People have been asking me about a story that came out in the last few days about 94% of deaths having co-morbidities. The implication many have made is that most don’t really die from COVID, they die from something else, and they also happen to have COVID.It’s certainly true that contributing factors can make symptoms worse, and many of those with symptoms have another underlying issue. But I think it would be a mistake to think that this means COVID can be dismissed as no big deal. The fact is, the list of contributing factors is long, and includes the following:
age asthma or COPD heart conditions kidney conditions liver disease high blood pressure diabetes obesity auto-immune disease use of NSAID anti-inflammatory medications being immunocompromised (HIV infected, undergoing cancer treatment, under medication for a transplant) vitamin-D deficiency type A blood (Type O appears to be protective)
A lot of people are on this list, including me, since I have Celiac Disease, an auto-immune disease. Think of it this way. If someone dies because they got pushed in front of a train, did they die because of the train, or because someone pushed them? Well, both. Getting shoved generally doesn’t kill you, but it does if you get shoved into a train.COVID on it’s own may not be very deadly on it’s own, but it is in combination with a lot of other conditions.
The good news is, COVID is getting more survivable as treatment gets better, and also perhaps since people are getting exposed to lower viral loads because of mask wearing. We should be concerned, but not fearful, and we can also be optimistic that things are getting better!
I’ve also been asked by several people recently about a vaccine. You may remember my post about ADE, Antibody Dependent Enchancement. It’s a rare phenomena in which a virus can use an antibody against a previous infection to infect the immune system (link to my original post below). This can make a second infection much worse than the first. This only occurs with a small handful of viruses, but SARS, MERS, and likely SARS-2 are some of them. Because of this phenomena, I am suspicious of vaccines against SARS-2, and will wait to see what happens before I get one for myself, or recommend others do. I am not an anti-vaccine person in general! I have gotten the annual flu shot many times! But SARS-2 is different. If someone involved with the vaccine creation process can convince me it’s safe, I will certainly let you know.
A quick note, I posted an update yesterday, but I accidentally only sent it to one person, so for the weekly update, check your feed for yesterday morning, or check my timeline.
Many people have asked me about a video that was posted yesterday by a group called “America’s Frontline Doctors”. The original video has since been removed from Facebook, YouTube and the group’s website has even been dropped by the host, Squarespace. All this to say, you may have a hard time watching it if you want to. I found a different version.
As I’ve said before, politics and science should never go together. Whenever a scientific issue becomes political, it becomes very difficult for free scientific inquiry to move forward, and nearly impossible for non-scientists to figure out what the truth is. So I’m sorry to those of you who are confused and are trying to pursue the truth. The video was put together by the Tea Party Patriots and Breitbart News, 2 right leaning organizations. This is a red flag for me because I know that the message will have a political angle, and that I’ll need to watch with extra care. As I said in my July 14th post, however, just because you disagree with someone in general doesn’t mean they have nothing good to contribute to the discussion. Especially with politically charged issues, we need to get information from a variety of sources in order to be as informed as we can. I know for many of us, it’s nearly impossible to have time for that, so we often just pick someone we trust to get our information from. I definitely have political opinions, but whenever a scientific issue comes up, I do my best to set those aside and look at the evidence. I hope this has been valuable to you. You may have noticed that some of my thoughts about the Coronavirus have been “left-wing” and others have been “right-wing.” I’m doing my best to be objective. And yes, I consider it a tragedy that opinions on scientific issues can be categorized as either left or right.
I want to discuss some of the main points of the video and offer my informed but not expert opinion. I am a Ph.D. molecular biologist specializing in infectious disease testing. I am not a physician or an epidemiologist. I will give my opinion and also why I think that way.
Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ): The video focuses to a great degree on HCQ as a potential “cure” for the Coronavirus. As soon as President Trump mentioned it as being potentially helpful for treating Coronavirus, it became a subject of immediate and hot controversy. Democrats seemed to reflexively dismiss HCQ, and Republicans seemed to reflexively support it. President Trump dug in his heels and seemed to support its use before all the evidence was in. Obviously, this is not how science should be done. Careful and well-reasoned studies should be done, and conclusions made based on evidence. Early studies seemed to support both conclusions. Opponents claim that HCQ doesn’t work and is even harmful to patients, causing heart problems in some. Supporters claim that HCQ works when given early in the disease, and with Zinc and perhaps azithromycin.
Dr. Immanuel made an impassioned case for the use of HCQ, having successfully used it to treat over 300 patients. This kind of evidence is what scientists call “anecdotal”. Anecdotal evidence, basically stories, is often not considered scientific because in a large pool of people, you can find stories supporting all kinds of claims. Anecdotal evidence also usually does not carefully consider other factors that may contribute to a conclusion. An example would be “I ate ice cream and then I got attacked by a shark, so eating ice cream leads to shark attacks.” This is obviously a silly example, but many pieces of anecdotal evidence you hear suffer from the same lack of critical thinking. However, this is not at all to say that anecdotal evidence is not useful! These kinds of stories may not be scientific per se, but can often trigger more rigorous studies that prove the claims of a story.
Several scientists I’ve heard from will point out that HCQ is useful when given early and given in combination with Zinc, and also in appropriate dosages. I actually agree that some of the studies arguing against HCQ use have given it too late or in inappropriately high dosages. I would like more rigorous studies to be done, however at the moment, I think HCQ is well worth consideration by the medical community. Other treatments also exist and may actually be better, such as the MATH+ protocol I described in my summary post on June 22nd, Dexamethasone, Remdesivir, and perhaps Budesonide. For the HCQ protocol, it appears that Zinc is actually most responsible for anti-viral activity, with HCQ mostly helping Zinc enter cells to interact with the virus.
Some have pointed out that Dr. Immanuel has some beliefs that are well outside accepted scientific views. As I pointed out before, even folks who you generally disagree with can bring helpful information to the table. Her HCQ experience may be true despite her unorthodox beliefs. So even if you justifiably don’t consider a person reliable, you should resist the urge to dismiss them outright.
Lastly on the issue of HCQ, physicians have the right to use drugs “off-label” meaning they are granted by their medical degree the right to try medications in ways that are not necessarily supported by the literature or guidelines. This right is granted in the interest of patients, because careful studies can take a prohibitively long time to be published, and to encourage the development of helpful new protocols. In my opinion, government agencies should not be restricting the use of HCQ by doctors at this time.
School reopening: In some ways, there is reason to re-open schools in the Fall. It appears to be true that children under 10 do not get infected at high rates, do not carry a high viral load when infected, do not get severe disease, and do not seem to spread virus to others. So there is a case to be made for reopening schools for young children. However, because of the ADE issue I’ve written about before, I am not currently in support of re-opening schools in the Fall. Just to recap, ADE (Antibody Dependent Enhancement) is the phenomena in which some viruses can use antibodies presented on immune cells to infect those cells and cause more severe disease. So a second infection with a similar strain can lead to much worse symptoms. SARS-1 and MERS, cousins of SARS-2, can both use this pathway, so with current evidence, it seems likely that SARS-2 will as well. But we won’t know for sure until another SARS strain develops and we see how people respond to it. I will point out in full disclosure, that almost no-one is talking publicly about ADE. Dr. Fauci has mentioned it, but just in passing. So I could be out to lunch about this, but it is a major concern of mine. I have had a few epidemiologists mention in private conversations that they think ADE is a real issue, but they aren’t comfortable talking publicly about it either.
Sweden and Herd Immunity: Dr. Dan Erickson, who made a video back in April, also spoke. I was critical of his original video because his analysis of the death rate used the wrong number for total cases. This time he spoke mostly about the lock-downs, and most of his comments were more measured. He argued against lock-downs and suggested Sweden as a model.
I am also critical of lock-downs as they were done in much of the US, with people asked to stay home at all times. However, I am not supportive of the Swedish model either, in which few precautions are taken. While I am not for people staying at home, and I think people should find ways to get back to work, I also think people should wear masks while indoors in public. Small outdoor meetings are fine, even without masks, but large outdoor gatherings with closely packed people are dangerous in my opinion. Again because of the ADE issue, I am not in support of the idea of obtaining herd immunity as a way out of the crisis.
Masks: Some have taken away from the video the idea that we should not wear masks. I didn’t get this from the video. Dr. Gold explicitly said she thinks masks should be worn indoors, but not necessarily outside. I agree with this approach.
As you can see, I agree with some aspects of the video, and disagree with others. When possible, study all sides of the issues, and make the best most reasoned choices for you and your family.
My basic rules are as follows:
1) Wear a mask or face covering in public. Avoid places with unmasked people. 2) Keep 6 ft away from others. 3) Avoid indoor gatherings, especially ones in which singing or shouting is likely. 4) Small outdoor gatherings are fine, even without masks, if everyone maintains a distance. Have guests bring their own food. 5) While many restaurants are open for limited indoor seating, I personally am still not comfortable eating indoors at a restaurant. I enjoy eating outdoors at restaurants, however.
Don’t fear, but be smart!
A version of the America’s Frontline Doctors video: NOTE: The below video was removed by YouTube a day after this blog posted.
This is a case update. For the US and California, cases continue to rise. The number of daily deaths have begun to rise as well in the last week, running about 3 weeks behind the rise in daily confirmed cases.
The news is better in San Diego. Daily new cases has flattened and may even be going down. A caution is always that Sunday and Monday are always low days of the week in terms of new cases, so you have to be careful about saying things are getting better on a Tuesday! The number of active cases in San Diego may be flattening as well.
After a spike in cases in Imperial County, east of San Diego, hospitals in El Centro have become overwhelmed and COVID patients are being sent to San Diego, Orange and other counties. This stresses the importance of keeping case loads low so as not to overwhelm hospitals and ICU deparments.
If you’ve reading my posts, you won’t be very surprised by the entries, they are pretty consistent with what I’ve thought myself.
The information was obtained by polling Texas doctors, so the data probably reflects what they know about their own patient’s histories, and also probably some opinion.
Budesonide: A very interesting video was posted last week featuring Dr. Richard Bartlett. He claims to have a very effective new treatment, using a nebulized anti-inflammatory normally for asthma, Budesonide. It will be very interesting to watch if others have success with this method.
The video introduces another topic that is very timely. If you watch the whole video, you’ll notice that Dr. Bartlett has some views about the virus that I don’t share. However, I think the video is still worth watching. Often these days, people dismiss people with whom they disagree on any topic. In reality, it’s very common to be able to take at least some truth from those with whom we disagree. In fact, on complicated topics, I find that with almost anyone I read or watch, even people I respect highly, there is often some topic that I think they’re wrong about. If I refuse to learn from people that I disagree with, I’d have to quit listening to most of the people I respect! With all that’s going on in the US right now, we will need to listen to and learn from all kinds of people to move forward. Even if you disagree, learning a person’s position will help you understand the topic better.
This long post will be a summary of what we have learned so far about the Coronavirus, and I’ll make some predictions about what to expect next. Since I’ll be sharing so much information, I won’t give references for everything here. I also have to make the disclaimer that new studies are constantly being done, and some of the below information may need to be revised later. To make my standard disclaimer, I am not an epidemiologist or a physician. I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and my specialty is infectious disease testing. On much of the below, I have an informed but not expert opinion.
Coronaviruses: Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses unrelated to the flu. What we think of as the common cold, are actually member of several classes of viruses like Adenovirus, RSV viruses, Rhinovirus, and several Coronaviruses. Many Coronaviruses cause diseases no more virulent than the common cold. However, just like novel flus can cause extra trouble, so can novel Coronaviruses. The first SARS virus was much more lethal that the SARS-2 virus, but because SARS had a short incubation period and made almost every infected person sick, it was much easier to contain. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus infects a few people every year, and is very lethal, with a fatality rate of 34%, but it also has not made a global impact. The reason SARS-2 is so dangerous is that it’s VERY infectious (Ro of between 2.5 and 5.7) and has a VERY long incubation time (2-14 days), making it very hard to track. Plus, it’s at least 2x as deadly at the annual flu.
Name: The official name of the virus is SARS-2-CoV (for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-2 CoronaVirus). The official name for the disease it causes is COVID-19 (for COronaVIrus Disease-2019). You may notice that the term SARS actually sounds a lot like a disease. You would be right. So why did they need a different disease name than SARS-2, or SARS-19? I don’t know.
Spread: Early reports were that SARS-2 mostly spread like a flu, with droplets spreading from coughing or sneezing. It became apparent later that the virus was also spread through aerosols by laughing, singing, shouting, or even just talking in close proximity for long periods. As further study was done, it appears that most infected people don’t infect anyone else. Rather, most infections come from “super-spreader” events, in which a single person infects a large group of people. This usually happens indoors (at least 19 times more likely) during activities like fitness classes, funerals, concerts, and choir practices. While outdoor activities aren’t completely immune to these events, they are much more rare.
Viral load upon exposure appears to be an important determinant of how severe a case will be. Basically, this means that if you’re infected by a “low dose” of virus, your disease is likely to be less severe. I have several physician friends who have stated that it seems to them that cases in the hospital are less severe than they used to be. One likely reason for this is that since more people are wearing masks in public than early on, those who are infected are being infected by a lower viral load.
Early studies demonstrated that viable virus can exist on objects for hours or days. However, it does not appear that a substantial number of people are being infected because they have touched a contaminated object.
The WHO made a confusing claim recently that asymptomatic people cannot spread the virus. While this is technically correct, they were not clear that “asymptomatic” is a technical medical term meaning someone who does not have, and will never have, symptoms. Another group is “pre-symptomatic”. These are people who currently don’t have symptoms, but will develop symptoms in a few days. As it turns out, pre-symptomatic people do spread virus, and are likely responsible for up to 80% of new cases. So yes, people without symptoms can and do pass the virus to others.
Risk Factors: Many believe that only old people are at risk. While it’s true that age is a dominant factor, other risk factors are important, and younger people have also experienced severe symptoms. Other risk factors include respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD, heart conditions, kidney conditions, liver disease, diabetes, obesity, auto-immune disease, use of NSAID anti-inflammatory medications, being immunocompromised (HIV infected, undergoing cancer treatment, under medication for a transplant), vitamin-D deficiency, type A blood (Type O appears to be protective), inadequate sleep.
Always check with your doctor before changing your medications. I have an auto-immune disease and take daily anti-inflammatories, but my doctor has advised me to continue taking these unless I experience COVID symptoms.
Make sure your doctor is aware if you have any of the above conditions.
Symptoms: Many people who have SARS-2 experience no symptoms, or experience mild flu symptoms. If you have ANY cold or flu symptoms, contact your doctor and see if you can be tested. If you live in San Diego County, and your doctor cannot offer you a test, call 2-1-1 to get a free test from SD County Public Health. If you have additional symptoms like shortness of breath (you just can’t seem to get enough air), loss of smell or taste, nausea or diarrhea, contact your health care provider or an urgent care immediately.
In severe cases, the virus can do wide spread and permanent damage to multiple organ systems. Early treatment is necessary to prevent the most severe symptoms.
Precautions: While lockdowns may have been effective in the US during the early stages of the pandemic, especially at a time when masks were hard to come by, recent evidence suggests that lockdowns provide only a moderate benefit over other means of control. Here’s what appears to be beneficial:
Masks: Masks are not all the same and some are better than others. Their main benefit is that they stop, reduce, or slow the travel of virus from infected people. This prevents surrounding people from infection, or lowers the viral load of exposure. Some, but not all, also prevent the wearer from inhaling airborne virus. N95 style masks without a valve are best if you can obtain one.
Social Distancing: Aerosolized virus can travel through the air. Staying 6 ft away from others helps prevent infection.
Adequate sleep: Sleep is very important for a wide variety of body functions, including the immune system. Get 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night. A 26 minute power nap during the day is also beneficial if needed.
Vitamin D: Several studies have suggested that patients with the most severe cases of COVID also have the lowest levels of Vitamin D. Because of our often indoor lifestyle, most Americans are Vitamin D deficient to some degree. The best way of getting some Vitamin D is to make it yourself by going outside in shorts and a T-shirt for 30 minutes a day. This is because Vitamin D is manufactured in our skin in response to sunlight. If it’s not practical for you to do this, consider a Vitamin D supplement. Darker skinned people are more likely to be Vitamin D deficient in the US.
Home isolation: If you have cold or flu symptoms, contact your doctor immediately and see if you can get a test. Tests are much more available that early in the pandemic, and you should be able to get a test by request. Also, if at all possible, isolate yourself from the rest of your family until you can be tested as negative. Many new infections are taking place among family members.
Testing: There are several kinds of tests, and they tell you different things.
PCR: These tests use material collected from the nose and need to go to a specialized laboratory for processing. They are very sensitive and specific, and indicate whether the patient is currently infected. This is the most common kind of test.
Antibody: These tests detected antibody from a patient’s blood to see if the patient has been infected for at least a few days. IgG tests may also tell if a patient was infected weeks or months previous, but are no longer infected. Some patients do not mount an immune response that will provide long term antibody.
Isothermal amplification: The Abbott ID Now COVID tests uses this relatively new technology. These tests are similar to PCR and are both sensitive and very fast.
If you have cold or flu symptoms, contact your doctor immediately and see if you can get a test. Testing is much more available than it was early in the pandemic. San Diego County is encouraging anyone who wants a test to be tested.
Treatments: Treatment for COVID is complicated and not all patients can be treated in the same way. Additionally, treatments are evolving rapidly, and your doctor many not treat you in the ways listed below.
Ventilators: Some doctors now state that ventilators carry risks that may be unacceptable for COVID patients. Many doctors now favor a nasal cannula, using ventilators only as a last resort if breathing is labored.
Hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin, Zinc: Several doctors from several countries have reported success with this combination. Studies on the effects of these drugs have as yet still been non-conclusive. Some positive studies suggest that Zinc is the main virus fighter of the treatment, with Hydroxychloroquine allowing better penetration of Zinc into cells. Unfortunately, the debate on the efficacy of this regimen has taken on a strongly political tone, which almost always interferes with the scientific process. Now pundits, as well as scientists, weigh in on this regimen. I’m still holding a “wait and see” posture with this treatment.
MATH+: This regimen uses Methylprednisolone (an anti-inflammatory), Vitamin C, Thymine, and Heparin, as well as optional other treatments including Vitamin D and Zinc. Early reports suggest success with this treatment.
Vaccines: Each spring, scientists learn which flu is likely to be prominent by the following Fall. They make some guesses and create a vaccine for the flu season. The manufacture process takes a few months. But it’s only this short because they already know how to make a flu vaccine. Development of a brand new type of vaccine takes between 4 and 30 years! There are many methods to make a vaccine, and scientists must try many of them before finding one that works. Then they must try the vaccine on patients and make sure they are relatively safe. Every vaccine carries some risk of side effects.
Early estimates for a Coronavirus vaccine were around 18 months. My guess is that this is too optimistic. Personally, I wouldn’t count on a vaccine for at least a few years. In addition, some studies have suggested that Coronavirus vaccines in particular may cause side effects that may make vaccine development challenging. My standard practice for my family is to wait on new drugs for a few years before using them myself. While I pro-vaccine in general, I would personally recommend waiting for a few years before getting a Coronavirus vaccine.
Herd Immunity: Some are promoting herd immunity as a way to move through the crisis faster. The idea of herd immunity was popularized in pre-pandemic discussions on vaccines, promoting the idea that the more people are vaccinated, the more protection for those who can’t be. This is a good idea when a vaccine is available, but not when there is no vaccine. Putting many people in harm’s way to protect fewer others is not wise and is not standard medical practice.
The Future: Of course, it’s impossible to know what will happen next. My initial prediction was that the first wave would be over by July, and at this point, this doesn’t look likely. New confirmed cases have started to rise or rise faster in the 3 areas I monitor most closely, the US, California, and San Diego County, and cases are rising fast in some countries previously unaffected, especially Brazil, Russia, and India. So I’m starting to think we may not be out of the first wave before the Fall season.
In addition, RNA viruses, such as Coronavirus, can mutate very quickly because the proteins used to copy their genomes are very error prone. This means that a virus may change to a new form that can re-infect a person who has already had a previous version. Some reports suggest that this may already be happening with SARS-2. Some good news is that on the very long term (years), novel viruses tend to evolve to be less virulent, because it’s not in the “interest” of the virus to make the host very sick. The message is, we may need to adapt to a new reality for the next few months or years. We can’t really afford to be “locked down” anymore, but mask wearing and elbow bumps may be a part of the landscape for some time.
Yesterday right after I posted, Mark Rasmussen sent me an article that ran in Science Magazine, one of the 2 most highly regarded science journals in the world. It’s a news article, not a peer-reviewed journal article, but it attempts to pull together information from different sources, and I think clarifies the picture regarding SARS-2 viral spread. The take-away message of the article is that while the R0 appears to be between 2.5 and 3 (more on that later), it’s not true that the average individual will pass the virus on to 2 or 3 others. Rather, most infected people don’t pass the virus on to anyone at all, rather a few infected people are “super-spreaders”, infecting a large number of people at once. There are many documented cases of super-spreading, from choir practices, funerals, concerts, fitness classes, and meat packing plants. The commonality appears to be indoor locations with lots of people in a small space, with some of them shouting or singing. While the risk in outdoor venues isn’t zero, indoor venues account for 19 times the number of super-spreading events, according to a Japanese study.
According to the article, SARS-2 has a tendency to cluster in this way more than other respiratory diseases such as the flu or colds. This may be partially because of the “viral load” effect mentioned in the Erin Bromage article I posted on May 12th. In that article, it appears that the initial number of viruses an individual is exposed to partially determined if they will be infected, and how sick they will get. This also explains why so many medical workers in Italy got very sick or died in the early stages of the pandemic. Many medical procedures such as intubation create a bloom of floating virus from a sick patient, exposing unprotected workers to high viral loads.
The science article suggests that while the virus is still dangerous and outdoor venues are not completely without risk, it may be appropriate to relax restrictions on some outdoor activities. So here’s my informed but not expert advice on how to adapt to life with COVID:
Staying at home all the time may no longer be the best approach, although it was probably very helpful in the early stages of the pandemic. Going outside to get some fresh air and exercise is probably a good thing, although still not without risk.
When doing outdoor activities, it’s probably OK to not wear a mask, but maintain at least 6-10 ft from others you don’t live with. Locations with a gentle breeze will help move virus away from you!
At work or shopping, wear a mask when around others to reduce the viral load that you are wafting into air should you be infected without your knowledge. Any reduction in viral load will help.
If you suspect you may have been exposed, contact your physician and see if you can get a test.
If you have a yard, invite a few friends over for lunch or dinner at a safe distance. Since Summer is starting, an evening outdoor dinner will be a welcome break from the isolation. You may want to have your guests bring their own food and utensils. Don’t invite a large number of friends, and sorry to say, don’t invite those friends who can’t resist hugging everyone! Young children may require supervision to be safe.
Now that restaurants are open in California, I would personally only be comfortable with outdoor seating at the moment. If you’re comfortable, visit your favorite local restaurants to give them some business, sit outside, and leave your server a big tip if you’re able!
I am a church goer, and I want to see my peeps again, but singing in a congregation is still a high-risk activity. Churches will need to be creative to open up again safely. Consider lower density services without singing, and/or hold services outdoors.
Regarding the R0 value for SARS-2. I saw a CDC website last week that gave the R0 value as 2.5. After 10 minutes of looking, I couldn’t find this site again. The Sanche paper I’ve referenced before (High Contagiousness and Rapid Spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, EID, July 2020), published in the official CDC journal, Emerging Infectious Disease, gave the R0 as 5.7. So the CDC itself seems confused about what the R0 number is. My guess is, it’s somewhere between 2.5 and 5.7. That was a joke. Obviously, this range is far too large to be useful, and 2.5 and 5.7 are very different as applied to an R0 number. 2.5 is a very infectious disease, 5.7 is a super-infectious disease.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to remind everyone. Herd immunity is only a goal when a vaccine is available. Seeking herd immunity when there is no vaccine is not a good idea, because it will put large numbers of people at risk. Additionally, I am generally very pro-vaccine, but because of the risks of side-effects with this particular virus, a vaccine may not be available for several years. We will need to adapt to this reality. My hope is that we will start seeing daily cases come down this Summer.
Today I’m going to wade into the piranha filled waters of the vaccine discussion. I’m also going to talk about the issue of herd immunity, and my advice for re-opening. I’m not prepared for a discussion of the MRM vaccine that has been raging for the last several years, I’m going to discuss vaccines in general, and the hopes for a COVID vaccine in particular. I will say to start out, that I’m a big fan of vaccination in general, but each vaccine is different, and I may not be in favor of a particular vaccine.
Vaccines: I’m not an immunologist and I haven’t made vaccines myself, I’m just sharing with you what I’ve learned from an informed perspective over the last few months. When I first started sharing about COVID, I said something wrong, that it would take at least a few months to create a vaccine against COVID, which seemed like a long time to many. This was based on the time it takes to develop a flu vaccine every year. In the Spring and Summer, scientists find out that strains are likely to cause flu later that year, and they begin making a vaccine. This process takes several months. As it turns out, it’s only this fast for flu because there is a standard way to make a flu vaccine, they just need to know what strains will be likely to arise in the Winter. And sometimes they are wrong.
Unfortunately, however, there isn’t just one way to make a vaccine. There are many different ways, and it can be different for every virus or bacteria. So for every new infectious disease, a vaccine must be developed from scratch, testing all these different methods. The process can take from 2 to sometimes as long as 30 years! Some scientists have said that Dr. Fauci’s prediction of a vaccine by next Summer is actually very optimistic! In my informed, but not expert opinion, we should not count on a vaccine for this current COVID-19 crisis. However, the vaccine work being done will likely help with future outbreaks. At least part of Dr. Fauci’s optimism is that a lot of red tape is being cut to speed the process, and that’s good, but less development time will also mean more risk for the final product.
Herd immunity: I have heard many people promoting the idea that herd immunity will help us get out of the crisis. Even some governments have been promoting this idea. Herd immunity is a useful discussion for diseases for which there is a vaccine, but in my opinion, it is not something we should be striving for now with COVID. We shouldn’t put a bunch of people in danger to keep fewer different people out of danger. Herd immunity requires a lot of people to be immune, and that number is different for every virus. I’ve heard the numbers 50 – 70% for COVID thrown around. That’s a majority of the population! Why would we risk exposing the majority to the virus to save the minority? To be crass, it’s kind of like saying that once the pool is full of bodies, no one else will drown.
Reopening: More states continue to begin the reopening process. I actually strongly support this, as long as people continue to take care as they interact in public! Even California has entered Phase 1 (CA calls it Stage 2) today, Friday May 8. The stages CA will use, as well, as the announcement for the May 8th reopening were announced by Twitter by the Governor. Not my favorite method of making an official announcement, but there it is. Re-openings have a much higher chance of being successful if we continue to take care! Continue to wear masks in public, and continue to distance when appropriate (see my May 5th post). I’m hopeful that we can advance quickly through the stages if people continue to take precautions. Also, it will be important for us to continue to expand testing, and for businesses to take advantage of expanded testing by screening employees as appropriate. Some municipalities are starting to have drive through testing, including parts of San Diego (you must still have an appointment to be tested). Check with your health care provider or public health department to see if and how you can be tested. Keep watching how other states are doing! We can learn a lot by observing what methods are working, and what methods are not! I predict that outbreaks will occur in places that become relaxed too soon.
2nd Wave: Again, I’m not an epidemiologist, and the following is an informed guess, not an expert assessment. In my informed opinion, we will have second wave in the Fall or Winter, and history suggests it may be more severe than the first wave. But I’m still optimistic. Why? Because I think that with expanded testing, we will be able to test far more broadly this Fall than we could in March and April. This will help us identify and quarantine infected people rapidly, and will help us control the spread much better than in the first wave. For the 2nd wave to go well, we will need to stay diligent!
Friends, I have to moderate my enthusiastic post from a few days ago some good news/bad news information. The good news is, for both the US and California, the rate of new cases is still trending down and is now below 20% for both regions. Unfortunately, even with the lower rate, the total number of new cases is still increasing after a short pause. It is definitely increasing at a slower rate, and that’s good, but increasing nonetheless.
Some have asked, how are these number affected by the new testing? It’s hard to say. The US is definitely doing more testing, and bringing more on line all the time, but our testing is still not adequate to capture all the information we need. There are still certainly a lot of cases we don’t know about, especially among asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people. So even if you don’t have symptoms, it’s still important to keep your distance from others.
Others have asked about the new drug treatments that President has been enthusiastic about. Keep in mind that the medical field is highly regulated, and scientists and regulators are very slow to say a piece of equipment, test, or drug works until rigorous testing has been completed. So is the President right in saying these new drugs show promise, or is Dr. Fauci right in saying we don’t know yet. Well, they both are. The President is being hopeful, citing trials by physicians in other countries and in the US, and Dr. Fauci is expressing caution that the drugs have not been rigorously tested. Both things are true. The FDA recently approved the use of these drugs in trials here, and physicians in the US are always allowed by their credentials to use drugs off label. So testing is being done, and hopefully, we’ll have something that can be used widely soon.