The pandemic update from Britain: research, testing, and spitting your coffee

Britain hit its arbitrary goal of testing 100,000 people a day by the end of April, the government announced triumphantly. How’d they do it? By including 52,000 tests that hadn’t been analyzed yet. Or taken, for that matter. They’d been put in the mail. Presumably to real people, although I can’t vouch for that. I have a picture of some hapless intern sent to the corner mailbox and stuffing them in by the handful. After being told to address them to his or her entire third-grade class, thousands of times over. At the addresses they had then. 

Third grade? Sorry. It’s an Americanism. In Britain, it’d be year three, more or less. 

Without the intern’s work, the number was 73,191.

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Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

The New Scientist article where I found the real test numbers (although for some reason it didn’t mention the intern) also tells me that the U.S. director of national intelligence announced that Covid-19 was not engineered in a Chinese lab, or in any other lab. It’s a natural occurrence. 

Sorry, Don. 

It also mentions that the English and Welsh coronavirus death rate for people from black African backgrounds is 3.5 times higher than for it is white people in England and Wales. Other ethnic minorities are also getting hit harder than whites. 

I don’t have statistics for the U.S., but I do know it’s hitting black people much harder than whites. Which makes the scenes of armed white guys demanding to end state lockdowns particularly chilling.

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Since we’re messing around on the New Scientist website, let me quote another article: Just four coronaviruses (virii?) are responsible for 20% to 30% of our colds, and they may once have been deadly, toning down as time went on until now they’re no more than a damned nuisance. 

Researchers now believe that all four of these viruses began to infect humans in the past few centuries and, when they did, they probably sparked pandemics.”

A careless person could almost get hopeful, reading that. Waiting this one out, though, is not a workable strategy. All those people who want to wait for herd immunity? They think they’re not part of the herd. They are.

The New Scientist is a good website and very much worth a trip. Especially since a lot of us can’t go anyplace real these days. 

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Just to prove that it’s useful, and to lead us all quietly away from that dangerous spark of  hope, I’ll draw on one more article from it: It’ll be a long time before we have a vaccine, it says. If, in fact, it turns out to be possible to develop one for this bug. 

The average experimental vaccine has a 6% chance of being safe and effective enough to make it to the market. Of the vaccines that get as far as trials, about 33% make it to the market.

So let’s assume one of the vaccines being frantically worked on in labs around the world works. It’ll take twelve to eighteen months to manufacture enough doses for it to be widely available, and that would be a remarkable speed. The fastest vaccine ever made to date was for Ebola, and that took five years.

To make a vaccine available faster–. Well, basically, you have to start step two before step one is complete, and maybe step three as well. So if the drug fails somewhere along the way, a lot of money gets lost–and time with it. 

Speed also raises worries about safety. There’ll be less time to study the vaccine’s long-term effects, so problems can be missed. And, let’s face it, when an awful lot of money has been committed, people will be under pressure not to quibble about minor problems that might turn out to be major.

Because we all know how all existing political systems welcome whistle blowers. 

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Some scientists (and in the U.S. at least, some lawmakers, in a rare moment of bipartisanship) and pushing to test vaccines by deliberately exposing a test group to the virus instead of letting nature take its course and seeing how many people get sick. It could shave months off the trial. It could also kill people or leave them with long-term complications.

If you’re spitting your coffee across the room right about now, I have the impression that the idea made immunologist Matthew Memoli from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases do the same thing, although what he actually said is fairly mild: “Where you’re going to give somebody a virus on purpose, you really want to understand the disease so that you know that what you’re doing is a reasonable risk.”

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The crews from cruise ships–some 100,000 of them–have been left stranded on the ships after their passengers were repatriated. The crew are shut out of ports and banned from air travel home, leaving them stranded. Covid-19 is rife on some of the ships. 

A couple of class action suits have been filed. On some ships, crews report being treated well while on others food it running out and many people aren’t being paid. 

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An article in the Guardian’s worth your time if you’re trying to wrap your brain around how this virus works. I’ll pick some pieces out of it, but there’s a lot more. It’s accessible and it’s informative.

One subset of patients are showing brain inflammation, agitation, and personality or behavioral changes. Another–including some young ones–are getting strokes. Some patients have low oxygen levels in their blood but aren’t showing much lung damage. If they were suffering from altitude sickness, it would make sense, but they’re not. One doctor’s hunch is that it must have to do with the blood vessels, but the research hasn’t been done yet. 

Another doctor’s hunch is that the virus affects men more than women because it’s activated by androgens. But again, that’s a hunch. 

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While we’re talking about subsets, a subset of scientists are trying to figure out how this beast spreads. Ending lockdown without understand that is–

Um. It’s hard to find the right word. Dumb? Dangerous? Dicing with disaster?

No, that last one’s three words. 

Anyway, let’s settle for “a problem” and move on.

So various groups of sciencey minds are coming at this from different angles. One is figuring out how virus-laden aerosols (those are–at the risk of, ahem, oversimplifying and distorting just the slightest bit–the tiniest of spit particles, being ridden like race horses by virus jockeys) behave in air. Another gropu is trying to work out if the aerosols carry enough of the virus to be infectious or if infection can only happen with larger droplets–the kind that go flying on the winds of a cough or a sneeze. They can carry larger doses of the virus (someone’s already told you that more isn’t always better, right?) but don’t travel as far as the aerosols. This involves a high-containment lab where they can spray the things around, varying the temperature, humidity, ozone, and sunlight levels. 

Some people get to have all the fun.

Other groups are studying the pathways the virus follows to pass from patients to health and care workers and then to new patients. Half of all new cases in Britain a couple of weeks ago (sorry–I’m always limping behind events here) were among healthcare workers. 

A lot of modeling has been done on the disease’s spread, but so far it’s all based on assumptions about how it spreads. This is research that could fill in that gap.

In the meantime, I am really tired of washing my hands. I just thought you might want to know that. 

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In the meantime, 77% of Britons want the lockdown to continue and 15% want to see it end.

What happened about the others? They’re watching Coronation Street and won’t notice the lockdown until they run out of new episodes in June.