Is a universal coronavirus vaccine a pipe dream?

Scientists are in the (very) early stages of working out a universal vaccine against coronaviruses–one that would block not only Covid’s existing and future variants but any new coronaviruses that emerge.

Okay, let’s call that a possible vaccine. It could easily not work out, but on the other hand no law of nature says that it can’t. Scientists have been doing the next-to-impossible a lot lately. I’ve started to take it for granted. 

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Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud, stolen from an old post because I’m trapped in WordPress’s horrible new editing program and haven’t found a way to drop in new photos at full size. I had a way to avoid the new system, but they’ve blocked it.  

They can approach the task in two ways. One is to make a mosaic vaccine. That has nothing to do with Moses–you know, the guy with the stone tablets. It’s from the word for those tiny pieces of colored tile that make up a picture. The vaccine takes particles from several Covid variants or other coronaviruses and sticks them onto a nanoparticle–a very tiny biological structure made up of proteins. Think of it as sticking some olives on a toothpick.

Or don’t. It’s your mind. I’ll never know. But if you do want to go out on that imaginary limb with me, watch while I saw it off behind us: We’re going to take that toothpick with its olives and drop it into the martini of your immune system.

Thwack. That was the sound of us hitting the ground, olives and all.

It would make a nice lullabye, don’t you think?

Now that we’ve dusted ourselves off, we can let our immune systems figure out what those bits of virus have in common and arm itself–and us–against that.

When this was tried in mice, their immune systems created a broad range of neutralizing antibodies. And creating neutralizing antibodies is the main goal of any vaccine.

Mice–as no doubt you already know–are not humans. They’re also not martinis, so this may not transfer seamlessly from them to us. But it holds some promise.

If you’ll let me brush those twigs out of your hair, we can go on.

The second approach has the scientists looking for features that are common to all coronaviruses. That could mean analyzing their genetic sequences to see where they overlap. It could also mean looking for immune cells that react to either all coronaviruses or to a number of variants, and then mapping the parts of the virus that they target. After that, all that’s left is to create a vaccine aimed at that spot.

Nothing to it.

Those of you who don’t drink will be relieved to know that no martinis are involved in this approach.

Now I’ll throw cold water on the whole project and tell you that scientists have been trying to come up with a universal flu vaccine and a universal HIV vaccine for years. The candidates have been safe but not impressively effective. Still, Covid doesn’t mutate as quickly as either HIV or the flu.

Yes, really. In spite of everything we’ve been reading about variants. This is what’s called slow mutation. 

So no one’s offering guarantees that this will work, but it’s a bright spot on the horizon. 

The horizon, unfortunately, is a good long way away.

Policy-type stuff

An international survey of how countries handled the pandemic shows that autocracies and democracies did equally well and equally badly, as did rich countries and poor countries and countries governed by populists and countries governed by technocrats. In other words, none of those were decisive factors.

Lockdowns of one sort or another do break the chain of infection, but they’re not universally successful. If the population doesn’t trust the government, they don’t seem to work. (I’m stretching the study’s conclusion a bit there. It sounds more tentative about it.) Economic support may make lockdowns more effective. (“May”? I can’t imagine the part of the world where making sure people who can’t work can still eat and pay their rent wouldn’t help. Never mind. It’s not my study. They’re not my conclusions.)

Some countries with strong scientific capacity and healthcare systems have responded badly, and some countries with far less (Mongolia, Thailand, Senegal) have both kept their people healthy and the economy running. 

Some countries (Taiwan, Vietnam, and New Zealand get a mention) did well in controlling the first wave and kept control from there on. Others did well in the first wave but the waves that followed swept over them. 

I’ll get out of the way now and let the people involved in the study have the last word:

“While our work has tracked individual governments’ responses, it is clear that exiting the pandemic will require global cooperation. Until transmission is curtailed throughout the world with restrictions and vaccinations, the risk of new variants sending us back to square one cannot be ignored.”

In other words, we’re all in this together. Even when we don’t act as if we are.

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So let’s check in on a country that’s managed well and hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity. 

Before it had its first Covid case, Iceland had a testing system and a contact-tracing team, ready to go to work as soon as they found their first case. They put everyone who tested positive into isolation and traced their contacts. The word one of the people involved uses, with no apology, is aggressively.

Isolation–as least in Reykjavik–is in a hotel that was converted for the purpose. In response to which the staff walked out. The man in charge (I have no idea what his title is–sorry; let’s call him Gylfi Thor Thorsteinsson, since that’s his name) coaxed them back. They work in full protective gear. Thorsteinsson at least goes into people’s rooms to keep them company.  I assume many of the others go in as well, but the article I read didn’t say. In the past year, the hotel’s taken care of more patients than all the hospitals in Iceland rolled into one.

After Iceland got its first wave under control, they closed the hotel. Then they immediately had to reopen it when two tourists who’d tested positive went a-wandering. And by immediately, I do mean immediately. They just had a goodbye party for the staff when they had to say hello again. 

Now anyone who lands at the airport is tested and put into quarantine. As a result, Iceland is a country where people can go to bars, eat out, and generally wander the world without masks, as if life was normal. Not because they’re risking their lives and other people’s but because it’s safe.

At one point, someone carrying the UK Covid variant slipped through the net and spread it to a second person, who went to work in a hospital and in case that wasn’t bad enough went to a concert with 800 other people, who all crammed into the bar during the intermission. 

Whee. Viral playtime.

Within hours, the tracing system had contacted every one of them. Within days, they’d tested 1,000 people, finding two cases, and they were taken to the isolation hotel. 

And that was it. The virus was contained. 

Why has Iceland been so successful? Thorsteinsson said it’s because “it has been the scientists making up the rules, not the politicians. That matters. They know what they are talking about, the politicians do not.”

The prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, seconded that. 

I think it’s important for a politician to realize what is politics and what needs to be solved by scientific means. It’s my firm belief that we need to listen more to the experts.”

 

A short technical rant

WordPress in its wisdom has blocked the back road that once allowed me to use its manageable Classic Editor, so I’m now trapped in the new one. If anyone knows how to size photos (or knows a back road), pleasepleaseplease let me know. Thanks.

Cold combustion as a way to kill Covid

A German project called CoClean-up (which sounds English to me, but what do I know?) has developed an air filtration system that doesn’t capture the Covid virus but destroys it, meaning that no one has to change air filters or figure out what to do with dirty filters once they’re removed.  All the process leaves behind is CO2 and hydrogen, neither of which is toxic.

The system uses cold combustion, and I never heard of it either. Air’s fed through a saline solution (basically, salt water of one sort or another). That filters out any organic particles, which includes Covid. Two electrodes run zap the saline solution. Tiny amounts of CO2 forms around one electrode and hydrogen at the other. They disperse into the room, along with the cleaned air. 

It’s still being tested, and a demonstrator model should be introduced in April. If all goes well, they expect to launch the thing commercially in another eighteen months.

Irrelevant photo: crocuses

 

A follow-up on vaccines and transmission

After falling for just long enough to tempt a person into optimism, worldwide Covid infection rates are rising again. The only exception at the moment is Africa. 

So let’s grab what good news we can: A study following vaccinated and unvaccinated health care workers reports that the Pfizer vaccine sharply reduced the number of asymptomatic Covid cases. That means that it also reduced the chances that a vaccinated person would transmit the virus: If you’re not carrying the disease, you don’t get to pass it on. Look it up in the handbook. Those are the rules. You can take it up with the management if you don’t like them.

From here on, I warn you, a lot of numbers have pushed their way in. It’s not my fault. They got in the door before I could slam it.

Ready?

In the unvaccinated group, 0.8% of the group tested positive for Covid but had no symptoms. Compare that to 0.37% in the group that had been vaccinated less than 12 days before. 

Why 12 days? That’s the number of days after vaccination when the immune system’s believed to wake up and get to work. That’s in the handbook too. It’s also the number of days in a traditional Christmas–the kind almost no one in English-speaking countries celebrates anymore. And the number of months in the calendar.

More than 12 days after vaccination, 0.2% tested positive. 

That’s not sterilizing immunity, but it does give the virus fewer chances to migrate from person to person–and with that, fewer chances to mutate. Take a deep breath. We’re making a bit of progress here. We still need masks. We still need distance. We don’t have reports on how the other vaccines are doing as far as transmission goes, and anyone who’s lucky enough to have been vaccinated needs to remember that not everyone has been and they could still pass it on. But we’re making a bit of progress.

 

Variants

A variant found in the Brazilian city of Manaus–the P.1 variant–has infected people who had recovered from an earlier strain of Covid. Out of a hundred people who recovered from an earlier strain, the estimate is that somewhere between 25 and 61 people could be reinfected. That’s a hell of a range, so we’re still dealing with rough estimates, but it’s sobering all the same, and a reminder to anyone who still believes that herd immunity will save our asses that herd immunity is not our mother and does not love us. If the big kids on the block pick on us, it will not come swooping down and send them home crying.

It’s also a reminder that until everyone is safe, no one is safe. And did I happen to mention that just ten countries have gotten three-quarters of the 191 million Covid vaccinations that have been delivered to date?)

The new variant may also weaken the effect of the vaccine being used in Brazil–one of the Chinese ones. The vaccine will still prevent severe Covid, and masks and distancing will still reduce transmission, so it’s not time to roll over and play dead, but the variant is spreading in Brazil and has popped up in other countries–24 of them at last count.  

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With talk of Covid variants spreading at roughly the same rate as Covid itself, the question of what to call them has gotten serious. Someone who speaks medicalese will have no problem remembering the difference between B.1.351 and VOC 202012/02, but the rest of us tend to glaze over when we hear the official names. We fall back on place names: The British variant (a.k.a the Kent variant). The South African variant. The Brazilian variant, only, oops, that’s now two variants. 

Why’s that a problem? First, because in a place as big as Brazil with as many cases as it has is almost bound to come up with more than one variant if it’s given enough time. Second, because humans are a difficult species and when a place is associated with a scary variant they tend to blame the place, along with the people who come from there. And third, because the places where the variants were found aren’t necessarily the places where the variants emerged. They just happen to be the places where they were first noticed.

So the World Health Organization has put together a committee to come up with a more sensible naming system. Not for every variant, only for the worrying ones. The names have to be easy to pronounce and easy to remember, and they have to avoid badmouthing the regions where the variants were found.  

One possibility is to name them in the order they were identified, giving us V1, V2, and so on. It’s not as much fun as naming storms, but it does avoid the problem of keeping an even balance of genders and languages.

 

Kids, Covid, Catholics, and Dolly Parton

For perfectly sensible reasons, researchers set out to discover what kids know about Covid, along with what they want to know and how they feel. They had some good questions. They knew some perfectly sensible things. We’ll ignore all of that to focus on one memorable quote.

“It is a stupid virus.”  

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The Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans told its parishioners to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it was developed using a “morally compromised” cell line that originated from aborted fetuses. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are okay, even though some lab testing involved “abortion-derived cell lines.”

What’s the difference? Beats me. 

Pope Francis has already said it’s “morally acceptable” to get any of the vaccines. So we‘ve finally found someone who really is more Catholic than the Pope.

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Dolly Parton got vaccinated and sang–to the tune of “Jolene”–“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, / I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. / Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, / because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

To people who are hesitating, she said, “I just want to say to all of you cowards out there – don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot.” Click on the link and you can hear her. 

Last year, she donated $1 million to help fund research on the Moderna vaccine. 

New vaccines, the vaccine wars, schadenfreude, and a feel-good story

Across the world, the pandemic has slowed for the past two weeks. If anyone has an explanation for that, I haven’t found it. It could just be a statistical glitch, but let’s take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.

 

The new vaccines

Two new vaccines have been announced. One, from Johnson & Johnson (and, just to confuse things, Janssen) needs only a single injection. It’s 66% effective against symptomatic disease and 85% effective against the severe forms. And 100% effective against the forms that are so bad that you end up hospitalized or dead.

Only 66%? you ask. That’s pretty damn good by vaccine standards. But the earliest Covid vaccines came back with such high levels of effectiveness that we’ve started to turn up our noses at a measly 66%. Back before the first vaccine trials uncorked their sparking test results, though, 50% was considered good. And 85% and 100% against the severe forms of the disease, when you think about it? Not bad.

The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is easy to transport and doesn’t have to be kept at a zillion degrees below freezing, making it a handy addition to the vaccine armory. And it only needs one dose. That’s a major advantage.

Irrelevant photo: The daffodils are just starting to blossom. Really. In January.

A new British vaccine, Novavax, is 89% effective but needs two doses. On the positive side, it can be stored in an ordinary refrigerator and has no objections to being wedged in at the back between the peanut butter and that can of cat food you thought you’d lost.

Both are effective against the South African variant, although the numbers aren’t as high. The new Brazilian variant, I believe, came along too late to be included in any of the trials. That’s the one to keep your eye on right now.

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A post or three back, I included a news snippet involving Germany, the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the elderly. I now officially wish I’d waited, because we were only halfway through the story. 

In our last episode, some anonymous source in Germany said (publicly, or we wouldn’t know about it) that the AZ vaccine wasn’t effective on the elderly, and some known source said, “Of course it is. You mixed up your numbers,” but refrained from adding, “You idiot.”

And now, in our next episode, a German official body of one sort or another said the vaccine hadn’t been shown to be effective on the elderly, and several other sources jumped into the discussion and I crawled under the bed and sulked for several days. 

Then Emmanuel Macron said something but I hadn’t included him in my post so I didn’t care.

I do take my responsibilities here seriously.

When I emerged, I was covered in dust but felt a little better because the floorboards under my bed were now spotless.

But you wanted to know about the vaccine, didn’t you? 

Is it effective on people over 65? AZ added older people to its vaccine trials later than younger people, so it has less data on them. And it turned out–predictably–that they were more likely to stay away from other people, so both the group that got the vaccine and the group that got the placebo were relatively well protected. That meant fewer deaths (good) and therefore less data (bad).

The trial did include some checks on people’s antibody levels, though, so they have every indication that the vaccine was working.

 

The vaccine wars replace the Brexit wars

Britain and the European Union agree on only one thing lately, and that’s that with a Brexit agreement in place they needed something new to fight about so it was time to toss vaccines into the mix.

AstraZeneca signed a contract to supply the EU with 80 million doses of its vaccine for the first quarter of 2021. Before that, it had signed a different contract to supply Britain with 2 million doses a week. Then it had production problems at its plants in Europe and said it could only supply the EU with 30 million doses. That would be for the first quarter of 2021. 

Pfizer is also producing less of its vaccine than it expected, and in a rare and impressive display of cooperation a second company, Sanofi, whose own vaccine development has been delayed, said it will use its plants to produce Pfizer’s. 

The EU wanted AZ’s plants in Britain to make up the shortfall its plants in Europe were leaving. AZ said that wasn’t not part of the contract. The EU has been slow in starting its vaccination program and is feeling ever so slightly frantic about this.

Britain said it wasn’t interested in getting less than its contracted share of the vaccine, and Boris Johnson tousled his hair and poured a lit match onto oily waters, saying, “I am very pleased at the moment that we have the fastest rollout of vaccines in Europe by some way.”

He refrained from blowing a raspberry until the press conference was over and the doors had closed behind him.

The EU said, fine, it would deal with the shortfall by refusing to allow vaccines to be exported. That would mean no Pfizer vaccine getting into Britain, although there’s a contract there too.

Then the EU said it would use a clause in the Brexit agreement and institute checks at the Irish/Northern Irish border to make double sure to keep vaccines in the EU. Then it said it wouldn’t.

Then everyone involved arched their backs, fluffed their fur, and made the kind of spitting sounds that eight-week-old kittens make when they want to look scary.

Then the EU published the text of its contract with AZ, minus a few clauses that may or may not be relevant.  

Legal experts working their way through the AZ/EU contract say it’s likely to end up either in arbitration or in court. One of them used a (translated) German phrase that means clear as mud, saying it’s clear as noodle soup. 

 

Department of schadenfreude

A multimillionaire couple flew into an isolated, largely indigenous community in the Yukon Territory and claimed to be local motel workers so they could get in on a vaccination program meant primarily for elders and the vulnerable. 

They also didn’t bother observing the fourteen days of quarantine that were required for incomers.

They’ve been fined C$2,300 , but given their economic status that’s not likely to hold their attention, so they also face six months in jail.

The C in C$2,300 stands for Canadian. And schadenfreude stands for a German word meaning enjoying other people’s bad fortune.

Admit it: You’ve done it at least once in your life.

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Speaking of schadenfreude, Oklahoma spent $2 million buying itself a stockpile of hydroxychloroquine when Donald Trump was touting it as a miracle cure for Covid. Now it’s trying to unload the stuff. Studies show it has no effect on Covid but it could cause heart problems. It’s an accepted treatment for malaria, but you’d be hard put to catch that in Oklahoma. 

The state’s been trying to sell it for months now. If you’re interested, contact the state’s attorney general. You could probably get a bargain.

 

And finally, a feel-good Covid story

A group of health workers in Oregon got stranded on a highway in a snowstorm with six doses of vaccine that would become unusable if they didn’t get into six people’s arms in one hell of a hurry. They’d just finished a clinic and the shots were all committed to specific people, but they weren’t going to reach them in time.

Rather than see them go to waste, they went from up and down the road offering them to people stranded in nearby cars. An ambulance was stuck in the snow with them, so if anyone had a bad reaction, they were covered.

The county health director said it was one of the coolest operations he’d ever been part of.

Hope raises its reckless head above the Covid parapet

Britain has approved two Covid vaccines and hope is raising its reckless head above the parapet. So what does the government do? It hustles us back to its comfort zone, which is chaos. 

 

Vaccine dosage and the mathematics of gambling

A few days ago, someone in or near the government realized that if people need two doses of vaccine, that means the country needs (pay attention here, because this is complicated) two doses for every person who gets vaccinated. Not to mention enough people and places to vaccinate them twice. And we need to vaccinate almost everyone, which is, in technical terms, a shitload of people.

But, look! If we divide two by two, we get one. 

Who knew?

So let’s give everyone a single dose and tell them to wait a while for the second. That way we’ll get the vaccine to more people. 

This is very clever. 

Irrelevant photo: Daffodils. I saw the first ones in bloom last week. Not these–these are from last year–but you get the basic idea.

Doctors made loud and unhappy sounds. People who already got one injection were given appointments for the second, they said. Who’s going to unschedule them? We (this is the doctors speaking, remember, in unison) and our staff are already at the breaking point and don’t have time to unschedule. What do you want us to do with these people when they show up?

And by the way, does anyone have access to a study indicating that postponing the second vaccination is safe?

Oh, that, the government said. We’ve done some modeling. Short term, it’ll be fine. This will save more lives than the original plan.

The government didn’t hear that noise about appointments. Appointments are Someone Else’s Problem, and as that great philosopher and scientist Douglas Adams pointed out, that means it falls into an SEP field, where becomes invisible.

So let’s stick with the question of studies showing that this is a good idea. Pfizer, the maker of one of the vaccines, said, “There are no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days.” And the US’s Dr. Fauci said something along the lines of, Do what you like over there, be we’re not crazy enough to try it here. 

I’m not putting that in quotes because it’s not a quote. He was considerably more diplomatic.

Scientists–at least in Britain–seem to be split. 

And the public? By now, most of us will take any gamble that’s offered. Remember that business about hope’s reckless head? It’s a beautiful sight. We’re in love.

How much protection will a single shot give us for how long? Who the fuck knows? Some. For a while. That’s better than none for eternity. 

They’re talking about delivering the second dose three months after the first, but I don’t recommend betting anything you’re attached to on it working out that way.

 

The mix-and-match experiment

But why create chaos in one way when the world offers us so many possibilities? 

As far as I can reconstruct this–and it’s not that far, so don’t put too much weight on the sequence of events here–Public Health England published some advice saying it was reasonable to give people one dose of one vaccine and one of another. If necessary.

Why would it be necessary? If, say, the first vaccine isn’t available when the second dose is due. (Whenever, that is, it does turn out to be due.) Or if the person doesn’t know which vaccine they got for a first does and their paperwork’s disappeared into an SEP field. 

“This option is preferred if the individual is likely to be at immediate high risk or is considered unlikely to attend again,” Public Health England wrote.

Cue criticism from assorted experts. 

The New York Times quoted virologist Prof John Moore, who said, “There are no data on this idea whatsoever,” and added that British officials “seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess.”

Which does sound familiar.

Public Health England shot back that they only meant that it would be okay in a crisis. They weren’t recommending it. 

A study of mixed dosing is underway. It might even be better that way. Who the hell knows?

 

The great vaccine roll-out

What, then, stands in the way of getting the vaccine to as many people as possible as quickly as possible? Among other things, a shortage of people capable of sticking needles into other people safely. So of course the government as made it as difficult as possible to recruit people.

A working dentist thought he’d pitch in, since he’s experienced at giving injections. 

Explaining the documentation he was asked for, he said, “Some of the things are really quite sensible, like resuscitation, and recognising and managing anaphylaxis, but then you get things like preventing radicalisation, level 1 certificate required, [or] safeguarding children level 2.

“Children aren’t a priority for vaccination, [so] I really don’t think we’re going to be seeing children.

“I must admit, I gave up at the second hurdle, because I’m very busy as a dentist and I do get home quite tired at night. I thought ‘good grief, If I have to go through all this, I’m not [doing it].’ “

Would that they took this much care when they were handing out contracts for Covid testing and tracing.

 

Are schools open or closed?

Yes. But for a while there we weren’t sure which.

A few days before they were due to open, head teachers–if you’re American, that means principals–weren’t sure which they were preparing for. But as I type this on Sunday the prime minister has finally announced that primary schools will open. Except in London and southeastern England, where they’ll stay closed for two weeks  because of the new Covid variant, which is believed to be more infectious. Even though the variant sneaked out of London and the southeast before the holidays and enjoyed a lovely Christmas and New Year’s break in other parts of the country. 

But why not wait till it gets a good hold elsewhere and react then?

Meanwhile, teachers unions are calling for primary schools to stay closed and head teachers have started legal action, hoping they’ll force the government to cough up the data behind its decision to reopen the schools. It’s a good idea, but the government’s beyond the reach of public embarrassment. 

In the meantime, secondary schools are due to reopen on a staggered basis, which is easy since we’re all staggered by now. Universities will open late and their students–some of them–are on rent strike. And Covid testing of students will be carried out by extras from the Dr. Who New Year’s Day special.

Do we know how to throw a party over here or what?

Covid, kids, and rumors

In spite of rumors to the contrary, the new variant doesn’t seem to be hitting children any harder than the old one. A nurse told the BBC that children’s wards were filling up with Covid cases, and the story spread. Hospitals and pediatricians report that they’re not.

Breathe. We have enough trouble without borrowing any.

Covid, Christmas, and other pandemic news

After a bit of four-nation arm wrestling, the British government decided to stand by its decision to loosen Covid restrictions for Christmas. Santa Claus, they told us a while back, was bringing everybody the chance to travel around the country and join three households together for up to five days. 

Don’t read the fine print, they said. It’s Christmas. 

Well, Santa hasn’t changed the present he’s bringing but some spoilsport enlarged the small print and now the government’s asking everyone not to actually do what they said we could look forward to doing. That is, we can still do it, they won’t tell us not to, but they’d really appreciate it if we didn’t.

Really, really appreciate it.

The tone of the press conferences has changed from a Santa-ish look-what-I-brought-you to a Pandora-ish don’t-look-inside-the-box.

Government guidance now says, “Think very carefully about the risks of forming a bubble. . . . [A bubble? That’s a  theoretically impermeable group of people that you seal yourself into, sharing love, germs, risk, and a commitment not to so much as turn your thoughts to anyone outside the bubble.] Everybody in a Christmas bubble is responsible for taking clear steps to prevent catching and spreading the virus.” 

If you’ll allow me to translate that for you, it means, If this bubble wheeze doesn’t work, it’s your own silly fault. We thought the British people had better sense than to do what we said would be safe.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy. Feel uplifted? Good. Now let’s get depressed again.

But we should go back to that four-nation arm wrestling: It’s a particularly British sport involving Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England. And whatever you’ve heard, four-way arm wrestling is not simple, either physically or politically. See, the British government doesn’t speak for Britain on this issue. It speaks for England, which doesn’t have its own dedicated government, although the other three pieces of the United Kingdom do.

Yeah, I know. It’s complicated, but never mind that for now. 

Wales, speaking for Wales, bailed out of the hoped-for four-nation love fest and issued a narrower set of guidelines. Even so, it expects to need tighter restrictions after the holidays. 

Scotland’s recommending that people stay home, but if they do mix it suggests they mix for only one day, not five. But it’s just a suggestion, not a rule and not a law. 

Northern Ireland’s expecting to tighten the rules after Christmas to make up for whatever Christmas unleashes. 

Assorted experts are holding their aching heads in their hands. For the sake of efficiency, we’ll quote just one, a (very rare) joint BMJ/Health Service Journal editorial, which said, “When the government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing. But it is not, it is rising. . . . The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn. It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.”

In case anyone wants to know, what I want for Christmas is for the people I love to be alive and well next Christmas. That’s not meant to exclude anyone. If I can be greedy, I’ll expand that to people I like and to people I don’t even know. 

I’d also like to include myself, if that’s okay. 

 

Vaccinations

In the first week of vaccinations, 137,000 people in Britain got the first shot of the vaccine.

It’s Americans who talk about getting a shot. The British call it a jab. Both of them are unpleasant words. I never heard the underlying aggression until I heard the act of sticking a needle in a person’s arm called by something that surprised me.

Anyway, only 8 million or so people are in line ahead of me–give or take a few hundred thousand.

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Vaccinating all of Britain will cost something in the neighborhood of £12 billion according to a National Audit Office report, which also says the Public Health England (PHE) complained early on that it, along with its extensive experience in vaccination programs, were being locked out of key decisions. 

It was finally allowed through the door in September. 

Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, said (diplomatically) that although the government was right to bet on several different vaccines, the accountability arrangements involved were “highly unusual.” 

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A study reports that a fifth of the world’s population is unlikely to get a chance at any Covid vaccine until 2022. And even that depends on how many of the vaccines in development turn out to work and on their manufacturers hitting maximum production

Back in November, assorted countries had reserved 7.48 billion vaccine doses from 13 manufacturers. Just over half of those doses will go to the 14% of the world’s population that lives in high income countries.

And the 85% of the population that lives in the rest of the world? 

Um, yeah.

True, those aren’t the only vaccines–48 are in clinical trials–but my best guess is that those are the ones that are furthest along in the process. 

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An unprecedented attempt at global cooperation in the face of the pandemic saw a number of countries sign up to the COVAX initiative, which involves richer countries buying vaccines through COVAX so that some of the money goes to getting vaccines to poorer countries. By participating, richer countries would both get access to a portfolio of vaccines and also negotiate as a bloc, bringing the price down

Unfortunately, someone (or possibly everyone) seems to have snagged their toenails in the threads, and that could mean billions of people getting no vaccine until (new source, new date; sorry) 2024–or so says a leaked document, although the World Health Organization, one of the COVAX initiative’s backers, is still making optimistic sounds about it.

The problems in the initiative are complicated enough that if I try to explain them we’ll all sink, but they involve some of the cheaper and easier-to-transport vaccines making slower-than-ideal progress, richer countries prioritizing their own needs (which pushes the prices up), and a lack of money for the initiative.

Go back to the yellow flower. It’ll cheer you back up.

 

Testing

The much-promoted launch of what the British government calls a test and release scheme has been suitably chaotic. 

What’s test and release? 

Well, back when I worked as a copy editor for a hunting and fishing magazine, the phrase catch and release popped up in every third article. It’s the noble act of hauling a fish out of a water by its lip, pulling the hook out of the hole you’ve made, and putting the fish back in the river, all for your own damn amusement, since the fish doesn’t find the process at all amusing. Yes, the fish survives as long as you didn’t hook it too deep and if you didn’t exhaust it and if you remembered to wet your hands before you touched it. But the fish isn’t what you’d call a willing participant.

I agree: Every vegetarian should work for a hunting and fishing magazine for at least five minutes. I lasted until the magazine sank under the weight of its own advertising department, which rumor insisted was run by the owner’s sons.

Anyway, that’s not what test and release is. No hooks, no lines, not even any anglers. I only threw it in because I hear its echoes every time I read about test and release. And, of course, for its sheer irrelevance.

The test and release plan involves travelers arriving in Britain having a Covid test that would shorten their quarantine. 

Hooray. Everyone wins.

Except, it turns out, the people who gambled on it working. A man traveling from the Netherlands to see his mother–who, irrelevantly, has dementia–took the Eurotunnel to London and found himself stuck in a hotel room not for the five days he’d counted on but for what will be either the full quarantine period or damn close to it. 

First he couldn’t find the list of approved test providers. Then he found it but couldn’t book a test with any of them. Not one. The scheme, he said, was “just hot air.”

I know. You’re shocked. So am I. Who’d have expected such a thing from this government?

Eleven providers got government approval. Airports, which already had testing centers up and running, weren’t among them. Instead, you have to get hold of one of the approved providers (assuming that you can, and assuming they have the capacity to deal with you) and ask for a test to be mailed to you. Then you mail it back. (Does that mean breaking your quarantine? Probably. Don’t worry about it. It’s Christmas. It’ll all be fine.)

You’ll get your results within 48 hours–I think of the company receiving it, not of you sending it. That would probably cut your quarantine from ten days to eight, although the program was promoted as cutting it to five. 

An airport source said (with only mild incoherence but impressive accuracy), “The rapid test is not yet approved but would cut self-isolation to five days–that’s what we hoped would be the situation. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t even managed to get a list of who could do it in eight days. Given the small number of passengers traveling now, you’ve got to question the procurement.”

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The U.S. has approved an over-the-counter Covid test. It costs around $30, uses a swab, and gives a result in twenty minutes. Initially, supplies will be limited. 

It’s most accurate in people who have symptoms but it’ll miss some cases in people who don’t. In other words, if it tells you that you don’t have Covid, you don’t get to run out and hug everyone, because, damn it, you could be either pre-symptomatic or an asymptomatic carrier. 

As I read recently, testing alone does nothing. It’s what you do with the information once you have it. I’m not sure quite what this test will contribute to the fight against Covid.

 

Triumphantly irrelevant news

In the spirit of irrelevance that animates us here at Notes, I offer you the following news item:

The mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is auctioning off the chance to blow up a former Trump casino. The city hopes to raise upwards of $1 million and will donate it to the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City. 

The casino closed in 2014 and is already partially demolished. The auction’s winner will get to press the button that makes whatever’s left go ka-blooey.

What we’re not supposed to do: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A whopping 13% of people in England say they fully understand the lockdown rules. In Wales and Scotland, they’re doing better: 15% are fully enlightened. No one in charge of the survey managed to locate Northern Ireland, so I don’t have any data from wherever it is today. 

No, I can’t explain its absence. I’m only somewhat British–I was adopted, and late in life at that–so I can’t be expected to understand how this stuff works, not to mention why. What I can tell you is that 51% of people in England, 62% in Wales, and 66% in Scotland say they understand the majority of the rules. 

Do they really? Maybe. Which also implies maybe not. It was a survey, not a test. 

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Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper.

Meanwhile, in response to a ban on social get-togethers, the police in Scotland have broken up hundreds of house parties since August. Or possibly thousands. The number I found was 3,000, but that was how many times they’d been called out, not how many gatherings they broke up. 

Let’s say lots and leave it at that.

What kind of get-togethers? A party involving 270 students at a dorm. A religious gathering of 20 people. The virus doesn’t care whether you’re praying or shouting, “Sweet Jesus, I’ve never been this drunk in my life.” 

Places rented on Airbnb have been used for a number of the parties, indicating that people aren’t in the awkward position of have 264 more friends show up at their house than they’d planned on, they’re going into it with malice aforethought. 

A police spokesperson said the gatherings weren’t limited to any one age group. 

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A Spanish company, working together with a university, has come up with a machine that should be able to disinfect a room in minutes. It uses cold atmospheric plasma to clean surfaces and to kill 99% of viruses and bacteria in the air.

And if you’re not sure what atmospheric plasma is, what have you been doing with your life? It’s a deeply scientific-sounding phrase that I quoted in order to sound like I know more than you. 

Okay, haven’t a clue. I do understand cold, though. I used to live in Minnesota, which is close enough to Canadian border than the icicles that dangled from their roofs grew right past our windows.

Why don’t we go to a spokesperson, who can explain it all? 

Broadly speaking, we subject the surrounding air to a very strong electrical field, pulling electrons from the neutral particles in the air and forming ions. This system can generate up to 70 different types, from ultraviolet rays to peroxides, ozone, or nitrogen oxides. The synergies between these allow bacteria and viruses to be neutralized.”

Got it?

Me neither. What I do understand is that it’s the size of a laptop, it’s silent, and it can be used to clean either an empty room or one with people in it, recirculating the air. 

Let’s quote the article I stole that information from

“To do this, the system releases ions which, once disinfected, are reconnected in neutral particles.” 

They’re hoping to have it tested and certified by the end of the year. The snag? No one’s said–at least within my hearing–how much it’s going to cost. 

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Staff at some universities complain that they’ve been pressured to stop working at home and show up on campus so that the schools can create a vibrant atmosphere. Because what could be more exciting, when you’re young and taking on a  debt the size of Wales, than having lots of people around you to participate in the Great Covid Lottery? And who’s more exciting to play it with than the back-office staff? 

One school, in explaining why it needed bodies behind desks, wrote that it was trying to keep students from asking to have their tuition refunded, which at least has the virtue of being honest.

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The AstraZeneca / Oxford vaccine–one of the front runners in the race to make a massive viral load of money in the Covid vaccine market–reports that it’s sparked a good immune response in older adults as well as the young. Old codgers (and being one, I get to call us that) also have fewer side effects than the young. 

AstraZeneca says it will be available for limited use in the coming months.

Um, yes, and how fast, exactly, will those months be in coming? AZ says before the end of the year where countries approve its use. Britain’s health secretary says the first half of 2021 is more likely. But whenever it happens, it’s likely to be available to only a limited group at first. 

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Which leads me neatly into my next item, a warning from scientists that the rush to adopt a vaccine may get in the way of finding the best vaccine. Once a vaccine’s in widespread use, it’ll be harder to prove the efficacy of a later vaccine, especially among particularly vulnerable groups. Some mechanism, they say, needs to be set up to compare them.

The vaccines that are ahead in the race are using new approaches, but it’s possible that the older approaches will yield a better result. It’s not necessary, but it is possible.

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The US Centers for Disease Control has (or should that be have, since they insist on being multiple centers instead of a single one?) redefined what close contact means when we’re talking about exposure to Covid. The earlier guidance counted close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for fifteen minutes. Now the CDC reminds us that six feet isn’t a magic number, and neither is fifteen minutes. They’re rough estimates, and being around an infected person fifteen times in a day for a minute each time exposes you to as much virus as fifteen lovely, relaxed minutes in a single encounter.

That may seem obvious, but someone’s always ready to take these things literally. Some schools were moving students around at fourteen-minute intervals. Quick, kids, the virus is onto us! Everybody split up and move to different classrooms!

Basically, what they’re saying is that the more virus you’re exposed to, the greater your risk. Exposure isn’t something that happens all at once, like falling off a cliff. 

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And finally, a bit of rumor control: Wales did not classify tampons and sanitary pads as nonessential items and ban their sale during its current lockdown. What happened was that someone tweeted to Tesco that a store had refused to sell her period pads. Tesco tweeted back that it was government policy.

Tesco then deleted the tweet and apologized. It turns out that the store had cordoned off an aisle because of a break-in. Had someone knocked a wall down? No. The police were investigating, and anyone who’s ever been on a British highway after an accident can testify that you don’t mess with the police when they’re investigating. Everything stops until they’re damn well done.

But by the time Tesco deleted its tweet, the rumor-horse was out of the social media barn and galloping happily toward the Severn–the river that divides Wales from England–reciting, “One if by land and two if by sea, and I spreading rumors of all sorts shall be.” 

Sorry. American poem that kids of my generation had to memorize if we hoped for lunch period to ever arrive. It’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” ever so slightly bastardized, and it’s totally irrelevant but we’re getting toward the end of the post here and headed not just for the Severn River but the Stream of Consciousness.

Should we go back to our point? Sanitary products are recognized as essential and are available for sale. The Welsh health minister added that stores can sell nonessential items to customers in “genuine need,” which is defined as I think it’s lunchtime and I’m leaving now, so define that for your own hair-splitting self.  

The Welsh government is meeting with retailers to review the regulations and guidelines, after which it will all make sense.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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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?

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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.

Masks, anti-masks, treatments, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

I shouldn’t keep telling you about small, promising trials of one thing or another that’ll prevent or cure  Covid-19, should I? Or the ones that will–it they work–roll time backward so humanity wiped the virus out before it sank its teeth into our immune systems. Because most of them, inevitably, won’t come to anything.

But you know what? I will anyway. Because I can’t help myself. Because one just might work. And because we need some hope, no matter how badly shredded it is these days. As long as it’s not total bullshit.

A company in Britain has run a small trial on a protein called interferon beta, which patients inhale through a nebuliser–one of those things that people with serious asthma use when it gets particularly bad. That puts the protein deep into the lung, where–apologies for using heavy-duty scientific language–it gives the immune system a swift kick in the pants and tells it to get back to work. 

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

Interferon beta was tried on hospitalized patients and they were 79% less likely to develop severe disease. Their hospital stays were shorter, and (better yet) they were two or three times more likely to recover well enough to handle everyday activities.

One of the particularly frightening things about Covid-19 is that not everyone who survives can go back to handling everyday activities. 

Interferon beta may be even more effective on patients who aren’t as sick. It’s on its way to a larger trial. 

And an early trial of an Oxford University vaccine shows that it makes both antibodies and white blood cells that fight the coronavirus. It appears to be safe. The question, though, is how well it will work in the real world. 

The answer is a resounding we dunno. Now they need to set volunteers loose to toddle through the real world, some with the real vaccine in their systems and some with a placebo, and then wait to see how many get infected. 

Let’s hope it does, because Britain’s ordered 100 million doses. Plus 90 million doses split between two other vaccines that are still in development. 

Do they pay for those in advance? Or do they pony up some small amount of money to prove they know where their wallets are and promise the rest if the things works out? They pay in advance.

All told, 163 vaccines are in various stages of testing. They may be as promising as the Oxford one, or more so, but Oxford’s the one getting a lot of ink in Britain just now.

C’mon, admit it: You’re glad to know some of that, aren’t you?

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A hundred or so people gathered in London for an anti-mask rally. They hugged each other. They posed for photos. They carried signs saying things like “Flu world order” and “Spread love, not fear.” 

They spread fear all the way down here to me in Cornwall. In the most loving possible way.

One of the organizers said they were “campaigning for the return of our rights and liberties.” 

Ah, yes, those traditional rights and liberties set out in the  Magna Carta. You know, the part where it says, “No Briton shall be compelled to wear a mask, or even shamed into it, yea, even during a plague year. Even if it would save another person’s life.”

Except that since the Magna C. was written when spelling was still a liquid, nothing except  the word a was spelled the way you’d expect. Which is why no one’s ever drawn attention to that clause before.

You won’t find news like that in the press. What are they covering up? Have you ever asked yourself that?

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In spite of the many ways Britain has mishandled the pandemic, the number of infections is, generally, falling. Speaking for myself and several thousand of my closest friends, we’d feel more confident about those numbers if the test and trace program was testing everyone it could convince to stick a swab up their nose instead of concentrating on people with symptoms. But even if we don’t know how many cases we really have, fewer people are dying. That can only be a good thing. 

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However. 

An assortment of doctors are basically (and I’m doing just the tiniest bit of paraphrasing here) giving up on government leadership and hoping the public stays (or in some cases, becomes) sane, understanding “that [the virus] has certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering.”

That’s Carrie MacEwen that I’m quoting, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Try typing that three times quickly. She expects a second surge in the winter, which could be larger than the first.

“The public has begun to think we are free of this,” she said, “but we are not.”

Why are they giving up on the government?

On the one hand, it’s finally telling people they have to wear masks in shops and on public transportation when on the other hand they’re saying people don’t have to wear one at work because “when you’re in close proximity with somebody that you have to work closely to, if you’re there for a long time with them, then a mask doesn’t offer that protection.”

That incisive bit of explanation comes from our health secretary, Matt Hancock, and if you followed his logic you might be eligible for a cabinet post yourself, because not many people could. 

In case you can’t, it works like this: Masks keep people from spreading the virus, but if you share a workplace with someone for eight hours a day, they stop offering any protection because familiarity breeds contempt. Even in the virus world. Once you and I get to know each other, my germs lose interest in you. And yours–it’s dismaying but it’s true–see right through me and look for someone more exciting to infect.

I might be eligible for a cabinet post myself, and may all the gods I don’t believe in protect us.

The noises coming from government ministers haven’t consistently supported even the government’s half-hearted policy on wearing masks in shops. Michael Gove, the cabinet minister, said it was best to “trust people’s common sense” on mask wearing instead of mandating it. 

Indeed. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, common sensically posed for one of those press photos where he pretended to serve food to restaurant customers, with his naked face smiling over two plates of food. I like to think the customers got up and fled, but they may not have been real, in which case they didn’t.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, wore a mask out of doors when she met her French counterpart and then took it off for their indoor meeting.

Well, of course she did. It’s a workplace. Germs got bored during meetings. 

Conservative MP Desmond Swayne called masks a “monstrous imposition.”

All of which helps explain why Chaand Nagpaul of the British Medical Association said, “There needs to be clear, concise public messaging. To introduce measures for shops but not other situations where physical distancing is not possible–including some workplaces –is illogical and adds to confusion and the risk of the virus spreading.”

A poll shows that 71% of the public support making masks mandatory in shops. Another 13% oppose it. The remaining 16%? (It is 16%, isn’t it?) They’re still trying to work out which part of the face a mask is supposed to cover and haven’t formed an opinion yet. 

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I keep reading King-Kong-meets-Godzilla warnings about what will happen when the current pandemic meets the upcoming flu season, and I finally found an explanation of what that’s about. The worry goes like this:

There’s this thing called viral interference. It happens when you (or an entire population) get one virus and it keeps you (or that same population) from getting a second one at the same time. 

Yes, that really happens. Think of it as professional courtesy. But it doesn’t happen with all viruses. Some of them don’t play nice. They push other viruses off the monkey bars. They steal their lunch money.

What no one knows for sure is what kind of virus Covid is. In one early case from China, it infected a man who also had the flu. Beyond that, not much is known. In Australia, lockdown short-circuited the winter flu season, so we didn’t get any information from it. 

It’s not impossible that when kids go back to school in the fall (assuming they do) and start trading all their usual seasonal colds, they’ll short-circuit the coronavirus. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

It’s not clear what the effect of having the flu and Covid-19 at the same time would be, but the assumption is that it wouldn’t be good. The worst scenario would be if this winter’s flu turns out to be a pandemic in its own right and, to pick up our opening metaphor, if Godzilla and King Kong join forces. Who made the rule that they have to fight each other? They don’t. 

And that, at long last, brings us to another bit of good news: For years, researchers–unrealistic souls that they are–have been working on a universal flu vaccine. The idea behind it is to target the viral bits shared by all versions of the flu. It’s good science but, in the current system, bad economics. The researchers haven’t been able to run the expensive trials that are needed to show that it’s safe and effective so it can be marketed. Because where’s the profit in selling people a vaccine they’ll only need once or twice in their lives when you can sell them one every damn year?

All of a sudden, though, a universal flu vaccine looks profitable, and one is being tested. Expect results by the end of the year.

Coffee mugs and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s not go into the details of the government’s plan to jump-start the British economy. Let’s talk instead about the serious stuff: The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, presented his budget sitting at a desk the size of Ohio with a computer in front of him and rows of identically bound books behind him, looking at a printout, pen in hand as if he’s about to take three zeros away from a whole bunch of programs and add one to a bunch of other, worthier ones.

Have I built up enough suspense yet?

So there he is, presenting himself to the nation as the guy we can trust to save our asses from looming economic disaster, and what does he have on the corner of his desk? A mug. 

No big deal, you say? I’d have said the same thing, but some wiseacre spotted that it’s a £180 mug. The kind that keeps your beverage at exactly the temperature you set it to. 

“Our smart mug,” the copy on the mug’s website drones, “allows you to set an exact drinking temperature and keeps it there for up to three hours, so your coffee is never too hot, or too cold.”

And the promotional copy comes with a spare comma at no extra charge. Bonus points if you can spot it.

It’s good to be reminded that the country’s being led by people who understand how ordinary folks live.

The identically bound books? Did he buy them wholesale because they make an impressive backdrop? 

Nah, that’s too cynical even for me. I would never plant that thought in your head.

Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

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Okay, I shouldn’t exaggerate. The mug doesn’t really cost £180. It costs £179.95, but by the time they add shipping and handling–hell, I figured we’d be somewhere in the neighborhood.

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Drive-in comedy clubs have opened in London parking lots, allowing you to go to a live (sort of) show without risking the spread of the virus. You park, you tune your radio to whatever they tell you to tune it to, and you watch someone perform standup on a big screen. If you’d like to laugh, you honk your horn to set that tone of communal experience that’s so important in live theater. 

You’re welcome to laugh as well, but you’re less likely to want to, because something about hearing other people laugh makes us laugh. If other people are laughing, our bodies decide, we must be hearing something funny. We’re herd animals. It’s the same mechanism that sets whole fields full of cows laughing at the same time.

FYI: In British, a parking lot is a car park. In American, a car park is a parking lot. In the rest of the world, I’m out of my depth so I’ll shut up. 

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The government missed another coronavirus testing target. Does anyone care anymore? Nah. We just tell each other, “Well, at least they’re still setting targets. That means they’re trying, right?”

The correct answer to that is, “Right.” It makes us feel so much better.

This target was about getting test results to people. By the end of June, 100% were supposed to get toe people in 24 hours. Or–why be misers?–possibly more than 100% Instead, they managed 54.9% by July 1. But hey, close enough. They both involve numbers. And months. So the will was there.

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The government has finally extended testing to asymptomatic workers whose  jobs put them in contact with lots of people–folks like cab drivers, pharmacists, and cleaners. 

What took the government so long? Good question. Without testing asymptomatic people, we’re not likely to get ahead of this beast.

But I don’t really give you a full picture here. I focus on the fuckups and the bad decisions. That’s partly because they infuriate me and partly because they’re easy to make fun of. And the government makes so many of them. Wouldn’t I be ungrateful not to enjoy that bounty?

In spite of the incompetence this government’s so good at, cases are going down by somewhere between 2% and 5% a day. Assuming, of course, that anyone knows what the numbers are given how limited testing’s been. 

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It looks like Britain will tell the European Union that it doesn’t want to be part of an EU corona virus vaccine-buying plan. According to a House of Commons committee, that’s because Britain refused to pay the EU some money this year. According to government ministers, though, it’s because Britain can get just as good a deal on its own. Besides, the EU plan would limit the number of doses it could get, would be slower than going it alone, and the grapes were sour anyway.

We’ll be fine.

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Enough about Britain. Let’s hear from New York.

A Manhattan branch of the upscale (I think–I haven’t been there) food market Trader Joe’s has had long lines outside since the start of the pandemic, and people on the line do what people do these days when they have to wait: They talk on their phones. Loudly. Driving the people who live in the building (or possibly buildings, but we only know about one–and by we, of course, I mean me) behind them nuts, because let’s face it, most of those conversations are dull as ditchwater and even the ones that aren’t, you know, sometimes you just want to sleep in, or have your own conversation, or think your own thoughts.

So being New Yorkers, the people in one building took action: They copied down parts of the conversations they overheard, put them on signs, and hung them out their windows. 

“Stacey,” one read. “Shut up. No one cares you are getting more frozen berries for your epic smoothies.”

They change some of the names, but there’s no guarantee.

“You know what Jaclyn!? I think he IS cheating on you.”

“Hey Christopher, we can hear that Match, Tinder, Bumble and maybe Grindr have not been doing you justice in these times.”

You can find more on Instagram: @traderjoeslineUWS.

Has it make people shut up? Given how many signs there are, I’d guess not, but it’s made everyone who lives in the building happier.