The Oxford vaccine: a quick update

Thanksgiving brings less than great news on the Oxford vaccine: Its tests used control groups that weren’t comparable, and its initial report kind of glossed over that by averaging the two together. One group got two equal doses of the vaccine. The other got an initial half dose, then a second full dose, and it responded better than the first.

But that second group also had a top age of 55 and the other group included older people. So what was responsible for the difference, age or dosage? 

The control groups in the two different tests–those are the people who didn’t get the real vaccine–also got different placebos, which may or may not make a difference.

That initial half dose wasn’t a deliberate decision but a manufacturing mistake that seems to have paid off. Regulators were told about it at the time.

I’m not sure how much of a problem any of this is. An article in Wired makes it sound damn near skulldugerous. One in the Financial Times is more ho-hum about it. At this point, it’s worth knowing while we wait and see what the experts have to say.

 

How to turn a Covid cluster into an outbreak

Until recently, the part of Britain I live in had very few Covid cases. Now we have a cluster of them. Isn’t progress wonderful? It’s not a huge cluster, but then no outbreak starts out huge. It scares the antibodies out of me.

So how’s it being handled?

The nearby secondary school sent one whole year group home when I’m not sure how many kids tested positive. Following government guidelines, they treat each year group as a bubble, having them enter through different doors and eat at different times and keeping them as physically separate as possible. The theory is that if the outbreak’s in one year group, the others should be safe.

You can believe that if you like.

And after school, as my neighbor reminds me, they go home. Her kids are in different bubbles in school–a primary school, but the reality’s the same. The minute they get home, they jump on each other, wrestle their way across the living room floor, and hold a germ exchange.

Only she didn’t call it the living room. That’s American. She also didn’t say anything about a germ exchange.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom, but not at this time of year. 

The point, though, is that the bubbles leak–probably at school and definitely at home. And bubbles that leak aren’t bubbles. They’re something else. Cups, maybe. Things with sides and a bottom but no top because that’s how you pour the tea into yourself. 

Or not the tea, the germs.

When the school didn’t have enough teachers to keep going, it sent everybody home to keep up with their lessons online. At least, those who have internet access. 

Don’t get me started. You know what I’ll say.

Some of the kids were told to self-isolate–probably the ones who’d shared a leaky bubble with someone who was known to have the virus. Their families, though, were told they didn’t have to to self-isolate unless their kid became symptomatic. 

How are kids who share a bedroom supposed to self-isolate? Well, you take masking tape and make a line down the middle of the room, and you tell the germs, in the tone of voice you use when the kids have gotten into  your secret stash of chocolate, to stay on their own side.

One of the many problems with all this is that people are infectious before they become symptomatic. Some people never become symptomatic and they’re infectious anyway. And people are even more infectious if they live in a country led by an incompetent, corrupt government. I can’t explain that medically, but it does happen.

Back to the school, though: No one wants to tell all the students’ families, or even just the families with kids in that first infected age group, to go into quarantine. Because that’s be a lot of people. 

Which is why I worry we’ll be looking at a bigger local flareup soon. 

Meanwhile, the county government reminds us to wash our hands and maintain social distancing. Which is better than climbing into each other’s pockets and poking our heads out once a day to ask if the pandemic’s over but doesn’t take into account what it’s like to share a house or apartment or a life with actual human beings. We breathe the same air. It goes into our lungs and it goes out. If someone has the virus, the odds are good that everyone will trade it. It’s always looking for new lungs to explore and conquer, no matter how clean our hands are.

On the other hand, clean hands are very nice things to have.

No one knows for sure where our cluster of cases started, but someone told me today that it traces back to a kid who came home from university. His parents wandered all over town with no idea that they’d been infected and his mother’s sure she infected half of Bude and feels terrible about it. 

Whether she’s right or not doesn’t matter, really. It does remind us–or it should–that we don’t know if we’re infectious so we all need to act as if we are. Because we can feel great and still make people around us sick. 

And it’s yet another reminder that this lockdown has as many holes in it as the school bubbles. 

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A third vaccine, the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine, has reported its accuracy level: It’s 62% but could go up to 90% if the first shot uses a lower dose. (No, I can’t explain it either.) It’s also cheaper than the first two and can be stored in an average refrigerator, and Astra-Zeneca has said it will forgo any profit on it.

Even before that was announced, though, the health secretary told us that if approval comes in time the National Health Service would start vaccinating people before Christmas. Initially, family doctors will immunize the most vulnerable, and NHS staff will be vaccinated at work. Mass vaccination centers will be set up. 

That sounds startlingly as if someone somewhere had an actual plan, but the grapevine tells me that the local doctors’ office hasn’t been contacted about this. They have only the vaguest idea how it will work and what they’re supposed to do or how.  

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Preliminary studies indicate that mouthwashes containing cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC to its friends) can, under laboratory conditions, kill the coronavirus in thirty seconds. But as Donald Trump so famously informed us, so can bleach. So can nuclear weapons, although that hasn’t been verified in a lab. You know what scientists are like about setting off nuclear weapons in their labs. The few who’ve done it have had problems reconstructing their notes. 

A darning needle could also, at least potentially, kill the virus, but viruses are small and stabbing them isn’t easy, as the human immune system has found to its cost.

Don’t think about that too hard. I do understand that the human immune system doesn’t come equipped with darning needles. Let’s call it a metaphor and move on quickly.

With all of this, the problem is what you do with the information. How do you get your chosen virus-o-cide and the virus to meet in the right situation? Take mouthwash: Do you pinch the virus between two fingers and dunk it in the mouthwash? Do you spend your day with a mouthful of the mouthwash and hope that anything you breathe in decides to go for a swim? This isn’t going to be simple.

As you may have figured out, I am–and the world is in my debt for this–not a scientist. Someone may yet find a use for mouthwash in humanity’s fightback against this invisible predator. It’s safe, it’s available, and as medical interventions go it’s cheap.

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Finally, a piece non-Covid news: Donald Trump’s lawyers filed a lawsuit in a Michigan court claiming that Democratic-leaning parts of Michigan had suspiciously high voter turnouts. This was all supposed to link back to voting machines and computer programs and Hugo Chavez. 

And to prove they’d done their research carefully, they listed a number of localities in Minnesota instead of Michigan.

Chavez probably moved them before the election for this very purpose. If he wasn’t already dead by then.