COVID-19

Covid Infections Begin to Rise in Northern Europe as Winter ‘Flu Season’ Gets Underway

Has the winter ‘flu season’ begun in northern Europe, with signs of upticks in Covid positive tests in the U.K., Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and also Russia?

There’s no new variant driving these – it appears to be purely seasonal, with Delta still dominating. There’s also a lot more herd immunity around now (and high vaccination rates, if that has any effect on infection and transmission). What will a winter Covid surge look like under these conditions? We may be about to find out.

Denmark recently ended all restrictions, including abolishing vaccine passports, declaring Covid no longer a “socially critical disease”. Let’s hope it holds its nerve as winter hits, and that we, too, will resist introducing any draconian new measures as we face whatever the coming season may throw at us.

No, Covid is Not Unusually Deadly for Pregnant Women

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) was in the news yesterday encouraging pregnant women to get vaccinated against Covid by quoting new data showing that “nearly 20% of the most critically ill COVID-19 patients are pregnant women who have not been vaccinated”. According to their website:

Since July, one in five COVID-19 patients receiving treatment through a special lung-bypass machine were expectant mums who have not had their first jab.

Pregnant women have been treated with a therapy, called Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), used only when a patient’s lungs are so damaged by COVID-19 that a ventilator cannot maintain oxygen levels.

Out of all women between the ages of 16 and 49 on ECMO in intensive care, pregnant women make up almost a third (32%) – up from just 6% at the start of the pandemic, March 2020.

The numbers from ICNARC back up the claim that pregnant and recently pregnant women have been admitted to ICU with a positive Covid test in greater numbers during the Delta surge than previously.

BULLSHIT-19

We’re publishing an original essay today by regular contributor James Alexander, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey. In this piece, he surveys the academic literature on bullshit – yes, there is a substantial body of work – and concludes that there is a strong strain of bullshit in the response by governments around the world to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is an extract:

Bullshit is obviously essential to politics. Consider the following description, in effect, of a politician: “The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristics is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to”. The consequence of the existence of bullshit, of this trading in truth or perhaps untruth in a careless but extremely purposeful manner, is that it creates a bullshit world. Truth has never mattered much in politics. Much is symbol, or magic, or illusion. Consider ‘representation’ for instance: it is nothing but symbol, magic and illusion. Consider crown, unction, sceptre, sword, wig, robe, and the ultimate English bullshit of the phrase ‘My right honourable friend’. Voltaire famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman and not an empire. In the same way, our ‘right honourable friend’ is not right, not honourable and not our friend. I jest, so let us quote Frankfurt again: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Again, and in the spirit of being generous to politicians, this is eminently political. For politics, certainly parliamentary and deliberative and consultative and counselling politics, involves everyone talking about things they know nothing about: the future, or the facts. Bertrand de Jouvenel brilliantly defined politics as being whatever is left over when the engineers, technocrats and experts have solved all our problems. He defined politics as being composed of problems which cannot be solved but only settled, through compromise and accommodation, and, we might add, in a less decorous age than Jouvenel’s, by bluster, balderdash and bullshit.

Worth reading in full.

Vaccine Passports Back on Table as U.K. Government Seeks Public Views on Winter Plan

The U.K. Government is asking for public feedback on the use of domestic vaccine passports in indoor and outdoor venues if cases threaten to overwhelm the NHS this winter. The “Plan B” proposals could see nightclubs, concert halls, sporting events and outdoor festivals require proof of Covid vaccination status, with the opportunity to add more venues if necessary. The Telegraph has the story.

Ministers last night insisted the Government needed to be prepared to “act swiftly” and adopt measures such as vaccine passports “at short notice” if there were “unsustainable pressures” on the NHS as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Maggie Troup said: “While we are totally confident the careful steps we are taking will help rule out the need for mandatory vaccine certificates, we need to be prepared for all scenarios.

“We know these kinds of contingency plans will only work if businesses and the public get to have their say and I’m urging everyone who could have to use certification: give us your views, give us your ideas.”

Industry and the public have been given until October 11th to respond to the planned vaccine passports, which would be mandatory for all adults over 18 attending the prescribed venues, and will require legislation.

Under the plan, only double-vaccinated people would be certified by the passports. Negative Covid tests and proof of natural immunity after recently recovering from the virus would no longer be permitted.

Worth reading in full.

If you don’t want to see vaccine passports introduced this Winter, please respond to the Government’s consultation here.

Norway Ends Lockdown After 561 Days of “Toughest Measures” in Peacetime

Mass celebrations and street brawls followed Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s lifting of all lockdown measures – including the need to prove your vaccination status – at 4pm on Saturday, having given less than 24 hours’ notice. Despite urging continued vaccine uptake, the PM insisted the country would not implement strict Covid measures “unless they are professionally justified”. MailOnline has the story.

The Prime Minister’s unexpected unlocking kicked off boozy celebrations the following afternoon which lasted late into Saturday night, with an impromptu rave in Stavanger, a mass brawl in Tønsberg and no less [sic] than 50 fights reported to police in Oslo.

Neither vaccination status nor a negative test result was required for any venue, leading to blockbusting queues outside nightclubs and restaurants packed with dinner reservations as people returned to their favourite hangouts in droves.

Queues for the clubs in Trondheim were so long that several people fainted while waiting to get inside.

Police in the city reported a generally good-natured atmosphere, with revellers singing the national anthem in the streets.

In Tønsberg, police were called after a group of around 10 young men started scrapping outside a nightclub near the pier. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured and the police arrested a 20 year-old man. 

The chaos on the streets provoked an angry response from some, including nightclub manager Johan Hoeeg Haanes in Oslo, who said the Prime Minister could have given more warning.

“That’s exactly what I predicted would happen,” he told the VG newspaper. “It was a life-threatening situation in the city because they [the Government] didn’t give us at least a few days advance notice. This was a dangerous situation, as police said all places were packed.”  

However, others were grateful to be getting back to business despite the challenges for staff.

Worth reading in full.

Does COVID-19 Have a Hidden Helper That Sometimes Makes it Deadly?

I came across a site recently which aims to compile a record of all the confirmed vaccine-sceptics who have died of Covid. It’s a pretty depressing read, but I was at least reassured to see that it had only managed to find 148 (so far). It also assumes throughout that if the deceased had just been vaccinated they would not have died. While the vaccines do appear significantly to reduce risk of serious disease and death, it’s also the case that vaccinated people are dying from Covid in substantial numbers, and not only elderly people. Some vaccine side-effects can also be very serious or deadly, and there are a number of websites collecting these stories as well.

Anyhow, the big thing that stood out to me in the list of 148 vaccine-sceptic deaths was how many of them involved two people from the same family. Here they are (couples unless otherwise stated):

  • Brittany Bradford (33) and Joshua Turner (28)
  • Marcus (43) and Brenda (38) Smalls
  • Billy (50) and Shannon (50) Berardis
  • Chuck (50) and Diana (59) O’Steen
  • Heather Maddern (55) and Sammie-jo Forde (32) (mother and daughter)
  • Dustin (45) and Tristan (45) Graham
  • Nathaniel (33) and Mathew (39) Broussard (brothers)
  • Kenneth (73) and Kaye (66) Foote
  • Lawrence and Lydia Rodriguez
  • Robert (70) and Vi (70) Herring
  • Basil (73), Charmagne (65) and Shaun (40) Goncalves (husband, wife and son)
  • Alphonzo Cox (53) and Mary Knight (58) (colleagues)

So out of 148 deaths, 25 of them were connected to one (or in three cases, two) others. That’s 17%.

Now perhaps this is just the obvious sample bias that couples or family members dying of Covid is newsworthy, doubly so if they’re known to be vaccine sceptics.

But still, it seems a very high proportion of the sample, given how rare dying from Covid actually is (infection fatality rate of around 0.4% in the U.S. and Europe, much lower in the under-50s). Bear in mind that the site is aiming to be a comprehensive record of Covid deaths of confirmed ‘anti-vaxxers’, and is not short of people trawling social media looking for them.

Well, it may just be sample bias – but if it isn’t (and you’d need a study looking at whether the risk of dying from Covid rises when a family member also dies), then one possible explanation might lie in the role of secondary infections in worsening the course of the disease.

Doesn’t It All Seem So Very Odd?

There follows a guest post by retired dentist Dr. Mark Shaw on the strangeness of this ongoing ‘pandemic’.

I was booked in for a telephone consultation with a new representative from my pension company recently.  We introduced ourselves and somehow couldn’t avoid the subject of Covid. I didn’t want to get too involved in a potentially awkward discussion but couldn’t hold back from highlighting the illogic in so much of the Government’s response to the disease. I sensed he too wanted to remain neutral so it was both a relief and quite surprising to hear him respond with: “I have to agree – it all does seem so very odd.”

Do I sense a point in time, a turning point, now where more and more people are thinking the same?

In the last 18 months:

The Outbreak Point: Are Covid Outbreaks Triggered When the Viral Load in the Air Hits a Certain Threshold?

In recent posts I’ve been exploring the question of why COVID-19 (much like other seasonal viruses) has a Jekyll and Hyde-like nature, being puny for much of the year then exploding in short, sharp outbreaks for a few weeks at a time, usually though not exclusively in the winter. I argued in a post last week that seasonality appears to be driven largely by cycles in the human immune system (though there may be environmental factors such as UV radiation, temperature and humidity as well). The trigger for the somewhat irregular (and not necessarily winter) outbreaks appears to be the appearance of a new variant (or virus) that is able to infect slightly more people, amounting to just one in 18 additional people when estimated from the secondary attack rate. The end of the outbreaks then corresponds to the exhaustion of the small pool of newly susceptible people and the restoration of the temporarily disturbed herd immunity.

I noted that the difference between a surge and a decline amounted only to a small absolute change in the R growth rate, from 1.3 during a surge to 0.8 during a decline, and that the shift between these rates often occurs very abruptly. This means that infected people quite suddenly start infecting 1.3 other people before, around three and a half weeks later, just as suddenly switching back to infecting just 0.8 people. This change in R is reflected in a similar change in the secondary attack rate (the proportion of contacts an infected person infects), which varies between around 15% during surges to around 10% outside of them. I observed that this difference is small enough to be explained by a slightly increased susceptibility to a new variant and a subsequent restoration of herd immunity a short time later.

After writing this it occurred to me that with such a subtle trigger it would seem that outbreaks should be highly sensitive to the amount of social contact people have with one another, and thus to the imposing and lifting of restrictions (or to voluntary social distancing). Indeed, it is logic like this which presumably explains why SAGE members and other scientists persist in believing in the efficacy of lockdowns regardless of how much data emerges showing they don’t make any significant impact on the infection or death rate.

A recent set of SAGE minutes explains the logic of restrictions:

Does This Explain Why COVID-19 is Normally so Puny But Occasionally Goes Bang?

I wanted to come back to the question of what causes COVID-19 occasionally to have explosive outbreaks. We’ve had two in England so far. Using the graph below (produced by Imperial’s REACT study using symptom-onset reports from their antibody survey, so no PCR tests involved) we can see when they occurred. The first occurred from around February 25th to March 19th 2020, ending after about three and a half weeks, as abruptly as it began. The second got going around December 2nd, and ended – once again abruptly after three and a half weeks – on December 25th. As the lines below indicate, these starts and stops bear no relation to when lockdowns were imposed or lifted (the red and blue lines respectively).

Given that (as we can see) Covid was around in England throughout the winter of 2019-20 (arriving in November according to this graph) and was also simmering away in the autumn of 2020 without taking off, a key question is what triggers the beginning and end of the more explosive outbreaks?

Another way of putting the same question is: why does COVID-19 occasionally, Jekyll and Hyde-like, transform from a relatively gentle, not very infectious disease into a super-infectious disease for a few weeks, before suddenly returning once more to its largely benign form?

Perhaps surprisingly, Covid in England has only been in ‘Hyde’ form for about seven weeks in total so far, with the R rate (the speed at which the epidemic is growing) only going significantly above one (indicating an exponentially growing epidemic) for around three and a half weeks in February/March 2020 and three and a half weeks in December 2020. The rest of the time it’s been up and down in different regions, particularly in the autumn, but there’s been no nationwide surge. What, then, on those two occasions triggered the disease to become briefly so much more infectious across the country?

Why Are People Unwell with Symptomatic COVID-19 Being Vaccinated?

Yesterday I wrote about the latest study from Public Health England that claims to show the vaccines are up to 90% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid infection in the over-65s, highlighting some shortcomings.

There was one aspect of the data that I didn’t comment on that is worth flagging up. The authors presented graphs showing how many people were being tested and testing positive according to how many days before or after their jab their symptoms began (all the tests in this study were on people with symptoms, the symptoms likely having prompted them to get a Covid test).

There are a few notable points about these graphs. The steep drop-off in tests ahead of the jab may be due to people deferring their vaccination when they get symptoms (Government guidance is that you should not have the jab if you are unwell), or it may be people with symptoms not getting tested because they don’t want to have to cancel their jab.

The big spike in tests in the day or two after the AstraZeneca jab (ChAdOx1-S) is probably people being tested after getting Covid-like side-effects from the vaccination.

Note the high positivity rate (yellow bars) in the days after each jab. This confirms the post-vaccination infection spike (though some of it may be Covid caught prior to the injection that subsequently becomes symptomatic).

However, the main point I want to draw attention to here is how many people with symptomatic Covid are getting vaccinated. The bars in the seven days prior to vaccination represent thousands of people with Covid-like symptoms who go on to get vaccinated, many while still symptomatic. The orange bars represent hundreds of people with PCR-confirmed symptomatic COVID-19, many of them with symptoms beginning in the two days immediately prior to the jab, who go on to get vaccinated anyway. This is despite Government guidance that people who are unwell, particularly with COVID-19, should be deferring their vaccinations. In addition to this, some of those thousands of people whose Covid symptoms begin on the day of the jab or in the days immediately following might have been pre-symptomatically infectious.

It has been suggested that the post-vaccination infection spike may be driven by the vaccination programmes spreading the virus. (Another plausible mechanism is that the vaccines cause temporary immune suppression; these mechanisms are not mutually exclusive and both could be operating.)

Here, then, we have direct evidence that hundreds of people with symptomatic, test-positive Covid (plus potentially thousands in the infectious pre-symptomatic phase) were turning up and being vaccinated anyway. This reinforces the idea that the vaccination programmes could be spreading the virus.

It also prompts the question: why were vaccinators not following Government guidance and refusing to vaccinate those who are unwell, particularly those with symptomatic COVID-19? Could they not foresee that that would spread the virus to those being vaccinated and those doing the vaccinating?