To summarize some encouraging vaccine news in today’s New York Times:
All five vaccines with public results have eliminated Covid-19 deaths. They have also drastically reduced hospitalizations. “They’re all good trial results,” reports Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s great news.”
Don’t focus on the relatively minor differences among the vaccine results. The available data is very encouraging — including the vaccines’ effect on the virus’s variants.
Coronaviruses have been circulating for decades if not centuries, and they’re often mild. The common cold can be a coronavirus. The world isn’t going to eliminate coronaviruses — or this particular one— anytime soon.
We don’t need to eliminate Covid-19 for life to return to normal. We need to downgrade it from a deadly pandemic to a normal virus.
All five vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson — look extremely good. Of the roughly 75,000 people who have received one of the five in a research trial, not a single person has died from Covid, and only a few people appear to have been hospitalized. None have remained hospitalized 28 days after receiving a shot.
For perspective, in 75,000 American adults, Covid has killed roughly 150 and sent several hundred more to the hospital. The vaccines reduce those numbers to zero and nearly zero, based on the research trials. A typical U.S. flu season kills between five and 15 out of every 75,000 adults and hospitalizes more than 100.
When you read that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66 percent effective or that the Novavax vaccine was 89 percent effective, those numbers are referring to the prevention of all illness. Researchers count mild symptoms as a failure.
What about the highly contagious new virus variants that have emerged in Britain, Brazil and South Africa? There is no evidence yet that it increases deaths among vaccinated people. Two of the five vaccines — from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax — have reported some results from South Africa, and none of the people there who received a vaccine died of Covid.
The vaccines still provide considerable protection against the variant, though less than against the original version. Some protection appears to be enough to turn this coronavirus into a fairly normal disease in the vast majority of cases.
Any of the five vaccines can save your life. If you have to choose between getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine now or waiting three weeks to get the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, the experts say: Get what you can, as soon as you can. Don’t risk three more weeks of exposure.
Encouraging news from today’s New York Times (Sorry, the formatting is a little wonky):
Why the vaccine news is better than you may think.
By David Leonhardt
Preparing the Pfizer vaccine in Phoenix.Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
‘We’re underselling the vaccine’ Early in the pandemic, many health experts — in the U.S. and around the world — decided that the public could not be trusted to hear the truth about masks. Instead, the experts spread a misleading message, discouraging the use of masks.
Their motivation was mostly good. It sprung from a concern that people would rush to buy high-grade medical masks, leaving too few for doctors and nurses. The experts were also unsure how much ordinary masks would help.
But the message was still a mistake.
It confused people. (If masks weren’t effective, why did doctors and nurses need them?) It delayed the widespread use of masks (even though there was good reason to believe they could help). And it damaged the credibility of public health experts.
“When people feel as though they may not be getting the full truth from the authorities, snake-oil sellers and price gougers have an easier time,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote early last year.
Now a version of the mask story is repeating itself — this time involving the vaccines. Once again, the experts don’t seem to trust the public to hear the full truth.
This issue is important and complex enough that I’m going to make today’s newsletter a bit longer than usual. If you still have questions, don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com.
‘Ridiculously encouraging’ Right now, public discussion of the vaccines is full of warnings about their limitations: They’re not 100 percent effective. Even vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus. And people shouldn’t change their behavior once they get their shots.
These warnings have a basis in truth, just as it’s true that masks are imperfect. But the sum total of the warnings is misleading, as I heard from multiple doctors and epidemiologists last week.
“It’s driving me a little bit crazy,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, told me.
“We’re underselling the vaccine,” Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, said.
“It’s going to save your life — that’s where the emphasis has to be right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine said.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are “essentially 100 percent effective against serious disease,” Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said. “It’s ridiculously encouraging.”
The details Here’s my best attempt at summarizing what we know:
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — the only two approved in the U.S. — are among the best vaccines ever created, with effectiveness rates of about 95 percent after two doses. That’s on par with the vaccines for chickenpox and measles. And a vaccine doesn’t even need to be so effective to reduce cases sharply and crush a pandemic.
If anything, the 95 percent number understates the effectiveness, because it counts anyone who came down with a mild case of Covid-19 as a failure. But turning Covid into a typical flu — as the vaccines evidently did for most of the remaining 5 percent — is actually a success. Of the 32,000 people who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in a research trial, do you want to guess how many contracted a severe Covid case? One.
Although no rigorous study has yet analyzed whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, it would be surprising if they did. “If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect — prevents disease but not infection — I can’t think of one!” Dr. Paul Sax of Harvard has written in The New England Journal of Medicine. (And, no, exclamation points are not common in medical journals.)
On Twitter, Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco, argued: “Please be assured that YOU ARE SAFE after vaccine from what matters — disease and spreading.”
The risks for vaccinated people are still not zero, because almost nothing in the real world is zero risk. A tiny percentage of people may have allergic reactions. And I’ll be eager to see what the studies on post-vaccination spread eventually show. But the evidence so far suggests that the vaccines are akin to a cure
Offit told me we should be greeting them with the same enthusiasm that greeted the polio vaccine: “It should be this rallying cry.”
The costs of negativity Why are many experts conveying a more negative message?
Again, their motivations are mostly good. As academic researchers, they are instinctively cautious, prone to emphasizing any uncertainty. Many may also be nervous that vaccinated people will stop wearing masks and social distancing, which in turn could cause unvaccinated people to stop as well. If that happens, deaths would soar even higher.
But the best way to persuade people to behave safely usually involves telling them the truth. “Not being completely open because you want to achieve some sort of behavioral public health goal — people will see through that eventually,” Richterman said. The current approach also feeds anti-vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories.
After asking Richterman and others what a better public message might sound like, I was left thinking about something like this:
We should immediately be more aggressive about mask-wearing and social distancing because of the new virus variants. We should vaccinate people as rapidly as possible — which will require approving other Covid vaccines when the data justifies it.
People who have received both of their vaccine shots, and have waited until they take effect, will be able to do things that unvaccinated people cannot — like having meals together and hugging their grandchildren. But until the pandemic is defeated, all Americans should wear masks in public, help unvaccinated people stay safe and contribute to a shared national project of saving every possible life.
Here’s a bow-WOW from the world of science: Dogs’ acute sense of smell may mean they can sniff out people carrying the virus — say, before they get on an airplane.
Dogs trained to detect people infected with COVID-19 – by sniffing their armpits
MAISONS-ALFORT, France — While a vaccine for the coronavirus will help stop the pandemic’s spread, finding everyone who may be carrying the virus is still an issue. Luckily, man’s best friend is now on the case. Researchers in France are helping to specially train dogs to detect people infected with COVID-19 — by sniffing their armpits.
A new study that has seen pilot programs spring up around the world has discovered that dogs can sniff out coronavirus in the sweat of humans. Thanks to their famously acute sense of smell, dogs have been rooting out drugs, explosives, and even successfully pick up diseases like cancer for years.
The French scientists are now showing how our furry friends can also help save lives during the pandemic by spotting virus clues. An early experiment suggested canines could be between 75 and 100 percent effective at detecting the disease with their noses.
Dogs paw-trolling airports for COVID?
The technique has already been piloted in several countries including the UEA, Lebanon, Finland, Australia, and elsewhere. Travelers may already have seen the specially trained dogs at some airports, but researchers are still trying to prove without a doubt that dogs can pick up the scent before the method is fully adopted.
The team behind the study hope their findings will mean dogs could help with COVID aid in parts of the world without the infrastructure for expensive mass testing programs. The loveable animals could be used anywhere however, with the hope that invasive nasal swabs could be replaced by a simple sweat sample taken from under the armpit for a dog to sniff.
“The results are good and I’m happy, really happy,” Grandjean says in a statement, per SWNS. “It is a success technically and scientifically and it’s surprising because we didn’t know what we were going to have as results.”
“We have been validated by the World Health Organization and they have given us a bit of money which is good. “Probably the country which is the most advanced now is the UAE, where they have dogs in three international airports. They are deploying some mobile units to go to the villages and to the people that might be more exposed to the virus,” the professor explains.
“For us here the idea was, of course, the airports but I can imagine a small city having a couple of dogs and just saying to the population ‘you can be tested whenever you want.’ You just come and put a swab under your armpit and give that to the dog and he will tell you yes or no. The dogs would be able to do that very quickly on a large number of people.”
Ending the pandemic one sniff at a time
Grandjean adds that dogs could also be used where people are reluctant to have uncomfortable nasal swab tests. During the study, which started in March, the researchers recruited six dogs previously trained to sniff out bombs, colon cancer, or used in search-and-rescue missions and re-trained to detect COVID-19.
They then collected sweat samples from 177 people (95 with COVID-19 and 82 without) and then placed the samples inside cones for the dogs to sniff. In trials, the dogs successfully picked out the infected sweat when examining a line-up of mock and negative samples.
Although the published study is just a “proof of concept” and cannot be taken as absolute proof, Prof. Grandjean and his team have now carried out further studies to validate their results and have more planned in 2021. They have also issued a “practical guide” to other academics to help others in their research and are building up a set of “international training standards” for dogs.
“We have been working with lots of countries. I think we have 20 countries working for us. It’s amazing, really amazing,” Prof. Grandjean concludes.
The study was published in the online journal PLOS ONE.
SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.
What a week! I would normally shy away from discussing anything political on this blog, but it’s been such a wild time that I feel compelled to dive in and mix a few metaphors.
7 million more of us saw the writing on the (bathroom obscenities) wall and anticipated a certain amount of resistance to the election results. But I do have some sympathy for those blindsided Kool-Aid drinkers who couldn’t see that their beloved was in the throes of a Hitler-in-the-bunker last stand.
Think about it. Four years is a long time to be in an intense relationship with a crazy person. There’s been a collective Stockholm Syndrome amongst these supporters who only get information from their crush and don’t want the grownups to explain that all is not as it seems. Both the highs and lows are so intense that “normal” is seen as boring. And woe betide anyone who dares say that the emperor has no clothes (ok, that’s a horrifying visual). He HAS clothes. They’re GREAT clothes. They’re the BEST clothes anyone ever had.
Well, sadly, the wannabe coup-coo dictator can’t even break up with his fan club on Twitter, like other cowards do. And unless he’s planning to write a whole lot of personal “It’s not you, it’s me” Dear Don letters, they’ll have to learn about it on the real news, i.e. the non-conspiracy, actually-validated-with-facts sort of news.
Meanwhile, expect sales of tissues and Rocky Road ice cream to go through the roof.
Need help following your New Year’s resolution to eat healthier food? Move to the UK, where apparently they will do this for you! (You might take this with a grain of salt, except it’s also on the watch list.)
On Monday, the U.K.’s Department of Health and Social Care announced a pack of new regulations that will be implemented in April 2022 to restrict junk food promotions.
In 2018, London implemented a ban of junk food advertising that was written so broadly that it forbid promotion of all sorts of normal foods (like butter, olive oil, and canned fruit) not because those items were unhealthy but because they had sugar, salt, or fat levels beyond government-approved thresholds.
The U.K. now plans a nationwide ban on television advertisements for what it calls “junk food” before 9 p.m. And that’s not the only new regulation. Also on the list:
Retailers will not be permitted to offer “buy one, get one free” promotions (or similar offers) for foods the government deems unhealthy.
Retails will not be permitted to display these unhealthy foods for promotioal purposes near checkout counters, near the front of the store, or on the ends of aisles.
Retailers will not be permitted to promote unhealthy foods on the entry or landing pages of their websites.
Free refills of sugary drinks will be banned at restaurants.
“We know families want to be presented with healthier choices,” said Public Health Minister Jo Churchill. “This is why we are restricting promotions and introducing a range of measures to make sure the healthy choice is the easy choice.” They’re going to make it the “easy choice” by deliberately bringing about economic harm to any competing choices!
The government claims that the British people have an obesity problem—more than 63 percent of adults and a third of elementary school children are overweight. Because the United Kingdom has socialized medicine through the National Health Service (NHS), this means the healthcare costs associated with obesity, which are estimated to be 6 billion pounds annually ($8 billion), are everybody’s problem.
The U.K. government can’t seem to acknowledge or accept the idea that people are voluntarily and willingly making bad choices. This Nanny State mentality means that the government must lay the blame on those who sell or advertise unhealthy food.
“Promotions often appear to help shoppers save money,” the agency explained in its press release. “However, data shows that these deals actually increase purchases of promoted products by almost 20%. They encourage people to buy more than they need or intended to buy in the first place.”
But people always need food. If you buy more food than you “need or intended to buy in the first place” you can usually save it for the future. That is what sales, promotions, and other low-pricing deals accomplish. They allow people to stock up and store food. That’s particularly important when governments everywhere are trying to discourage people from gathering in public places due to the pandemic.
Speaking of COVID-19, even though the U.K.’s food nannyism has been building for years, British officials can’t help but try to use the coronavirus as a justification for their actions: “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the impact that obesity can have on people’s health and health outcomes.”
Snowdon notes that a ban on buy-one-get-one-free promotions could cost the average family more than 600 pounds (more than $800) a year by the government’s own estimate. That means that British officials are trying to deliberately force up the cost of unhealthy foods because they think this will force people to choose healthier alternatives.
Experimental brain implants in monkeys offer hope for restoring vision
Scientists have said they are one step closer to restoring the sight of blind people using brain implants.
[Adapted from an article by Amy Woodyatt, CNN]
Monkey business? After a series of successful experiments, scientists are a step closer to restoring the sight of blind people using brain implants.
Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience developed implants containing 1,024 electrodes — conductors that carry electrical currents into and out of the brain — and implanted them in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information, in two macaque monkeys. By sending electrical signals to the monkeys’ brains, researchers created “phosphenes” — dots of light that could be “seen” or perceived by the brain, and then used to create the illusion of shapes and objects.
Lead researcher Pieter Roelfsema told CNN that the team wanted to show it was possible to induce “vision of objects” through direct electrical stimulation of the brain, explaining that the visual cortex has “a sort of visual map of space.””You can work with it like a matrix board along the highway. If you stimulate or light up multiple boards, you can see patterns,” he said.The monkeys performed a series of tasks, and, using their artificial vision, were able to recognize shapes and “percepts” including lines, moving dots and letters, according to findings recently published in the journal Science.
Wider implications for restoring sight
The team believes that such technology could one day be used to simulate sight in blind people who have been able to see at some point in their lives.
The World Wildlife Fund reports positive developments in this otherwise hellish year.
“The last 12 months have brought hardship to every corner of the globe that we have not collectively experienced in generations. But they have also brought us closer in unexpected ways and shown us just how connected we all are; that people and nature are intrinsically linked.”
World’s first solar-powered LED fishing net helps sea turtles swim free Hundreds of thousands of turtles are unintentionally caught by commercial fishing vessels every year. WWF partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and scientist Jesse Senko of Arizona State University to design the world’s first solar-powered LED fishing net. This year, the team is working together with the manufacturer to scale and produce the nets.
Images from a new camera trap reveal the highest-elevation sighting of a tiger in Nepal, captured at over 8,000 feet in a densely forested area. High-altitude habitats may provide refuge for tigers and help connect their territory between Nepal and India. The finding also expands understanding of tiger habitats now that there is evidence of their use of high-altitude areas.
A new project produced in collaboration with private landowners across North America’s Northern Great Plains will help improve one million acres of grassland to help fight the climate crisis. WWF joins forces with The Walmart Foundation, McDonald’s, and Cargill to invest more than $6 million in this initiative.
WWF partnered with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe; their economic arm, REDCO; and Rosebud Tribal Land Enterprise to secure nearly 28,000 acres for what will become North America’s largest Native-owned and managed bison herd. The new Wolakota Buffalo Range can support 1,500 bison and is a hallmark of WWF’s partnership with Native nations to develop healthy bison herds for conservation.
The greater one-horned rhinos in Manas National Park—their population once completely decimated by poaching—are making a comeback thanks to joint conservation efforts under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 initiative.
Today, there are around 3,700 greater one-horned rhinos in Asia, up from only 200 at the beginning of the 20th century.
WWF has invested in Ocean Rainforest, a small for-profit company that operates a seaweed nursery, farms, and processing facility around the North Atlantic’s Faroe Islands. Seaweed is a fast-growing marine vegetable that is both a nutritious food source and—because it is highly efficient at absorbing CO2—a valuable carbon sink.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reached every corner of the world and has had sweeping negative impacts to people and communities, threatening lives and livelihoods.
As communities try to cope in the short term, the Namibian government, civil society, and passionate conservationists have rallied—with support from WWF and key partners—to help fill the void the pandemic has created. The Conservation Relief, Recovery and Resilience Facility (CRRRF) fund was developed—a coordinated national effort to provide immediate financial relief to Namibian conservancies affected by COVID-19.
From coastal shores to the Arctic to coral reefs, plastic pollution negatively affects all ecosystems.
WWF analyzed the plastic use of five companies, including McDonald’s Corporation and The Coca-Cola Company, and identified just how much plastic companies were using and where it went after its disposal. Adding 100 more companies to the project could keep more than 50 million metric tons of plastic out of nature over time.
After years of scientific research, advocacy, and community and government engagement by WWF-Cambodia and other partners, the government of Cambodia abandoned plans to build the Sambor hydropower dam on the Mekong River and put a 10-year halt on future dam construction on the river’s main artery.
A free-flowing Mekong protects the world’s most productive freshwater fishery and supports breathtaking biodiversity, including the largest population of Irrawaddy river dolphins on Earth. WWF-Cambodia is poised to support federal development of a sustainable energy plan that promotes clean and renewable energy alternatives while keeping the mighty Mekong intact.
In response to the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis in Australia, WWF launched the largest and most innovative wildlife and nature regeneration program in the country’s history. The goal is to double koala numbers on the east coast of the country by 2050, with the hope that the recovery of this species will also benefit other local species, as well as boost the local economy of regional communities. WWF is using specialized drones to disperse eucalyptus seeds, with some models able to plant 40,000 seeds per day.
As part of an industry forum that includes more than 70 companies across the seafood supply chain, WWF released the first-ever global standards for tracking seafood products from source to sale. So far nearly 50 brands—including grocery chain Whole Foods Market—have committed to begin implementing these ocean-saving standards.
Kangaroos can learn to communicate with humans, researchers say
Kangaroos can learn to communicate with humans similar to how domesticated dogs do, by using their gaze to “point” and ask for help, researchers said in a study published on Wednesday.
The study involved 11 kangaroos that lived in captivity but had not been domesticated. Ten of the 11 marsupials intently gazed at researchers when they were unable to open a box with food, according to the report. Nine alternately looked at the human and at the container, as a way of pointing or gesturing toward the object.
“We interpreted this as a deliberate form of communication, a request for help,” Alan McElligott, the Irish researcher who led the study, told Reuters in a call from Hong Kong.
“Wild species are not really expected to behave as those subjects were, and that’s why it is surprising.”
The findings challenge the notion that only domesticated animals such as dogs, horses or goats communicate with humans, and suggests many more animals could grasp how to convey meaning to humans, the paper asserts.
“We’ve previously thought only domesticated animals try to ask for help with a problem. But kangaroos do it too,” concluded co-researcher Alexandra Green from the University of Sydney.
“It’s more likely to be a learned behaviour when the environment is right.”
SYDNEY, Dec 16 (Reuters). Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Karishma Singh.
This is all very cool. Now, my question is:
Can kangaroos teach humans how to communicate with each other???
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Monday, vaccinations took place in Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, N.Y. The pandemic has scarred New York State profoundly, leaving more than 35,000 people dead and severely weakening the economy. The vaccinations started after the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Friday night, and as the U.S. coronavirus death toll approaches 300,000, with a steady surge in new cases daily.
This week, braving dreary weather, R and I visited one of our favorite wineries, where one of our favorite people manages the tasting room. She gently reminded me that I’ve been remiss in my blog posting, so Linda, this one’s for you!
Back to the topic at hand.
I’m all for smart technology, such as the dishwasher that senses when my dishes aren’t dry enough, or when I need to refill the rinsing agent so the glasses don’t have leprosy.
On the other hand, some inanimate objects seem to have been designed with a real smart-alecky attitude. Like my smartphone’s spelling “correction”, which regularly replaces perfectly good English with gibberish. Or its more obscure settings, which convey general condescension toward those of us who grew up with princess phones. (What? You can’t find that function? Bwaa-ha-ha…!)
Where does the term “smart alec” come from, you ask? (OK, you didn’t, but now don’t you want to know?)
It originates from the exploits of one Alec Hoag, an infamous con man in 1840’s New York. He and his wife Melinda, along with an accomplice known as French Jack, operated a con called the Panel Game, in which prostitutes and their pimps robbed customers. Or so says Wikipedia.
What’s next in phones, I wonder. Will the built-in camera automatically subtract 10 pounds and add hair to hairless heads? Will it flash a warning to delete a tactless text before we send it? Will it short-circuit if we drunk dial our ex-lovers or horrible bosses? Wouldn’t any of these features improve our lives more than AutoCorrect? I rest my case.
Smartass tech is poised to invade other aspects of our lives, too. Imagine a fridge equipped with auto-lock if you open it too often. Or between meals. Likewise, a scale that proudly announces your last weight. Or a mirror that self-writes helpful suggestions such as, “Time to color your hair” or “Ever considered Botox?”
Soon we’ll have self-driving cars, which could be useful for those of us who don’t have chauffeurs. But will they refuse to go somewhere they feel isn’t in our best interest, such as the racetrack or the restaurant that gave us heartburn?
The line between human and machine grows ever thinner, my fellow curmudgeons. Stay vigilant!