Pandemic News: Another Treatment Candidate

This is preliminary data from a combined Phase 2/3 clinical trial, so they are still confirming the dosing along with the tolerance, but the preliminary results from this Pfizer trial are even better than those from the Merck drug. Which suggests that COVID may soon be something that is survive-able for more people!

An 89% reduction is AMAZING, and it will be good to see what the final analysis shows.

This warms my heart. We could all use some more hope for better outcomes with this terrible pandemic.

Pandemic Life: Ongoing (with Progress)

This is where I have to decide: am I just interpreting the news favorably because I need some good news? Or is it actually good?

It’s a mixed bag.

I am thrilled that there is a drug for the treatment of COVID, which can decrease the symptoms and speed recovery. Merck’s Phase 3 study of molnupiravir showed a 50% reduction in hospitalization and death, which is dramatic. This investigational drug is already emergency-authorized in the UK, and is being reviewed for use in the US.

I’m looking forward to seeing it on the US FDA’s list of emergency authorizations for this crisis. (The list is a bit depressing, because you see statements like that first footnote: “1 The virus that causes COVID-19 has led to an increased number of patients requiring critical care, such as  with severe respiratory illness. As a result, there is a shortage of adequate, FDA-approved  drugs used for their treatment, such as propofol for sedation of mechanically ventilated patients.” The idea that there is a shortage of common sedatives because of this crisis is a reminder of how broad the impacts are…)

We need more where that came from! There are other medicines in the pipeline, which I get to read about in the local pharma news summaries, and while reading about a vaccine company where a friend works. I would like this progress to be celebrated more widely, or at least recognized, though I understand that the emphasis is, and should be, on getting everyone vaccinated. (Additional vaccines are in development, also!)

My European friends are frustrated. Cases are shooting up in Europe (Germany is setting new 50k daily records (my friends there complain about the inconsistent and seemingly performative guidance there), and the Netherlands are considering another light lockdown as hospitals fill (my friend there wants to go to some educational events, and is hoping that will still be possible).

Since I’m writing from the country with the highest cumulative number of cases and deaths, I see lots of reasons for optimism elsewhere, because other countries are doing so well relative to us!! [Laugh/cry here]. A country with a fraction of our infection rate is high on my tourist destination list, and I hope they will open for vaccinated tourism in early 2022 so I can go.

~ * ~

These zoonotic diseases continue to make me resent consumers of animals, who bring these illnesses into human populations and affect all of us.

One of the stranger articles on the animal-impact theme is that Americans are infecting deer with COVID, and the illness is now raging through deer populations without our noticing. Which is just another population for it to potentially mutate in…

I wish humans learned faster!

~ * ~

My daily life is relatively conventional now, in terms of being able to get where I need to go on transit, being able to keep supplied in basic household goods, getting medical appointments for routine check ups, and such.

My City isn’t fully recovered. There are still many boarded-up storefronts. There are still For Lease signs up in even those posh shopping districts with brands I’ve never understood. (You can see all the way through some fancy shops and out into Maiden Lane in spaces that have not been vacant in my lifetime…) There is still a fleet of “recreational vehicles” serving as housing at unprecedented densities in certain locations. There are still too few shelters for the people who need them, with prior progress being undone by health distancing requirements. Some hotels and restaurants remain closed, especially those that catered to professional conferences in my once-conference-filled town.

The impacts of evolving remote work policies will also take a long time to sort out.

~ * ~

I’m happy for the new medicines, the flexibility the FDA has shown, the large number of medicines still in development, and regional improvements in infection rates. I’ll try to dwell on these things.

Pandemic: Another Way to Count the Losses

Some data sticklers find the tally of official COVID-19 deaths to be too simple. It doesn’t really show the impact of all the deaths. Another way to look at the losses would be to calculate how many YEARS of life have been lost, to demonstrate that the loss of the elderly and the loss of the young have different impacts on society.

The totals are high:

I think this approach is thoughtful. This is much like the study of how many children have lost parents due to this pandemic, how we need to think of the impact this has on them, and how we can respond.

I’m hoping these different ways of looking at the impacts on us can generate some more practical responses and ideas on how our societies can recover from this devastation in a healthy way.

Pandemic News: 5 Million Global Deaths

It’s been about 19 months, and we’ve lost SO MANY HUMANS. 8-0

5 Million is a large number of deaths in the age of modern medicine (which not everyone has access to, yet there has been a history of successful, big interventions; also, this is just the OFFICIAL number).

The news right now is focused on the other major crisis, the climate emergency, which also deserves plenty of attention. It similarly has an element of high threat, as disasters break out around the world in new extremes.

The two combined are a lot to process. And that’s before we get to the rise of authoritarianism and fascism that we are also struggling with here in the U.S., and the weird denial of both the pandemic and the climate emergency from both the same crowd AND random, persuaded stragglers. It’s not just that circumstances beyond our control are tough, but people are choosing to make both things worse, and their bad intentions are difficult to bear.

I appreciate articles like this one, about the sense of being on edge during this extraordinarily difficult time:

Overwrought is a good word.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to everyone around you! Now, but also always!

*

Recent hints of positive change feel extremely precious. I love seeing people enjoying the outdoors, chatting, and having positive interactions after so much isolation. I enjoyed the live stream of the Outside Lands outdoor music festival, and bought three albums after being impressed by the performers. I’ve enjoyed misty walks and have eaten indoors with friends.

I’m looking forward to planned restaurant openings that will fill spaces left vacant since early in the pandemic, and seeing the new businesses that have sprouted up already.

There are some visible business adjustments to the so-called “New Normal” of remote work. A luxury office furniture company opened a showroom/shop in a residential area, which makes sense because remote work needs to be ergonomic – their shop is a commitment to the business of proper home offices. The maker of my computer hardware had a promotional event that touted some outrageously powerful laptops, a product line that is a practical concession to effective remote work across more industries requiring more computing power than the average laptop. (Laptops are also easier for corporate IT to support than desktops – just mail them in when there is a problem!). My mailbox has more ‘we’re reopening’ type messages from a range of businesses that had been waiting for people to re-emerge into public life. Like the cicadas, people are emerging!

It’s good to have positive, vaccinated social and routine activities to look forward to.

*

P.S. Yes, I know that the excess death rates are much higher than the official ones, but until recently, I had only seen that figure for a few countries. The Economist has an excess model for the world: they think the figure of both COVID deaths and impacts of COVID on access to care push the number closer to 17 million.

Pandemic Life: Just Before Halloween

I have a really bad case of wanderlust. Dates are being published for opening more and more things up for travel. Things ARE getting better. My airlines are sending me sunny newsletters about all the places I should go with them. And yet…we’re still losing more than A THOUSAND PEOPLE A DAY in the U.S.

From: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailydeaths captured just now. Yikes.

It feels so… strange to be having such optimistic conversations, though the downward curve is quite welcome.

The graph just has scary numbers on the y-axis.

My pen friends in Europe are telling me that everything is great, but there’s a slight delay in their letters, so they aren’t looking at the data that I’m seeing. Which says that cases are up globally after a decline we were hoping would stick, and that cases are up 18% in Europe alone.

Wanderlust or no, I’m… not leaving the country anytime soon. 🙁

Book: A Crack In Creation by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg

See how the letters in yellow are all DNA-related?
Adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. (Like in the movie GATTACA.)

Book: A Crack In Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution
by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
published by Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York
2017

Imagine not only having the scientific skills to be recognized with a Nobel Prize, but also the communication ability to explain the scientific landscape context in which you did it, AND the basics of the science? You don’t have to just imagine it: you can read this book!

Doudna and Sternberg describe this important technology well. My own limited summary of what they’ve proven would be: bacterial chromosomes store DNA snippets of viruses they encounter, which they use to mount a precise defense against viruses; the way they store the information is so consistent that it works like a programming language; and these precision DNA-targeting defenses are useful for scientists to make precise modifications to DNA.

This impressive book describes past and current developments in genetic editing, tools and approaches (including Zinc Finger Nucleases and Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases), what other scientists were discovering, and Doudna’s work with many collaborators on developing CRISPR Cas9 into a useful tool for human scientists. I appreciate the authors’ work in identifying and crediting other actors in this space, and how the collective contributions to overall knowledge supported further discoveries.

Doudna and Sternberg write clearly about very complex topics, and do a great job of covering this technology at a high enough level that non-biochemist readers can grasp the general concepts without needing to fully understand the mechanics of it all. (There were times when they were working on one problem, and tested it by developing a tool that seemed just as hard as the problem they were trying to address, which both impressed and surprised me, catching me up further to the current state of what is possible. )

The book continues beyond the science of how CRISPR Cas9 works into the ethical implications of being able to impact our own evolution, which is a discussion Doudna is actively promoting. The book suggests that the scientific community’s expanding knowledge of genetic disorders appears to be pointing toward good, single-mutation candidates for potential therapeutic treatments in humans, but that more complex conditions would require other solutions, and that we need much more data – and some difficult ethical conversations – to determine whether to change human genes in an inheritable way.

I did object to a few positions in the book which speculated on using technology to favor business interests over consumer demands, the environment, and animal welfare. These positions may attract investment from “Big Ag” while turning off the public.
Doudna compares CRISPR to Big Ag’s Genetically Modified Organism campaigns, and blames consumers for not embracing the self-serving objectives of Ag corporations. The industry modifications were intended to consolidate business, not benefit consumers or meet any specific consumer demand. Consumers should not be expected to embrace products which do not directly benefit them. Various national laws, including those in the EU and India, have recognized that GMO use is not a purely scientific matter, but one of industry consolidation and domination, and one which has environmental impacts.
While the UN Climate organizations are advising us to dramatically reduce animal agriculture, the authors here see engineering animals to eat more favorably than our global crisis or public health require.
The concept of animal welfare is raised but not meaningfully addressed, or is addressed in an industry-over-animals point of view. (Writing on animal welfare should NOT make me think of internet jokes about inert monsters produced for fast food chains!)

CRISPR Cas9 has vast potential as a tool to improve human health in the area of genetic diseases – what a time to be alive! – and the complex process of determining appropriate priorities and ethical frames for this important work still lie ahead. This is a clear, thoughtful, informative book for learning more about this technology and the ethical concerns this technology creates.

Pandemic Life: Humans are Strange

The biggest news today is that the Food and Drug Administration officially FULLY approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for adult use against COVID, which is a big deal. It doesn’t change our access to it here in the U.S., it just shows people who claimed their reluctance was based on the vaccine’s lack of full approval that their concerns have been alleviated. If that was their actual concern.

Meanwhile, the same FDA had to say this.

Somehow, American adults who don’t trust the vaccine specifically to protect humans against COVID do trust a livestock deworming medication which is neither for humans nor for COVID.

I do not understand this.

Old person story: Kids used to try to persuade their parents to let them do something because all of their friends were doing it, and parents used to reply by asking if they would jump off a bridge if their friends did it, which was supposed to make a point about blind conformity… but… now I suspect some of those kids could counter with, “Like the time you took horse de-worming medication to treat an unrelated illness because of something you read on Facebook? “ Which would make their parents go quiet.

The World Health Organization has been compiling the wacky things people think, to correct their strange confusion. Their myth-busting page is here:

My favorite, because it is about tasty food, is:

FACT: Peppers are tasty!

Stamps: Sun Science

These are gorgeous and science-y and geeky all at the same time.

The US Postal Service has released images of the sun in different wavelengths of light, which you can buy online or at your local post office. They are SUPERB.

(You were expecting me to write about the Star Wars Droid stamps, but I won’t indulge you. Ha!)

Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
published by Crown; audiobook published by Penguin Random House
2010

OH MY GOODNESS, THIS BOOK. This book is several books in one. At least.

This is a book about the dawn of cell culture, and the scientific beginnings of being able to keep human cells alive outside the body. This ties directly to the biotechnology industry I work in, and provides a history of early techniques and advances that I didn’t know I needed to know!

This is a book about the lives of American Blacks in or from the 1950s American South, the struggles of people too poor to leave the lands on which their ancestors were slaves, the burdens on women who lived with older male cousins who molested them, and the social hierarchies that followed those who left to the north, where no one questioned doctors. (I have never been more grateful that my Black ancestors fled to the midwest… Thank you, grandma!)

(Please note that I am bi-racial, and my family uses Black more than African-American in our self-descriptions; you’ll see me switch between these terms, and sometimes switch cases (Black or black) in my writing.)

This is also a book about remarkable scientific advances that occurred in during an ethically horrific era, in which studies were performed on people, especially African-Americans and institutionalized people, without their consent.

And of a highly ethical, profoundly curious, deeply committed biologist who wanted to know where HeLa cells REALLY came from, and worked for years with the family of Henrietta Lacks to learn the human story behind the cells.

This book is an emotional roller coaster! From scientific research challenges, to scientists sharing technology freely, to religious Lacks family members who feared their relative was being cloned and that her soul would never rest, to disabled children suffering through medical experiments their families didn’t consent to, to temperamental collaborators, this isn’t the story I was expecting, but it was a remarkable tale, and the audio books was produced to be an amazing ‘listen.’

I recommend this book highly for anyone interested in cell culture, biotechnology, genetic rights, the horrors of mental institutions for the poor, informed consent, being black in the 1950s in the US, and science sleuthing! Sloot does an amazing job of telling the story of writing the book within the book, which is a true adventure. What an author! What a researcher!

News: Johns Hopkins Vaccine News Hub

There is now enough good vaccine news that Johns Hopkins has a page devoted to these developments.

Here in the U.S., the vaccines I’m reading about daily and which give me encouragement are made by: (a) Pfizer and BioNTech, (b) Moderna, and (c) AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Vaccines in Russia and China are also ‘in play,’ which is hugely beneficial for the world, since as many nations as possible need to contribute solutions and ensure they are available globally.