Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Prophets Of Doom?


A particularly disgusting image of an American hero

I’m slipping in this brief post practically on my way out the door, in hopes of being able to resist keeping up with COVID-19 news while Alvin and I are on vacation. Topics: Delta, Italy, origin stories, testing curiosities, bioweapons, and the Right's obsession with Anthony Fauci. See you in September!


Treatment updates

Inhaled budesonide: Results of the STOIC trial in high-risk outpatients were very promising, but interim results of the PRINCIPLE trial on a much larger number of patients (1779 rather than 139), available thus far only in the form of a non-peer-reviewed preprint, are considerably less so. Symptoms were 3 days shorter in treated patients, but the one-month risk of hospitalization or death was only reduced by 22%, which was not statistically significant. The authors say they’ll go forward with publication only when all the patients will have had full one-month follow-up.

Opaganib: Israel has been the birthplace – and the graveyard – of numerous potential COVID-19 treatments. There were stem cells from Pluristem, recycling of the cholesterol-busting fenofibrate, the new drugs Allocetra and EXO-CD24 for critically ill patients, not to speak of a promised oral vaccine. All of these have come to naught thus far, and my cynical mind suspects that opaganib, a new pill intended to help hospitalized people on oxygen therapy from progressing to ventilators, will meet the same fate.


Vaccine updates

Not everyone knows satire when they see it

Pfizer: Their application for full FDA approval is under review, and the agency legally has until January 2022 to finish up. They’ve put it on a priority track, though, aiming for a decision by the end of September. Unfortunate that “priority” is so slow – even a 2-month wait will cause many deaths among novaxers convinced by the “it’s still experimental” argument.

Moderna: Moderna’s application, unlike Pfizer’s, has not yet been accepted for review by the FDA, apparently because of incomplete documentation. Too bad.

Locked up and hesitant: In one California prison 33.5% of inmates – and 45.1% of African-American inmates – offered vaccination turned it down. Fortunately 84% of older inmates, who are more at risk for severe illness, had the sense to take the shot.

Vaccines work: More about how well mRNA vaccines work against both SARS-CoV-2 infection and symptomatic COVID-19 comes from the latest update of a study in 3975 American health care workers. But data collection ended in April, so a Delta caveat applies. The UK study of vaccines against Delta-variant disease has now been published, confirming 88% effectiveness in people fully vaccinated with Pfizer, 67% with those who had AstraZeneca – but a mere 31% effectiveness after a single dose of either vaccine. I sure hope it’s the Brits who have it right, and not the . . .


. . . Jewish Cassandras

Cassandra, who warned in vain against the Trojan Horse, hanging onto a statue of Athena for dear life

Very scary claims have been coming out of Israel, where the Delta variant has taken over entirely. The Health Ministry says that protection from the Pfizer vaccine is now only 40.5% against symptomatic COVID-19 and 80% against serious infection (with even that dropping to 50% among the elderly). Even worse, it claims people who were vaccinated with Pfizer in January were only 16% protected against infection recently, compared to 44% for those vaccinated in February, 67% for March, and 75% for April.

A chorus of Israeli experts has rejected the whole idea. They have variously pointed out that most of the early vaccinees were very elderly and/or medically fragile, that there are grave problems with the definition of serious illness, that a tiny number of cases is involved, and that people who refuse vaccines are also less likely to choose to get tested for SARS-CoV-2, therefore appearing falsely to have lower infection rates. As usual, we need a proper manuscript. But still those of us who, like me, were lucky enough to get vaccinated early on have to feel a tad worried.


Vaccination figures Italian style

Good news about the vaccination campaign in Italy: it turns out to be doing even better than it seemed. I learned only last week that when the Sole 24 Ore webpage whose words I’ve taken for months as holy writ says "FIRST DOSES (TOTAL)," that number does not, contrary to what I have always thought, indicate how many Italians have had at least one dose of vaccine. For some bizarre reason that figure only includes people who have had the first dose of a two-dose vaccine cycle, leaving out everybody vaccinated with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and all the COVID-19 survivors who correctly had only one dose. So the real number is 2 million higher than I thought, and Italy has already at least partially vaccinated 73.7% of people over 16, 69.1% of people over 12, and 61.9% of the entire population (leaving the US, at 56.2%, in the dust). Isn't that great? 


Green pass Italian style

Post at the Facebook page of a Rome city police group

As of August 6th you won’t be allowed to walk into an Italian restaurant, concert, gym, spa, conference, bingo parlors, stadium, theater, or museum, or apply for a government job, without a Green Pass (I call it Green Pass Lite, because a single dose of vaccine will do). When no-vax France did something similar a couple of weeks it gave a huge boost to the vaccination drive, but vaccine-friendly Italy doesn’t really need the boost. The decree already has restauranteurs complaining about having to scan customers’ QR codes at the door, and Rome city police threatening to refuse to enforce it. Not to speak of nightclub owners, who aren’t being allowed to reopen at all and who are screaming bloody murder. 

There’s growing evidence that this kind of stuff does increase vaccination rates. And that between Delta and surging cases, some vaccine-hesitant Americans are finally sitting up and taking notice. Others, though, are only hardening their opposition.


On beyond swabs

Are there simpler methods for winnowing out the infected than sticking giant Q-tips up noses? I’ve already mentioned sniffer dogs, trained to sit when their sensitive noses pick up SARS-CoV-2-infected body fluids. They’re already at work patrolling airports in Finland, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, and a county sheriff in Massachusetts is about to unleash two “K-9’s” in schools and nursing homes. Dogs can supposedly detect 96% of infections in controlled settings, though they’ll inevitably do less well in crowds.

There may be an even better living COVID detector: trained honeybees. When I first read about this I imagined them buzzing around the room and dive-bombing on infected heads. But no, it turns out they’re tied down and exposed to individual samples of saliva, sticking their tongues out for a sweet reward when they encounter one that contains SARS-CoV-2. It seems sniffer bees are actually old news, and have been used to detect everything from bombs to tuberculosis. Who knew? Slick brochures claim they’re quicker to train than dogs, with even more sensitive odor sensors.

A no-nose sniffer

But why not bypass the animal kingdom altogether? Cleaner than dogs, less apt to sting than bees, there’s a sniffer gadget being developed by a company in the UK. Nail it to the wall, flip the switch, and in 15-20 minutes it will tell you whether anyone in a large room is carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It’s up to you to figure out which one, possibly by walking around with a handheld model.


Origin stories

Fort Detrick laboratory

I nominate this offering from George Koo for the Most Unlikely prize: “some of the other speculations besides the Wuhan lab theory deserve to be included in the investigation [of the origins of COVID-19]. For instance, the biological laboratories at Fort Detrick in Maryland were shut down by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for violations of safe practices more than six months before the outbreak in Wuhan. Around that time there were unexplained deaths caused by respiratory failures. A full account was never made public, but the issue was swept under the carpet by blaming the fatalities on excessive vaping.” 

The Fort Detrick tale is being pushed by official Chinese government news outlets and purple-prosed spokespeople:“How many secrets are hidden in the US’ Fort Detrick lab and other biolabs overseas from the rest of the world? What is the truth of the outbreaks of respiratory disease in northern Virginia in July 2019 and the e-cigarette, or vaping, associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak in Wisconsin? The US owes the world an explanation.” 

Fact: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick was indeed shut down over safety issues in mid-2019, and it did indeed work with awful agents such as plague, Ebola, and ricin – not with coronaviruses, though, because they’d make lousy bioweapons (see below). 

More from Koo, to give you an idea what passes for investigative reporting in his corner: “There were also reports in cyberspace that there was evidence of the coronavirus being found in European sewage systems, again months before the Wuhan outbreak. What happened to all those rumors?” 

I do have to say that Italian researchers have thrown a plausible spanner in the origin story works by finding the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a skin biopsy sample taken from a rash on a Milan woman’s arm in November 2019, a month before COVID-19 was first described. They published their case in January 2021, but I didn’t notice it until after the Wall Street Journal picked it up. The woman’s identity is known (the WSJ article got that wrong), her rash lasted 5 months, and in June 2020 she tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. This case is consistent with the Chinese origin of the novel coronavirus, given Northern Italy’s intense China connections – especially to Wuhan, with Chinese workers and Italian fashion executives traveling back and forth. It does seem to push the start of the pandemic back a few weeks, though, and in my opinion makes the lab leak theory even less likely.


A near-origin story…

Preparing vaccines in a Rome hospital

Three students at the California State University, Chico, are suing their school and Anthony Fauci over CSUC’s vaccine mandate, claiming they had COVID-19 in January 2020 so getting vaccinated would put them “at substantial risk of serious illness, including death.”  Couldn’t they have found some more plausible plaintiffs? Leaving aside the anti-vax nonsense, in January 2020 exactly 43 Americans contracted COVID-19 – none of them in California.


Weaponize it

Preparing the headless corpse of a plague victim for launching into a besieged city

Remember the still-unsquelched theory that the novel coronavirus was concocted in a Chinese lab (the Chinese say in an American lab) for use as a biological weapon? Many Americans and two-thirds of Russians believe it. Well I hate to be a party pooper but in fact SARS-CoV-2 would make a lousy bioweapon because it can’t kill or disable maximal numbers of people in minimal time. I get this from pre-COVID-19 review articles by a top microbiologist and US Army bioterrorism experts, and a pandemic article by a US biodefense expert

SARS-CoV-2 does have a couple of points in its favor as a bioweapon, being:

-       easy to access

-       fairly infectious (though not in the league of smallpox or plague)

But it lacks all the other crucial characteristics that are shared by the classic bioterrorism diseases anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, Ebola, and tularemia:

-       it’s not easy to manufacture 

-       a low percentage of the exposed become ill 

-       it’s only infrequently deadly or disabling

-       it’s not stable in the atmosphere 

-       it has a relatively long incubation period

-       there’s no guaranteed way to protect the people who deploy it


The mysteries of Fauci-bashing


T-shirt from Florida governor Ron DeSantis

In June 2020, 76% of Americans approved of what Anthony Fauci was doing. Just before the November election that had slipped to 72% of likely voters. By February his approval rating had slipped to 60% and by April to 54%, though it seems to have held steady since then. The American right’s relentless targetting of Fauci for everything up to and including the coronavirus itself does seem to be working, but I’ve never been able to understand why him? Why pick on a calm, balanced scientist who can probably btake credit for saving millions of lives over his half-century pre-pandemic career. Now the conservative polling website, RealClear Politics, may have provided the best explanation, which lies precisely in his calm and his balance. What those guys resent is not that Fauci declined to back up some of Trump’s farfetched notions, it’s that he refused to play the President’s game. In their words, “What surely riles the right even more than Fauci's refusal to cave is that he didn't care. Fauci saw Trump as a politician to manage rather than to fear. The lack of abject submission punched a few holes in the Trumpian myth centered on an all-powerful authority. Fauci met the attacks on him with sighs. He responded to nutty declarations on science with patient correction. The right wants angry conflict, and Fauci never delivered on his end.”


  1. Fantastic blog Susan! The post of Faucci is hideous! Comparison of the Third Reich to the pandemic response is scraping the barrel!! After this Im sure you will need and deserve a good holiday.

    1. Thank you, Colin. I have rarely had as visceral a reaction of disgust as much as I did to that image.