Mask mandates and individual liberties

The number of in-flight clashes between passengers and airline crews in the U.S. increased lately. 

Clashes over what? Masks. Safety instructions. The crews infringing on passengers’ individual liberties and inalienable right to assault flight attendants.

The FAA–that’s the Federal Aviation Administration–logged 1,300 reports between February and some unspecified time, presumably in early May. Before that, it took ten years to collect that many incident reports. So either there’s something in the snack packets they’re handing out or some portion of the population’s gone feral.

What happens to airline passengers who tear their masks off, throw their mashed potatoes, and hurl miniature liquor bottles at flight attendants? They’re fined, and the fines can be hefty. Four people are facing fines of $70,000 each. (They have thirty days to appeal, which is why the wording there is a bit weasley.)  An Alaska state senator was banned from Alaska Airlines flights for “violating [the airline’s] mask policies,” which I think translates to refusing to wear a mask. Or possibly eating it in mid-flight. Because sometimes a person just has to stand up for her liberties. 

In spite of the recent changes in mask mandates, masks are still required on planes and in airports in the U.S. 

Irrelevant photo: Yet another rhododendron. They stay in bloom for a long time. It’s not my fault that I’ve been posting a lot of them.

What else has increased?

The number of British children swallowing magnets has grown  fivefold in the past five years. That probably means five times as many kids swallowed magnets in the past year as swallowed them five years ago, but you can’t trust me around numbers, which is why I’m tiptoeing through the words.

In about half the cases, the kids need surgery because the magnets didn’t find their own way out.

How do we explain the increase? Are magnets more attractive than they were five years back? Are they coming out in new flavors or is someone advertising them to kids on the cartoon shows? Are the kids swallowing one magnet and before they know what’s happened it’s convinced others to jump in and join it? You know what magnets are like.

The most likely answer is None of the Above. Kids are also swallowing coins and button batteries. This is why the relevant experts spend so much time fussing at parents about kids’ nutrition. Get them to eat their broccoli and it’ll distract them from those lovely magnets. If nothing else, they won’t have the time to look through the cabinets and kitchen drawers.

Toys that use magnets are legally required to display a warning, but the thing about kids young enough to swallow them is that for the most part they can’t read. The oldest kid to have swallowed a magnet was sixteen. He or she has an excuse, though: Laws be damned, lots of manufacturers don’t display the warning.

So would a warning stop a sixteen-year-old who wanted to swallow a magnet? All my instincts say no. I was sixteen once. Tell me not to swallow a magnet and I just might’ve swallowed it to prove my point. Whatever my point would have been. It could easily not have been clear to me either.

It’s when kids swallow multiple magnets that the situation, in all seriousness, gets dangerous. So kids, if you’re going to swallow a magnet, please, it’s one to a customer. 

Have you ever wondered why my career in public health messaging didn’t go anywhere?



And what’s decreased?

A German car parts maker called Mahle is working on an electric car engine that doesn’t use rare earth metals. In other words, this may be a sustainable engine that’s actually sustainable. 

It also doesn’t use magnets. Hands up: Who knew that the current crop of electric cars does use magnets? 

Okay, you’re smarter than me. I didn’t have a clue. If my keys start flying out of my pocket and gluing themselves to cars as I walk past, I’ll know why. 

In addition to being more sustainable, the new design is more efficient and longer lasting. It uses (I’m going to quote here, because I haven’t the faintest fucking idea what they’re talking about) “powered coils in its rotor, transferring power to the spinning rotors using induction, which means they never have to touch and that the motor has no surfaces that will wear out.”

The won’t wear out part I understand completely. Also the not touching part, and the keys not flying out of my pocket part. Also the part about the rare earth metals. Because the thing about rare earth metals is that–well, see, they’re rare. 

Do you ever have one of those days when you feel like you have to explain everything?

The cars should be less expensive than the current breed and the batteries should last longer. They’re expected to go into production in two and half years. And if you feel an itch to explain that business with the rotors, you don’t need to. The truth is I almost understand it, which is enough for me to get buy. It’s just that I don’t trust myself to turn it into anything more reader friendly.


And what’s happened that has nothing to do with the arbitrary theme I’ve imposed?

Somebody broke into Arundel Castle, in West Sussex, recently and stole about £1 million worth of goodies before the cops got there.( They tripped a burglar alarm on the way in but were fast enough for that not to matter.) I’m not sure you need to know this, but in case you do, the castle’s in West Sussex and is–for reasons I’m not going to try to understand, never mind explain–the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Norfolk. Which is a whole ‘nother place from Sussex. Maybe it’s traditional among the English aristocracy to sit their ancestral seats in places other than the sites cited in their titles. How would I know? 

What you do need to know is that if anyone tries to sell you a golden set of rosary beads, they might not be as good a buy as they seem. They belonged to Mary Queen of Scots–she was clutching them when she was executed–and will be pretty recognizable. 


Is it safe for vaccinated people to go maskless?

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control announced that it’s safe for people who’ve been fully vaccinated to dance through the world naked–

Sorry. Not naked. Maskless. Which after a year and more of pandemic feels like the same thing. So this might be a good time to ask, What the hell’s going on? 

Let’s turn to an article in the Conversation that breaks it down manageably. It’s not a long article or a difficult one, and it’s well worth reading, because I’m going to boil it down until all that’s left is a thick syrup.

First, the vaccines we have for Covid are more effective than anyone had the right to expect. Much more effective. But they–or at least most of them–don’t provide sterilizing immunity. (There’s a chance one does but we’re not there yet.) 

To translate that, they don’t stop the virus from entering our systems, they only stop them from getting us sick. That’s less than ideal because it leaves open the possibility that we can pass on the disease.

Irrelevant photo: cornflowers

At the moment, it looks like the vaccines make fully vaccinated people less likely to spread the disease, but the numbers aren’t in yet. They’re outside, running around in the wet grass and refusing to come in for dinner. Or supper. Or whatever you call that meal. And Covid numbers are particularly hard to call home. It has to do with the disease’s habit of spreading while people don’t have symptoms.

Never mind that, though. What we need to know is that it’s hard to make those numbers behave and that scientists are working on it and that dinner’s going to be cold. Nothing’s certain, but a couple of studies hint at fully vaccinated being able to spread the disease–which means they’re able to spread new, more infectious variants. 

That is highly inconvenient but it doesn’t mean that vaccination’s pointless. Vaccination protects the vaccinated person, and it may mean they’re less likely to spread the disease. Less likely isn’t the same thing as incapable of, but it’s an improvement over what we had at this time last year.

The article (remember the article?) ends by saying, “The . . . relaxed guidelines on masking are meant to reassure vaccinated people that they are safe from serious illness. And they are. But the picture is less clear-cut for the unvaccinated who interact with them. Until near herd immunity against COVID-19 is achieved, and clear evidence accumulates that vaccinated people do not spread the virus, I and many epidemiologists believe it is better to avoid situations where there are chances to get infected. Vaccination coupled with continued masking and social distancing is still an effective way to stay safer.”

Boiled down to a thick syrup, that says masks still make sense. 


An update on viruses and human DNA

A study published in the Journal of Virology found no evidence that Covid integrates its genetic material into human DNA. An earlier study had found it doing that in petri dishes, but in real life–

Okay, think of this as computer dating. You exchange a few messages with someone, maybe you have a Zoom date. You establish that they can hold a coherent conversation and that they’re not a cat (that’s either good or bad, depending on who you are and what your preferences happen to be). Then you meet and think, I can’t spend an hour with this person, never mind my life. 

That’s what it was like for the Covid virus. In the petri dish, mingling genetic materials looked like a good idea. In person though? 


Some viruses do fall in love with us, and human DNA is a palimpsest of useless bits of genetic material left behind by bugs we danced a couple of numbers with back–oh, it might’ve been as early as when life was simple and we still had hairy bodies. The bits of genetic code don’t make us sick. They don’t make us better. They just sit there remembering old times.

That integration is called a chimeric event. And a palimpsest is something with layers of meaning, buried history, like a canvas that’s been painted over but the old brushwork is still there, under the surface. That bit of not particularly useful knowledge comes to us courtesy of the Cambridge Dictionary.

For anyone who’s spooked by the idea that MRNA vaccines might integrate themselves into our DNA, this new study should be good news: Covid doesn’t seem to love us. But for anyone trying to figure out why some people test positive for Covid long after they’ve gotten rid of the infection, it may not be good news. Chimeric events had been suggested as an explanation. Take that away and we’re left with the possibility that they might be getting reinfected and the question of whether they continue to be infectious.


How to vaccinate 108% of your population

The island of Nauru has injected 108% of its adult population with at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

How’d they do that? They included foreign visitors, coming up with a total of  7,392 people. The island has been free of the virus, but every visitor brought the risk of an outbreak, so this comes as a real relief.


Online gamers researching Covid

Thanks to game designers embedding a citizen science project inside a game called EVE online, players are helping researchers learn about Covid and the immune system. The idea is to look at the blood cells of people who have Covid and eventually sort out why some people get severe cases and how Covid makes us sick. 

Thousands of gamers have been looking for patterns in groups of cells and have fed 120 million data submissions into Project Discovery. That amounts to decades of data analysis, and each submission also teaches the program to learn the process so that it can be automated in the future. 

The game’s popular, something I can prove by telling you that I’ve never heard of it.

How Covid mutates and why that might be a good thing

There’s good and bad news about the way Covid mutates, and it’s all wrapped around the same bit of information. 

Like most non-experts, I use the word mutate loosely. If something genomeish leads to change, I think it’s a mutation. Which goes to show you what I know.

Covid, it turns out, doesn’t just mutate, it also recombines, meaning it mixes large chunks of its genome, not just single genes. If a mutation’s a typo, recombination is a cut-and-paste error, dumping a largish chunk of text in the wrong place. And while the virus proofreads typos fairly well, it doesn’t catch cut-and-paste problems as effectively.

I’ve had that problem myself. I still wince at something quite horrible that I let go into print because the spelling was right and my eye didn’t pick up the change in meaning. And I’m larger and (I like to think) more complicated than a virus.

Most of those recombination errors, like most mutations, make a mess and that particular virus doesn’t get to leave little virette progeny behind. But some of them work and the virus changes.

Irrelevant photo: One of Janey’s crocuses.

Is recombination what’s happening with Covid? Possibly. The Kent variant has more than a dozen mutations and they seemed to appear all at once. Emphasis on seemed. A lot of what goes on happens in the kitchen while we’re out front cleaning the dining room. Feng Gao, a virologist from China, says we don’t yet have proof of recombination. “Diversity, no matter how much, does not mean recombination. It can well be caused by huge diversification during viral evolution.”

So let’s not get carried away with this. We’re dancing at the edges of what’s known. But (damn, that tune’s catchy, so I’ll do a few more steps) recombination may be how viruses that infect one species jump to another species: by swapping a bit of genetic code .

It’s possible that recombination means a more dangerous virus will appear–either a new one or a more dangerous form of Covid. So there’s our bad news. 

But the good news is that experiments with a mouse coronavirus show that blocking a single enzyme keeps the virus from correcting its typing errors and recombination events happen much less often. If this holds for Covid, the right drug might be able to block recombination and (or maybe that should be or) push the virus to mutate so badly that it ends up in something called error catastrophe–basically, the evolutionary equivalent of falling off a cliff. While dancing to that catchy little tune.

As a way to treat Covid, blocking the enzyme could make antiviral drugs more effective.

The enzyme goes by the name of nsp14-ExoN, which isn’t particularly catchy. If we’re going to be spending time with it, it needs a nickname. But whatever we call it, it’s common in coronaviruses, so if this works it opens up the possibility of curing other coronavirus diseases as well. 


Covid variants

If Britain didn’t end up with the world-beating test and trace system Boris Johnson promised us–and believe me, it didn’t–it may have come up with a world-beating strain of Covid instead: the Kent variant; the variant I mentioned that has all those mutations. Sharon Peacock, the director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium tells us it looks likely to sweep the world.

And unlike the test and trace system, we didn’t pay a penny for it.

Go Britain!

The consortium is testing the genomes on a randomly selected 5% to 10% of all positive Covid samples in the country but aims to test them all in order to keep track of how the virus is mutating.

And speaking of variants, the World Health Organization says the small trial that found the AstraZeneca vaccine to be largely ineffective against the South African variant was inconclusive. They’re not saying the vaccine’s definitely effective against it, only that it isn’t definitely ineffective. 

Which is better than nothing. 


Covid and Coca Cola

How much space would all the Covid viruses in the world take up if they could be packed neatly for shipping? They’d fill a Coke can

They’d also fill a can of supermarket brand fizzy orange-flavored sugar water, but Covid’s a brand-name kind of virus. Coke it is. So in the scene where someone yells, “Don’t open the can!” for pete’s sake, don’t open the can. You know what happened when Pandora didn’t listen to the warnings?

I’m not telling. But I did give you a link.


Spreading the virus

More than half of all Covid cases are spread by people who have no symptoms. They may be less infectious than people who are sick, but they could well make up 80% of the total number of people carrying the disease. And they’re wandering through the world shedding viruses, not lying in bed at home.


A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that wearing two masks can reduce the chance of getting Covid by 90% or more. Yes, not just transmitting but catching the damned thing. 

The study had its limits. It tested a tight-fitting cloth mask over a surgical mask, not two surgical masks and not two cloth ones, and it only looked at one type of cloth masks, although the world’s awash with different types just now. And as the article where I first read this put it, it also didn’t consider “men with beards or children.”

Does having children interfere with the fit of men’s masks more than women’s? Hard to say. The study didn’t test that. 

To keep everything in perspective, an engineering professor says that the only reason to wear two masks is to get a better fit. But the masks most of us wear do fit loosely, so double masking might be worthwhile, no matter who’s right.  


Two weeks after U.S. states introduced mask mandates (they haven’t all), the weekly growth in hospitalization rates dropped by 2.9% among people who are 40 to 64. After three weeks it dropped 5.5% among people 18 to 64.


Every so often, you’ll find someone saying that Covid’s no more dangerous than a bad outbreak of the flu. So do we have any figures on how much more dangerous it is? 

Yup, some. The risk of death is 3.5 times higher. That number comes from comparing people who are hospitalized with the Covid against those hospitalized with flu. It ignores whatever long- term effects Covid has on the unhospitalized, so I’d say it’s undercounting. Still, it’s a number, and numbers help. 

At least they help most people. 

Covid patients also had one and a half times greater use of the intensive care unit and one and a half times longer hospital stays. And they were more likely to need a ventilator.

In case you think Covid’s only a problem for the old and the ill, not many of the hospitalized Covid patients had other illnesses and 21% were younger than 50. People under 50 made up 24% of the intensive care admissions.

As far as I can see, that doesn’t address the problem of how easily Covid spreads compared to flu. It only compares hospitalized patients.


Worldwide, the number of reported Covid cases is down for the fourth week in a row. Take a deep breath. The drop is uneven, it doesn’t count unreported cases, and we forgot to get a guarantee that it won’t go back up, but we have to take our good news where we can get it. This is good news.


Is there any news on curing the thing?

In a small study, a common asthma treatment, budesonide, cut the need for hospitalization and urgent care by 90%, and people who took it within seven days of showing symptoms recovered more quickly than the control group. Better yet, it cut the number of people with symptoms that lingered after twenty-eight days. 

As usual, it was a small study–146 people–so it’s preliminary, but budesonide is a well-known and well-studied drug, which would speed the process if it’s adopted.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a combination of two monoclonal antibodies that can keep high-risk patients from developing Covid that’s severe enough to hospitalize them. A similar drug had already been approved. Both take Covid antibodies and synthesize them so they can be given to patients as a drip. 

And it’s that drip business that’s causing trouble. Initially, getting them from vial (or whatever they come in) into human took an hour. It can now be done in sixteen minutes. But some hospitals have been so overwhelmed they haven’t had time to deal with it. 


A team of researchers in China has identified six drugs that the FDA has already approved for other uses that could be repurposed to treat Covid. They whittled that down from 3,769. They still need to be tested in the real world, but already having FDA approval for other purposes means that if they work they could be put to use quickly.

After that, the article went over my head, but it has to do with proteases and substrates, not to mention clades. Have fun.


Your feelgood story

New York software developer Huge Ma tried to make his mother a Covid vaccination appointment and discovered that not only did the city and state have different systems that weren’t talking to each other but that there were dozens of separate websites, each one demanding that you sign up a different way.

So he took a couple of weeks and made a free website, TurboVax, that compiles information from the three main city and state sites and sends information on available appointments to Twitter.

It cost him $50 to make.

The difficulty of booking an appointment is one reason–although far from the only one–that vaccines are going disproportionately to white New Yorkers. 

“It’s sort of become a challenge to myself, to prove what one person with time and a little motivation can do,” he said. “This wasn’t a priority for governments, which was unfortunate. But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I’m just doing the very little that I can to make it a little bit easier.”