Good news, goat news, and some dry stuff: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

The goats

With more and more people using Zoom to stay in touch or to hold work meetings, a goat farm, Cronkshaw Fold Farm in Lancashire, has figured out a way to make some money during the lockdown. They’re offering a book-a-goat service for Zoom meetings. 

Dot McCarthy, who runs the farm, said, “People are just in hysterics because they’ve sneaked a goat into a business meeting and the boss hasn’t noticed.”

You can even choose your goat. Let’s meet three.

What to expect from Mary: ambivalence, limited attention span, totally fine peeing in front of you.

“What to expect from Lisa: passive aggressive bleating, ferocious hunger, lack of any form of patience or tolerance of anything.”

To be fair, Lisa was pregnant when they wrote that. She has since had two kids and mellowed out a bit.

Sorry, I should have a picture of a goat here. Will a cat do? This is Fast Eddie, in his most typical pose.

“What to expect from Bret: all the energy, all the opinions, none of the substance.”

That’s not pure sex-role stereotyping, even if it sounds like it is. Some of the males are described as lovely, with velvety ears, although the ears may not be a big draw on Zoom.

The cost’s £5.99 for a ten-minute cameo. 

Other farms offer Zoom alpaca visits. 

You’re welcome.

Containment and testing in poor countries

You’ll forgive me for a couple of hopeful stories about the pandemic, right? Even if they’re not funny? 

Senegal’s working on a testing kit that will cost $1 per patient, doesn’t need a lab, and gives a result in less than ten minutes. Using saliva it will detect current infections and using blood, antibodies from past ones. If the trials go well, it should be in use next month. 

The country started planning its response to the pandemic in January, closing its borders and doing intensive contact tracing. Because people tend not to live alone, it organized a bed for every Covid-19 patient, either in a hospital or a community clinic. It’s had 30 deaths out of a population of 16 million. That’s in a country whose gross domestic product was $1,546 per capita in 2018. By way of contrast, the UK’s was $46,827 in 2019. The US’s was $62,794.59 in 2018.

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Ghana has used community health workers and volunteers to do contact tracing and tests by combining multiple blood samples and only doing individual tests if the pool tests positive. It’s had 31 deaths in a population of 30 million. It’s gross domestic product is $1,807 per capita.

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In various parts of Africa, traditional herbal remedies are being investigated, and one, sweet wormwood, has drawn some attention. The Max Planck Institute in Germany is interested in a different variety of the plant and is doing trials on it.

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The Indian state of Kerala has 690 cases and 4 deaths. It has a gross domestic product of £2,200 per capita in–oh, hell, some recent year. Their rapid response team met in January. By the time the first case came in on a plane from Wuhan, they met the plane, sending anyone without a fever home to quarantine themselves, hospitalizing the one who was feverish. 

A bit later, the virus did spread (somebody had been in Italy and dodged the checks), and they traced hundreds of contacts and before they contained it. 

Repeat the story as workers returned home from the Gulf states and as the country went into lockdown and jobless migrant workers began walking home. They found housing and food for 150,000 migrant workers, and when the lockdown lifted they chartered trains to send them home. They’ve supervised the quarantine of 170,000 people and improvised isolation units for people whose homes don’t have inside toilets. 

Shreds of hope

People in the U.K. is also working on a ten-minute test, along with a two-minute test, both using saliva to check for current infections. The test that’s in use right now not only has to be processed in a lab but (if you send for one to use at home) asks you to swab your nostrils and, according to someone who used one, tonsils. Or the place where your tonsils used to be. 

I do have tonsils but have no idea where they are. I haven’t heard from them in years. They could be living in Argentina for all I know. 

Because so many people are as out of touch with their tonsils as I am (sorry–it’s a sad tale but it has to be told), the test may come back with false negatives as much as 30% of the time. And that’s not just the tests people use at home. Some of the official testing centers are handing people a nine-page booklet and telling them to do the swab themselves. So a test that relies on saliva would be a big step forward. Even I know where my saliva is. 

A twenty-minute antibody test is also being worked on. 

If you get the sense that everything’s being tried simultaneously, you’re probably right. There has to be a way out of this mess. 

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A new treatment for the most seriously ill patients is also being tested. It’s based on the observation that the people who get sickest are seriously low on an immune system component called T-cells. The idea is to use interleukin 7 to boost T-cell production. 

The observation could also lead to a test predicting who will go on to have the most serious reactions to the virus.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been good about staying in touch with my T-cells. I’m doing what I can to patch up our relationship, though, starting with a card and a heartfelt apology. The tonsil thing, that can happen to anyone and they were at fault as much as I was. But the T-cells, that was me. All I can do is hope they accept the apology.

My card end with, “Multiply like hell, you little bastards.”

Who could resist?

Other news, good and bad and goatless

During the potato famine, the Choctaw Nation heard that people were starving in Ireland and sent $170 to the Society of Friends in Dublin, which was distributing food. That would be about $5,000 in today’s money. Sixteen years before, the Choctaw had been forced off their land and relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears and they’d barely begun to rebuild their lives. But they knew starvation and disease and they sent what they could.

Now Ireland is returning their generosity, even if it’s to a different tribe. Some 24,000 Irish donors have given $820,000 to an online fundraiser to buy food and supplies for the Navajo and Hopi reservations, which have been hit hard by the virus. It will go to people who are raising grandkids, have underlying health conditions, or are positive for the virus.

Thanks to Electrica in the Desert for tweeting this one.

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A study of 15,000 patients given hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or one of those drugs combined with an antibiotic found that with any of those four treatments patients were more likely to die in the hospital (1 in 11 compared to 1 in 6 1 in 5, and 1 in 4). 

No comment. 

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In the face of a rebellion not just from the opposition (which is to be expected) but from its own MPs, the British government has backed away from charging foreign NHS and care workers a yearly fee to use the National Health Service–£400 per family member per year. 

The government spent a day or two arguing that of course it was right to charge them, the money goes into the NHS and the NHS needs it, but at a certain point it was just too embarrassing a position to defend. Government officials must be seen to clap for NHS and care every Thursday at 8 pm. Any politician who skips the 8 pm roll call or  shows up but looking less than appreciative is liable to be chopped up and added to Larry the 10 Downing Street Cat’s food bowl.

And if that isn’t enough, NHS and care workers already pay taxes, which are what fund the NHS. Many of them are low paid. They’re risking their lives in the pandemic and are holding the NHS and the care system together. 

Enough. That’s ended. 

Not the roll call and not their role; the surcharge. 

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.