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 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 predictions and a scientific response to calamity.

On predictions and a scientific response to calamity.

We’re fast approaching flu season, which is especially harrowing this year.

We, as a people, have struggled to respond to this calamity. We have a lot of scientific data about Covid-19 now, but science is never value-neutral. The way we design experiments reflects our biases; the way we report our findings, even more so.

For example, many people know the history of Edward Jenner inventing the world’s first vaccine. Fewer are aware of the long history of inoculation in Africa (essentially, low-tech vaccination) that preceded Jenner’s work.

So it’s worthwhile taking a moment to consider the current data on Covid-19.

Data alone can’t tell us what to do – the course of action we choose will reflect our values as a society. But the data may surprise a lot of people – which is strange considering how much we all feel that we know about Covid-19.

Indeed, we may realize that our response so far goes against our professed values.

Spoiler: I think we shouldn’t close in-person school.

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Since April, I’ve written several essays about Covid-19. In these, I’ve made a number of predictions. It’s worthwhile to consider how accurate these predictions have been.

This, after all, is what science is. We use data to make an informed prediction, and then we collect more data to evaluate how good our prediction was.

Without the second step – a reckoning with our success or failure – we’re just slinging bullshit.

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I predicted that our PCR tests were missing most Covid-19 infections, that people’s immunity was likely to be short-lived (lasting for months, not years), and that Covid-19 was less dangerous than seasonal influenza for young people.

These predictions have turned out to be correct.

In my essays, I’ve tried to unpack the implications of each of these. From the vantage of the present, with much more data at our disposal, I still stand by what I’ve written.

But gloating’s no fun. So I’d rather start with what I got wrong.

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My initial predictions about Covid-19 were terrible.

I didn’t articulate my beliefs at the time, but they can be inferred from my actions. In December, January, and February, I made absolutely no changes to my usual life. I didn’t recommend that travelers be quarantined. I didn’t care enough to even follow the news, aside from a cursory glance at the headlines.

While volunteering with the high school running team, I was jogging with a young man who was finishing up his EMT training.

“That new coronavirus is really scary,” he said. “There’s no immunity, and there’s no cure for it.”

I shrugged. I didn’t know anything about the new coronavirus. I talked with him about the 1918 influenza epidemic instead.

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I didn’t make any change in my life until mid-March. And even then, what did I do?

I called my brother and talked to him about the pizza restaurant – he needed a plan in case there was no in-person dining for a few months.

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My next set of predictions were off, but in the other direction – I estimated that Covid-19 was about four-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza. The current best estimate from the CDC is that Covid-19 is about twice as dangerous, with an infection fatality ratio of 0.25%.

But seasonal influenza typically infects a tenth of our population, or less.

We’re unlikely to see a significant disruption in the transmission of Covid-19 (this is the concept of “herd immunity”) until about 50% of our population has immunity from it, whether from vaccination or recovery. Or possibly higher – in some densely populated areas, Covid-19 has spread until 70% (in NYC) or even 90% (in prisons) of people have contracted the disease.

Population density is hugely important for the dynamics of Covid-19’s spread, so it’s difficult to predict a nation-wide threshold for herd immunity. For a ballpark estimate, we could calculate what we’d see with a herd immunity threshold of about 40% in rural areas and 60% in urban areas.

Plugging in some numbers, 330 million people, 80% urban population, 0.25% IFR, 60% herd immunity threshold in urban areas, we’d anticipate 450,000 deaths.

That’s about half of what I predicted. And you know what? That’s awful.

Each of those 450,000 is a person. Someone with friends and family. And “slow the spread” doesn’t help them, it just stretches our grieving to encompass a whole year of tragedy instead of a horrific month of tragedy.

If we don’t have a safe, effective vaccine soon enough, the only way to save some of those 450,000 people is to shift the demographics of exposure.

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Based on the initial data, I concluded that the age demographics for Covid-19 risk were skewed more heavily toward elderly people than influenza risk.

I may have been wrong.

It’s difficult to directly compare the dangers of influenza to the dangers of Covid-19. Both are deadly diseases. Both result in hospitalizations and death. Both are more dangerous for elderly or immunocompromised people, but both also kill young, healthy people.

Typically, we use an antigen test for influenza and a PCR-based test for Covid-19. The PCR test is significantly more sensitive, so it’s easier to determine whether Covid-19 is involved a person’s death. If there are any viral particles in a sample, PCR will detect them. Whereas antigen tests have a much higher “false negative” rate.

Instead of using data from these tests, I looked at the total set of pneumonia deaths. Many different viruses can cause pneumonia symptoms, but the biggest culprits are influenza and, in 2020, Covid-19.

So I used these data to ask a simple question – in 2020, are the people dying of pneumonia disproportionately more elderly than in other years?

I expected that they would be. That is, after all, the prediction from my claims about Covid-19 demographic risks.

I was wrong.

In a normal year (I used the data from 2013, 2014, and 2015, three years with “mild” seasonal influenza), 130,000 people die of flu-like symptoms.

In 2020 (at the time I checked), 330,000 people have died of flu-like symptoms. Almost three times as many people as in a “normal” year.

For people under the age of 18, we’ve seen the same number of deaths (or fewer) in 2020 as in other years. The introduction of Covid-19 appears to have caused no increased risk for these people.

But for people of all other ages, there have been almost three times as many people dying of these symptoms in 2020 compared to other years.

In most years, one thousand people aged 25-34 die of these symptoms; in 2020, three thousand have died. In most years, two thousand people aged 35-44 die of these symptoms; in 2020, six thousand have died. This same ratio holds for all ages above eighteen.

Younger people are at much less risk of harm from Covid-19 than older people are. But, aside from children under the age of eighteen, they don’t seem to be exceptionally protected.

Of course, my predictions about the age skew of risk might be less incorrect than I’m claiming here. If people’s dramatically altered behavior in 2020 has changed the demographics of exposure as compared to other years – which is what we should be doing to save the most lives – then we could see numbers like this even if Covid-19 had the risk skew that I initially predicted.

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I predicted that four or more years would pass before we’d be able to vaccinate significant numbers of people against Covid-19.

I sure hope that I was wrong!

We now know that it should be relatively easy to confer immunity to Covid-19. Infection with other coronaviruses, including those that cause common colds, induce the production of protective antibodies. This may partly explain the low risk for children – because they get exposed to common-cold-causing coronaviruses so often, they may have high levels of protective antibodies all the time.

Several pharmaceutical companies have reported great results for their vaccine trials. Protection rates over 90%.

So the problem facing us now is manufacturing and distributing enough doses. But, honestly, that’s the sort of engineering problem that can easily be addressed by throwing money at it. Totally unlike the problem with HIV vaccines, which is that the basic science isn’t there – we just don’t know how to make a vaccine against HIV. No amount of money thrown at that problem would guarantee wide distribution of an effective vaccine.

We will still have to overcome the (unfortunately significant) hurdle of convincing people to be vaccinated.

For any individual, the risk of Covid-19 is about twice the risk of seasonal influenza. But huge numbers of people choose not to get a flu vaccine each year. In the past, the United States has had a vaccination rate of about 50%. Here’s hoping that this year will be different.

Covid-19 spreads so fast – and so silently, with many cases of infected people who feel fine but are still able to spread the virus – that it will almost certainly be a permanent resident of the world we live in. We’re unlikely to eradicate Covid-19.

Which means that elderly people will always be at risk of dying from Covid-19.

The only way to protect people whose bodies have gone through “age-related immunosenence” – the inevitable weakening of an immune system after a person passes the evolutionarily-determined natural human lifespan of about 75 years – will be to vaccinate everybody else.

Depending on how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts, we may need to vaccinate people annually. I worry, though, that it will become increasingly difficult to persuade people to get a Covid-19 vaccine once the yearly death toll drops to influenza-like levels – 50,000 to 100,000 deaths per year in the United States.

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I wrote, repeatedly, that immunity to Covid-19 is likely to be short-lived. Immunity to other coronaviruses fades within a few months.

(Note: you may have seen articles in the New York Times suggesting that we’ll have long-lasting protection. They’re addressing a different question — after recovery, or vaccination, are you likely to become severely ill with Covid-19? And the answer is “probably not,” although it’s possible. When I discuss immunity here, I mean “after recovery, or vaccination, are you likely to be able to spread the virus after re-infection?” And the answer is almost certainly “yes, within months.”)

And I wrote about the interplay between short-lived immunity and the transmission dynamics of an extremely virulent, air-born virus.

This is what the Harvard public health team got so wrong. When we slow transmission enough that a virus is still circulating after people’s immunity wanes, they can get sick again.

For this person, the consequences aren’t so dire – an individual is likely to get less sick with each subsequent infection by a virus. But the implications for those who have not yet been exposed are horrible. The virus circulates forever, and people with naive immune systems are always in danger.

It’s the same dynamics as when European voyagers traveled to the Americas. Because the European people’s ancestors lived in unsanitary conditions surrounded by farm animals, they’d cultivated a whole host of zoogenic pathogens (like influenza and this new coronavirus). The Europeans got sick from these viruses often – they’d cough and sneeze, have a runny nose, some inflammation, a headache.

In the Americas, there were fewer endemic diseases. Year by year, people wouldn’t spend much time sick. Which sounds great, honestly – I would love to go a whole year without headaches.

But then the disgusting Europeans reached the Americas. The Europeans coughed and sneezed. The Americans died.

And then the Europeans set about murdering anyone who recovered. Today, descendants of the few survivors are made to feel like second-class citizens in their ancestral homelands.

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In a world with endemic diseases, people who have never been exposed will always be at risk.

That’s why predictions made in venues such as the August New York Times editorial claiming that a six- to eight-week lockdown would stop Covid-19 were so clearly false. They wrote:

Six to eight weeks. That’s how long some of the nation’s leading public health experts say it would take to finally get the United States’ coronavirus epidemic under control.

For proof, look at Germany. Or Thailand. Or France.

Obviously, this didn’t work – in the presence of an endemic pathogen, the lockdowns preserved a large pool of people with naive immune systems, and they allowed enough time to pass that people who’d been sick lost their initial immunity. After a few months of seeming calm, case numbers rose again. For proof, look at Germany. Or France.

Case numbers are currently low in Thailand, but a new outbreak could be seeded at any time.

And the same thing is currently happening in NYC. Seven months after the initial outbreak, immunity has waned; case numbers are rising; people with mild second infections might be spreading the virus to friends or neighbors who weren’t infected previously.

All of which is why I initially thought that universal mask orders were a bad idea.

We’ve known for over a hundred years that masks would slow the spread of a virus. The only question was whether slowing the spread of Covid-19 would cause more people to die of Covid-19.

And it would – if a vaccine was years away.

But we may have vaccines within a year. Which means that I may have been wrong. Again, the dynamics of Covid-19 transmission are still poorly understood – I’ll try to explain some of this below.

In any case, I’ve always complied with our mask orders. I wear a mask – in stores, at school pickup, any time I pass within six feet of people while jogging.

To address global problems like Covid-19 and climate change, we need global consensus. One renegade polluting wantonly, or spewing viral particles into the air, could endanger the whole world. This is precisely the sort of circumstance where personal freedom is less important than community consensus.

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The transmission dynamics of Covid-19 are extremely sensitive to environment. Whether you’re indoors or outdoors. How fast the air is moving. The population density. How close people are standing. Whether they’re wearing masks. Whether they’re shouting or speaking quietly.

Because there are so many variable, we don’t have good data. My father attended a lecture and a colleague (whom he admires) said, “Covid-19 is three-fold more infectious than seasonal influenza.” Which is bullshit – the transmission dynamics are different, so the relative infectivity depends on our behaviors. You can’t make a claim like this.

It’s difficult to measure precisely how well masks are slowing the spread of this virus.

But here’s a good estimate: according to Hsiang et al., the number of cases of Covid-19, left unchecked, might have increased exponentially at a rate of about 34% per day in the United States.

That’s fast. If about 1% of the population was infected, it could spread to everyone within a week or two. In NYC, Covid-19 appear to spread to over 70% of the population within about a month.

(To estimate the number of infections in New York City, I’m looking at the number of people who died and dividing by 0.004 – this is much higher than the infection fatality rate eventually reported by the CDC, but early in the epidemic, we were treating people with hydroxychloraquine, an unhelpful poison, and rushing to put people on ventilators. We now know that ventilation is so dangerous that it should only be used as a last resort, and that a much more effective therapy is to ask people to lie on their stomachs – “proning” makes it easier to get enough oxygen even when the virus has weakened a person’s lungs.)

Masks dramatically slow the rate of transmission.

A study conducted at a military college – where full-time mask-wearing and social distancing were strictly enforced – showed that the number of cases increased from 1% to 3% of the population over the course of two weeks.

So, some math! Solve by taking ten to the power of (log 3)/14, which gives an exponential growth rate of 8% per day. Five-fold slower than without masks.

But 8% per day is still fast.

Even though we might be able to vaccinate large numbers of people by the end of next year, that’s not soon enough. Most of us will have been sick with this – at least once – before then.

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but the biggest benefit of wearing masks isn’t that we slow the rate of spread for everyone — exponential growth of 8% is still fast — but that we’re better able to protect the people who need to be protected. Covid-19 is deadly, and we really don’t want high-risk people to be infected with it.

I’ve tried to walk you through the reasoning here — the actual science behind mask policies — but also, in case it wasn’t absolutely clear: please comply with your local mask policy.

You should wear a mask around people who aren’t in your (small) network of close contacts.

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I’m writing this essay the day after New York City announced the end of in-person classes for school children.

This policy is terrible.

A major problem with our response to Covid-19 is that there’s a time lag between our actions and the consequences. Human brains are bad at understanding laggy data. It’s not our fault. Our ancestors lived in a world where they’d throw a spear at an antelope, see the antelope die, and then eat it. Immediate cause and effect makes intuitive sense.

Delayed cause and effect is tricky.

If somebody hosts a party, there might be an increase in the number of people who get sick in the community over the next three weeks. Which causes an increase in the number of hospitalizations about two weeks after that. Which causes people to die about three weeks after that.

There’s a two-month gap between the party and the death. The connection is difficult for our brains to grasp.

As a direct consequence, we’ve got ass-hats and hypocrites attending parties for, say, their newly appointed Supreme Court justice.

But the problem with school closures is worse. There’s a thirty year gap between the school closure and the death. The connection is even more difficult to spot.

Even if you have relatively limited experience reading scientific research papers, I think you could make your way through this excellent article from Chistakis et al.

The authors link two sets of existing data: the correlation between school closures and low educational achievement, and the correlation between low educational achievement and premature death.

The public debate has pitted “school closures” against “lives saved,” or the education of children against the health of the community. Presenting the tradeoffs in this way obscures the very real health consequences of interrupted education.

These consequences are especially dire for young children.

The authors calculate that elementary school closures in the United States might have (already!) caused 5.5 million years of life lost.

Hsiang et al. found that school closures probably gave us no benefit in terms of reducing the number of Covid-19 cases, because children under 18 aren’t significant vectors for transmission (elementary-aged children even less so), but even if school closures had reduced the number of Covid-19 cases, closing schools would have caused more total years of life to be lost than saved.

The problem – from a political standpoint – is that Covid-19 kills older people, who vote, whereas school closures kill young people, who are intentionally disenfranchised.

And, personally, as someone with far-left political views, it’s sickening for me to see “my” political party adopt policies that are so destructive to children and disadvantaged people.

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So, here’s what the scientific data can tell us so far:

  • We will eventually have effective vaccines for Covid-19. Probably within a year.
  • Covid-19 spreads even with social distancing and masks, but the spread is slower.
  • You have no way of knowing the risk status of people in a stranger’s bubble. (Please, follow your local mask orders!)
  • Schools – especially elementary schools – don’t contribute much to the spread of Covid-19.
  • School closures shorten children’s lives (and that’s not even accounting for their quality of life over the coming decades).
  • An individual case of Covid-19 is about twice as dangerous as a case of seasonal influenza (which is scary!).
  • Underlying immunity (from prior disease and vaccination) to Covid-19 is much lower than for seasonal influenza, so there will be many more cases.
  • Most people’s immunity to Covid-19 probably lasts several months, after which a person can be re-infected and spread the virus again.

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So, those are some data. But data don’t tell us what to do. Only our values can do that.

Personally, I value the lives of children.

I wouldn’t close schools.

On ants and infection.

On ants and infection.

I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.

Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.

In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.

IU officials “have seen a photothat shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.

I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.

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Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.

When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.

My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.

Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.

Infection is almost always lethal.

If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.

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The FDA will approve any Covid-19 vaccine that cuts risk by half. It’s very unlikely that a Covid-19 vaccine will cut the risk by more than about two-thirds, and the vaccine will work least well for people who need protection most.

Most likely, the Covid-19 epidemic will end before there’s vaccine. The herd immunity threshold seems to be much lower than some researchers feared – our current data suggest that the epidemic will end after about 40% of the population has immunity.

The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.

In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.

In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.

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The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.

Most schools ban socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.

Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.

In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.

I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.

This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.

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We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.

Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.

A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.

I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.

With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.

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When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.

When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.

Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”

Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.

Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”

When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.

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It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.

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Erika Meitner’s 2006 poem “Pediatric Eschatology” begins

the nurse called back and told us to use bleach
on anything we touch, she said wash everything
in hot water
, insisted we won’t treat you if
you’re asymptomatic, we won’t
, and made us
an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited
with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters

It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.

Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.

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I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.

But, punishing young people for socializing?

We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.

Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.

Red ant: photograph by William Cho

On moral outrage.

On moral outrage.

My family had spring break travel plans for before the shutdown.

We canceled them.

At the time, we feared for our safety. My spouse said to me, “You caught the flu twice this year, even after you were vaccinated, and the second time was the sickest I’ve ever seen you. I’m really worried about what will happen if you catch this new thing, too.”

She wanted me to cancel my poetry classes in the local jail. My father, an infectious diseases doctor and professor of immunology, thought I should still go in to teach. “If somebody’s in there coughing up a lung, you should recommend he skip class next week,” my father told me.

But I was spooked. I felt glad when the jail put out a press release saying they’d no longer allow volunteers to come in – I didn’t want to choose between helping the incarcerated men and protecting my family.

My spouse is a high school science teacher. She felt glad that her biology classroom has over a dozen sinks. During the final week of school, she asked all her students to wash their hands for 20 seconds as soon as they walked into the room.

My spouse and I are both scientists, but it wasn’t until a week into the shutdown that I began to read research papers about Covid-19. Until then, we had gotten all our information from the newspaper. And the news was terrifying. Huge numbers of people were dying in Italy. Our imbecilic president claimed that Covid-19 was no big deal, making me speculate that this disease was even more dangerous than I’d thought.

Later, I finally went through the data from Italy and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. These data – alongside the assumption that viral exposure should be roughly similar across age groups, if not higher for school children and young people who are out and about in the world – showed my family that our personal risk was probably quite low.

Still, we stayed inside. We were worried about harming others.

When I saw photographs of beaches packed with revelers, I felt furious. Did those selfish young people not realize that their choices could cause more people to die?

So it was shocking for me to learn that those selfish young people were actually doing the thing that would save most lives.

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We now know that Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who feel no symptoms, and that it was widespread in this country by March.

If we, as a people, had acted earlier, we could have prevented all these deaths. In January, it would have been enough to impose a brief quarantine after all international travel. In February, it would have been enough to use our current strategy of business closures, PCR testing, and contact tracing. In March, we were too late. The best we could do then – the best we can do now – was to slow the spread of infections.

Unfortunately, slowing the spread of infections will cause more people to die.

There’s an obvious short-term benefit to slowing the spread of infections – if too many people became critically ill at the same time, our hospitals would be overwhelmed, and we’d be unable to offer treatment to everyone who wanted it. We’d run out of ventilators.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that we, as a people, are terrible about talking about death. There’s no consensus about what constitutes a good life – what more would have to happen for you to feel ready to die?

Personally, I don’t want to die. As my mind stopped, I’d feel regret that I wouldn’t get to see my children become self-sufficient adults. But I’d like to think that I could feel proud that I’ve done so much to set them on the right path. Since my twenties, I’ve put forth a constant effort to live ethically, and I’d like to imagine that my work – my writing, teaching, and research – has improved other people’s lives.

I’ve also gotten to see and do a lot of wonderful things. I’ve been privileged to visit four countries. I visited St. Louis’s City Museum when one of my kids was old enough to gleefully play. I have a bundle of some two dozen love letters that several wonderful people sent me.

I’ve had a good life. I’d like for it to continue, but I’ve already had a good life.

Many medical doctors, who have seen how awful it can be for patients when everything is done to try to save a life, have “do not resuscitate” orders. My spouse and I keep our living wills in an accessible space in our home. But a majority of laypeople want dramatic, painful measures to be taken in the attempt to save their lives.

People are making this choice even during the pandemic, when the choice to experience an excruciating death puts medical professionals at risk and reduces the quality of care available for everyone else.

Still. Even without our reluctance to discuss death, there would be a short-term benefit to slowing the spread of infections. The American healthcare system is terrible, and was already strained to the breaking point. We weren’t – and aren’t – ready to handle a huge influx of sick patients.

But the short-term benefit of slowing the spread of Covid-19 comes at a major cost.

The shutdown itself hurts people. The deaths caused by increased joblessness, food insecurity, educational disruption, domestic violence, and loneliness (“loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”) are more difficult to measure than the deaths caused by Covid-19. We won’t have a PCR test to diagnose which people were killed by the shutdown.

Those deaths won’t all come at once. But those deaths are no less real, and no less tragic, than the immediate horror of a person drowning from viral-induced fluid buildup in their lungs.

And, perhaps more damning, if the shutdown ends before there’s a vaccine, the shutdown will cause more people to die of Covid-19.

Without a vaccine, slowing the spread of Covid-19 has a short-term benefit of reducing the rate of hospital admissions, at the long-term cost of increasing the total number of Covid-19 cases.

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All immunity fades – sometimes after decades, sometimes after months. Doesn’t matter whether you have immunity from recovery or from vaccination – eventually, your immunity will disappear. And, for a new disease, we have no way of predicting when. Nobody knows why some antigens, like the tetanus vaccine, trigger such long-lasting immunity, while other antigens, such as the flu vaccine or the influenza virus itself, trigger such brief protection.

We don’t know how long immunity to Covid-19 will last. For some coronaviruses, immunity fades within a year. For others, like SARS, immunity lasts longer.

The World Health Organization has warned, repeatedly, that immunity to Covid-19 might be brief. But the WHO seems unaware of the implications of this warning.

The shorter the duration of a person’s immunity, the more dangerous the shutdown. If our shutdown causes the Covid-19 epidemic to last longer than the duration of individual immunity, there will be more total infections – and thus more deaths – before we reach herd immunity.

This is, after all, exactly how a one-time “novel zoogenic disease” like influenza became a permanent parasite on our species, killing tens of thousands of people in the United States each year. Long ago, transmission was slowed to the point that the virus could circulate indefinitely. Influenza has been with us ever since.

That’s the glaring flaw in the recent Harvard Science paper recommending social distancing until 2022 – in their key figure, they do not incorporate a loss of immunity. Depending on the interplay between the rate of spread and the duration of immunity, their recommendation can cause this epidemic to never end.

And, if the shutdown ends before we have a vaccine, the lost immunity represents an increased death toll to Covid-19. Even neglecting all the other harms, we’ll have killed more people than if we’d done nothing.

This sounds terrifying. And it is. But the small glimmer of good news is that people’s second infections will probably be less severe. If you survive Covid-19 the first time you contract it, you have a good chance of surviving subsequent infections. But prolonging the epidemic will still cause more deaths, because herd immunity works by disrupting transmission. Even though an individual is less likely to die during a second infection, that person can still spread the virus. Indeed, people are more likely to spread the virus during subsequent infections, because they’re more likely to feel healthy while shedding infectious particles.

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This calculation would be very different if people could be vaccinated.

Obviously, vaccination would be the best way to end this epidemic. In order to reach herd immunity by a sufficient number of people recovering, there would have to be a huge percentage of our population infected. Nobody knows how many infections it would take, but many researchers guess a number around 60% to 70% of our population.

Even if Covid-19 were no more dangerous than seasonal influenza (and our data so far suggest that it’s actually about four-fold more dangerous than most years’ seasonal influenza), that would mean 200,000 deaths. A horrifying number.

But there’s no vaccine. Lots of people are working on making a vaccine. We have Covid-19 vaccines that work well in monkeys. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of human protection. We’ve made many HIV vaccines that work well in monkeys – some of these increase the chance that humans will contract HIV.

It should be easier to make a vaccine against this coronavirus than against HIV. When making a vaccine, you want your target to mutate as little as possible. You want it to maintain a set structure, because antibodies need to recognize the shape of external features of the virus in order to protect you. HIV mutates so fast that its shape changes, like a villain constantly donning a new disguise. But the virus that causes Covid-19 includes a proofreading enzyme, so it’ll switch disguises less.

Still, “easier to make a vaccine against than HIV” is not the most encouraging news. Certain pharmaceutical companies have issued optimistic press briefings suggesting that they’ll be able to develop a vaccine in 18 months, but we should feel dubious. These press briefings are probably intended to bolster the companies’ stock prices, not give the general public an accurate understanding of vaccine development.

Realistically, a Covid-19 vaccine is probably at least four years away. And it’s possible – unlikely, but possible – that we’ll never develop a safe, effective vaccine for this.

If we end the shutdown at any time before there is a vaccine, the shutdown will increase the number of people who die of Covid-19. The longer the shutdown, the higher the toll. And a vaccine is probably years away.

The combination of those two ideas should give you pause.

If we’re going to end the shutdown before we have a vaccine, we should end it now.

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To be absolutely clear, vaccination would be the best way to resolve this crisis. Vaccination saves lives. The basic principle of inoculation was used for hundreds of years in Africa, India, and China, before it was adapted by Edward Jenner to create the first smallpox vaccine.

For a vaccine to end the Covid-19 epidemic, enough people will need to choose to be vaccinated for us to reach herd immunity.

Unfortunately, many people in the United States distrust the well-established efficacy and safety of vaccines. It’s worth comparing Covid-19 to seasonal influenza. On a population level, Covid-19 seems to be about four-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza. But this average risk obscures some important data – the risk of Covid-19 is distributed less evenly than the risk of influenza.

With influenza, healthy young people have a smaller risk of death than elderly people or people with pre-existing medical conditions. But some healthy young people die from seasonal influenza. In the United States, several thousand people between the ages of 18 and 45 die of influenza every year.

And yet, many people choose not to be vaccinated against influenza. The population-wide vaccination rate in the United States is only 40%, too low to provide herd immunity.

Compared to influenza, Covid-19 seems to have less risk for healthy young people. Yes, healthy young people die of Covid-19. With influenza, about 10% of deaths are people between the ages of 18 and 45. With Covid-19, about 2% of deaths are people in this age group.

I’m not arguing that Covid-19 isn’t dangerous. When I compare Covid-19 to seasonal influenza, I’m simply comparing two diseases that are both deadly.

I get vaccinated against influenza every year.

Yes, you might have heard news reports about the influenza vaccine having low efficacy, but that’s simply measuring how likely you are to get sick after being vaccinated. We also know that the vaccine makes your illness less severe.

The influenza vaccine saves lives. The data are indisputable.

But people don’t choose to get it! That’s why I think it’s unfortunately very likely that people whose personal risk from Covid-19 is lower than their risk from influenza will forgo vaccination. Even if we had access to 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine today, I doubt that enough people would get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

Obviously, I’d love to be wrong about this. Vaccination saves lives.

Please, dear reader, get a flu vaccine each year. And, if we develop a safe, effective Covid-19 vaccine, you should get that too.

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We don’t have a vaccine. The shutdown is causing harm – the shutdown is even increasing the total number of people who will eventually die of Covid-19.

Is there anything we can do?

Luckily, yes. We do have another way to save lives. We can change the demographics of exposure.

Our understanding of Covid-19 still has major gaps. We need to do more research into the role of interleukin 6 in our bodies’ response to this disease – a lot of the healthy young people who’ve become critically ill with Covid-19 experienced excessive inflammation that further damaged their lungs.

But we already know that advanced age, smoking status, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are major risk factors for complications from Covid-19. Based on the data we have so far, it seems like a low-risk person might have somewhere between a hundredth or a thousandth the chance of becoming critically ill with Covid-19 as compared to an at-risk person. With influenza, a low-risk person might have between a tenth and a hundredth the chance of becoming critically ill.

The risk of Covid-19 is more concentrated on a small segment of the population than the risk of influenza.

To save lives, and to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed, we want to do everything possible to avoid exposing at-risk people to this virus.

But when healthy young people take extraordinary measures to avoid getting sick with Covid-19 – like the shutdown, social distancing, and wearing masks – they increase the relative burden of disease that falls on at-risk people. We should be prioritizing the protection of at-risk people, and we aren’t.

Because this epidemic will not end until we reach the population-wide threshold for herd immunity, someone has to get sick. We’d rather it be someone who is likely to recover.

Tragically, we already have data suggesting that a partial shutdown can transfer the burden of infection from one group to another. In the United States, our shutdown was partial from the beginning. People with white-collar jobs switched to working remotely, but cashiers, bus drivers, janitors, people in food prep, and nurses have kept working. In part because Black and brown people are over-represented in these forms of employment, they’ve been over-represented among Covid-19 deaths.

There is absolutely no reason to think that poor people would be more likely to safely recover from Covid-19 – indeed, due to air pollution, stress, sleep deprivation, limited access to good nutrition, and limited access to health care, we should suspect that poor people will be less likely to recover – but, during the shutdown, we’ve shifted the burden of disease onto their shoulders.

This is horrible. Both unethical and ineffective. And, really, an unsurprising outcome, given the way our country often operates.

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If we want to save lives, we need for healthy younger people to use their immune systems to protect us. The data we have so far indicates that the shutdown should end now — for them.

It will feel unfair if healthy younger people get to return to work and to their regular lives before others.

And the logistics won’t be easy. We’ll still need to make accommodations for people to work from home. Stores will have to maintain morning hours for at-risk shoppers, and be thoroughly cleaned each night.

If school buildings were open, some teachers couldn’t be there – they might need substitutes for months – and neither could some students, who might switch to e-learning to protect at-risk family.

We’ll need to provide enough monetary and other resources that at-risk people can endure a few more months of self-isolation. Which is horrible. We all know, now that we’ve all been doing this for a while, that what we’re asking at-risk people to endure is horrible. But the payoff is that we’ll be saving lives.

Indeed, the people who self-isolate will have lowest risk. We’ll be saving their lives.

And no one should feel forced, for financial reasons or otherwise, to take on more risk than they feel comfortable with. That’s why accommodations will be so important. I personally would feel shabby if I took extreme measures to protect myself, knowing that my risk is so much lower than other people’s, but you can’t look at someone in a mask and know their medical history, much less whom they might be protecting at home.

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All told, this plan isn’t good. I’m not trying to convince you that this is good. I’m just saying that, because we bungled things in January, this is the best we have.

If we could go back in time, we’d obviously do things differently. It’s only based on where we are now that physicians like David Katz argue we need to end the shutdown based on the principle of “harm minimization.”

Based on the data we have, I agree.

Ending the shutdown now, but only for some, will save lives.

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So, those selfish young people crowding on beaches? I looked at the photos and hated them.

But it turns out that their selfish actions were actually the exact plan that will save most lives.

I’ve had to swallow my moral indignation. I hope you can too.

Responses to “On testing.”

Responses to “On testing.”

My spouse posted my previous essay on social media, and I’d like to address some of people’s comments.  There were some excellent points! 

My apologies if I failed to address everything that people said, but I tried my best.

Scroll to find my responses to:

  1. A shutdown could have prevented the Covid-19 epidemic.
  2. We know that the current shutdown is either delaying or preventing deaths due to Covid-19. 
  3. Ending this epidemic with a vaccine would be ideal. 
  4. Ending the shutdown while requesting that at-risk people continue to self-isolate would save lives.
  5. Why is it urgent to end the shutdown soon?
  6. Why might more people die of Covid-19 just because we are slowing the spread of the virus?
  7. How is the shutdown causing harm?
  8. What about the rate at which people get sick?  Isn’t the shutdown worthwhile, despite the risks described above, if it keeps our hospitals from being overwhelmed?
  9. Don’t the antibody tests have a lot of false positives?
  10. What about the political ramifications of ending the shutdown?

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1: “A shutdown could have prevented the Covid-19 epidemic.”

If we’d acted early enough, we could have isolated all cases of Covid-19 and prevented this whole debacle.

But we didn’t.

Covid-19 is highly infectious, and we made no effort toward containment or quarantine until the virus was already widespread.  We took action in March, but we already had community transmission of Covid-19 by January.  Given where we are now, current models predict that the epidemic will continue until the level of immunity reaches somewhere near 70%.

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2: “We know that the current shutdown is either delaying or preventing deaths due to Covid-19.”

To date, the data suggests that the virus has only reached saturation inside a few closed environments, such as prisons.  In Italy, both the timecourse of mortality and the results of antibody studies suggest that infections were still rising at the time of their lockdown. 

Among the passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, deaths peaked 21 days after infections peaked – if the virus had already reached saturation in Italy, we’d expect to see deaths peak sooner than 21 days after the lockdown began.  They did not.

So, again, this much is clear: worldwide, there was a significant new cause of death.  When we look at mortality data, we see the curves suddenly rise in many locations.  Some researchers, such as John Ioannidis, have speculated that Covid-19 causes death primarily in people with low life expectancy, in which case we would expect to see these mortality curves drop to lower-than-average levels after the epidemic ends.  But even then, it’s unprecedented to see a number of deaths that would usually occur over the course of a year all within a matter of weeks.

Covid-19 is killing people, and the shutdown is either delaying or preventing people’s death from Covid-19.

For the shutdown to actually prevent death, one of the following needs to happen:

1.) We create a vaccine, allowing our population to reach 70% immunity without as many people contracting the illness.

2.) We take action to change which segment of the population is exposed to the virus, allowing us to reach 70% immunity without as many at-risk people being exposed.

See #3 and #4, below.

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3: “Ending this epidemic with a vaccine would be ideal.”

Vaccination is great science.  Both my spouse and I love teaching about vaccines, in part because teaching the history of vaccine use is a good component of anti-racist science class.

Developing vaccines often takes a long time.  I’ve read predictions of a year or two; my father, an infectious disease doctor, epidemiologist, research physician who runs vaccine trials, and co-developer of Merck’s HPV vaccine, guesses that it will take about five years.

And then, for the vaccine to end this epidemic, enough people will need to choose to be vaccinated that we reach approximately 70% immunity.

The reason it’s worthwhile to compare Covid-19 to seasonal influenza is that a vaccine will only end the epidemic if enough people choose to get it.  Many people’s personal risk from Covid-19 is lower than their risk from seasonal influenza.  Will those people choose to be vaccinated?

Obviously, I would be thrilled if the answer were “yes.”  I’d love to live in a nation where people’s sense of altruism and civic duty compelled them to get vaccinated.  My family is up-to-date on all of ours.

But many privileged families in the United States have elected to be freeloaders, declining the (well tested, quite safe) measles vaccine with the expectation that other people’s immunity will keep them safe.  And, despite the well-documented dangers of influenza, only 40% of our population gets each year’s influenza vaccine.

Yes, the influenza vaccine tends to be less effective than many others – some years it gives as little as ten percent protection, other years about sixty percent protection.  By way of comparison, the HPV vaccine has over 90% efficacy.

A vaccine with low efficacy will still offer better protection when more people get it.  If a higher percentage of our population were vaccinated against influenza, then influenza transmission would drop, and so each person’s immunity, whether high or low, would be less likely to be challenged.

Also, the efficacy of influenza vaccines is measured in terms of the likelihood that vaccination prevents infection.  The influenza vaccine is not great at keeping people from getting sick.  But vaccination also tends to reduce the severity of your illness, even if you do catch influenza.  Because you got sick, it seems as though the vaccine “failed,” but your case might have been far more severe if you hadn’t been vaccinated.

The influenza vaccine saves lives.  In Italy, where fewer people choose to get vaccinated against influenza (about 15% compared to our 40% of the population), the death rate from influenza is higher.  Although it’s worth noting that this comparison is complicated by the fact that our health care system is so bad, with poor people especially having limited access to health care.  In the United States, people between the ages of 18 and 49 comprise a higher proportion of influenza deaths than anywhere in Europe.  Either our obesity epidemic or limited access to health care is probably to blame; possibly a combination of both.

In summary, for this plan to help us save lives, we will need to develop an effective vaccine, and then people will have to get it. 

I am quite confident that we can eventually develop a vaccine against Covid-19.  The virus includes a proofreading enzyme, so it should mutate more slowly than most RNA viruses.  We don’t know how long it will take, but we can do it.

I am unfortunately pessimistic that people will choose to get the vaccine.  And, unfortunately, when a low-risk person chooses to forgo vaccination, they’re not just putting themselves in harm’s way, they are endangering others.  Most vaccines elicit a weaker immune response in elderly or immunocompromised recipients – exactly the group most at risk from Covid-19 – which is why we spend so much time harping about herd immunity.

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4: “Ending the shutdown while requesting that at-risk people continue to self-isolate would save lives.

This plan has major downsides, too.  Because we didn’t take action soon enough, every plan we have now is bad.

Low-risk people can still die of Covid-19.  Even if they don’t die, Covid-19 can cause permanent health effects.  Covid-19 reduces your ability to get oxygen to your body and brain.  Even a “mild” case can leave your breathing labored for weeks – you’re not getting enough oxygen.  Your muscles will ache.  Your thoughts will be sluggish.

With a more severe case, people can be looking at heart damage.  Renal failure.  It would be cruel to look at all these long-term consequences and blithely call them “recovery.”

If our health care system were better, we’d treat people sooner.  The earlier you intervene, helping to boost people’s oxygen levels, the better outcome you’ll have.  There’s a great editorial from medical doctor Richard Levitan recommending that people monitor their health with a pulse oximeter during this epidemic.

If you notice your oxygen levels declining, get help right away.  Early intervention can prevent organ damage.  And you’ll be helping everyone else, too – the sooner you intervene, the less medical care you will need.

Because medical debt can derail lives, many people in this country delay treatment as long as possible, hoping that their problems will go away naturally.  That’s why people are often so sick when they show up at the ER.  I imagine that this is yet another reason – alongside air pollution, food deserts, sleep loss, and persistent stress exacerbated by racism – that poor communities have had such a high proportion of people with severe cases of Covid-19.

And I imagine – although we don’t yet have enough data to know – that financial insecurity caused by the shutdown is making this worse.  It’s a rotten situation: you have a segment of population that has to continue working during the shutdown, which means they now have the highest likelihood to be exposed to the virus, and they’re now under more financial strain, which might increase the chance that they’ll delay treatment.

We know that early treatment saves lives, and not everyone is sufficiently privileged to access that.

All this sounds awful.  And it is.  But, if we took action to shift exposure away from high risk groups, the likelihood that any individual suffers severe consequences is lower.

And there is another caveat with this plan – some people may be at high risk of complications for Covid-19 and not even realize it.  In the United States, a lot of people either have type 2 diabetes or are pre-diabetic and don’t yet realize.  These people have elevated risk.  Both smoking and air pollution elevate risk, but people don’t always know which airborn pollutants they’ve been exposed to.  (Which, again, is why it’s particularly awful that our administration is weakening air quality standards during this epidemic.)

Even if we recommended continued self-isolation for only those people who know themselves to have high risk from Covid-19, though, we would be saving lives.  The more we can protect people in this group from being exposed to the virus – not just now, but ever – the more lives we will save.

We won’t be able to do this perfectly.  It’ll be a logistical nightmare trying to do it at all.  People at high risk from Covid-19 needs goods and services just like everybody else.  We might have to give daily Covid-19 PCR tests to anyone visiting their homes, like doctors, dentists, and even delivery workers. 

At that point, the false negative rate from Covid-19 PCR tests becomes a much bigger problem – currently, these false negatives reduce the quality of our data (but who cares?) and delay treatment (which can be deadly).  A false negative that causes inadvertent exposure could cost lives.

Stores will need to set aside morning hours for at-risk shoppers, and undertake rigorous cleaning at night.  We know that infectious viral particles can persist for days on a variety of surfaces.

Some people will be unable to work, either because they or a close relative has high risk of Covid-19.  Some children will be unable to go to school.  We will need a plan to help these people.

We will have to work very hard to keep people safe even after the shutdown ends for some. 

But, again, if everyone does the same thing, then the demographics of people infected with Covid-19 will reflect our population demographics.  We can save lives by skewing the demographics of the subset of our population that is exposed to Covid-19 to include more low-risk individuals, which will require that we stratify our recommendations by risk (at least as well as we can assess it).

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5: “Why is it urgent to end the shutdown soon?

1.) By delaying Covid-19 deaths, we run to risk of causing more total people to die of Covid-19.

2.) The shutdown itself is causing harm.

See #6 and #7, below.

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6: “Why might more people die of Covid-19 just because we are slowing the spread of the virus?

[EDIT: I wrote a more careful explanation of the takeaways of the Harvard study. That’s here if you would like to take a look!]

This is due to the interplay between duration of immunity and duration of the epidemic.  At one point in time, seasonal influenza was a novel zoogenic disease.  Human behavior allowed the influenza virus to become a perpetual burden on our species.  No one wants for humans to still be dying of Covid-19 in ten or twenty years.  (Luckily, because the virus that causes Covid-19 seems to mutate more slowly than influenza, it should be easier to design a single vaccine that protects people.)

In the Harvard model, we can see that there are many scenarios in which a single, finite shutdown leads to more deaths from Covid-19 than if we’d done nothing. Note the scenarios for which the colored cumulative incidence curves (shown on the right) exceed the black line representing how many critical cases we’d have if we had done nothing.

Furthermore, their model does not account for people’s immunity potentially waning over time.  Currently, we do not know how long people’s immunity to Covid-19 will last.  We won’t know whether people’s immunity will last at least a year until a year from now.  There’s no way to test this preemptively.

We’ve seen that immunity to other coronaviruses fades within a year.  If immunity to Covid-19 is similar, we really don’t want to prolong the epidemic past a year.

If we could all go into stasis and simply not move for about a month, there’d be no new cases of Covid-19, and this virus would be gone forever.  But people still need to eat during the shutdown.  Many people are still working.  So the virus is still spreading, and we have simply slowed the rate of transmission.

This seems good, because we’re slowing the rate at which people enter the hospital, but it’s actually bad if we’re increasing the number of people who will eventually enter the hospital.

Based on our research with other coronaviruses, we expect that re-infection will cause a person to experience symptoms less severe than their first case of Covid-19.  But a re-infected person can still spread the disease to others.  And we don’t know what will happen if a person’s risk factors – such as age, smoking status, diabetes status, etc. – have increased in the time since their last infection.

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7: “How is the shutdown causing harm?

If you turn on Fox News, I imagine you’d hear people talking about the damage we’re doing to our economy.  They might discuss stock market numbers.

Who gives a shit?  In my opinion, you’d have to be pretty callous to think that maintaining the Nasdaq bubble is more important than saving lives.

At the same time, I think you’d have to be pretty callous to not feel extremely concerned by the United Nations’ policy brief, “The impact of Covid-19 on children.”

In this report, they estimate that the shutdown we’ve had so far will cause hundreds of thousands of children to die, many from malnutrition and the other health impacts of poverty.  The longer the shutdown continues, the more children will die.

That’s a worldwide number, and most of those children live outside the United States.  But I’d like to think that their lives matter, too.

The report also discusses the lifelong harm that will be inflicted on children from five months (or more!) of school closure.  Drop-outs, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, recruitment of child soldiers, and the myriad health consequences of low educational attainment.

I live in a wealthy college town, but even here there is a significant population of students who don’t have internet access.  Students with special needs aren’t getting the services they deserve.  Food insecurity is worse.

You’re lucky that privacy protections prevent me from sharing a story about what can happen to poor kids when all the dentists’ offices are closed.  I felt ashamed that this was the best my country had to offer.

As the shutdown continues, domestic violence is rising.  We can assume that child abuse is rising, also, but we won’t know until later, when we finally have a chance to save children from it.  In the past, levels of child abuse have been correlated with the amount of time that children spend in the presence of their abusers (usually close family), and reporting tends to happen during tense in-person conversations at school.

We know that online sex work has increased during the shutdown.  There is an increased supply of sex workers who are experiencing increasing financial insecurity.  We don’t yet have data on this, but I’d be shocked if the shutdown hasn’t led many to feel pressured into riskier acts for lower amounts of money, including meeting clients in isolated (and therefore unsafe) spaces.

The shutdown has probably made our drug epidemic worse (and this was already killing about 70,000 people per year in the U.S.).  When people are in recovery, one of the best strategies to stay sober is to spend a lot of time working, out of the house, and meeting with a supportive group in communal space.  Luckily, many of the people I know who are in recovery have been categorized as essential workers.

But any slip can kill someone recovering from addiction.  One of my friends froze to death last year.

A neighbor recently sent me a cartoon suggesting that the biggest harm caused by the shutdown is boredom.  (I’m going to include it, below, but don’t worry: I won’t spend too much time rattling sabers with a straw man.) And, for privileged families like mine, it is.  We’re safe, we’re healthy, we get to eat.  My kids are still learning – we live in a house full of computers and books.

But many of the 75 million children in the United States don’t live in homes like mine, with the privilege we have.  Many of our 50 million primary and secondary school students are not still learning academically during the shutdown.

Whether the shutdown is preventing or merely delaying the deaths of people at risk of serious complications from Covid-19, we have to remember that the benefit comes at a cost.  What we’ve done already will negatively impact children for the rest of their lives.  And the longer this goes on, the more we’re hurting them.

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8: “What about the rate at which people get sick?  Isn’t the shutdown worthwhile, despite the risks described above, if it keeps our hospitals from being overwhelmed?

In writing this, I struggled with how best to organize the various responses.  I hope it doesn’t seem too ingenuous to address this near the end, because slowing the rate of infection so that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed is the BEST motivation for the shutdown.  More than the hope that a delay will yield a new vaccine, or new therapies to treat severe cases, or even new diagnostics to catch people before they develop severe symptoms, we don’t want to overwhelm our hospitals.

If our physicians have to triage care, more people will die.

And I care a lot about what this epidemic will be like for our physicians.  My father is a 67-year-old infectious disease doctor who just finished another week of clinical service treating Covid-19 patients at the low-income hospital in Indianapolis.  My brother-in-law is an ER surgeon in Minneapolis.  These cities have not yet had anything like the influx of severe cases in New York City – for demographic and environmental reasons, it’s possible they never will.  But they might. 

Based on the case fatality rate measured elsewhere, I’d estimate that only 10% of the population in Minneapolis has already been infected with Covid-19, so the epidemic may have a long way yet to go.

If we ended the shutdown today for everyone, with no recommendation that at-risk groups continue to isolate and no new measures to protect them, we would see a spike in severe cases.

If we ended the shutdown for low-risk groups, and did a better job of monitoring people’s health to catch Covid-19 at early, more-easily-treatable stages (through either PCR testing or oxygen levels), we can avoid overwhelming hospitals.

And the shutdown itself is contributing toward chaos at hospitals.  Despite being on the front lines of this epidemic, ER doctors in Minneapolis have received a 30% pay cut.  I imagine my brother-in-law is not the only physician who could no longer afford day care for his children after the pay cut.  (Because so many people are delaying care out of fear of Covid-19, hospitals are running out of money.)  Precisely when we should be doing everything in our power to make physicians’ lives easier, we’re making things more stressful.

We could end the shutdown without even needing to evoke the horrible trolley-problem-esque calculations of triage.  Arguments could be made that even if it led to triage it might be worthwhile to end the shutdown – the increase in mortality would be the percentage of triaged cases that could have survived if they’d been treated, and we as a nation might decide that this number was acceptable to prevent the harms described above – but with a careful plan, we need not come to that.

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9: “Don’t the antibody tests have a lot of false positives?

False positives are a big problem when a signal is small.  I happen to like a lot of John Ioannidis’s work – I think his paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” is an important contribution to the literature – but I agree that the Santa Clara study isn’t particularly convincing. 

When I read the Santa Clara paper, I nodded and thought “That sounds about right,” but I knew my reaction was most likely confirmation bias at work.

Which is why, in the essay, I mostly discussed antibody studies that found high percentages of the population had been infected with Covid-19, like the study in Germany and the study in the Italian town of Robbio.  In these studies, the signal was sufficiently high that false positives aren’t as worrisome. 

In Santa Clara, when they reported a 2% infection rate, the real number might’ve been as low as zero.  When researchers in Germany reported a 15% infection rate, the real number might’ve been anywhere in the range of 13% to 17% – or perhaps double that, if the particular chips they used had a false negative rate similar to the chips manufactured by Premier Biotech in Minneapolis.

I’m aware that German response to Covid-19 has been far superior to our bungled effort in the United States, but an antibody tests is just a basic ELISA.  We’ve been doing these for years.

Luckily for us, we should soon have data from good antibody studies here in the United States.  And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want to see the results of those.  I’m not a sociopath – I haven’t gone out and joined the gun-toting protesters.

But we’ll have this data in a matter of weeks, so that’s the time frame we should be talking about here.  Not months.  Not years.  And I’ll be shocked if these antibody studies don’t show widespread past infection and recovery from Covid-19.

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10: “What about the political ramifications of ending the shutdown?

I am, by nature, an extremely cautious person.  And I have a really dire fear.

I’m inclined to believe that ending the shutdown is the right thing to do.  I’ve tried to explain why.  I’ve tried to explain what I think would be the best way to do it.

But also, I’m a scientist.  You’re not allowed to be a scientist unless you’re willing to be proven wrong.

So, yes.  I might be wrong.  New data might indicate that writing this essay was a horrible mistake.

Still, please bear with me for a moment.  If ending the shutdown soon turns out to be the correct thing to do, and if only horrible right-wing fanatics have been saying that we should end the shutdown soon, won’t that help our current president get re-elected?

There is a very high probability that his re-election would cause even more deaths than Covid-19.

Failing to address climate change could kill billions.  Immigration controls against migrants fleeing war zones could kill millions.  Weakened EPA protections could kill hundreds of thousands.  Reduced access to health care could kill tens of thousands.

And, yes, there are horrible developments that neither major political party in the United States has talked about, like the risk that our antibiotics stop working, but I think it’s difficult to argue that one political party isn’t more dangerous than the other, here.

I feel pretty confident about all the scientific data I’ve discussed above.  Not as confident as I’d like, which would require more data, but pretty confident.

I feel extremely confident that we need to avoid a situation in which the far right takes ownership of an idea that turns out to have been correct.  And it’ll be dumb luck, just a bad coincidence.  The only “data” they’re looking at are stock market numbers, or maybe the revenue at Trump-owned hotels.

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EDIT: I also wrote a more careful explanation of the takeaways of the Harvard study. That’s here if you would like to take a look!

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Header image by Goran Paunovic.

On testing.

On testing.

UPDATE: Wow, this got a lot of readers! Honestly, though, I wrote a response to common questions and comments about this essay and it is probably a better read.

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My spouse recently sent me a link to the article “Concerns with that Stanford study of coronavirus prevalence” by Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University.  From reading this article, I got the impression that Gelman is a good mathematician.  And he raises some legitimate concerns. 

But I’ve noticed that many of the people criticizing the work coming out of the Ioannidis group – such as the study of how many people in Santa Clara county might have antibodies to Covid-19 – don’t seem to understand the biology underlying the numbers.

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First, some background: in case you haven’t noticed, most of the United States is operating under a half-assed lockdown.  In theory, there are stay-at-home orders, but many people, such as grocery store clerks, janitors, health care workers, construction workers, restaurant chefs, delivery drivers, etc., are still going to work as normal.  However, schools have been closed, and most people are trying to stand at least six feet away from strangers.

We’re doing this out of fear that Covid-19 is an extremely dangerous new viral disease.  Our initial data suggested that as many as 10% of people infected with Covid-19 would die.

That’s terrifying!  We would be looking at tens of millions of deaths in the United States alone!  A virus like this will spread until a majority of people have immunity to it – a ballpark estimate is that 70% of the population needs immunity before the epidemic stops.  And our early data suggested that one in ten would die.

My family was scared.  We washed our hands compulsively.  We changed into clean clothes as soon as we came into the house.  The kids didn’t leave our home for a week.  My spouse went to the grocery store and bought hundreds of dollars of canned beans and cleaning supplies.

And, to make matters worse, our president was on the news saying that Covid-19 was no big deal.  His nonchalance made me freak out more.  Our ass-hat-in-chief has been wrong about basically everything, in my opinion.  His environmental policies are basically designed to make more people die.  If he claimed we had nothing to worry about, then Covid-19 was probably more deadly than I expected.

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Five weeks have passed, and we now have much more data.  It seems that Covid-19 is much less dangerous than we initially feared.  For someone my age (37), Covid-19 is less dangerous than seasonal influenza.

Last year, seasonal influenza killed several thousand people between the ages of 18 and 49 in the United States – most likely 2,500 people, but perhaps as many as 5,800.  People in this age demographic account for about 10% of total flu deaths in the United States, year after year.

Seasonal influenza also killed several hundred children last year – perhaps over a thousand.

There’s a vaccine against influenza, but most people don’t bother. 

That’s shocking. 

Seasonal influenza is more dangerous than Covid-19 for people between the ages of 18 and 49, but only 35% of them chose to be vaccinated in the most recently reported year (2018).  And because the vaccination rate is so low, our society doesn’t have herd immunity.  By choosing not to get the influenza vaccine, these people are endangering themselves and others.

Some people hope that the Covid-19 epidemic will end once a vaccine is released.  I am extremely skeptical.  The biggest problem, to my mind, isn’t that years might pass before there’s a vaccine.  I just can’t imagine that a sufficient percentage of our population would choose to get a Covid-19 vaccine when most people’s personal risk is lower than their risk from influenza.

When I teach classes in jail, dudes often tell me about which vaccines they think are too dangerous for their kids to get.  I launch into a tirade about how safe most vaccines are, and how deadly the diseases they prevent. 

Seriously, get your kids vaccinated.  You don’t want to watch your child die of measles.

And, seriously, dear reader – get a flu vaccine each year.  Even if you’re too selfish to worry about the other people whom your mild case of influenza might kill, do it for yourself. 

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We already know how dangerous seasonal influenza is.  But what about Covid-19?

To answer that, we need data.  And one set of data is unmistakable – many people have died.  Hospitals around the world have experienced an influx of patients with a common set of symptoms.  They struggle to breathe; their bodies weaken from oxygen deprivation; their lungs accumulate liquid; they die.

Many people have been put on ventilators, but that’s often the beginning of the end.  Most people put on ventilators will die.  Among patients over 70 years old, three quarters who are put on ventilators will die

For each of these patients saved, three others are consigned to an agonizing death in the hospital, intubated among the flashing lights, the ceaseless blips and bleeps.  At home, they’d die in a day; in the hospital, their deaths will take three weeks.

And the sheer quantity of deaths sounds scary – especially for people who don’t realize how many tens of thousands die from influenza in the United States each year.

Or, consider: cigarette smoking causes 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including 41,000 people who die from second-hand smoke exposure.  Those 41,000 aren’t even choosing to smoke!  But cigarettes kill them anyway.

Indeed, when people die of Covid-19, it’s often because their lungs fail.  Smoking is obviously a major risk factor for dying of Covid-19 – a significant portion of reported Covid-19 deaths could be considered cigarette deaths instead.  Or as air pollution deaths – and yet, our current president is using this crisis as an opportunity to weaken EPA air quality regulations.

Air pollution is a huge problem for a lot of Black communities in the United States.  Our racist housing policies have placed a lot of minority neighborhoods near heavily polluting factories.  Now Covid-19 is turning what is already a lifelong struggle for breath into a death sentence.

I would enthusiastically support a shutdown motivated by the battle for clean air.

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So, Covid-19.  We know how many people have died – already (CORRECTION AS OF APRIL 21) forty-two thousand in the United States

But if we want to know how scary this virus is, we need to know how many people were infected.  If that many people died after everyone in the country had it, then Covid-19 would be less dangerous than influenza.  If that many people died after only a hundred thousand had been infected, then this would be terrifying, and far more dangerous than influenza.

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Initially, our data came from PCR testing.

These are good tests.  Polymerase chain reaction is highly specific.  If you want to amplify a certain genetic sequence, you can design short DNA primers that will bind only to that sequence.  Put the whole mess in a thermocycler and you get a bunch of your target, as long as the gene is present in the test tube in the first place.  If the gene isn’t there, you’ll get nothing.

PCR works great.  Even our lovely but amnesiac lab tech never once screwed it up.

So, do the PCR test and you’ll know whether a certain gene is present in your test tube.  Target a viral gene and you’ll know whether the virus is present in your test tube.  Scoop out some nose glop from somebody to put into the test tube and you’ll know whether the virus is present in that nose glop.

The PCR test is a great test that measures whether someone is actively shedding virus.  It answers, is there virus present in the nose glop?

This is not the same question as, has this person ever been infected with Covid-19? 

It’s a similar question – most people infected with a coronavirus will have at least a brief period of viral shedding – but it’s a much more specific question.  When a healthy person is infected with a coronavirus, the period of viral shedding can be as short as a single day.

A person can get infected with a coronavirus, and if you do the PCR test either before or after that single day, the PCR test will give a negative result.  Nope, no viral RNA is in this nose glop!

And so we know that the PCR test will undercount the true number of infections.

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When we look at the age demographics for Covid-19 infections as measured by PCR test, the undercount becomes glaringly obvious.

Consider the PCR test data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.  To date, this is our most complete set of PCR data – everyone on board was tested multiple times.  And from this data, it appears that very few children were exposed to the virus.

Friends, it is exceedingly unlikely that such a low percentage of children were exposed to this virus.  Children are disgusting.  I believe this is common knowledge.  Parents of small children are pretty much always sick because children are so disgusting. 

Seriously, my family has been doing the whole “social distancing” thing for over a month, and yet my nose is dripping while I type this.

Children are always touching everything, and then they rub their eyeballs or chew on their fingers.  If you take them someplace, they grubble around on the floor.  They pick up discarded tissues and ask, “What’s this?”

“That’s somebody’s gross kleenex, is what it is!  Just, just drop it.  I know it’s trash, I know we’re not supposed to leave trash on the ground, but just, just drop it, okay?  Somebody will come throw it away later.”

The next day: “Dad, you said somebody would throw that kleenex away, but it’s still there!”

Bloody hell.  Children are little monsters.

It seems fairly obvious that at least as high a percentage of children would be infected as any other age demographic.

But they’re not showing up from the PCR data.  On the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the lockdown began on February 5th, but PCR testing didn’t begin until February 11th.  Anyone who was infected but quickly recovered will be invisible to that PCR test.  And even people who are actively shedding viral particles can feel totally well.  People can get infected and recover without noticing a thing.

We see the same thing when we look at the PCR data from Italy.  If we mistakenly assumed that the PCR data was measuring the number of infections, and not measuring the number of people who were given a PCR test while shedding viral particles, we’d conclude that elderly people went out and socialized widely, getting each other sick, and only occasionally infected their great-grandchildren at home.

Here in the United States, children are disgusting little monsters.  I bet kids are disgusting in Italy, too.  They’re disgusting all over the world.

A much more likely scenario is that children spread this virus at school.  Many probably felt totally fine; some might’ve had a bad fever or the sniffles for a few days.  But then they recovered.

When they got their great-grandparents sick – which can happen easily since so many Italian families live in multigenerational homes – elderly people began to die.

So we know that the PCR test is undercounting the true number of infections.  Unless you’re testing every person, every day, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, you’re going to undercount the number of infections.

In a moment, we can work through a way to get a more accurate count.  But perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, for someone my age, Covid-19 would seem to be about as dangerous as influenza even if we assumed that the PCR data matched the true number of infections.

If you’re a healthy middle-aged or young person, you should not feel personally afraid. 

That alone would not be an excuse to go out and start dancing in the street, though.  Your actions might cause other people to die. 

(NOTE & CORRECTION: After this post went up, my father recommended that I add something more about personal risk. No one has collected enough data on this yet, but he suspects that the next most important risk factor, after smoking and age, will be type 2 diabetes. And he reminded me that many people in their 30s & 40s in this country are diabetic or prediabetic and don’t even realize it yet. Everyone in this category probably has elevated risk of complications from Covid-19.)

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After you’ve been infected with a virus, your body will start making antibodies.  These protect you from being infected again.

Have you read Shel Silverstein’s Missing Piece book?  Antibodies work kind of like that.  They have a particular shape, and so they’ll glom onto a virus only if that virus has outcroppings that match the antibody’s shape.  Then your body sees the antibodies hanging out on a virus like a GPS tracker and proceeds to destroy the virus.

So to make an antibody test, you take some stuff that looks like the outcroppings on the virus and you put it on a chip.  Wash somebody’s blood over it, and if that blood contains antibodies that have the right shape to glom onto the virus, they’ll stick to the chip.  All your other antibodies, the ones that recognize different viruses, will float away.

An antibody test is going to be worse than a PCR test.  It’s easier to get a false positive result – antibodies are made of proteins, and they can unfold if you treat them roughly, and then they’ll stick to anything.  Then you’ll think that somebody has the right antibodies, but they don’t.  That’s bad.

You have to be much more careful when you’re doing an antibody test. I wouldn’t have asked our lab tech to do them for me.

An antibody test is also going to have false negatives.  A viral particle is a big honking thing, and there are lots of places on its surface where an antibody might bind.  If your antibodies recognize some aspect of the virus that’s different from what the test manufacturers included on their chip, your antibodies will float away.  Even though they’d protect you from the actual virus if you happened to be exposed to it.

If you’re a cautious person, though – and I consider myself to be pretty cautious – you’d much rather have an antibody test with a bunch of false negatives than false positives.  If you’re actually immune to Covid-19 but keep being cautious, well, so what?  You’re safe either way.  But if you think you’re immune when you’re not, then you might get sick.  That’s bad.

Because antibody tests are designed to give more false negatives than false positives, you should know that it’d be really foolish to use them to track an infection.  Like, if you’re testing people to see who is safe to work as a delivery person today, use the PCR test!  The antibody test has a bunch of false negatives, and there’s a time lag between the onset of infection and when your body will start making antibodies.

It can be dangerous to use antibody tests to address the wrong questions.

If you use the antibody test on a bunch of people, though, you can tell how many were infected.  And that’s useful information, too.

In the town of Robbio in Italy (pop. 6,000), the PCR test showed that only 23 people had been infected with Covid-19.  But then the mayor implored everyone to get an antibody test, and 10% of people had actually been infected with – and had recovered from – Covid-19.  Most of them couldn’t even recall having been sick.

The PCR test measured 23 cases.  The antibody test suggested there’d been at least 600.  And antibody tests, by design, will generally have a bunch of false negatives.  When a team at Stanford assessed the antibody tests manufactured by Premier Biotech in Minneapolis, they found that for every 3 people who’d been infected with Covid-19, the tests registered only 2 positives.

I don’t know who made the tests used in Robbio – maybe they were a little better, maybe they were a little worse.  Based on my experience, I wouldn’t be so surprised if the true infection rate with Covid-19 in that town was really just 10% – nor would I be surprised to hear that the chips had a high false-negative rate and that the infection rate was 20% or more.

If you calculate the fatality rate of Covid-19 in Italy by assuming that the PCR tests caught every infection, you’d get a terrifying 10%.

If you instead assume that many other towns had a similar infection rate to Robbio, you’ll instead calculate that the fatality rate was well under one percent. 

Italy has higher risk than the United States due to age demographics, smoking rates, and multigenerational households – and even in Italy, the fatality rate was probably well under one percent.

When researchers in Germany randomly chose people to take a Covid-19 PCR test (many of whom had no symptoms), they found that 2% of the population was actively shedding virus – a much higher number of cases than they would have found if they tested only sick people.  And when they randomly chose people to take an antibody test, they found that 15% had already recovered from the infection (again, many of whom had never felt sick).  According to these numbers – which are expected to be an undercount, due to false negatives and the time lag before antibody production – they calculated a case fatality rate of 0.37%

That would be about three-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza.

In the United States, our bungling president gutted the CDC, leaving us without the expertise needed to address Covid-19 (or myriad other problems that might arise).  During the first few months of this epidemic, very few people managed to get a PCR test.  That’s why our data from the PCR tests is likely to be a dramatic undercount – indeed, when we finally started producing accurate tests, the apparent growth in Covid-19 caseload superimposed with the growth in test availability.

In the absence of good PCR data, we have to rely on antibody data to track infections after the fact.  Which is why a town in Colorado with zero reported infections, as measured by PCR, had sufficiently widespread exposure that 2% of the population had already recovered from Covid-19.

And it’s why the data from the Stanford Santa Clara county study is so unsurprising. 

Yes, there were problems with the Stanford study’s data collection – they displayed advertisements to a random selection of people, but then a self-selected subset responded.  The pool of respondents were enriched for white women, but Santa Clara’s outbreak probably began among Asian-Americans.  And we all know that random sampling doesn’t always give you an accurate depiction of the population at large – after all, random polling predicted that a competent president would be elected in 2016.

Now look at us.

It’s also likely that people with a poor understanding of the biology could misinterpret the result of the Stanford study.  They found that PCR tests had undercounted the infection rate in Santa Clara county, at the time of this study, by 85-fold.

It would be absurd to assume that you could simply multiply all PCR results by 85 to determine the true infection rate, but some people did.  And then pointed out the absurdity of their own bad math.

In places where more people are being tested by PCR, and they’re being tested more often, the PCR results will be closer to the true infection rate.  If you gave everyone in the United States a PCR test, and did it every day, then the PCR data would be exactly equal to the true infection rate.

If we had data like that from the beginning, we wouldn’t have been scared.  We would’ve known the true case fatality rate early on, and, also, at-risk people could’ve been treated as soon as they got infected.  We’d be able to save many more lives.

If access to health care were considered a basic right in the United States, we might’ve done something like this. 

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In Italy, it seems like Covid-19 is three- or four-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza.  My guess is that Italy might have had about 50,000 deaths if they hadn’t enacted the lockdown.

In the United States, on a population level, Covid-19 is probably also more dangerous than seasonal influenza.  But there’s a big difference in terms of the distribution of risk.

The New York Times is running a series with short biographies of people who’ve died of Covid-19.  As of noon on April 17, about 10% of the people profiled were younger than 35.

10% is roughly the proportion of young people who die of seasonal influenza.  But only 1% of Covid-19 deaths are people younger than 35.  The news reports don’t always make clear how much the risk of Covid-19 is clustered in a small segment of the population.

This has serious implications for what we should do next.  If we were dealing with a virus that was about three-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza for everyone, we might just return to life as normal.  (Indeed, we carried on as normal during the bad years when seasonal influenza killed 90,000 people instead of last year’s 30,000.)

Because the risk from Covid-19 is so concentrated, though, we can come up with a plan that will save a lot of lives. 

Healthy people under retirement age should resume most parts of their lives as normal.  Schools should re-open: for students, Covid-19 is much less dangerous than seasonal influenza.  I think that people should still try to work from home when possible, because it’s the right thing to do to fight climate change.

At-risk people should continue to isolate themselves as much as possible.

This sounds crummy, but at-risk people would just continue to do the thing that everyone is doing currently.  And the plan would save many lives because the epidemic would end in about 3 months, after the virus had spread to saturation among our nation’s low-risk cohort. 

Indeed, when a team of researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health modeled the Covid-19 epidemic, they found that social distancing was generally unhelpful.  That’s what their data show, at least – but in their abstract, they instead recommend that we continue social distancing for the better part of two years.

Their data are easy enough to understand.  In each of these graphs, they show a blue box for how long social distancing would last, and then four colored lines to represent how many infections we’d see if we did no social distancing (black), medium quality social distancing (red), good social distancing (blue), or excellent social distancing (green).

So, from top to bottom, you’re looking at the graphs of what happens if we do a month of social distancing … or two months … or three, or four … or forever.

And you can see the outcomes in the panels on the right-hand side.  The black line shows what would happen if we did nothing.  Infections rise fast, then level off after the virus has reached saturation.  There are two important features of this graph – the final height that it reaches, which is the total number of severe cases (and so a good proxy for the number of deaths), and the slope of the line, which is how fast the severe cases appear.  A steeper hill means many people getting sick at the same time, which means hospitals might be overwhelmed.

So, okay.  Looking at their graphs, we see that social distancing saves lives … if we do it forever.  If you never leave your house again, you won’t die of Covid-19.

But if social distancing ends, it doesn’t help.  The slopes are nearly as steep as if we’d done nothing, and the final height – the total number of people who die – is higher.

(Often, one of their curves will have a gentler slope than the others — usually the good-but-not-excellent social distancing seems best. So you’d have to pray that you were doing a precisely mediocre job of not infecting strangers. Do it a little better or a little worse and you cause people to die. This isn’t an artifact — it’s based on the density of uninfected people when social distancing ends — but let’s just say “mathematical models are wonky” and leave it at that.)

In a subsequent figure, the Harvard team tried to model what might happen if we occasionally resumed our lives for a month or so at a time, but then had another shutdown.  This is the only scenario in which their model predicts that social distancing would be helpful.

But, unfortunately, there’s a problem.  Research done with other coronaviruses shows that immunity fades within a year.  Because the Harvard model would cause the epidemic to last longer than a year, people would have time to lose their immunity and get infected again.

Even in the extreme case that we mostly stayed in our homes for the better part of two years, social distancing would case more deaths from Covid-19 than if we had done nothing.

That’s not even accounting for all the people who would die from a greater risk of domestic violence, hunger, drug addiction, suicide, and sedentary behavior during the shutdown.  

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When our data was limited, the shutdown seemed reasonable.  We wouldn’t be able to undo the damage we’d done by waiting.

Except, whoops, we waited anyway.  We didn’t quarantine travelers in January.  The shutdown didn’t begin March, when the epidemic was well underway in many places. 

Now that we have more data, we should re-open schools, though.  For most people, Covid-19 is no more dangerous than seasonal influenza.  We already have enough data from antibody testing to be pretty confident about this, and even if we want to be extremely cautious, we should continue the shutdown for a matter of weeks while we conduct a few more antibody studies.  Not months, and certainly not years.

At the same time, we need to do a better job of protecting at-risk people.  This means providing health care for everyone.  This means cleaning our air, staunching the pollution that plagues low-income neighborhoods.  This might mean daily medical checkups and PCR tests for people who work closely with at-risk populations.

Our country will have to be different in the future, but mostly because we, as a people, have done such a shitty job of creating justice and liberty for all.  We need to focus on addressing the inequities that we’ve let fester for generations.  That’ll help far more than using a bandanna to cover up your smile.

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UPDATE: Wow, this got a lot of readers! Thanks if you made it this far. I’ve also written a response to common questions and comments about this essay.

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

At the beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

“Creation” by Suus Wansink on Flickr.

In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.

A god might say, “The sky is green.”  Well, personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god.  Within the world of The Raven Tower, after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become green.  If the god is sufficiently powerful, that is.  If the god is too weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god.  It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.

Poof!

And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country.  But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too.  It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).

A careless sentence could doom a god.

But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe.  And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.

In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith.  When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger.  But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).

Image from svgsilh.com.

And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle.  By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.

If you haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should.  The theological underpinnings are brilliant, the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.

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In The Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.  The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all, that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified.  There is little difference between a bird and a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.

Image by Stephencdickson on Wikimedia Commons.

Although our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and non-human is absolute.  Within The Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.

But many people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.

In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek.  (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate.  I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely articulate the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)

Kimhi does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was the optimal tool for the task he set himself.  And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions.  Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,” in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously believe a thing to be and not to be.

Maybe these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now know that they are false.

Many research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.  An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute compliments” in the terminology of set theory).  This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than standard computers.

And, as a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free will.  Our brains, which generate consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.  Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known, predictable rules.  If the matter composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution, your future behavior could be predicted.  Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.

And yet it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will.  After all, we make decisions.  I perceive myself to be choosing the words that I type.

I sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not have free will.  And I assume that most other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of seemingly contradictory beliefs.

The “Law of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with.  Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious life upon our planet:

The consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of language.

A human thinker is also a determinable being.  This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being, the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.

The Raven Tower is a fantasy novel.  Within that world, it was reasonable that there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals.  There are also warring gods, magical spells, and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes people invisible.

But Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.

In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness.  If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt.  But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish. 

The fish will bleed.  And writhe.  Its body will produce stress hormones.  But humans claimed that the fish was not actually in pain.

They were wrong.

Image by Catherine Matassa.

de Waal writes that:

The consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.

Readers may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel case is even more baffling.  For the longest time, science felt the same about human babies.  Infants were considered sub-human organisms that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t feel pain. 

Serious scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks, hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel nothing.  The babies’ reactions were considered emotion-free reflexes.  As a result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia.  They only gave them curare, a muscle relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being done to them. 

Only in the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying.  Today we read about these experiments with disbelief.  One wonders if their pain response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!

Scientific skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any organism that fails to talk.  It is as if science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!”  The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous.  It has given us more than a century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.

As a parent, I found it extremely difficult to read the lecture de Waal cites, David Chamberlain’s “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine.”

From this lecture, I also learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn.  Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but some people do.  Chamberlain describes several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they had learned to talk.

Vaccination is painful, too, but there’s a difference – vaccination has a clear medical benefit, both for the individual and a community.  Our children have been fully vaccinated for their ages.  They cried for a moment, but we comforted them right away.

But we didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.

In our world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have feelings.

But Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and our own.  Although language does not re-shape reality, words can create empathy.  We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories. 

The narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his mind.  Although human thinkers have not always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.

On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

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And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

image-20160802-17177-6ogm1s

 

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

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I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.