Some good news about Covid–and some bad

In some patients, vaccination can ease long Covid symptoms. A small study–44 patients–saw 23% of the participants showing some improvement compared to the unvaccinated group. But just so we don’t get too excited about this, 5.6% found that their symptoms got worse. It didn’t seem to matter whether they’d gotten the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Long Covid? It’s a weird range of symptoms that some percentage of people are left with after they get rid of the infection itself. In some people, the symptoms clear up in weeks and in others–well, it’s not clear how long they’ll last because they’re still hanging around. The symptoms can range from mild to pretty damn awful and they can follow either a severe infection or a mild one. 

An infectious disease specialist at Columbia University said that about a fifth of the patients he’s treated get long Covid. So anything that helps a quarter of them? We like that. 

Irrelevant photo: hyacinth

 

The bad news

With a bit of good news out of the way, let’s drop in on its old friend Bad News: In Brazil, Covid’s sending younger people to intensive care units–people who aren’t just youngish but who have no pre-existing medical problems. Younger in this case means between 30 and 60, so they’re not young-young, but that’s still an important shift in a disease that’s been known for targeting people over 60. 

This doesn’t seem to be because of a change in the disease itself, though. (Put that on the good news side of the scales.) Part of the shift may be coming from younger people’s belief that they can shrug the disease off. They’re making themselves available to get infected. Or the Brazilian government’s Covid denialism is putting them in harm’s way. Public transportation is packed. On crowded sidewalks, it’s not unusual to see people going maskless. And older people are getting vaccinated while younger people aren’t. 

Even though younger people are more likely to shrug the disease off, enough of them need hospitalization that hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s a reminder that none of us can count on being immune to this thing. 

 

The news you can interpret as good if you want to

Researchers estimate that the Covid virus was probably circulating undetected for a couple of months before it popped its nasty little head up in Wuhan at the end of 2019. This is based on modeling and I’m not going to take you through it because, let’s face it, I don’t understand it, but the researchers played out a series of scenarios and concluded that new viruses jump from animals to humans regularly but that most of them die out before they get a chance to create pandemics. Or even epidemics. 

Remember when epidemic sounded extreme? Yeah, me too. Now it’s just some kindergarten-style disaster–the kind where someone called you a bad name and you went home in tears. 

They figure that some 70% of the infections that jump from animals die out within 8 days of finding their way into the human race. If they get into an urban area, though, the odds tip further in their favor. 

So is that good news or bad? Both, I guess. It reminds us that a whole line of viruses is out there, just waiting to set up housekeeping in our bodies’ cells. On the other hand, it means that most of them, even when they find an entry point, won’t spread around the planet.

 

And a bit more good news

The unalloyed good news is that while Covid’s evolving, so are our antibodies

Let’s say you get Covid and count your antibodies just after you recover. You’ll have lots of them. (I’m writing the script, so of course you recover. I apologize for giving you the disease to begin with, but the plot demanded it. The sad truth about fiction writing is that if you don’t let anything bad happen, you don’t have a story.)

Then you count those antibodies again in six months and you don’t have as many. 

Why’s that good news? 

Because they won’t be the same naive little antibodies you had when you first got sick: 83% of them will now recognize Covid variants and be ready to kill them on sight. (It’s a nasty old world at the cellular level. Sorry.) They’ll even be learning to recognize related viruses, such as SARS. They’re sadder but wiser antibodies. If they go into a bar wanting nothing more than a drink and some virus sits down beside them and tries to chat, they won’t be flattered that it’s paying attention to them. They’ll kill it. 

I haven’t done that in bars, but believe me, I understand its appeal. 

How did they get to the point where they understood the game before the first moves were even played out? 

Let’s go back to that case of Covid I assigned you. After you got rid of the infection, you were left with some non-infectious bits of the virus scampering around your body, and they worked as reminders to your immune system: This is what the virus looks like. If this sounds like an ex who won’t stop calling–

Well, yeah, it is, but this isn’t a relationship or a breakup and the virus isn’t your ex. It’s a virus. And you aren’t you anymore, you’re an immune system, because I moved us into a different story without thinking to warn you. So it’s good that bits of the virus still have your phone number, and use it. It’s not universally true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but in this case they really are making you stronger.

The immune system has an evolutionary advantage over viruses. They mutate randomly and the ones that work well survive, which is a way of saying that the ones that survive, survive. But antibodies don’t mutate randomly. I’d love to explain that to you, but the best I can do is tell you that it has to do with B cells and activation-induced deaminase and somatic hypermutation. Or to put that more simply, I don’t understand a word of it but if I could pronounce it I’d have one hell of a snappy comeback next time some virus tries to chat me up.

What I did follow is that the lymph nodes notice which B cells make better antibodies and which ones don’t. They give the best B cells good grades and send the worst ones back to repeat the year with the same teacher who couldn’t get the lessons across the first time. 

The ones who got the top grades get to mass produce their new, improved antibodies. Which recognize variants of the virus they fought off, bringing us back to our starting point, sadder but wiser and ready to fight. 

 

Finally, a bit of Zoom news

Humans aren’t the only ones using Zoom during the pandemic. Two zoos in the Czech Republic set up a Zoom connection to let their chimpanzees watch each other’s lives on big screens while the zoos are closed. The chimps get bored without humans to watch. 

There’s no sound in their meetings (that would improve some I’ve been in), but after initially approaching the screens defensively or aggressively, they settled in to watch the show and it seems to be a great success.

How long Covid immunity lasts, and other pandemic news from Britain

Since the start of the pandemic, 63 million of our battered planet’s inhabitants have been infected with Covid. So are they immune and can they run around bareback?

No one knows, although the occasional data-free politician says (loudly and proudly) that they are. Only a couple of reinfections have been documented, and signs of an immune response can be spotted for months after an infection, but that doesn’t exactly answer the question. We still don’t know if they could catch it a second time once their immune responses die back. We don’t know how long the immune response lasts. And we don’t know whether in spite of being able to fight off the virus they could go on to be a-symptomatic carriers, infecting other people.

Covid’s a coronavirus. So’s the common cold, and immunity to a cold doesn’t last long. On the other hand, SARS is also a coronavirus, and seventeen years after a person caught it their immune system will be ready to fight it off all over again. Covid could be in either camp or somewhere in between. Or it may have set up its camp in a whole different country than either of its relatives. No one knows what to expect from this particular coronavirus, and people who’ve had the disease are being advised to get vaccinated.

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

And people who get vaccinated are advised to wear a mask and keep their distance, because even with a vaccine-induced immunity, they could be carriers. No one knows yet.

We’re not likely to see what we so quaintly call normal for a while yet.

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I saw a summary recently of what the Great British Public asked Lord Google during the lockdown. It’s–

Excuse me while I look under the furniture and inside the microwave for a neutral word.

–it’s informative.

People asked how to cut their own hair, how to bake bread, how to make face masks and hand sanitizer, and how to cook Swedish meatballs, katsu curry, KFC-style chicken, and eels. 

Now, I’ll be the first vegetarian to admit that eating eels is no creepier than eating meatballs, but that doesn’t keep it from sounding creepier. People got interested in them, apparently, because I’m a Celebrity contestants were fed eels, presumably to gross out the participants, the viewers, and the crew. That doesn’t explain why it set off a rush on the poor damn creatures, but it seems to have.

People watch too much TV. And take it too seriously.

People also wanted to find someone who’d deliver afternoon tea. Or wine. Or compost. Or possibly all three together. 

They wanted song lyrics. 

Somewhere in all that you’ll find an insight into the soul of lockdown Britain. It was drunk, it had a bad haircut, it was on a do-it-yourself kick, and it watched too much TV, but it didn’t forget the beauty of afternoon tea. If only someone could bring it to the door, because after all that wine the eels got mixed up with the meatballs and the hand sanitizer got into the flour and no, we’re in no shape to make our own. 

And that reminds me of a song. The first word was I. Want to bet Lord Google can find it for us? 

*

From the Joseph Rowntree Foundation comes news that the pandemic’s likely to push two million families into destitution. The foundation defines destitution as not being able to afford two or more of the following over the past month: shelter, food, heat, light, clothing that matches the season, or basic toiletries.

I’d have thought that not having one of those would be plenty, thanks, but I guess they’re making a distinction between garden variety poverty and complete destitution. Either way, we’re looking at a problem. 

This isn’t entirely the pandemic’s doing. It follows years of cuts to government benefits, and I bet we all know the justification for that without googling it: People who rely on government handouts are shiftless and lazy and cheats and worse than that they’re somebody other than us and they should all be out there working. If we just make living on benefits uncomfortable enough, they’ll get off their backsides, put their kids or their dying parents in the deep freeze and their disabilities in their back pockets and accept whatever underpaid job comes along, assuming one is out there to be found–or two or three three of them if need be. Then they can make ends meet as best they can. Or wrestle the ends until they’re as close as possible, anyway. Just like our grandparents so mythically did.

Truth in advertising: On one side of the family, my grandparents did do something along those lines. It’s one of the reasons they were socialists, since you ask. It doesn’t make an argument for someone else having to live that way.

I don’t want to rant about this–or I do, but not here. I also don’t want to ignore it. I’ts part of what’s happening in the country, so let’s acknowledge it. Some of us get to google Swedish meatballs and eels–and neither of them are luxuries–while other people line up at the food bank and if that sort of solves one problem for the moment they still don’t know what they’ll do about the rent and the electricity. 

Meanwhile, some of the people who financed the Brexit campaign are making money because the pound fell in response to the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

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Depressed? Oh, good. Then this is the time to look at a study from the University of Montreal on how the pandemic’s affected ordinary life. 

Do I know how to throw a party or what?

The study found that if people thought governmental messages about how to respond to the crisis were clear and coherent, then they assumed other people were following them. And the more they assumed other people were following them, the more likely they were to follow them. 

That led the researchers to recommend that government messages be clear and coherent. That may seem obvious, but it’ll surprise the inhabitants of 10 Downing Street and all the people who work there. Except possibly Larry the Cat, who is clear, coherent, and almost universally popular. He also kills mice.

The researchers also recommended that governments target their communications at the majority of people–the ones who follow the recommendations, not at the ones who don’t.

They didn’t say that government ministers and advisors should follow their own recommendations–silly people, they probably take that as a given–but it’s not something you can take for granted, can you, Mr. Cummings?

*

A Geneva study of 700 Covid patients who weren’t hospitalized found that a third of them went on to develop long Covid–which they defined as still having symptoms (fatigue, loss of smell or taste, shortness of breath, coughs . . .) six weeks after they were diagnosed.

The group’s mean age was 43. That’s mean as in one form of an average, not mean as in 43 being inherently any nastier than any other age.

The researchers plan a follow-up at 7 and 12 months to see how the study participants are doing. At this point, no one seems to know how long long Covid is. 

*

A study that followed over 100,000 British people reported that healthcare workers were seven times as likely to get a severe COVID-19 infection as people in other types of work. People working in social care and transportation were twice as likely. 

Black and Asian workers in what are being called non-essential jobs were more than 3 times as likely to develop a severe COVID infection as white non-essential workers, and Black and Asian essential workers were more than eight times as likely.

*

Could we find some good news, please? 

You only had to ask. Researchers from the Open Bioeconomy Lab at the University of Cambridge, the Lab de Tecnología Libre at iBio/PUC Chile, the FreeGenes Project at Stanford University, and the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks collaborated on a free online toolkit that will let labs in developing countries create their own Covid diagnostic and research tools.

According to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “The collapse of global cooperation [has] shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market. . . . African countries have funds to pay for reagents but cannot buy them.”

Or, as the article I lifted this information from put it, the supply chain is broken.

The open-source toolkit will allow scientists to develop tests that are fast, cheap, adapted to needs of local health systems, and easy to manufacture.

*

A 91-year-old who got one of the earliest vaccine doses was interviewed by CNN and, inevitably, the reporter asked how he felt about it. 

Reporters always ask members of the public how they feel about something or other. Your entire block was destroyed by flying saucers? Well, how do you feel about that? We the Public are, apparently, no more than ambulatory masses of feelings, so what else can they ask?

May all the gods I don’t believe in help any reporter who asks me that.

“I don’t think I feel much at all,” Martin Kenyon said, “except that I hope that I’m not going to have the bloody bug now.”

It went viral. 

And how does he feel about that?

“Have people not got better things to talk about?” he wants to know.

Why young adults don’t have a get-out-of-Covid-free card

As the pandemic lumbers onward, we’re hearing more about long Covid–the debilitating long-term effects that some people experience after the disease has passed. Here’s what I’ve been able to scrape together:

No one who catches the virus knows what card they’ll pull out of the Covid deck. Some people have no symptoms, some people get sick and recover, and some people die. As far as most discussions are concerned, that’s it. Cards distributed. Can we play something else, please? 

Well, no, we can’t, because that middle group isn’t done drawing cards. Some of them recover fully, regardless of whether they had serious cases or mild ones, and some–even people who had mild cases–don’t go back to being the people they were before they got sick. And that includes young adults, the people we thought had a get-out-of-jail-free card for this disease. 

The symptoms of long Covid range all over the place. They can include exhaustion, brain fog, memory problems, breathlessness, depression, hair loss, concentration problems, loss of the senses of taste and smell, joint pain, muscle aches, chest pain, chills, sweats, digestive issues, coughs. Trouble going upstairs and trouble walking to the end of the street (the road, the lane, the whatever) get mentioned a lot. Fatigue sounds like the most common symptom.

Some people slowly get better and move on. Some improve a bit and slip back a bit and improve again and slip back again. Some seem to be stuck at the bottom. And it goes on for months. 

Does it get better? We don’t know yet. 

Semi-relevant photo: This is called honesty. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to politicians in the middle of a pandemic. It’s out of season at the moment, but let’s not draw any overarching conclusions from that. 

The Covid Symptom Study app–that’s not the official British test and trace app but it’s been downloaded by 3 million people and one cockatoo–says one person in twenty has long-term symptoms. Another app, this one in Scotland and Wales, comes up with one in ten having symptoms for longer than three weeks, some of them for months.

An article in the BMJ quotes Tim Spector, of the Covid Symptom Study, saying that if your version of Covid includes “a persistent cough, hoarse voice, headache, diarrhoea, skipping meals, and shortness of breath in the first week, you are two to three times more likely to get longer term symptoms.” 

Long Covid seems to be about twice as common in women as in men.

Or in one Paris hospital, four times more common. The same hospital said the average age of the long-haulers they saw was forty.

I know. The numbers are all over the place. These are early reports, a lot of them involving a small number of cases. They’re not carefully designed studies. It’s too early for that.

Another study said a third of patients who had mild symptoms hadn’t gotten back to their pre-Covid health after two to three weeks. The older the patient, the more likely that was, but a quarter of the people between eighteen and thirty-four hadn’t bounced back.

Many long-haulers report that many doctors don’t take them or their symptoms seriously–especially if they’re women. And gee, no, we wouldn’t want to draw any overarching conclusions from that either.

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Meanwhile, back at the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study reports that older people are underrepresented in trials of both Covid vaccines and treatments. 

Why’s that when they’re the most vulnerable to the disease? Because participation often depends on not having other diseases, or on having smart phones or internet access. 

That causes a problem, because older patients may need higher or lower doses of a vaccine or a medicine. Get it wrong and a cure or vaccine can be either toxic or useless.

Dr. Sharon Inouye said, “To be sure, some exclusions are needed to protect the health and safety of older adults—such as poorly controlled comorbidities. However, many are not well-justified, and appear to be more for expediency or convenience of the trialists.”

Did you say something about overarching conclusions?

*

Okay, how much do masks, handwashing, and keeping a distance from people limit the spread of Covid? Considerably, according to a study in Thailand.

Wearing a mask all the time lowers the risk by 77%. Wearing it only part of the time you’re with someone does fuck-all. So that business about putting on a mask at a restaurant when you head for the toilets, then taking it off so you can sit back down and shovel food into your face? Useless. 

Keeping a meter away from people reduces infection by 85% and keeping contact down to fifteen minutes or less reduced the risk by 76%. Frequent handwashing? That reduced it by 66%. Add those all together and Covid will end up owing us. Or doesn’t it work that way?

If you’re wondering whether they’re talking about reducing the risk of passing on the disease or of getting it, I wondered the same thing.

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Researchers at Oxford University suggest that the best use of limited Covid testing resources would be to test people who are the most likely to pass on the disease–healthcare workers, transport workers, social care workers, delivery drivers, people who go to large gatherings, people in large cities–and to do it at regular intervals.

Random testing, they say, wastes resources.

Are we going to listen to them? Probably not. What do they know anyway?

*

An anti-Covid nasal spray that’s been tested ferrets looks promising. It interacts with cells in the nasal cavity, waking up the immune system, which then kicks in and–

Okay, let’s not pretend I understand this. I’ll quote: It “kicks in like a defence shield which is broad-sprectrum and non-specific.” So presumably it slaughters anything it finds that looks suspicious. It’s odd how a moderately nonviolent person like my own bad-tempered self turns bloodthirsty when we’re discussing the immune system.

It’s too early to know if it’ll translate to humans. Or cause us to grow a glossy fur coat. 

“The hope is that it will reduce the duration and severity of the symptoms and if you reduce the number of viral particles in the nose, the hope is that it would reduce transmission – although they haven’t done those studies yet.” 

Hang onto that word hope. We need as much of it as we can get these days.

Stay well, people. I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.