On masks and whether they ‘work.’

On masks and whether they ‘work.’

tl;dr – Please get vaccinated, friend!

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My community’s most recent school board meeting was exceptionally contentious.

Public education is almost always contentious in this country: Evolution! The pledge of allegiance! The Founding Fathers’ complicity in felonious (oft murderous) abduction & torture!

Now, we’re also arguing over whether it’s safe for schools to be open at all!

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At the school board meeting, a white woman stood up at the podium, ripped off her mask, and said “I can’t breathe.”

(Unfortunately, I assume the resonance with the BLM protests was intentional. When I went to pick up my kids from school last week, a white mother was wearing a t-shirt with the traditional white on black BLM layout that said “Drunk Wives Matter.” My hometown is within a half hour’s drive of the national KKK headquarters.)

As is the way of things in our country right now, about half the parents in attendance were aghast. The other half cheered.

“The masks don’t work! Everybody knows the masks don’t work!” people shouted.

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Oddly enough, though, the people saying “the masks don’t work” are actually correct. But so are the people who say that masks work. The word “work” is pretty nebulous!

As Joseph Allen & Helen Jenkins wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, many well-meaning people have been unhelpfully vague when defining goals for our pandemic response. Are we trying to minimize lifelong harms from all causes? Are we trying to minimize the number of deaths that occur this year? Are we trying to eradicate the virus that causes Covid-19?

Each of these goals would require that we take a different set of actions.

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Masks “work” in the sense that when people are wearing face masks, there’s a lower probability of Covid-19 transmission during any interaction.

Masks reduce the number of viral particles that exit a person’s airspace as they speak or exhale. Of course, this presupposes that the person wearing a mask actually is shedding viral particles. But that’s the tricky thing about Covid-19 (or influenza)! Some people feel fine!

Masks also might reduce the likelihood of transmission when an unexposed person who is hoping to avoid or delay illness wears a mask. (Masks probably help with this, but it’s less well tested.)

Universal mask requirements are a great tool to delay transmission!

When worn selectively – for instance, only during hospital visits, or only when inside nursing homes – masks can also skew the demographics of transmission. With Covid-19, skewing the demographics of transmission is a great goal!

Even back before we had safe, effective vaccines, we could’ve saved huge numbers of lives by skewing the demographics of transmission! Some people are much more likely to recover from Covid-19 safely than others! (Major risk factors include advanced age, diabetes status, and probably smoking status. But there are also unknown risk factors – we don’t know why certain young healthy people can get so sick from this.)

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Masks don’t “work,” though, if the goal is to prevent cases of Covid-19.

By May of 2020, it was already clear that Covid-19 would become endemic. We’d spread the virus too widely by then. The virus will never go away. Cases will never fall to zero.

Everyone alive today, and everyone born in the future, will be exposed to Covid-19 eventually. (With the possible exception of people who happen to die of other causes within the next few years.)

There’s still a strong argument for using masks to delay Covid-19 transmission: with more time, more people can be vaccinated! The vaccines work, by which I mean that the vaccines save lives.

Everyone will be exposed to Covid-19! The people who have been vaccinated are much more likely to survive! This front page article in my local newspaper is fear mongering; it’s a sort of fear mongering that I wholeheartedly endorse!

Vaccination is a safe, effective, time-tested medical practice. The principles behind vaccination were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists and healers in Africa, India, and China. Their discoveries were the basis for Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

When scientists say that vaccines “work” – vaccines save lives – we mean something very different than when we say that masks “work” – masks delay exposure!

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In conjunction with vaccination, masks can be helpful!

Which is why the argument that children should currently wear masks in school is reasonable. Covid-19 tends not to be very dangerous for children, but occasionally it’s deadly. There’s a definite cost to wearing masks in school – muffled voices, hidden facial expressions, increased hassle – but children could be kept safer by delaying their exposure to Covid-19 until after a vaccine is approved for them.

(I feel lucky that my kids have already safely recovered from Covid-19 – I’m not beset by the same fear over this that other parents are navigating. But I understand their concern: raising children often feels terrifying because my heart would shatter if anything happened to these tiny, willful, fragile creatures.)

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Most of the people who say “masks don’t work” are planning not to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Which means, weirdly, that they’re right! Without the end goal of eventual vaccination, masks don’t work! Even if universal masking policies were kept in place forever, Covid-19 is so infectious that everyone would still be exposed eventually!

The vaccines can save lives; masks cannot.

Obviously, I’m not arguing that you should ignore local mask requirements: I’m currently wearing a face mask as I type this! And there are lots of people who do want to be vaccinated who don’t have access yet – this isn’t much of an issue for adults in the United States, but vaccine access is an incredible privilege for most of the world’s population.

Because Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who feel fine, wearing a mask is a way to protect others. And personal preference isn’t a good reason to endanger the lives of the folks around us! That’s why we have traffic laws! Even if I think it’d be fun to go out driving while buzzed on booze, or to cruise on the left-hand side of the road, I shouldn’t be allowed to do it!

But also, I think it’s worth acknowledging that, within the full context of their actions, people’s denunciations of masks are actually scientifically accurate.

“Follow the science” is an unhelpful slogan – scientific analysis doesn’t result in a monolithic set of inarguable conclusions. At the heart of any policy, there are goals and priorities. These are set by philosophical or ethical considerations, not scientific fact.

“Follow the scientific findings that help us all achieve my goals for the world” doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it, though.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.

Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Teachers say it’s the end of the world.

Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.

Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.

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During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)

Hide under a desk.

Pretend that furniture is enough

to protect us against perilous flames.

Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.

The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.

Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,

but some kids giggle.

They don’t believe that death

is real.

Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.

We know, now. At least, some of us do.

Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear bomb: photograph by Kelly Michals on flickr.

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Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.

Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.

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Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.

But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.

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Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.

And yet.

You, as an individual, can only do so much.

When I hide under my frail school desk,

my heart grows as rough and brittle

as the slab of wood

that fails to protect me

from reality’s

gloom.

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We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.

Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.

Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.

We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.

We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.

Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.

Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.

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Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.

The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.

But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.

Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.

Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!

But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.

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Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.

Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.

And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.

A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.

And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.

Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.

It likely won’t be us.

On trauma and the marshmallow test.

On trauma and the marshmallow test.

We were walking our dogs past our neighbor Katie’s house when she stepped onto her front porch. Katie is a philosophy professor specializing in the works of David Hume. She is also a phenomenal baker of holiday treats (her collection of cookie cutters is prodigious) and a generous guardian to several cats.

“Your flowers look beautiful!” we called out from about twenty-five feet away.

“I hope they don’t die right away,” she said. Then she shook her head and laughed. “God, what a year. They do look beautiful. And that’s the first thing I thought?”

We’re feeling traumatized. Nearly all of us.

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The marshmallow test: a researcher leaves a young child in a room with a marshmallow. “You can eat it now, but I’ll be back in ten minutes, and if the marshmallow is still there, you’ll get to have two.”

The marshmallow test has been written about extensively. The children who waited used a variety of strategies to distract themselves from temptation, like closing their eyes or singing to themselves.

Some children impulsively ate the marshmallow. Here’s a treat, nom nom nom! But the children who waited, the researchers reported, grew up to be more successful.

A variety of claims were made, like that the willpower needed to delay gratification allowed children to prioritize their futures, to keep struggling and striving even when things were hard, to turn down drugs and alcohol.

Here’s another interpretation: children who have been through trauma might be making a perfectly logical decision if they eat the marshmallow right away. Because lots of kids have been taught, by past experience, that despite a recently met grown-up’s promise, waiting might cause them to get zero marshmallows, not two.

If a child has learned that any situation might suddenly turn dangerous, they might not feel safe closing their eyes to ignore the marshmallow. If a child has learned that the money and food often run out by the end of the month, they might rightfully eat treats when there’s still a chance.

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The pandemic has made me more impulsive. Like my neighbor Katie, I worry that the beautiful flowers might die –almost to the point of forgetting to enjoy them while they last.

Like a child, I worry that the marshmallow might be gone.

I am – or at least, I have been for almost my entire life – a patient, resilient person. My graduate degree took six years. I merrily undertook a writing project that lasted another six. I’m raising children, which feels both hectic and achingly slow.

But right now, I can feel it in myself. Signing up for a vaccine and having the appointment be two and a half weeks away! felt interminable. Every delay aches. The future feels like a distant blur.

Especially amid all the outbreaks of violence – mass shootings in the national news, seemingly unrelated spates of murders in our local paper, all of them likely rooted in impulsiveness, isolation, & stress – delaying any source of joy feels agonizing. As though we might not make it another whole week, or month, or year.

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Today, at least, I set aside time in the morning for self-care. I dropped the kids off at school. I went for a fast run, five kilometers just under eighteen minutes. I stretched.

Most importantly, I took the time to meditate.

Meditation is the marshmallow test writ small.

Set a timer for twenty minutes. Sit down. Close your eyes. Choose some small phrase, meaningful or not – “sat nam,” “love more,” “I am calm” – and intone it silently in your mind, half as you breathe in, half as you breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Your mind might wander – if you notice, try to resume your small phrase. Silently repeated sound can anchor you, give yourself space to wash away some mental turmoil.

And, if you are like me, you’ll want to open your eyes and be done with it. This is taking forever! See if you can stay. Keep your eyes closed. Repeat your phrase, and breathe.

If you can last the entire time – well, no researcher will bring you a second marshmallow. But you’ll still receive a gift. A bit of inner peace that wasn’t there before.

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I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.

I meditated.

I could probably pass today.

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header image by Kate Ter Haar on flickr

On vaccination.

On vaccination.

The shape of things determines what they can do. Or, as a molecular biologist would phrase it, “structure determines function.”

In most ways, forks and spoons are similar. They’re made from the same materials, they show up alongside each other in place settings. But a spoon has a curved, solid bowl – you’d use it for soup or ice cream. A fork has prongs and is better suited for stabbing.

In matters of self defense, I’d reach for the fork.

On a much smaller scale, the three-dimensional shapes of a protein determines what it can do.

Each molecule of hemoglobin has a spoon-like pocket that’s just the right size for carrying oxygen, while still allowing the oxygen to wriggle free wherever your cells need it. A developing fetus has hemoglobin that’s shaped differently – when the fetal hemoglobin grabs oxygen, it squeezes more tightly, causing oxygen to pass from a mother to her fetus.

Each “voltage-gated ion channel” in your neurons has a shape that lets it sense incoming electrical signals and pass them forward. Voltage-gated ion channels are like sliding doors. They occasionally open to let in a rush of salt. Because salts are electrically charged, this creates an electric current. The electrical current will cause the next set of doors to open.

Every protein is shaped differently, which lets each do a different job. But they’re all made from the same materials – a long chain of amino acids.

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Your DNA holds the instructions for every protein in your body.

Your DNA is like a big, fancy cookbook – it holds all the recipes, but you might not want to bring it into the kitchen. You wouldn’t want to spill something on it, or get it wet, or otherwise wreck it.

Instead of bringing your nice big cookbook into the kitchen, you might copy a single recipe onto an index card. That way, you can be as messy as you like – if you spill something, you can always write out a new index card later.

And your cells do the same thing. When it’s time to make proteins, your cells copy the recipes. The original cookbook is made from DNA; the index-card-like copies are made from RNA. Then the index cards are shipped out of the nucleus – the library at the center of your cells – into the cytoplasm – the bustling kitchen where proteins are made and do their work.

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When a protein is first made, it’s a long strand of amino acids. Imagine a long rope with assorted junk tied on every few inches. Look, here’s a swath of velcro! Here’s a magnet. Here’s another magnet. Here’s a big plastic knob. Here’s another magnet. Here’s another piece of velcro. And so on.

If you shake this long rope, jostling it the way that a molecule tumbling through our cells gets jostled, the magnets will eventually stick together, and the velcro bits will stick to together, and the big plastic knob will jut out because there’s not enough room for it to fit inside the jumble.

That’s what happens during protein folding. Some amino acids are good at being near water, and those often end up on the outside of the final shape. Some amino acids repel water – like the oil layer of an unshaken oil & vinegar salad dressing – and those often end up on the inside of the final shape.

Other amino acids glue the protein together. The amino acid cysteine will stick to other cysteines. Some amino acids have negatively-charged sidechains, some have positively-charged sidechains, and these attract each other like magnets.

Sounds easy enough!

Except, wait. If you had a long rope with dozens of magnets, dozens of patches of velcro, and then you shook it around … well, the magnets would stick to other magnets, but would they stick to the right magnets?

You might imagine that there are many ways the protein could fold. But there’s only a single final shape that would allow the protein to function correctly in a cell.

So your cells use little helpers to ensure that proteins fold correctly. Some of the helpers are called “molecular chaperones,” and they guard various parts of the long strand so that it won’t glom together incorrectly. Some helpers are called “glycosylation enzymes,” and these glue little bits and bobs to the surface of a protein, some of which seem to act like mailing addresses to send the protein to the right place in a cell, some of which change the way the protein folds.

Our cells have a bunch of ways to ensure that each protein folds into the right 3D shape. And even with all this help, something things go awry. Alzheimer’s disease is associated with amyloid plaques that form in the brain – these are big trash heaps of misfolded proteins. The Alzheimer’s protein is just very tricky to fold correctly, especially if there’s a bunch of the misfolded protein strewn about.

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Many human proteins can be made by bacteria. Humans and bacteria are relatives, after all – if you look back in our family trees, you’ll find that humans and bacteria shared a great-great-great-grandmother a mere three billion years ago.

The cookbooks in our cells are written in the same language. Bacteria can read all our recipes.

Which is great news for biochemists, because bacteria are really cheap to grow.

If you need a whole bunch of some human protein, you start by trying to make it in bacteria. First you copy down the recipe – which means using things called “restriction enzymes” to move a sequence of DNA into a plasmid, which is something like a bacterial index card – then you punch holes in some bacteria and let your instructions drift in for them to read.

The bacteria churn out copies of your human protein. Bacteria almost always make the right long rope of amino acids.

But human proteins sometimes fold into the wrong shapes inside bacteria. Bacteria don’t have all the same helper molecules that we do,.

If a protein doesn’t fold into the right shape, it won’t do the right things.

If you were working in a laboratory, and you found out that the protein you’d asked bacteria to make was getting folded wrong … well, you’d probably start to sigh a lot. Instead of making the correctly-folded human protein, your bacteria gave you useless goo.

Shucks.

But fear not!

Yeast can’t be grown as cheaply as bacteria, but they’re still reasonably inexpensive. And yeast are closer relatives – instead of three billion years ago, the most recent great-great-grandmother shared between humans and yeast lived about one billion years ago.

Yeast have a few of the same helper proteins that we do. Some human proteins that can’t be made in bacteria will fold correctly in yeast.

So, you take some yeast, genetically modify it to produce a human protein, then grow a whole bunch of it. This is called “fermentation.” It’s like you’re making beer, almost. Genetically modified beer.

Then you spin your beer inside a centrifuge. This collects all the solid stuff at the bottom of the flask. Then you’ll try to purify the protein that you want away from all the other gunk. Like the yeast itself, and all the proteins that yeast normally make.

If you’re lucky, the human protein you were after will have folded correctly!

If you’re unlucky, the protein will have folded wrong. Your yeast might produce a bunch of useless goo. And then you do more sighing.

There’s another option, but it’s expensive. You can make your human protein inside human cells.

Normally, human cells are hesitant to do too much growing and dividing and replicating. After all, the instructions in our DNA are supposed to produce a body that looks just so – two arms, two eyes, a smile. Once we have cells in the right places, cell division is just supposed to replace the parts of you that have worn out.

Dead skin cells steadily flake from our bodies. New cells constantly replace them.

But sometimes a cell gets too eager to grow. If its DNA loses certain instructions, like the “contact inhibition” that tells cells to stop growing when they get too crowded, a human cell might make many, many copies of itself.

Which is unhelpful. Potentially lethal. A cell that’s too eager to grow is cancer.

Although it’s really, really unhelpful to have cancer cells growing in your body, in a laboratory, cancer cells are prized. Cancer cells are so eager to grow that we might be able to raise them in petri dishes.

Maybe you’ve heard of HeLa cells – this is a cancer cell line that was taken from a Black woman’s body without her consent, and then this cell line was used to produce innumerable medical discoveries, including many that were patented and have brought in huge sums of money, and this woman’s family was not compensated at all, and they’ve suffered huge invasions of their privacy because a lot of their genetic information has been published, again without their consent …

HeLa cells are probably the easiest human cells to grow. And it’s possible to flood them with instructions to make a particular human protein. You can feel quite confident that your human protein will fold correctly.

But it’s way more expensive to grow HeLa cells than yeast. You have to grow them in a single layer in a petri dish. You have to feed them the blood of a baby calf. You have to be very careful while you work or else the cells will get contaminated with bacteria or yeast and die.

If you really must have a whole lot of a human protein, and you can’t make it in bacteria or yeast, then you can do it. But it’ll cost you.

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Vaccination is perhaps the safest, most effective thing that physicians do.

Your immune system quells disease, but it has to learn which shapes inside your body represent danger. Antibodies and immunological memory arise in a process like evolution – random genetic recombination until our defenses can bind to the surface of an intruder. By letting our immune system train in a relatively safe encounter, we boost our odds of later survival.

The molecular workings of our immune systems are still being studied, but the basic principles of inoculation were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists in Africa, India, and China. These scientists’ descendants practiced inoculation against smallpox for hundreds of years before their techniques were adapted by Edward Jenner to create his smallpox vaccine.

If you put a virus into somebody’s body, that person might get sick. So what you want is to put something that looks a lot like the virus into somebody’s body.

One way to make something that looks like the virus, but isn’t, is to take the actual virus and whack it with a hammer. You break it a little. Not so much that it’s unrecognizable, but enough so that it can’t work. Can’t make somebody sick. This is often done with “heat inactivation.”

Heat inactivation can be dangerous, though. If you cook a virus too long, it might fall apart and your immune system learns nothing. If you don’t cook a virus long enough, it might make you sick.

In some of the early smallpox vaccine trials, the “heat inactivated” viruses still made a lot of people very, very sick.

Fewer people got very sick than if they’d been exposed to smallpox virus naturally, but it feels different when you’re injecting something right into somebody’s arm.

We hold vaccines to high standards. Even when we’re vaccinating people against deadly diseases, we expect our vaccines to be very, very safe.

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It’s safer to vaccinate people with things that look like a virus but can’t possibly infect them.

This is why you might want to produce a whole bunch of some specific protein. Why you’d go through that whole rigamarole of testing protein folding in bacteria, yeast, and HeLa cells. Because you’re trying to make a bunch of protein that looks like a virus.

Each virus is a little protein shell. They’re basically delivery drones for nasty bits of genetic material.

If you can make pieces of this protein shell inside bacteria, or in yeast, and then inject those into people, then the people can’t possibly be infected. You’re not injecting people with a whole virus – the delivery drone with its awful recipes inside. Instead, you’re injecting people with just the propeller blades from the drone, or just its empty cargo hold.

These vaccine are missing the genetic material that allow viruses to make copies of themselves. Unlike with a heat inactivated virus, we can’t possibly contract the illness from these vaccines.

This is roughly the strategy used for the HPV vaccine that my father helped develop. Merck’s “Gardasil” uses viral proteins made by yeast, which is a fancy way of saying that Merck purifies part of the virus’s delivery drone away from big batches of genetically-modified beer.

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We have a lot of practice making vaccines from purified protein.

Even so, it’s a long, difficult, expensive process. You have to identify which part of the virus is often recognized by our immune systems. You have to find a way to produce a lot of this correctly-folded protein. You have to purify this protein away from everything else made by your bacteria or yeast or HeLa cells.

The Covid-19 vaccines bypass all that.

In a way, these are vaccines for lazy people. Instead of finding a way to make a whole bunch of viral protein, then purify it, then put it into somebody’s arm … well, what if we just asked the patient’s arm to make the viral protein on its own?

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Several of the Covid-19 vaccines are made with mRNA molecules.

These mRNA molecules are the index cards that we use for recipes in our cells’ kitchens, so the only trick is to deliver a bunch of mRNA with a recipe for part of the Covid-19 virus. Then our immune system can learn that anything with that particular shape is bad and ought to be destroyed.

After learning to recognize one part of the virus delivery drone, we’ll be able to stop the real thing.

We can’t vaccinate people by injecting just the mRNA, though, because our bodies have lots of ways to destroy RNA molecules. After all, you wouldn’t want to cook from the recipe from any old index card that you’d found in the street. Maybe somebody copied a recipe from The Anarchist Cookbook – you’d accidentally whip up a bomb instead of a delicious cake.

I used to share laboratory space with people who studied RNA, and they were intensely paranoid about cleaning. They’d always wear gloves, they’d wipe down every surface many times each day. Not to protect themselves, but to ensure that all the RNA-destroying enzymes that our bodies naturally produce wouldn’t ruin their experiments.

mRNA is finicky and unstable. And our bodies intentionally destroy stray recipes.

So to make a vaccine, you have to wrap the mRNA in a little envelope. That way, your cells might receive the recipe before it’s destroyed. In this case, the envelope is called a “lipid nanoparticle,” but you could also call a fat bubble. Not a bubble that’s rotund – a tiny sphere made of fat.

Fat bubbles are used throughout cells. When the neurons in your brain communicate, they burst open fat bubbles full of neurotransmitters and scatter the contents. When stuff found outside a cell needs to be destroyed, it’s bundled into fat bubbles and sent to a cellular trash factories called lysosomes.

For my Ph.D. thesis, I studied the postmarking system for fat bubbles. How fat bubbles get addressed in order to be sent to the right places.

Sure, I made my work sound fancier when I gave my thesis defense, but that’s really what I was doing.

Anyway, after we inject someone with an mRNA vaccine, the fat bubble with the mRNA gets bundled up and taken into some of their cells, and this tricks those cells into following the mRNA recipe and making a protein from the Covid-19 virus.

This mRNA recipe won’t teach the cells how to make a whole virus — that would be dangerous! That’s what happens during a Covid-19 infection – your cells get the virus’s whole damn cookbook and they make the entire delivery drone and more cookbooks to put inside and then these spread through your body and pull the same trick on more and more of your cells. A single unstopped delivery drone can trick your cells into building a whole fleet of them and infecting cells throughout your body.

Instead, the mRNA recipe we use for the vaccine has only a small portion of the Covid-19 genome, just enough for your cells to make part of the delivery drone and learn to recognize it as a threat.

And this recipe never visits the nucleus, which is the main library in your cells that holds your DNA, the master cookbook with recipes for every protein in your body. Your cells are tricked into following recipes scribbled onto the vaccine’s index cards, but your master cookbook remains unchanged. And, just like all the mRNA index cards that our bodies normally produce, the mRNA from the vaccine soon gets destroyed. All those stray index cards, chucked unceremoniously into the recycling bin.

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The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also tricks our cells into making a piece of the Covid-19 virus.

This vaccine uses a different virus’s delivery drone to send the recipe for a piece of Covid-19 into your cells. The vaccine’s delivery drone isn’t a real virus – the recipe it holds doesn’t include the instructions on how to make copies of itself. But the vaccine’s delivery drone looks an awful lot like a virus, which means it’s easier to work with than the mRNA vaccines.

Those little engineered fat bubbles are finicky. And mRNA is finicky. But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a delivery drone that was optimized through natural selection out in the real world. It evolved to be stable enough to make us sick.

Now we can steal its design in an effort to keep people well.

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Lots of people received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without incident, but we’ve temporarily stopped giving it to people. Blood clots are really scary.

You might want to read Alexandra Lahav’s excellent essay, “Medicine Is Made for Men.” Lahav describes the many ways in which a lack of diversity in science, technology, and engineering fields can cause harm.

Cars are designed to protect men: for many years, we used only crash test dummies that were shaped like men to determine whether cars were safe. In equivalent accidents, women are more likely to die, because, lo and behold, their bodies are often shaped differently.

Women are also more likely to be killed by medication. Safety testing often fails to account for women’s hormonal cycles, or complications from contraceptives, or differences in metabolism, or several other important features of women’s bodies.

White male bodies are considered to be human bodies, and any deviation is considered an abnormal case. Medication tested in white men can be approved for everyone; medication tested in Black patients was approved only for use in other Black patients.

Although more than half our population are women, their bodies are treated as bizarre.

For most people, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe. But this is a sort of tragedy that occurs too often – causing harm to women because we’re inattentive to the unique features of their bodies.

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I haven’t been vaccinated yet, but I registered as soon as I was able – my first dose will be on April 26th. Although I’ve almost certainly already had Covid-19 before, and am unlikely to get severely ill the next time I contract it, I’m getting the vaccine to protect my friends and neighbors.

So should you.

On cooperation and cons: Our theft from young people.

On cooperation and cons: Our theft from young people.

As a society, we’ve made enormous sacrifices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re wearing masks; we’re staying home; children are missing school.

We’re all cooperating to protect the people who are most at risk.

The risk profile for Covid-19 is opposite the risk from climate change. Covid-19 is more dangerous for the old. Climate change is more dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.

There’s another way to phrase this – Covid-19 is more dangerous for the wealthy, and climate change is more dangerous for those who currently have little or nothing. This is true both temporally and geographically.

(Wealth obviously protect individuals from Covid-19. Despite all his buffoonish posturing, when Donald Trump was infected, he received higher quality, more expensive medical care than almost anyone else. But on a population level, increased wealth is correlated with increased risk. Wealthy people are privileged to live longer, and in our capitalist society, people often accumulate wealth as they age.)

People with low risk from Covid-19 are making enormous sacrifices to protect others from it. But those with low risk from climate change are, in general, making no efforts to stop it.

Which conveys a clear message:

Younger people, you must solve this problem on your own. Despite your willingness to make sacrifices to protect us, we will not make sacrifices to protect you.

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If we knew in March 2020 what we know now, we wouldn’t have closed schools. If you’re interested in some of the reasoning behind this, you should read this February 24, 2021 New York Times editorial from Nicholas Kristof.

Or, if you’re more scientifically inclined, you could read this February 23, 2021 review article in The BMJ:Closing schools is not evidence based and harms children.

We are hurting kids under the guise of protecting older people. But we’re not even succeeding. Schools have such low rates of Covid-19 transmission that we’re hurting kids without accomplishing anything.

People from “my” political party have orchestrated this harm, which makes it feel all the worse.

The New York Times recently printed an editorial from someone at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute chiding us for our totally un-scientific school closures. Members of the Republican party are positioning themselves as the defenders of public education.

The Republican party has been trying to undermine public schools ever since the Supreme Court decided that maybe Black kids deserve an equal chance to learn. And we’re letting them posture as the defenders of education?

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During the vaccine roll-out, the New York Times set the stage for a big reveal – younger people were never in huge amounts of danger from Covid-19.

I don’t want to sound cavalier about this – Covid-19 is dangerous to people of all ages. It’s very similar to influenza.

Many people have a misconception that influenza is relatively harmless – sniffles & a runny nose – unless you’re elderly.

That’s not true.

Although the majority of cases of seasonal influenza are mild, it’s a deadly disease. Young healthy people die of influenza every year.

Most influenza deaths are recorded as “pneumonia” during post-mortem reports. To compare the dangers of Covid-19 to influenza, we’d want to measure how many more pneumonia deaths we’ve seen recently.

In a typical year, there are about 130,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States – these might be caused by influenza, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, etc.

Many if not most of these deaths are caused by influenza – the column of numbers reporting verified influenza deaths is so low because we don’t always test for it, and when we do we typically use a low-quality antigen test.

Last year, though, was much worse – between January 1, 2020 and February 24, 2021, there were 670,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States. During those 14 months, five-fold more people died from this set of symptoms than we’d expect during a normal year.

We’ve also had about five times as many infections. Usually, about 30 million people contract seasonal influenza each year. The CDC estimates that perhaps 100 million people contracted Covid-19 during the ten months from February 2020 to December 2020.

That’s why the CDC’s rough estimates for the “infection fatality ratio” of Covid-19 are about the same as for influenza.

Last year, more people died from Covid-19 than would be expected from a typical year’s burden of seasonal influenza, but that’s because there were many more infections.

Seasonal influenza and Covid-19 are both deadly diseases. And it’s worth comparing them because the pandemic might be declared “over” once Covid-19 deaths fall to influenza-like levels.

That’s what most public health experts said when they were interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for an article in The Atlantic – that a reasonable goal is for Covid-19 “to mirror the typical mortality of influenza in the U.S. over a typical year.

Which seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re going to call it “over” while people are still dying?

But we have to. Covid-19 will probably be with us forever. Like the coronavirus OC43, which we picked up from cows and which probably killed over a million people during the 1890 pandemic, Covid-19 will continue to make humans sick indefinitely.

Elderly people – especially those who weren’t exposed to Covid-19 as children – will always be particularly susceptible.

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Early on during the pandemic – when we already had a good sense that younger people weren’t in much personal danger but also knew that we could only slow the spread of Covid-19 if younger people made sacrifices – we concocted a narrative that healthy young people were at high risk, too.

In March 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Fiona Lowenstein, a 26 year old who became tragically ill, saying “Millennials: if you can’t stay at home for others, do it for yourselves.

In May 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Mara Gay, a 33 year old who became tragically ill, saying “I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.

During a “mild” flu season, about 1,000 people aged 25-34 die of pneumonia.

This year, healthy young people have gotten very sick and even died of Covid-19 – which is tragic, but not unusual. Every year, healthy young people get very sick and die from influenza. This past year, with about five-fold more infections of an equivalently deadly disease, we’ve seen about five-fold more of these tragic young people’s deaths.

Now that a vaccine is available, though, the narrative has shifted.

In the February 28, 2021 New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Ethicist” column says that “Health care workers who are in their 20s and don’t have certain medical conditions aren’t at high risk if they contract Covid-19. Perhaps we could save more lives if we left them [to be vaccinated] until later.

Now that we have a limited supply of vaccines, older, wealthier people benefit if young people are less afraid of Covid-19.

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By delaying Covid-19 infection, young people increased their personal risk. Early during the pandemic, the virus was not particularly dangerous for young people. By now, though, there have now been millions of transmission events – millions of opportunities for mutant variants to arise.

And indeed, in February 2021 the New York Times reports that “it is likely that the [new Covid-19 virus] variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.”

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Currently, we’re rationing the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines based on age.

This is hypocritical, and potentially misguided.

When people develop such severe complications from Covid-19 that they require ventilation in order to have a chance of surviving, a younger person is more likely to benefit from the treatment. This holds both in terms of absolute number of lives saved, and is even more dramatic if you consider the years of life saved.

With a limited supply of ventilators, you can accomplish most by reserving them for the young – and we said that would be horrible.

In a March 2020 article for the New York Times, Sheri Fink wrote that the health department’s civil rights office would ensure “that states did not allow medical providers to discriminate on the basis of … age … when deciding who would receive lifesaving medical care.

In April 2020, Joel Zivot wrote for Medpage that “Rationing ventilators by age is wrong.

Although we declared that it would be unethical to ration healthcare (ventilators) by age, we’re now rationing healthcare (vaccines) by age. The difference is that a different group of people – older, on average wealthier – benefits.

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Rationing vaccines by age doesn’t even save the most lives.

Based on the CDC data, if both a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about ten times more likely to die. That’s scary!

The major benefit of the vaccine is that it reduces the chance of severe illness if you are exposed to Covid-19. But we also know other ways to reduce the odds of exposure – a person can stay home, wear a mask near others, minimize the number of unique individuals they come into contact with.

If the 70-year-old has retired, they should be able to reduce the number of unique individuals they see each week to ten or fewer. But a 50-year-old grocery store clerk might see a thousand or more unique individuals each week, and have to spend time in fairly close proximity to each.

If the 50-year-old is at least ten-fold more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, then you’ll save more lives by giving the vaccine to them instead of to the 70-year-old.

Not only did we declare that rationing healthcare by age was wrong when it benefited younger people, but now we’re doing it even though it doesn’t save the most lives.

The unfairness is even more dramatic if we consider the risk of hospitalization. According to the CDC chart above, if both a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about five times as likely to be hospitalized. But Medicare will pay the hospital bill. If a 20-year-old is hospitalized, they might face ruinous medical debt.

It’s quite likely that the obligations of most 20-year-olds – going to school, going to work, taking care of family – make them at least five times as likely to be exposed to Covid-19. We could stop lives from being ruined by medical debt if we vaccinated 20-year-olds first.

A friend of mine works in a take-out & delivery pizza restaurant in Chicago. For other people to be able to stay home and order food, he had to go in to work. His risk of exposure to Covid-19 was much higher than other people’s. As a healthy athlete in his late twenties, he wasn’t at high risk, but he was unlucky – when he got sick, he was so ill that he spent weeks in the hospital. He’s still recovering from his ruptured lung. He has no idea how to pay the $200,000 medical bill.

Because we’re rationing care by age, we’re not protecting people like him. Even though his risk – interacting with customers all day – made it possible for others to stay safe.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been awful, but I was pleased that people took fewer plane flights. Our carbon emissions briefly dropped.

Now that older people have received vaccines, though, they’ll resume flying.

For a February 17, 2021 article in the New York Times, Debra Kamin writes that “When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas, Texas. But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their Covid-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.

Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel – often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine.

Newly protected against Covid-19, they’ll increase their contributions to climate change.

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Climate change has the opposite risk profile from Covid-19. Covid-19 is most dangerous for the old; climate change is most dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.

In some sense, it’s trivializing to even compare these. The risk from climate change is so much more severe.

If we make our planet inhospitable – if our crops fail due to storms or heat waves – the carrying capacity of Earth could easily fall by half.

We will see billions, not millions, of deaths.

Someone who is elderly today is unlikely to survive long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change – although it’s true that in severe weather events like Chicago’s fluke summer heat waves or Texas’s fluke winter storms, elderly people who live alone are exceptionally vulnerable.

Still, younger adults will have to endure worse calamities. They’ll live through more years of severe weather, crop failures, dangerous heat, lingering smog. And, since society will be forced to spend more money each year to maintain humanity’s precarious place on this planet – rebuilding after fires or floods – younger adults will face an increasingly inhospitable world with less wealth at their disposal.

Today’s children will encounter even worse. They’ll experience every disaster that today’s young adults will survive to see, and then some.

Generations not yet born may inherit a nightmare.

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When people who currently have wealth were in danger, we created a narrative that everyone needed to make sacrifices. The largest sacrifices came from those who benefited least.

We’re still keeping children out of school – for almost no benefit in terms of Covid-19 transmission – in order to protect older, wealthier people.

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Climate change is and has been caused primarily by those with the most wealth. If you can buy more meat, if you can take more plane flights, if you can purchase a bigger home, then you’re able to cause more climate change.

To stop climate change, we need wealthy people to make sacrifices. Buy less, fly less, eat plants.

But why would they?

Currently wealthy people aren’t in danger.

And – worse – currently wealthy people often became wealthy by treating the world as a competitive place. Now we’re asking them to cooperate? To make sacrifices for the sake of others?

Meat tastes good. Flying to Maui is fun. Doesn’t a person who worked hard deserve an enormous home?

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A curious thought about the Gamestop stock trading phenomenon: Many small investors – often younger people – were convinced through emotional arguments to buy a few shares of stock and hold them with “diamond hands.”

Don’t sell, even if the price dips!

There was a strange cooperative / competitive system going on. The cooperative portion would have been illegal had it not been done in public – people were colluding to make the shares hard to get, which forced the hedge fund to pay more in order to cover their short sales.

Short sales: a hedge fund had borrowed many shares of the stock and sold them, hoping the price would fall and that new shares could be purchased more cheaply when it was time to return them. So the hedge fund had basically announced, “On such & such a date, I must have this stock, no matter the price!” If other people all cooperate and say, “On that day, don’t sell it for less than $420.00,” then the hedge fund has to pay $420.00 per share, even if the company that the stock represents is worthless.

But here’s the competitive portion – the company, Gamestop, is probably going out of business eventually. Driving to a strip mall to buy a video game cartridge instead of downloading it? The stock isn’t worth much money. So people wanted to cooperate to hurt the hedge fund, but people were also forced to compete because nobody wanted to be holding the stock at the end of the day.

Everyone would like to sell it for a bunch of money, but not everyone will get to sell it.

Even if more than a hundred percent of shares are short sold, not everyone will get to sell it – the hedge fund can satisfy all their contracts by buying a share, returning it to someone, buying the same share back from that person, returning it to someone else, and so on.

So if you know that everybody else has put in a “sell order” at $420.00, because they think it’s a funny number, you benefit by putting in a sell order at $419. That way you get almost as much money as anyone else, but you’re guaranteed to sell yours, whereas only a fraction of the people with $420 sell orders get to trade their (worthless) stock for money.

But then, if you know that other people are going to plug in a sell order at $419, you benefit from selling yours at $418. Because what if too many people sell their shares at $419?? You might still be left out!

So there was an incentive for savvy investors – wealthy people who might have thousands of dollars on the line – to convince other people to hold onto the stock no matter what … even while selling their own.

Billions of dollars changed hands. Some people “made” a lot of money. And it wouldn’t have happened without cooperation – lots of people colluding against the hedge fund.

But the particular people who benefited were determined by a con. By selling shares while promoting a narrative that “if we all hold with diamond hands, this is going to the moon!”

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In some ways, our response to Covid-19 encourages me.

So many people – especially younger people – have shown themselves to be willing to cooperate.

A cloth mask traps your exhalations. Wearing a cloth mask makes your life worse, but it protects other people. Almost everybody in my home town wears a mask. Every young person at school wears a mask.

And yet.

Young people are willing to make sacrifices to protect older people. But therein lies the con.

We’re not making sacrifices to protect them.

Our carbon emissions are no different from pulling off this face mask and intentionally coughing in a young child’s face. We ought to feel ashamed.

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header image from Socialist Appeal on flickr

On perspective and Zoom.

On perspective and Zoom.

In Unique, neuroscientist David Linden describes the cultural associations between smell and taste.

Most people from the United States will say that vanilla, strawberry, or mint odors smell sweet.

On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense. Sweet is a taste, not a smell. A substance cannot smell sweet any more than something can sound red.

There’s nothing intrinsically sweet about these odors – we’ve just learned to associate them with sweet taste.

As a counterexample, in Vietnam, where caramel and mint are used primarily in savory dishes, their odors are not typically described as sweet.

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This association is sufficiently powerful that its effect can be measured in the lab.

For people whose past cultural experiences have led them to associate mint smells with sweet tastes, pairing the scent of mint with a sip of sucrose solution makes them believe that the drink is more sugary than it really is. When mint scent is paired with a sip of mildly acidic water, the drink seems less sour than it really is.

This experiment didn’t assess people’s perception of alcoholic drinks, but people in the United States probably make the same mistake about the bourbon in a mint julep.

photo by Grizdave at flickr

Our assumptions – particular to our own cultural experience of the world – can powerfully deceive us.

A mint julep mixed perfectly for someone from the United States would taste bitter to someone from Vietnam.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen – author of The Sympathizer, which I’ve written about previously – strives to draw attention to our cultural blindness. The way our minds’ innate self-deceptions allow us to overlook or misinterpret the experiences of others.

My spouse and I have often felt grateful for Nguyen’s work. His essay about the sinking sensation he felt after teaching his child to read was particularly beautiful. (I linked to it in my own essay about teaching a child to read.)

Which is why we felt so dismayed by Nguyen’s most recent New York Times editorial.

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Nguyen explains why he enjoys teaching over Zoom. He’s prompted with students’ names; he can see their reactions up close; student voices contribute to the lecture from the same up-front position of power as his own; typed remarks can overlap without distracting; lectures are recorded for students to review later.

All well and good. Nguyen is quite intelligent. If he thinks Zoom is good for lectures, I’m inclined to believe him.

But lectures aren’t the best way to learn.

For many subjects, project-based learning is a more effective way to educate students. Many of my spouse’s resources – designed primarily for teaching college-level biology and introductory Earth & space science with a social justice bent – are available on her website, here.

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For the better part of a decade, I’ve hosted a poetry class in the county jail. We read poems and discuss how they make us feel. Our discussions touch upon contemporary scientific research, mythology, economics – all safe enough topics, for most folks – but also religion, addiction, trauma, violence, relationships, loss – which can be tough for anyone to talk about, let alone a room full of men who won’t get to see their families for months.

Because people cycle through the county jail, I never know who will be coming to class each week until I get there. For a few months, I might be with mostly the same group of men. Other weeks, I won’t have met any of the dozen or so people previously.

And there’s a huge difference between what we can accomplish – between what sorts of things feel safe to discuss – when the people in class haven’t met me before, and haven’t been in a class like that with each other. If we haven’t built the necessary emotional connection, we can do less. The class is worse for all of us.

Recently, the jail has allowed a small number of classes over Zoom. But Zoom doesn’t let you make the same emotional connection.

People sometimes complain about the supposed invasiveness of Zoom – the camera snatches up your personal surroundings, the pictures on your wall, the books on your shelves, your family in the background – but it’s by no means the intimacy of being there.

screenshot from a video by Rose Bythrow

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My spouse says, “Over Zoom you can’t tell who’s hungry.”

It would be nice if she meant this metaphorically – that it’s hard to tell who’s eager to learn. But, no. Many students aren’t eating enough. They are hungry.

Worse, we read Nguyen’s paean to Zoom on a snow day.

Streets near my spouse’s high school school were well-salted and plowed, but we live in a sprawling, semi-rural area – the school district serves families from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are hills and valleys – not everyone can get a satellite signal at home. And the for-profit cable companies certainly haven’t connected those families to the modern world with wires.

Still, the pandemic has made “e-learning days” seem like a reliable alternative. If it snows, kids learn from home.

“What’s Zoom supposed to do,” my spouse asked, “for my students with no heat?”

This isn’t (only) a concern for fluke events like the avarice-fueled power outages and heat losses in Texas. My spouse grew up in Albany, New York. Every winter was cold. The infrastructure to heat homes there was secure – for children whose families had money.

My spouse’s family didn’t. Her father failed to pay the electric bill. The power was shut off. And then the district called a snow day.

If my spouse and her sibling had gone to school, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Warm classrooms, a hot meal.

Instead they were stuck at home, shivering. Wanting so badly to go to a neighbor’s house. But then the neighbors would know.

In the United States, where poverty is often stigmatized as a moral failing, people hide the ache of want.

Which is why Zoom is so horrible. Zoom makes it easy. When you only have to disguise a small corner of your life, you can convey the illusion that things are okay.

Even when they’re not.

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header image from Zoom corporation’s “About” page

On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s lovely essay in the New York Review of Books, “Chemical Warfare’s Home Front,” describes Fritz Haber’s contribution to the use of toxic gas in war.

Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine to suffocate all animal life – including soldiers – downwind of his nation’s troops. And his plan succeeded. After unleashing 300,000 pounds of chlorine gas, huge numbers of people died. Soldiers– some of whom suffocated, some whose lungs burned, some who committed suicide when enveloped by the gas – as well as horses, cows, chickens, wildlife.

Chemical warfare is horrible, but Haber’s battlefield “experiment” was considered a success. Military researchers then concocted more dangerous chemical agents, like DNA-crosslinking mustard gas and muscle-clenching Sarin nerve gas.

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Fritz Haber’s other ideas were seemingly more beneficial for humanity. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making synthetic fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizer let us grow more crops.

We could feed billions more people!

The global population soared.

If we hadn’t invented synthetic fertilizer, the global population would still be under four billion people.

Climate change would still be a huge problem – the most outrageous polluters haven’t been the most populous nations. Climate change was caused primarily by the United States and other wealthy nations, whereas overpopulation will first devastate equatorial nations.

A seemingly good idea – more fertilizer! – has greatly exacerbated the scale of suffering.

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Kolbert discusses the invention of chlorofluorocarbons, which seemed like great coolants. With CFCs, Frigidaire could build cheaper refrigerators! Regular families could keep their ice cream cold without spending as much on electricity.

Unfortunately, CFCs also dissolve our ozone layer. More dangerous ultraviolet radiation began to reach us from the sun, causing horrible skin cancers.

CFCs seemed like a good idea — they do work great as coolants — but they caused awful problems as part of a bigger system.

Kolbert quotes the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who said, in reference to his studies of CFCs, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”

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Anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued civilizations collapse when overwhelmed by complexity.

Like the children’s nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly — then a spider to catch the fly, then a cat to catch the spider — our complicated solutions can create new, perhaps worse, problems.

This is the theme of Jenny Kleeman’s Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Kleeman investigates several industries that purport to solve our world’s problems – You can eat meat without killing animals! You can make a baby without a mother’s body! – without addressing the fundamental causes of these problems.

Describing her travels, Kleeman writes:

I head back to my hotel as the reassuring cloak of darkness falls on Las Vegas. I’m exhausted. Music is thumping out of huge speakers mounted on the building’s exterior: throbbing, pounding beats that are supposed to entice gamblers into the hotel’s casino. I wipe my key card and flop down on the giant bed.

On the bedside table, there’s a metal dish full of individually wrapped pairs of earplugs: wax ones, foam ones, silicone ones – a profusion of solutions supplied by the management to the noise pollution problem caused by the management.

They could just switch the music off, of course, but they have provided a little piece of technology instead so they don’t have to.

My head is full of Eva, [a prototype interactive sex doll] who has the body of a real woman, but can be beaten without feeling a thing. Rather than dealing with the cause of a problem, we invent something to try to cancel it out.

Perhaps we should eat different foods. Perhaps our attitudes about sex or the importance of a sociable community are making our lives worse. Perhaps if we addressed these issues directly, we wouldn’t need sex robots or vegan meat.

Clean meat is one of many possible futures of food, so long as we continue to eat meat. We will always have the power to not want it anymore, or to want it much less.

That is where the real power lies: in harnessing our desires, rather than in mastering technology. Until we do, we will be even further removed from where our food comes from, and will feel even less responsible for it.

We will be perpetuating the kind of thinking that caused the meat mess in the first place.

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In April 2020, I described two major drawbacks to our efforts to “slow the spread” of Covid-19 instead of providing targeted protection for the people at high risk of severe illness.

1.) Immunity to most coronaviruses lapses within a matter of months. Keeping the virus in circulation longer increases the total number of infections and makes it more difficult to shield people at high risk from eventual exposure.

2.) Each infection encompasses some number of viral replications and thus genetic drift. If a population of 20 people transfers a virus between themselves one by one, rather than all catching it from the same initial carrier, the virus has 20-fold more generations to mutate and better evade our immune systems.

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Admittedly, my April 2020 prediction about the timeline for vaccine development was quite wrong – I thought this might take three to five years. I’m thankful that I was wrong. I’m obviously grateful for the fantastic work done by vaccine developers so far.

For these vaccines to effectively staunch viral transmission, we’ll need to vaccinate large numbers of people – immunity from prior infections won’t necessarily help much because immunity to this particular virus lapses so quickly, and because people’s prior infections were staggered in time. (Indeed, we’ll probably need to vaccinate large numbers of people repeatedly, because some of our data suggests that vaccine-derived immunity to this also lapses on a timescale of months.)

Unfortunately, we live in a country where large numbers of people distrust the medical establishment. Even if we had sufficient doses of the vaccines available today, I don’t know what percentage of our population would choose to get them.

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Masks definitely reduce viral transmission. It was obviously a good idea for everyone to wear masks anywhere that high risk and lower risk people share the same space.

Cooperation definitely makes for a better place to live. In places that enacted mask orders, it’s obviously a good idea to follow them.

It’s worth remembering, though, that any fix – even something as simple as this piece of cloth covering my nose and mouth – can have unintentional consequences. New virus variants – which our current vaccines may be less effective against – are a predictable result of our effort to “slow the spread” with masks.

And yet.

I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated. We’ve included a sheet of information about Covid-19 with each package recently, helping to explain that Covid-19 is not a hoax, that it’s a dangerous respiratory disease, that masks and social distancing can help people reduce their risk.

I’m currently revising this information sheet – it was put together months ago, when we understood less about this virus – and I’m still recommend that everyone wear masks.

Not just because prisons are places where many low risk and high risk people are confined together — although, they are. Outrageous sentencing practices have led to a large number of elderly people being stuck in prison.

But also, anecdotal evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 when they are exposed to a large number of viral particles at once.

Viruses reproduce exponentially – you can get sick if you inhale even one capsid. But you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you inhale a whole bunch of viral particles. If you’re initially exposed to a small number of particles, your body will have more time to fight off the infection before it makes you feel sick.

Research studies from military bases have shown that Covid-19 will continue to spread even when everyone wears masks and tries to stay six feet away from each other. But we haven’t tested – an experiment like this would be totally unethical – whether we’re more likely to see asymptomatic or mild cases when people’s initial exposure is to a small number of viral particles.

It’s quite likely, though.

So, although I think our efforts to “slow the spread” weren’t the best plan last year, I’ll still be recommending masks.

On isolation, depression, and suicide.

On isolation, depression, and suicide.

From Emily Cox’s recent article in Bloomington, Indiana’s Herald Times:

[Scot Moore, a medical doctor on our school district’s Covid-19 metrics committee] said since the school year started, there have been zero pediatric admissions to IU Health Bloomington Hospital for Covid-19.

Over the same time, I think it’s important to point out that we’ve admitted now 29 adolescents with intended or attempted suicide, which is 10 times what we do usually,” Moore said.

Many cite isolation and academic stress as factors for their decisions, he said.

Moore also said he thinks the [Covid-19] transmission rate in the schools is about zero.

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From John Remember’s recent essay collection, A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World:

Depression nearly killed me once, and it’s killed friends and neighbors and people I went to school with. The only thing that saved me was the knowledge that at some point my life had ceased to be my own property and had become the property of the people who loved me.

Although there’s not enough love in the world, chances are that somebody loves you, and you shouldn’t decide to kill yourself without consulting the person or persons doing the loving. The voice of your depression is going to tell you that they don’t love you, but you should ask them if that’s true. If they say they love you, believe them and stay alive for them.

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From Gerry Duggan’s and Ian Doescher’s Deadpool #21 (which I’ve written about previously, here):

A young woman is standing at the ledge of a building. Deadpool tries to cheer him up, but his gallows humor only upsets her more. “What’s your problem?” she demands.

But then he takes her on an adventure …

… and, in a beautiful depiction of real-life heroism, Deadpool drives her to the hospital.

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This is a hard time of year.

If you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun won’t stay up long enough. Then there are the holidays – even in the best of years, many people find they can’t muster up the joy and enthusiasm that seems expected of them.

This is not the best of years.

If you’re struggling, please, reach out.

If you need someone to talk to, you can call 1-800-273-8255. At any time of day or night.

Things can get better.

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

#

N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.

On reinfection.

On reinfection.

If you’ve been reading about Covid-19 in the New York Times, you’ve probably learned that reinfection is very unlikely.

What you’ve learned is incorrect.

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Don’t get me wrong – I love the New York Times. Within the spectrum of United States politics, I am very far to the left. Anti-consumerist, prison abolitionist, environmentalist, feminist, climate activist, etc., etc. I fit into all those categories.

I’m also a scientist. I am staunchly pro-vaccine. I don’t like pesticides, but I’m a huge fan of GMO crops. (Honestly, I wish there was a category at the grocery store where you could pay to support genetically-modified organisms grown without environmental toxins – “organic” doesn’t have the nuance I’d like.)

So my goal here isn’t to rag on the New York Times. I’m including screenshots of their headlines only to give us a common frame of reference.

This is what the news is saying. And it’s wrong.

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It was going to be very difficult to demonstrate reinfection with Covid-19.

Why?

In general, reinfection with any virus will produce a milder illness the second time.

Most people’s first infection with Covid-19 is so mild that they don’t realize they have it – perhaps 80% of infections are “asymptomatic,” in which a person has been infected with the virus, is probably shedding the virus (thereby infecting other people), but feels totally fine. So, people’s second infection? Some percentage higher than 80% are likely to feel totally well, even though they might be shedding virus.

When people develop severe complications from Covid-19, the illness can linger for weeks or even months.

I don’t know for certain whether my family contracted Covid-19 in February, because there were no tests available here at the time. All I know is that we were two close contacts removed from someone who had just returned from China, that this close contact tested negative for influenza, that my family had been vaccinated for influenza, and that our symptoms precisely mirrored the common suite for Covid-19. But in any case, we felt horrible for about three weeks, and we experienced lingering fatigue with occasional coughing for about two months.

Lengthy recovery is so common that there’s a colloquial name for it: “long-haulers.” If we’re trying to identify whether someone was re-infected, we’d need to make sure that we weren’t looking at continued viral shedding during a lengthy recovery.

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To demonstrate that someone was re-infected with Covid-19, the following would have to happen:

  • A person gets tested for Covid-19 during their first infection.
  • The genome of the virus is sequenced after that first infection.
  • The person is re-infected.
  • The person happens to get a Covid-19 test during the second infection (even though it’s highly likely that this person feels well at the time).
  • The genome of the virus is sequenced after the second infection.
  • The genome of the virus that infected the person on the second occasion is noticeably different from the first (even though Covid-19 includes a proofreading enzyme that slows genetic drift).

That’s all very unlikely!

There are just so many coincidences involved – that you happen to get infected with an easily distinguishable virus the second time, that you happen to get a test the second time, that anyone took the (significant) trouble and expense to sequence both genomes.

And what I mean is, proving re-infection is very unlikely. Which is totally independent of the likelihood of re-infection itself.

And yet, even though it’s so unlikely we’d be able to prove that re-infection is occurring, we have.

We know, with 100% certainty, that people can be reinfected. We’ve documented it.

Given how unlikely it was that we’d be able to document reinfection, the fact that we’ve seen this at all indicates that it’s probably quite common. As you would expect based upon our bodies’ responses to other coronaviruses.

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Given that re-infection definitely occurs, and is probably quite common, why have you read that it’s unlikely?

The underlying probably is language usage. When my father – an infectious diseases specialist – talks about re-infection, he’s thinking about contracting severe symptoms during a second infection. Which is reasonable. He’s a medical doctor. He cares about helping sick people get better.

But when we’re thinking about how to respond, as a nation, to this pandemic, we’re thinking about the dynamics of transmission. We’re trying to answer questions like, “Can kids go to school without people dying?”

(Yup, they can! And should!)

From this perspective, we’re thinking about who is going to spread the virus, and where. We need to know whether a person who is protected from severe disease – either from prior recovery or vaccination – might shed viral particles. Will that individual register as a positive case on a PCR test? Will that individual get classmates or co-workers sick?

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Re-infections are probably the underlying cause of the current rise in cases in New York City.

70% or more of the population of New York City was infected with Covid-19 during April. That’s a huge percentage, well above what most researchers consider the “herd immunity threshold” for similar respiratory viruses.

For there to be another spike in cases now, many of those 70% would need to have lost their initial immunity. That’s also why you’d expect to see a higher “test positivity rate” – if many of the current cases are reinfections, then they’re likely to be milder. People with milder (or asymptomatic) infections are less likely to seek out a test.

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For general audiences, the phrasing I’d recommend is to say “Severe illness is unlikely during Covid-19 reinfections” as opposed to “Reinfection is unlikely.”

There have been a few cases of people’s second infection being more severe than the first, but these cases indeed appear to be quite rare.

But re-infection itself?

The fact that we’ve documented any instances of re-infection suggests that it’s quite common. Which we could have predicted from the beginning – indeed, I did. And that’s why I’ve been recommending – for months – policies very different from what we’ve done.