Monday, July 19, 2021

Your odds if not vaccinated are worse than drawing to an inside straight

Did you get the flu vaccine but not the COVID-19  vaccine?

How about that decision?

According to the Mayo Clinic

In the 2019-2020 flu season, 22,000 deaths among 38 million cases. Somewhat less than 1 in 1,000.

In the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020-2021, 580,000 dead among 32 million cases. Somewhat less than 2 in 100.

If you get the disease, you are 30 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the flu. And these numbers don’t yet reflect the full impact of the new, more virulent Delta Variant.

Among vaccinated individuals, the death rate drops to less than 1 in 100,000, and most of those deaths are among frail, elderly folks in care homes.

Not getting vaccinated is betting on an inside straight. You might get lucky, but the odds are stacked way, way against it. Less than 1 in 10.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Nihoa Island: Conservation crucible protects the last of a genus

Swimming in the clear, 60-foot waters in the lee of Nihoa’s western cliffs, I came across a floating leafed branch blown off the island in high winds.

It was, of course, a native plant: `aweoweo, an edible amaranth that is found on all the small islands from Nihoa to Laysan and Lisianski.

Little Nihoa rises abruptly from the sea 160 miles west of Kaua’i and Niihau. It is a fragment of an old, larger volcanic island, with steep basalt cliffs on three sides, a single sandy beach, and small forests of native loulu fan palms.

The `aweoweo is in good company. Nihoa is also home to many other native species, from the Hawaiian monk seals that sometimes litter the white sand beach by the dozens, to the native Nihoa miller birds that perch in the low bushes, to the native clumping grass, Eragrostis variabilis.

And, it turns out, on the blades of the grass, known in Hawaii as kawelu, there is an exceedingly rare tiny snail found only on this little island. The snail has been known to science for a century, but has only now been given a name.

Endodonta christenseni, photo by David Sischo

It is believed to be the last survivor of the 11 species of Endodonta snails of the Hawaiian Islands.

The story of the Nihoa snail was published in the October 15 issue of the Bishop Museum Occasional Papers, under the title, “The last known Endodonta species? Endodonta christenseni sp. nov.”  

The authors are Kenneth Hayes, John Slapcinsky, David Sischo, Jaynee Kim and Norine Yeung.

They write the snail’s story with a passion many might find unusual in scientific literature:

“Here we finally give what we think is the last Endodonta species a name and describe it using an integrative taxonomic approach. 

“In describing this last Endodonta species, our hope is to inspire increased awareness and appreciation that facilitates and motivates conservation for this species and all the other undiscovered and unnamed species threatened with extinction. 

“Unless protection of this species is implemented, it may be extinct within the next decade and we will lose the last of a lineage that existed for millions of years, and the stories it could tell.”

The snail was discovered on an expedition to Nihoa in 1923, and seen again periodically since then, including by land snail expert Carl Christensen, after whom it was named. 

There’s not much to this snail. It is described as pea-sized. Viewed from the side, it is shaped like a flying saucer. The shell has a complex pattern of striped whorls in browns and tans. And when it’s traveling, the little snail’s two antennae stretch out ahead of it.

The authors say it probably spends most of its time in the moist hearts of the grass clumps, and feeds on films of fungus that form on dead leaves. 

In a press release, co-author Yeung said that there remains hope that other rare species exist and can be protected and saved. “We need to act quickly and decisively if we are to beat the extinction clock that ticks louder with each passing day,” she said.

The paper emphasizes how critical the conservation challenge is: "Despite 15 years of sampling across more than 1000 sites throughout the Hawaiian archipelago, none of the 11 previously described species of Endodonta has been observed in our studies and it is likely that all are extinct. Endodonta christenseni sp. nov. is the only known extant member of the genus and quite possibly the last."

One ray of good news is that related land snails have been raised and increased number in captivity, and it is possible that the Nihoa snail could be re-introduced to parts of the island where it has disappeared due to human-caused wildfire during the 1800s.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2020

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Coronavirus vaccines in Hawai`i: where are we, when are they coming, who can get them?

The COVID-19 vaccine is right around the corner, and it won’t be one vaccine, but several…maybe lots.

What do we know about them?

The old school way to get immunity to a disease is to get the disease. When I was a kid and had the mumps, all the neighbors sent their kids to visit, so they could get the mumps, too. Safer to get mumps as a child than as an adult.

Another way to get immunity is to be exposed to a weakened form or inactive actual virus—which promotes the immune system to respond, but doesn’t actually make you sick. Measles and chickenpox vaccines are these. But that’s not what we’re dealing with in most COVID-19 vaccine trials likely to be used in the U.S.

If you need to stop a car from getting to its destination, you have many options: remove the driver, drain the fuel, blow out a tire, blockade the road, poke a hole in the radiator. 

There are also lots of different ways the body fights a virus, and different vaccine approaches tackle the problem in different ways. 

There are dozens of different vaccine trials underway. They go through a range of trials to prove they work and that they’re not dangerous. Some fall by the wayside due to problems of various kinds, including side-effects, not a strong enough immune response, and any of a lot of other issues.

The companies whose vaccines seem nearest approval in the United States are Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson&Johnson, not necessarily in that order. Pfizer and Moderna have already asked for emergency FDA approval for release in the United States.

Russia and China have actually released and are using vaccines, but these have not gone through all the safety and effectiveness trials that most Western medical officers recommend. 

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech have actually released a vaccine in England. It is BNT162b2, which is approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, and which they say is more than 90 percent effective and has few side effects (like fatigue or fever). One bonus is that it has high effectiveness in elderly people, who sometimes don’t respond well to vaccines.

But there are many more vaccines in the pipeline.

So how are vaccines different? (Caveat: This is hyper complicated, so these brief paragraphs are more place markers than useful descriptions.)

There are the nucleic acid vaccines, which use bits of the genetic code of the virus (but not the actual virus) to train your immune system to recognize and fight the virus. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use this technology. 

Viral vectored vaccines use a harmless virus to ferry a fragment of the COVID genetic material to the immune system, so it can recognize and fight the virus if you’re exposed.  The AstraZeneca/University of Oxford and Johnson&Johnson vaccines use this technology. 

Protein subunit vaccines introduce isolated COVID-19 proteins from the virus into the body. They can’t introduce the disease, but they can produce an immune response. Novavax has the vaccine with this technology that’s closest to approval.

Chinese and Indian companies are leaders in working on inactivated or weakened virus vaccines, which is a more traditional vaccine technology, but the vaccine can take a long time to manufacture.

Here is a Washington Post piece on the various technologies, with a little more detail. 

Some of the vaccines require two doses for full effectiveness. (Johnson&Johnson’s is a one-dose vaccine.) Some need special care in handling, like super cold temperatures—but while that can require specialized refrigeration units, they can generally be transported in coolers on dry ice to immunization facilities. So you don’t need all that many high-tech freezers.

If you’re following the vaccine issue, you know that one of the big issues is when vaccines will be available in large amounts and who gets a vaccination first. The AARP has a piece reviewing the state of vaccine issues here. 

There is a fairly straightforward approval process. First, the Food and Drug Administration is authorized to issue an Emergency Use Authorization. As mentioned earlier, Pfizer and Moderna have already applied; others aren't far behind.

Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA is permitted in emergencies like a pandemic. The organization itself says it “may allow the use of unapproved medical products, or unapproved uses of approved medical products in an emergency to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions when certain statutory criteria have been met, including that there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.” More data here. 

Once the FDA does its part, the ball is the court of the Centers for Disease Control and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which not only decides whether to approve, but who should get it. The committee has already voted that the first recipients will be “health care personnel, other essential workers, adults with high-risk medical conditions, and adults aged ≥65 years (including residents of long-term care facilities.)” 

It’s a big deal and there’s lots of pressure, so prognosticators are suggesting approval could happen before Christmas, or at least before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, officials in every state are setting up their vaccine distribution plans. And yes, that includes Hawai`i. You can learn more about our state's vaccination program here

© Jan TenBruggencate 2020

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Mask science is clear: Wear one

There’s been confusion about masks, but science has cleared a lot of it up.

Here’s the short version:

Yes, masks limit the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Yes, if you wear a mask of any kind, you’re less likely to spread it to someone else.

And also, yes, if you wear a mask, you’re less likely to get the disease yourself, or if you do, it is likely to be less severe.

Can we now just do ourselves a favor and just wear at least a cloth mask when we’re around other people?

If you drop a glass and it breaks on the kitchen floor, you put slippers on to keep from getting cut until it’s cleaned up. Simple enough.

Cowboys who ride through brush and cactus wear chaps to protect their legs from scratches and pokes. Simple enough.

There’s a serious disease wafting on moisture droplets in the air. You wear a mask to filter them out. 

Seems simple enough.

This disease is only a year or so old, and we arre still learning about it. That’s why the guidance is changing—because we’re learning more. 

In the early days, when infection levels were still very low, the recommendation was for the general public not to wear masks—largely to preserve the mask supply for health care workers who were at highest risk.

Then this amazing cottage industry rose up, and folks were sewing cloth masks. Folks studying them found that, yep, they reduced the chance of a sick person spreading the disease to others. That led to the line, “My mask protects you, your mask protects me.”

But most of us really wore the masks in hope that it might actually protect us, even if just a little.

And sure enough, the science shows we were right. My mask also protects me.

If you’re around covidiots who insist on not wearing masks, you’re a little safer if you are wearing one. But you’re even safer not to be around those bare-faced covidiots in the first place.

So here is some of the science:

That’s a July article from the Journal of General Internal Medicine with this headline, “Masks Do More Than Protect Others During COVID-19: Reducing the Inoculum of SARS-CoV-2 to Protect the Wearer.”

The upshot of the article is that even if you do get a dose, it will likely be a smaller dose, and it potentially gives you a less serious case of the disease, and maybe even an asymptomatic case—meaning you got it but you don’t feel sick.

Here’s a paragraph from that paper, describing what researchers found: 

“A report from a pediatric hemodialysis unit in Indiana, where all patients and staff were masked, demonstrated that staff rapidly developed antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 after exposure to a single symptomatic patient with COVID-19. In the setting of masking, however, none of the new infections was symptomatic. And in a recent outbreak in a seafood processing plant in Oregon where all workers were issued masks each day at work, the rate of asymptomatic infection among the 124 infected was 95%. An outbreak in a Tyson chicken plant in Arkansas with masking also showed a 95% asymptomatic rate of infection.

But if you want to avoid getting sick at all, it’s best to go for the trifecta. Wear the mask. Keep your distance from people not in your household. Wash your hands frequently and well.

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