The pandemic update from Britain: money, vaccines, and killing the virus

With Italy’s Covid death toll rising (it just beat Britain to Europe’s top spot), a bar in Rome banned any conversation about Covid, viruses, and lockdown. 

“We’ve been talking about the same thing for months,” manager Cristina Mattioli said. “It’s not at all about denial or not understanding the difficulty of what the world is going through, but just about giving yourself a break.”

They don’t throw people out if they break the rules, but they do show them a poster with a list of alternative topics they might want to consider.

“Customers found it funny,” Mattioli said, “with some saying they could finally have a coffee in peace. They started to have other conversations. What was also lovely is that it gave a cue to customers who don’t know each other to start chatting. Yes, we have to maintain a physical distance, but we can still chat to each other.”

I’m not ready to do that here at Notes, but I do know a reader or three who’s bailed out of the Covid posts. I understand the impulse. If I could bail out on the whole damn virus, I’d be happy to. I’m sure it’s a learning experience and all that, but ignorance wasn’t all that bad, really, was it?

Irrelevant photo: a day lily. Each flower blooms for a single day. We could spin all kinds of metaphors about the transience of all things, including beauty and including the pandemic (I hope), but we’ll skip that. It’s a flower. I needed a photo to fill the space.


An Australian vaccine, the University of Queensland/CSL vaccine, has been abandoned because it set off false positives on HIV tests. It didn’t give anyone HIV–that’s the beast that causes AIDS–but somehow it made them look, on tests, as if it had. Which, given that HIV is still out there in the world and people do still get it, and more to the point if you have it you’ll damn well want to do something about it–

Yeah. You’d want a false positive only slightly less than a real one. So we have one less vaccine in the works, but many others still in development.


The Peruvian trial of a Chinese vaccine was suspended after a volunteer developed neurological problems–trouble moving his arms (in two articles) and weakness in his legs (in one, which said that was among other symptoms, so these may not contradict each other). That “could correspond to a condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome,” the National Institute of Health said. They’re investigating to see if it’s related to the vaccine or has some other explanation.

The vaccine’s also being tested in Argentina, Russia, and Saudi Arabia–as far as I’ve read without this happening.

Peru has one of the world’s highest per capita Covid death rates.

China has four other vaccines in development, some of which are already being used on an emergency basis.


British and Russian scientists will test a combination of the Oxford and Sputnik vaccines to see if that gives better protection than either one singly. The trials will start at the end of the year.


Barcelona gave rapid Covid testing a serious challenge by throwing a free five-hour concert but only allowing people in if they tested negative–on the spot. People danced, bumped up against each other, hugged, and generally did things we wouldn’t have found remotely shocking last year at this time. 

They used hand sanitizer and they (mostly) wore masks, except in one area where they could have a single free drink.

A control group with the same number of people didn’t get in. The researchers will keep an eye on both groups to see if one has a higher incidence of the virus than the other. If I see any more news about how this works out, I’ll let you know. 

Why is this worth doing? Because rapid tests miss a fairly high percent of Covid cases. It’s possible that those people aren’t highly infectious. It’s also possible that they are. It all sounds like Russian roulette to me, but then I’m a zillion years old, on the cautious end of the spectrum, and never did take my music loud. 

Besides, I wasn’t invited. I’m sure it was an oversight. 


The issue of who’s contagious for how long is a live one. Britain’s cutting the quarantine period for people who’ve tested positive or who’ve been in contact with someone who positive. It’ll go from fourteen days to ten. The theory is that in the last few days only 1% to 2% of infected people can still pass on the virus.

That’s 1% to 2% too many for me, but see above about the cautious end of the spectrum.

People, they say, are most infectious in the day or two before they develop symptoms. 

I suspect cutting the quarantine period is also about hoping more people will respect it if there’s less to respect, although at least part of the problem comes from people not being able to afford time off work. That won’t be fixed by shaving off four days off the recommended time.

There’s talk of eliminating the blanket quarantine altogether for people who’ve been exposed to someone who tests positive, replacing it with daily testing, and only asking people to quarantine only if they test positive themselves. 


A system that uses LED lights to emit ultraviolet radiation may be a quick, cheap way to eliminate Covid (and pretty much anything else) from indoor air systems. The snag is that you can’t use it in the presence of actual human beings–or, presumably, non-human beings. I’m not sure what it does to them–or us, more accurately–but probably something not unlike what it does to the virus.

The only way to use it would be in an air conditioning or ventilation system. 

A related use of ultraviolet light involves using conjugated polymers and oligomers (whatever they may be), which when activated by UV light almost completely kill the coronavirus. They can be added to masks, clothes, paint, even sprays. They don’t wash away–at least not with plain water–and don’t leave a toxic residue when they break down. 

They could also be used–and this may be a potential use or an immediate one; I’m not sure which–to combat colds, flu, low grades, and cakes that don’t rise properly.

Yes, we’re playing spot-the-exaggeration today. I got myself into deep water with something I thought was so obviously a joke that no one would believe it. Next thing I knew, someone had referenced my claim that Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout. 

I’m sadder but wiser now. So yes, part of that paragraph is a joke. And yes, it’s very sad when you have to tell people you’re making jokes.


Matt Hancock, Britain’s health minister, announced that a new Covid variant may be associated with a faster spread of the disease.

Notice the wiggle words there: may be; associated with. If you dig into the speech he made to a massively bored-looking House of Commons, he even said, “We don’t know . . . ” But he also said the new Covid variant was growing faster than the version that we’ve come to know and love.

He didn’t say that growing faster may not mean that it spreads more easily or that it makes people sicker, but it would’ve been true if he had. Measuring the danger by comparing the spread of the variants would be like kicking over two cans of paint, looking at the pools on the floor, and deducing that blue spreads faster than red. 

Never mind. What he said wasn’t exactly inaccurate but it was misleading enough to sow bits of panic here and there: Covid’s mutating! Help, help, a horrible heffalump. 

The New Scientist reports that researchers are skeptical. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute said, “This is going to require rigorous assessment before it can be confirmed. New variant sure, functionally significant unlikely. Suspect it will be refuted or seriously questioned.”

Missing words in quote to be found under couch. Have gone free range. From whence they send the news that coronaviruses generally need more than one mutation to hide from a well primed immune system. A lot more than one mutation.


What else is happening in Britain? Well, the BMJ reports that it hasn’t been able to get information on the financial interests of the doctors, scientists, and academics who give the government pandemic advice. Do they have conflicts of interest? Do they stand to benefit from companies with government contracts?


At first, the government wouldn’t even release their names. They’ve now done that but refused to let the BMJ see the financial interest forms they’d filled out, although in the interest of complete transparency the government did release a blank copy of the form.

At least someone has a sense of humor. Or else no sense of humor. I can’t tell which.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and head of its Vaccine Taskforce, is reported to have had £600,000 worth of shares in GlaxoSmithKline, which signed a vaccine deal with the government worth we don’t know how much.

Another member of the taskforce, John Bell of Oxford University—who also headed the National COVID Testing Scientific Advisory Panel and chaired the government’s new test approvals group—was reported to have £773,000 worth of shares in Roche, which had sold the government £13.5 million of antibody tests.

The government assures us that neither of them had any involvement in those deals, so it’s okay. 

And I assure you that any resemblance to individual persons, either living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

Bell may or may not also be part of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. A press release said he was. A spokesperson said he wasn’t.

Nanobodies and jellyfish: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The optimists among us have been counting to see how many horsemen the current apocalypse has brought, and they’ve been able to chalk them up at an impressive rate as long as no one insists that they all ride through in the same place at the same time. We’ve got war, we’ve got famine, we’ve got plague, and now–ah, yes, the satisfaction of getting the complete set–we’ve got jellyfish.

Yes, friends, the fourth horseman looks sloppy on a horse but makes up for with his powerful ick factor.

He–that’s the fourth horseman–also stings, so horses aren’t crazy about carrying him, but that’s the thing about apocalypses, they don’t care what anyone thinks of the arrangements. They don’t even care about the proper plural of their key word, which may be apocalii or apocalump.  

Britain’s (and Ireland’s–let’s not be selfish) seas have been warm and calm this summer, and that’s brought jellyfish blooms–a mile-long cluster of compass jellyfish off Devon, although admittedly that was an estimate; masses of lion’s mane jellyfish off the Isle of Lewis and off Galway. And, presumably, others. The Marine Conservation Society said, “Already, some areas of the UK’s seas resemble a ‘jellyfish soup.’ ”

Which also sounds pretty apocalyptic.


Semi-relevant photo: What’s the best place to face down an apocalypse? Bed. Minnie the Moocher is ready to face anything.

From Australia comes the news that alpacas (along with other relatives of the camel) make two types of antibodies, the usual kind and a kind called nanobodies, which aren’t (or so they claim) escapees from a trashy science fiction series but an, um, you know, alternative antibody by a different name.

Okay, it’s a single-domain antibody, which makes it sounds like the expensive version of a plain old antibody but is actually an antibody fragment. They can be easier to mass produce. Or so says WikiWhatsia. I don’t know a thing about this myself and we can only hope WikiWhatsia wasn’t deep in one of its occasional bouts of madness when it told me that.

The reason I mention this is that researchers are trying to convince an alpaca to produce a nanobody that attacks Covid-19, then test it (the nanobody not the alpaca) to see if it’s safe and effective enough to turn into a vaccine. 

Don’t be in any hurry for this to happen, but don’t rule it out either. 

My thanks to Doug Jacquier for putting me onto this. I now know that not only do alpacas spit, they make nanobodies in their spare time.


Thursday’s papers brought more news on why scientists are worried about the Russian vaccine:

Once upon a time, in the long-ago year of 1977 (is anyone other than me old enough to think that’s recent?), a virologist named Scott Halstead was studying dengue fever and he discovered that if you caught dengue fever once and it left with antibodies, the antibodies not only wouldn’t protect you from a second bout, they’d help you get sicker. 

Thank you, antibodies.

That’s called antibody-dependent enhancement, or ADE, and one worry about the Russian vaccine is that Covid might behave like dengue fever. Why shouldn’t it? It’s outsmarted us at every other turn. 

ADE’s one of the things researchers look for in phase III trials of a vaccine–the phase the Russian vaccine skipped over. 

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology, said the work behind the Russian vaccine has been opaque.

“I don’t think the Russian researchers have done anything wrong, but I think they’ve jumped the gun. If we’re talking about safety, then you have to be looking at issues like ADE, which was a concern that scuppered some efforts to develop a Sars vaccine, where it exacerbated an asthma-like response in the lungs.”

Ideally, he said, scientists would be able to compare all the vaccine candidates being worked on around the world, using the same criteria, and find the best vaccine, not the first.

“No two of these candidates is going to be alike in terms of safety, how effective they are or how cheap they are to produce. . . . There have been too many debacles in this pandemic. This is not another occasion to blunder in. You want to line up the candidates side by side.”


England has quietly subtracted 1.3 million from the number of Covid tests it claims to have carried out.

Or–wait–not carried out. Made available. 

What does made available mean? Less than it sounds like it means, but don’t worry about it. They’re discontinuing the category anyway.

Are we clear about everything now?


New countries have been added to Britain’s Oops List. That’s the list of countries we were told, with lots of celebration, that it was safe to travel to. Then some of us traveled to them and they turned out not to be safe after all because, oops, the rate at which the pandemic spreads isn’t static, it spikes and forms second and (if it gets a chance) third waves. So the people who traveled to those countries will come home to a 14-day quarantine that they didn’t count on.

A spike of Covid cases in France saw it become an Oops Country and anyone coming to Britain from France now has to quarantine for 14 days unless they touched their feet on British soil before4 a.m. on Saturday, August 15. 

It strikes me as counterproductive, if you’re genuinely worried about people importing the virus, to give them a few days to rush home so they can beat the quarantine. If the germ’s circulating where they’ve been, it’s circulating. Germs don’t own calendars and don’t care what day it is. 

Isn’t it lucky I’m not in charge here?

Headlines reported a rush of people trying to beat the deadline. Sort of like Cinderella running from the palace with the clock madly striking midnight. 

Larry the Cat (@Nnumber10cat) reported on Twitter that Grant Shapps, the transport secretary (who unlike Larry claims to be human), thinks that 4 a.m. Saturday falls on Sunday, and reproduced Shapps’ tweet to prove it.

Shapps did not introduce the Cinderella image and neither did Larry, but has anyone ever wondered why her dress turned to rags but her shoe continued to be its fine and fancy self? Not to mention how she got her foot into a rigid crystal shoe and how she danced in it?


Someone in New Zealand went on Trade Me, “The news of Level 2 lockdown came as shock to me. During my unnecessary panic, I decided to get a test. After testing negative, I figured I’d share my gift of Covid free air with the world.

“Enjoy this free range, gluten free bag of air from the lungs of a 100% New Zealand made boy lol.”

The top bid when I checked, on Saturday night, August 15, was $80,200 NZ. Whether the seller will ever collect that is beyond me. 

Surely not.

Standardization and movable goal posts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Earlier this year, in a King Kong meets Godzilla moment, Covid-19 ate the end-of-year standardized tests that older Britain’s students would normally have taken. For kids who were applying to universities, that meant–ack!–they had no test grades to submit. 

But they didn’t have no grades at all, because every year teachers estimate the grades their students can expect to get on the standardized tests, and kids submit those with their applications. Then they take the tests and submit the actual scores, which (or so I’ve read) are on average lower than the predicted grades. 

So what’s a sober, responsible education system to do when the actual tests can’t be taken? Why, make up a system as it goes along, of course. 

Scotland ran up against this first, since (limited) power over the schools has been devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s solution was to use an algorithm–because algorithms are fair, unbiased, don’t run for office, and don’t leave crumbs under their desks–to compare students’ predicted grades with the grades students from their schools got in previous years and with the lifecycle of the common earthworm. After the algorithm had ruminated for microseconds, it spit out corrected grades for everyone.

Irrelevant photo. Montbretia, a flower that spreads like mad and chases gardeners through their dreams.

And what happened? Lo and behold, the poorer (or in other ways the more disadvantaged) the families of the kids you went to school were, the more points you lost. Because guess what: Kids from your school just don’t do that well on standardized tests, so be realistic, you wouldn’t have either. 

All predictable hell broke loose, and the Scottish government backed down. The predicted grades will stand.

Then the hot potato was thrown to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

How can you throw a hot potato simultaneously to three countries? Through the magic of privatization, that’s how. Our politicians can make one potato into three and lower taxes on corporations and the richest 1% all at the same time.

Okay, I’ll come clean: Privatization has nothing to do with this. I just slipped it in because I like to blame things on privatization. And I’m right often enough that the habit gets reinforced. See below.

England is saying students can accept the grades “based on teacher estimations” (there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, so I’m relying on quotation marks to keep everything in place), or swap them for the marks they got on their mock exams. Or they can take the test in the fall. 

Assuming that reality doesn’t intervene and cancel the tests again, although no one seems to be talking about that, at least not publicly.

Of course, that means this coming academic year goes straight into the trash.

Head teachers (if you’re American, read that as principals), though, are saying that mock exams aren’t graded in any consistent way. And some schools canceled mock exams when they saw the pandemic headed for them, so their kids have none to fall back on.

Wales says its modeling is fair, and nearly half of its student grades are based on AS levels. AS levels are a related test taken earlier that I’m not going to try to explain because, c’mon, I don’t really understand this stuff either. Just nod soberly and no one will know how lost you are. 

Northern Ireland is saying it’ll let students appeal their grades on the basis of their mock exam scores. 

I can’t explain why universities aren’t stepping up and saying, “We’re not taking any of this seriously and we’ll be making our own judgements on the basis of [fill in the blank].” Maybe there’s nothing to slot into that blank. I’m too distant from the British educational system to tell you anything useful. You can almost hear them getting ready to say, “Nothing to do with me, your honor.”

Everyone who writes about this is required to use the phrase moving the goal posts. So think of Britain as a country of four nations (which aren’t necessarily getting along well at the moment), and in each of those nations two people are running and random directions, struggling to keep goal posts upright and the space between them more or less even, because if you lose that relationship they’re not goal posts anymore, they’re just posts.


So much for the kids (or former kids) who’ve graduated. Let’s turn our jaded attention to the kids who are due back in school: Summer’s winding down and the government’s hell bent to get them back into the classroom. Because education matters and a generation is in danger of being lost. Because (somewhat less nobly) parents can’t go back to work until their kids can be safely stashed someplace. Because (still less nobly than that) the nation’s sandwich and coffee shops can’t sell sandwiches and coffee until office workers are poured back into their cubicles and deskicles. Without people pouring in and out of buildings, city centers are dying.

Spellcheck, in case you’re interested, doesn’t object to the word deskicle. What’s on earth has happened in the working world since I left? Are people really working at deskicles?

Schools will be safe, the government tells us. The kids will wash their hands and magical incantations will be both incanted and decanted over the school grounds at the start of each school day. Five-year-olds will be reminded every hour on the hour not to touch anything.

Oh, hell, don’t worry about the details. It’ll be fine.

And while that’s being released to the press, what should happen but that a couple of new bits of information appear, from the U.S. and Israel, about kids and the virus.

From a summer camp in Georgia comes the news that younger kids get infected as well as older ones. As the Center for Disease Control so poetically put it, “The findings demonstrate that Sars-CoV-2 spreads efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. . . .

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Israel had been fairly effective in clamping down on the virus, but in May it reopened its schools. By the end of the month, it had closed a hundred of them and ordered thousands of students and staff to quarantine. 

Epidemiologist William Hanage said, “If community transmission is low, the costs to kids of keeping schools closed are much greater than keeping them open.

“However if community transmission is high or increasing, opening schools can only add to it. It’s not clear by how much.” 

So nothing’s certain yet, but the reports are sobering. 

What does the government tell us? The education secretary, Gavin Williams, said on Monday that opening the schools carried few risks. And Public Health England, having apparently said in an unpublished study that older kids were more likely than younger ones to get and transmit the disease, publicly said that reports that it has recommended tougher rules for older kids were incorrect. Also wrong. And false. Did I mention false? 

“Parents can be reassured that to [blah blah blah] an extremely stringent system of controls by” et cetera. Also and so forth. 

It’ll all be fine. 


A health minister, Edward Argar, told the world (or as much of it as was listening) that Britain’s system of tracing the contacts of infected people is almost as good as New Zealand’s

“We’ve traced a quarter of a million in the space of about two and half months . . .” he said. “Look at New Zealand, they have a slightly higher percentage success rate, they’ve traced 360 people.

New Zealand’s population is 4.8 million. England’s is 56 million. Last I checked, New Zealand had had a total of 1,570 cases compared to England’s 270,000. So yeah. We’re hardly behind them at all.

On the other hand, New Zealand has 26.7 million sheep.

Argar–and this, of course, is no more relevant than the sheep or the photo I dropped in at the top this post–is a former lobbyist for Serco, which runs the £108 million test and trace system. The system that only managed to contact a little over half the people in the same household as folks who’d tested positive. 

In the same household. They’d do a better job if they called the sheep.

Someone has leaked a memo from Public Health England in which they approached Serco about the test and trace contract. No bids were taken from other companies.

But it’s worth mentioning that Argar has also served in the Justice Department, and that Serco runs five private prisons and a prisoner escort service. The justice secretary, David Gauke, felt he needed to reassure the world at large that there wouldn’t be any conflict of interest.

So settle down, cynics of the world. It’s all in good hands.

My thanks to Bear Humphries and Annie Robinson for letting me know about the esteemed Mr. Argar.


What’s the story on Russia’s vaccine? Skeptics point out that they’ve skipped phase III trials–the ones that look for side effects and measure its effectiveness, preferably in the widest possible sample of the population. The phase that generally takes months. 

So it’s not clear either how safe or how useful the vaccine will be. Russian officials say they hope its antibody response will last for as long as two years. Skeptics point out that no one knows much about how long Covid antibodies last or what protection they offer, and they worry that a partially effective vaccine could lead governments and people to abandon efforts to suppress the virus. 

Professor of immunology Danny Altmann said, “The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective would exacerbate our current problems insurmountably. . . . We are all in this together.”

Vladimir Putin’s daughter has taken a dose. Make of that what you will.