Sunday, April 5, 2020

Oh, the COVID conspiracies. Can all be true? Can any?

Okay, the COVID-19 conspiracy industry, if it had a stock symbol, would now officially be the hottest stock on the market.

They can’t all be true. There’s considerable evidence that none of them is.

5G stratagem

There are radiation-phobes who are using COVID-19 to advance their anti-5G agendas. (5G is a high-speed cellular data network.)

It is painful to have to repeat this, but clearly 5G doesn’t cause viral disease. If nothing else doesn’t debunk this bizarre position, keep in mind that 5G still doesn’t exist in most of the world. And doesn’t exist at all in many of the places with the worst COVID-19 outbreaks. So, (sigh), if 5G caused COVID-19, how can COVID-19 exist when the vast majority of the world has no 5G?

Another 5G conspiracy theory is that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. That it is really just a hoax to cover up something called “5G Syndrome,” which is presumably a kind of radiation sickness. Again, that doesn’t explain people getting sick in areas that are absent 5G. And it doesn’t explain how the worldwide medical community, using different tests, somehow erroneously found viruses that weren’t there.

Depopulation scheme

There are folks who believe this pandemic is a secret plot to depopulate the world or a certain portion of the world. But wasn’t that AIDS/HIV? Or Ebola. Or SARS. Is it that the folks trying to kill off much of the world just aren’t that competent?

Realistically, pandemics have been with us for a long time. Think of the 1918 Spanish Flu. And much earlier, the Black Death. And before that the Justinian Plague. Both of the latter were likely bubonic plague. Smallpox and cholera have also caused historic pandemics. You don’t need an evil conspiracy to have pandemics.

Vaccination plot

There’s a weird one that COVID-19 is just a means to an end, a long game, a conspiracy to force everyone to accept vaccines. Well, dude, you can always not take the shot. But when a working vaccine is developed, you should.

Police state incubator

I heard a suggestion that this pandemic is a scheme aimed at putting a permanent police state into effect. Doesn’t China already have one of those? Why would they launch this?

Reelection intrigue

Some conservative pundits argue this is a Democrat conspiracy to reduce President Trump's likelihood of being re-elected. That wouldn’t explain why the disease is not only in the U.S. but everywhere else as well, or why Democratic mayors and governors appear to be working far harder than the President on responding to it.

Another theory

But maybe a new theory would be that COVID-19 is a secret government scheme to bring down organized governments, liberal, socialist, capitalist, communist, whatever. That’s it, a Greenie plot to solve climate change and save the planet by destroying the global economy.

It’s as random as the others. On its face, it might make sense, except for lack of evidence.

Debunk your own conspiracy

There’s a fun resource on conspiracy theories that can help you recognize one when you come across it. It is “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,” by cognitive psychology professor Stephan Lewandowsky of University of Bristol and John Cook of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

The booklet can be downloaded free from here.  

My favorite clue recognizing a conspiracy is its invulnerability to evidence. This is the “but that’s what they want you to think” argument. If every piece of contrary evidence is met with that response—that’s a clue.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2020

Friday, April 3, 2020

COVID-19 conspiracy theories: Hoofbeats and zebras?

Lots of conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus make little sense, and if you actually apply a little scientific rigor to the issue, they fall apart.

They even contradict each other. If it came from a Chinese lab, why? They got hit first. If, as some
Russians say, it came from America, why are we Americans also sick? Whoa, what about the fact that
Russia seemed to be largely free of the disease, isnʻt that suspicious? Well itʻs not, any more--they've got a growing number of cases as well.

The philosopical theory known as Occamʻs Razor suggests that the simplest solution is generally the
right one. There's the old line that if you're in the American west and hear hoofbeats, your first thought should not be zebras.

A group of researchers looked into whatʻs likely and whatʻs not about the origins of COVID-19, also
known as SARS-CoV-2.

1. They found that we know of seven previous cases of this class of disease getting into humans;
2. They found that itʻs highly unlikely that this was a human-engineered virus.

Their study was published in the journal Nature Medicine. The authors are American, Australian and British researchers Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W.vIan Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes and Robert F. Garry.

"Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated," they wrote.

One clue, they said, is that when you look at the genetics, this virus behaves more like a random
mutation than a purposeful construct. In other wordS, if someone had engineered it, theyʻd have done a better job, or at least would have done it differently.

Which is not to say that labs donʻt work on viruses. They do. But not like this. "The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone," the authors wrote.

The most likely pathway is one of two, Anderson and his co-authors said. Either the virus evolved into its current form in an animal and then was passed to humans, or an earlier form of the virus passed from animals to humans and then evolved into its current form in humans.

You may have heard that many of the early victims of the virus had visited live-animal markets in
Wuhan, China. And that the animal host might have been bats, or pangolins or birds.

So far, none of those animals has been found with a form of the virus that looks close enough to be the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, they said, but they admitted that the animal population has been "massively undersampled." Pangolins seem to have the virus version closest to the pandemic version.

Alternatively, it is possible an early version of the virus jumped repeatedly to humans in a version that did not spread from human to human. Until one evolved the ability to be transmitted between people.

It is not yet possible to determine which of these things actually led to the outbreak, but there is lots of study going on, and at some point, it will be possible.

"We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible," but more research will doubtless show which of the natural mechanisms was the more likely culprit.

One of the best arguments against a laboratory conspiracy to infect the world: Animal-to-human transfer of disease has been a common source of human misery since long before sophisticated laboratories were set up. There is even a term for it, zoonosis. That link is the Centers for Disease Control site on zoonotic diseases.

We have had lots of zoonotic diseases in Hawai`i, like leptospirosis and dengue, but most of these diseases require an animal-to-human infection path for each sick human. The difference with COVID-19 is that once it crossed the species barrier, it could be transmitted directly human to human.

This has happened repeatedly. Think of bird flu and swine flu. The source of the devastating 1918 "Spanish" flu, is not well known, although it almost certainly didn't come from Spain. It went on to infect a third of the world population and to kill an estimated 50 million people. Some suggest it might have crossed from birds.

Thus, this is neither new nor rare. "More than 60% of the roughly 400 emerging infectious diseases that have been identified since 1940 are zoonotic," wrote the authors of this 2012 paper in the journal The Lancet, which has the ominous title, "Prediction and prevention of the next pandemic zoonosis."

© Jan TenBruggencate 2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020

COVID-19: Not just the elderly; all age groups are at risk

If you were pre-retirement age and comforted that only old folks were getting severely ill from COVID-19, understand that things have changed.

Middle-aged folks are also severely impacted. And even infants, who seemed entirely protected in early reviews, are at risk.

The high risk assessment for the elderly came from very early reports out of China, but now that itʻs a pandemic, and thereʻs a lot more information available, the picture is growing more complex.

The upshot: While the death rate is higher among the elderly, the hospitalization rate is only slightly lower for folks in the middle-age category. One in ten or so people in almost every age group get so sick they need medical intervention. Those under age 20 seem to do the best, but anyone with underlying health conditions is at increased risk.

It is another justification for the seemingly severe recommendations for keeping your human contacts to a minimum, and for keeping those contacts at a distance.

Here is a Centers for Disease Control report on patients within the United States.

It reconfirms that death rates are highest among the oldest patients—up to a quarter of infected people older than 85 are dying. The death rates go down as ages go down, but only the kids under 19 appear to avoid the severest symptoms.

Of the 12 percent of known U.S. patients who were hospitalized, "18% were 45–54 years, and 20% were aged 20–44 years."

Thatʻs 38 percent aged 55 or younger.

In France, half were younger than 65. In Holland, half were younger than 50.

And while infants rarely get the disease, and the symptoms tend to be milder than in adults, infants do get it. Here is a China paper about one fatal case. 

During one week in January in China, six children, with a median age of three years, were hospitalized with Covid-19. It wasnʻt pretty for them: 

"All six children had previously been completely healthy. Common clinical characteristics included high fever (>39°C) (in all six patients), cough (in all six), and vomiting (in four). Laboratory investigations showed that the levels of lymphocytes, white cells, and neutrophils were below the normal range in six, four, and three patients, respectively. Four of the six patients had pneumonia, as assessed radiographically, with computed tomographic scans of the chest showing typical viral pneumonia patterns."

That was from this paper in the New England Journal of Medicine.  

Here arerecommendations from Johns Hopkins for parents with infants. 

And here are Centers for Disease Control recommendations for those with kids. 

As this is written on March 19, 2020, there have been a quarter million positive cases worldwide, and 10,000 deaths.

©Jan TenBruggencate 2020

COVID-19: Bored while homebound? Plant a garden. The benefits are many.

Nothing to do and worried about food as we all hunker down for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Plant a garden. Or get to know a farmer whoʻll deliver fresh vegetables.

Our farmers, lacking access to markets, are incentivised to find a way to get their crops to a market, any market, and many are looking at options including delivery.

And if you have a plot of land, and are stuck sheltering in place, once the rain stops, maybe till up a few square feet. You could be eating your own fresh vegetables in a few weeks.

Radishes will get you a harvestable crop in 21 days. Arugula, green onions or carrots in a month. Spinach in six weeks. Bush beans in six weeks to two months. Kale or broccoli in a couple of months.

Starch crops take longer. Sweet potatoes can be ready in three or four months, kalo in nine to 12 months for the corm, but leaves can be harvested for boiled or steamed greens much sooner.

Tomatoes generally can take three to five months to harvest, but cherry tomatoes can be ready in six to eight weeks. Cherry tomatoes have the additional benefit of being less susceptible to being stung by fruit flies.

Gardening not only gives you something to do in these difficult times, but the product is good for you, too.

During World War II, people in the Islands (and across the nation) planted what were popularly called Victory Gardens or War Gardens. Food supplies were uncertain, so folks planted their own crops in whatever plots of land they had.

Iʻve been told that Hawai`i was largely self-sufficient in food—or at least in many kinds of food—back then.

The message: Support your local farmer, or grow your own. It will have the side benefit of helping you understand just how much work it takes to produce your food.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2020

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

COVID-19: The numbers donʻt look good

Anybody whoʻs still suggesting this whole COVID-19 thing is overblown...theyʻre lying to you, or theyʻre misinformed.

It is in fact frightening, and fast getting worse. The United States is still at the start of the upward trend in infections.

Consider this fact that you havenʻt heard on the news: The European Union now has had three times more cases per capita than China.

Here are the numbers: China has had 81,000 cases, and has a population of 1.4 billion. That works out to 57.5 cases per million people.

The European Union has 69,900 cases and a population of 446 million. Thatʻs 157 cases per million residents—three times worse than China.

The United States so far has just 6,420 cases in a population of 331 million, or 19.4 cases per million.
Those case numbers come from this site. The E.U population numbers are from this site. 

Chinaʻs case load has dropped dramatically. They did that with draconian measures, including aggressive quarantine, bounties paid to people who turned in quarantine violators, tracking peoplesʻ cell phones and requiring everyone wear masks whenever outside.

South Korea had a severe outbreak, and approached it in a very different way, with the most expansive testing program in the world: More than 270,000 of its residents were tested as it tracked down and quarantined anyone who was sick with COVID-19.

South Korea has 8,320 cases. That works out to 162 cases per million of its 51.5 million residents. But it has dropped its number of new cases dramatically. The magazine Science printed a story today on how South Korea did that. 

As I write this on March 17, 2020, Italy has the worst caseload in the European Union and perhaps the world—521 cases per million residents. (31,500 cases in a population of 60.5 million.)

Just looking at the numbers suggests much worse is yet to come for the United States. Our population is about 328 million. 

If we are able to limit our outbreak to Chinaʻs size, weʻre looking at 19,000 cases. (57.5 times 328 million.)

If we can keep it to Koreaʻs, then itʻs 53,000. (162 times 328 million.)

But if we get to Italyʻs situation, itʻs 171,000 (521 times 328 million.)

One issue is that while China and South Korea used two different strategies to begin to get a handle on the outbreak, the United States has been using neither. Not aggressive, almost punitive quarantine measures like China. And not aggressive, intrusive testing like Korea.

Our national hope seems to be that a combination of voluntary isolation measures and a moderate testing protocol will do the trick.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2020