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.