FNS Update: Vaccines, Antibodies, School, and Numbers - oh my!

Howdy all, your Friendly Neighborhood Scientist here! I wanted to do some pandemic messaging clean-up for us, so here goes:

1) VACCINES.

Yes, a bazillion are being developed. But if you listened to my previous vidcasts (c.f., www.highercannibalism.com/blog), you know that the process – if done correctly – can take time. We are rushing through development in the US – so what does that mean practically?

-- It will likely not be before next year that we have a vaccine. If there is a sooner one, be wary.

-- The first versions are like new iOS, they possibly are not as effective until they are tried out by several (thousand) users to sort out any bugs.

-- The more advanced vaccines are those that cover more than one strain of the virus (currently, there appear to be 4). Los Alamos National Lab is one of the few working on multi-pronged vaccines lead by Dr. Bette Korber who created the first AIDS vaccine (after 25 years). Not sure what other labs are working on, but I think only the dominant strain.

-- Likely other countries will have viable vaccines before the USA. And they are unlikely to share since we are no longer part of the WHO.

-- Currently, the USA is excluded from ALL countries except 12 right now for travel (you read that right, look it up. And tanks Belize! Dis da fu me kuntry!). Again, making it unlikely that anyone wants to share with us first. I’m super pessimistic about this, and hopefully totally wrong.

-- What to do when there is a new vaccine? If you are a person at risk, and all of the SCIENTISTS and PHYSICIANS sign off on it, high thee to Rite Aid and get a shot. If you are not a person at risk, maybe cool your jets – because see next section.

2) ANTIBODIES.

There is evidence now that suggests even if you get COVID-19, you can get sick again. From there, the data is still being understood.

-- The way nice viruses behave is our bodies become immune for a length of time once you have encountered them through direct illness or vaccine. For instance, if you had a yellow fever or smallpox vaccine, you are covered for 50-70 years (“lifetime”). If you get the annual flu shot, and it covers the strain floating around, you are covered that year. Typically, annual flu shots cover the strains from the year previous, which is why you can still get the flu even if you got vaccninated.

-- If you test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, meaning you got the blood test and showed you had it in whatever form (mild-severe), the current messaging from epidemiologists is there is still a chance (working on that percentage as we speak) that you can become reinfected.

-- Scientists are working to sort out the business of “lingering symptoms” versus actual reinfection – different because one is much easier to deal with (lingering symptoms) than reinfection which suggests the never-ending pandemic scenario (which sucks far more).

-- What does reinfected mean? Great question and one scientists are still sorting out. The choices are:

a. The virus presents in whatever form (mild-severe) then resolves – and then reemerges from the same population in the system (meaning, the bugs never fully died in your body and your anitbodies are doing squat to help you);

b. You had it and you encountered another strain of the virus and it makes you sick -- meaning the anitbodies you built from the other strain are possibly a little helpful, but not as much as we would like;

c. You got the same strain and it made you sick again. This is the super dangerous version of the possibilities. Why? In most viruses (and bacteria), once they have figured out how to make the host sick (meaning they are replicating a bunch) – and they have been killed back, either from the immune system doing its job or drugs that lowers or kills off the population – the next group that cranks back up is typically stronger, more virulent, and harder to get rid of.

-- So. Antibody tests. If you get one and you are positive, you’re thinking, “Hooray! I have a magic cloak of protection now! Let’s party!” Think again. It might not be true for everyone and (worse case) it might not be true at all that these anitbodies are doing anything to protect us.

-- And herd immunity? If the antibody work continues to demonstrate that we are not developing immunity like we thought – figure out the next years’ worth of Netflix you’re gonna watch because friends -- we got a long, bumpy ride ahead.

3) SCHOOLS.

Yes, kids need to be around each other. Yes (perhaps) kids get less sick and/or die from COVID-19. But these truths continue to be self-evident:

-- Kids are rolling the dice too. Kids still get it. Kids still get sick. Kids still die.

-- Kids can pass it to adults and can kill them (there are examples of this). Again, playing the odds because we have not had schools open so we do not know the rate of this – could be like the general population, could be less.

-- Sure, it is a low percent of kids (we think, so far) who get sick enough to stay home, but one positive kid shuts down a school. So, actions must be taken ahead of time for the absolutely likely event that your kid will go to school for a period of time and then have to come home on lock down.

-- Germany did this best. And they still sent kids home, contact traced, and shut schools. This is the model if we want kids to interact in person for at least a portion of their school season.

-- BUT this is only the model if the virus in the general population is low or trending downward. Right now, all bets are off for many districts in counties/cities/towns that are out of control

-- High school and older should stay home and tele-learn. If they don’t learn as well, it’s on them. Parents should be able to know what kind of kid they have by the time they are in high school or college. They will learn or not for now and when the pandemic is over they will have to catch up or not.

-- College age that have to pay tuition to stay home? Yes, suck it up. Our schools want you back some day, so keep paying the teachers and infrastructure even if you are not there.

-- And seriously, do you have to ask what I think about sending international students home if they have to tele-learn? Don’t make me have a full-blown rant here.

-- Younger kids are really the challenge. Having sensible, controlled, and masked play groups outside, and low numbers in indoor areas (including gyms) are key. If the high schools are not being used for their students, then other grades (depending on district what cohort has the most kids) could socially spread to those spaces allowing more distance and more younger kids in person.

-- If your district is opening and you do not feel it is safe, get together with your kid’s friends parents and figure out Homeschool. There are loads of materials online and ways to do it. Involve the teachers because I promise, someone will get sick and the whole thing will shut down anyway so might as well be ready.

-- If your kids can go back safely because you are in a magical bubble somewhere in the USA where the trend is in your favor – go for it -- in a German cautious way.

4) NUMBERS.

Various agencies including the CDC are reporting that since March the USA has grossly underestimated how many people might have had the virus in one way or another. The US reported something like 120,000 cases in March and the health records and epidemiological math suggests it’s closer to OVER 8 MILLION. If you wondered how we are blowing up like we are it is because we have had vastly more undocumented and untraced people spreading the virus at will.

If any of this math ultimately bears out, we are a long, long way from over all this in the USA. PS: Great job the rest of the world!

Anyone else watch HAMILTON multiple times? Keep it up. That’s good medicine.

As always: Don’t be afraid. Be smart. And -- be well and take care of each other!


  • The chameleon photo I took last year in Madagascar is unrelated to this thread. He just looks cool and I thought was more cheery than COVID-19 photos! Enjoy!

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