ice age ended, when the area would’ve had a climate a bit like Oregon or British Columbia.

Now get out of the way, because the archeologists are going to argue about it. Probably for a long time. 

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And one more pandemic story: Just after masks became compulsory in England, a man strolled down London’s Oxford Street wearing one. This is news because that’s all he was wearing, although it wasn’t covering his face.

If he was making a political point, no one cared what it was.