Welcome to the Covid Cafe, my friends. We have two variants on the menu today.
Our first variant, BA.5, has gotten better than previous versions at evading both the vaccines and the immunity people acquired from earlier infections. But where previous omicron variants tended to stay in the upper respiratory tract, making it somewhat milder, BA.5 has picked up some mutations from the delta variant–that’s the most damaging variant to date–and it’s very pleased with them, thanks, and with itself for being so clever.
They may be the reason it’s better at infecting cells than those respiratory-type omicron variants, and why it may be more serious.
Seeing it circle back in this way doesn’t make me want to go out and celebrate. On the positive side, though, the current vaccines do still protect against its worst effects. But sensible people are recommending masks, ventilation, and distance–all those things governments and a lot of our fellow citizens have gotten bored with.
Are we having fun yet?
Our second variant is BA.2.75. It seems to spread quickly and to evade immunity. How hard it hits people is yet to be determined. It’s also called Centaurus. I have no idea why and my brain isn’t willing to expend any bandwidth on it, but since it’s also possible that the thing has peaked, it has a second name: scariant.
Come fall, updated vaccines are expected to target the omicron mutations. I’m in line already, and rolling my sleeve up.
Efforts to create a pan-coronavirus vaccine have slowed down for lack of funding, lack of any sense of pressure, and lack of even marginal good sense. The current vaccines are still keeping death and destruction to a minimum, and hey, that’s good enough. Let’s just stagger on. I could toss in a quote or two here, but hell, you get the point. Follow the link if you like. It’s find-your-own-quote day here at the cafe.
In addition, testing candidate vaccines won’t be as easy it was at the beginning of the pandemic because Covid isn’t raging through populations the way it was. Pre-existing immunities make their effectiveness harder to measure.
A team that’s been analyzing millions of omicron samples in order to study its mutations reports that omicron alone has 130 sublineages. A member of the team, Kamlendra Singh, thinks vaccines might become less effective over time.
“The ultimate solution,” he said, “will likely be the development of small molecule, antiviral drugs that target parts of the virus that do not mutate. While there is no vaccine for HIV, there are very effective antiviral drugs that help those infected live a healthy life, so hopefully the same can be true with COVID-19.”
Singh helped develop CoroQuil-Zn, a supplement that infected people can take to help reduce their viral load. It’s currently being used in India, southeast Asia, and Great Britain and is waiting for FDA approval in the United States.
A virologist writing in the Conversation agrees, at least in part, saying that vaccines targeting recent variants will inevitably fall behind as the virus mutates. “Vaccines that generate antibodies against a broad range of SARS-CoV-2 variants and a cocktail of broad-ranging treatments, including monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs, will be critical in the fight against COVID-19.”
Long Covid news
Long Covid’s too stale for the cafe, but it’s not growing mold yet, so let’s have a nibble out here in the alley.
The BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) has summarized 15 studies showing that the vaccinated are less likely than the unvaxxed to end up with long Covid. That’s most true of people over 60 and least true of people between 19 and 35.
Long covid can range from annoying to life changing (in a bad way, in case that’s not already clear; it won’t make you grow wings or develop superpowers). It also ranges from transient to no-end-in-sight. In the UK, 2% of the population has reported having it and in the US, that’s 7.5%.
Or by another count, 2 million people in the UK have it. That may or may not work out 2%. Don’t worry about it.
Why is the percentage in the UK so different from the one in the US and why don’t I care if the UK numbers match? Because no one’s tracking long Covid systematically. It can get pretty weird out there.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the important stuff: “hy did the British Medical Journal change its name? I don’t know, but since my father did the same thing, I shouldn’t roll my eyes about it.
Which is unlikely to stop me. Especially since my father didn’t change his name to an abbreviation,but to the last name I use although I have no deep-rooted claim to it.
On the positive side, that bit of history means I know for a fact the Josh Hawley isn’t a relative–even a distant one.
In the absence of systematic tracking, a UK study compared a big whackin’ number of people’s medical records to see what they could learn about long Covid.
Among other things, they were able to add 42 symptoms to the existing list. (Yeah, progress comes in some annoying colors.) The new ones include hair loss, reduced sex drive, erectile problems, swelling limbs, and bowel incontinence.
I did tell you it could be serious, didn’t I? You should listen to me.
They also organized the symptoms into three categories: 80% of the people with long Covid symptoms had a broad spectrum of problems, from fatigue to pain; 15% had mental health and cognitive problems, from depression to brain fog; and 5% had respiratory problems.
A small study treated long Covid patients with cognitive symptoms by using hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and the results were enough to give a person hope. The group that got the real treatment had “significant improvement in their global cognitive function and more cognitive improvement related to their specific damaged brain regions responsible for attention and executive function,” along with improvement in their energy, sleep, and psychiatric symptoms.
The patients who got the placebo treatment didn’t, although they did get a simpler sentence with no fancy language or quotation marks.
The treatment, unfortunately, isn’t something you can set up in your garage. It involves five treatments a week for two months in a machine that looks like a mid-size submarine.
Protective actions you never thought of
Covid is less likely to kill or hospitalize people who fast at least one day a month than it is to do either of those things to those of us who think eating should be a daily practice. This may be because fasting reduces inflammation or it may be attributable to a couple of other reasons that you can look up yourself by following the link.
The bad news? The study involved people who’d been fasting intermittently for decades. It offers no information on people who took it up twenty minutes before becoming infected.
A bit more about vaccines
I’ve found enough shreds of good news that I can spare you one more piece: Vaccination, although it doesn’t prevent Covid, does seem to reduce the odds of infection. Not by as much as we’d all like, but I don’t know about you, I’ll take any percentage I can get.
You want details, though, right? Fine: In the second wave of the pandemic, vaccinated National Health Service employees who worked face to face with patients were 10% less likely to get infected than unvaccinated ones. And I’ll remind the assorted anti-vaxxers who pop up here periodically that the primary value of the vaccines lies in preventing death and serious illness, which (do you really need to be reminded?) is not a bad thing. They haven’t turned out to create sterilizing immunity, and that’s a damn shame but doesn’t mean the people who recommend them should be burned at the stake.
No one’s offered to do exactly that to me yet, but the conversations do have a way of turning hostile. Or starting out that way. A recent comment opened with, “Stop lying, Ellen.”
And I appreciated the suggestion, since hadn’t thought of that myself. I also appreciated the generous and high-minded approach to discussion. Let it be a model for us all.
But forget about me. Ben Neuman, a professor in the Department of Biology and chief virologist at the Texas A&M Global Health Research Complex, has another reason to get vaccinated: “to avoid the brain damage that often comes with COVID. During a natural infection, the immune response around your brain will starve cells of oxygen, and the effect is that you will lose a lot of gray matter—something like a stroke. Unlike a stroke, where usually only one part of the brain is affected, COVID seems to affect the entire brain, so you don’t necessarily lose one thing, like the ability to control nerves on one side of the face, you lose a bit from everywhere. COVID-associated brain damage only happens with infection, not with the vaccine, and having a strong set of white blood cells trained by the vaccine is likely to be helpful in preventing brain damage.”
Okay, but what about monkeypox?
Let’s forget about whether monkeypox is a pandemic or an epidemic or just a damned nuisance. Those–especially damned nuisance–have technical definitions that, for a bunch of free-range blog readers, aren’t the most useful standards. The more pressing question is, How much of a problem is this likely to be?
After what sounds like a lot of internal argument, the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency. The disagreement, as far as I understand it, comes from this: Diseases that spread on the air (think Covid or flu) are bigger worries. They’re easy to catch. Monkeypox is spreading through touch. That doesn’t make it fun and I don’t recommend rubbing up against anyone with a rash right now, but it does mean transmission’s slower and more difficult.
It’s also less deadly than Covid.
If that’s not reassuring enough, existing vaccines can slow the spread–or they can once production catches up with the need.
On the other hand, it’s popping up in a wide range of countries and seems to have surprised the experts.
Monkeypox could (I’ve read) go in two directions: It could establish itself in many countries as a sexually (an also not-sexually) transmitted disease that people will have to deal with or it could be gotten under control. The first prospect isn’t fun, but it’s still not Covid all over again.