Jul 142021
 

I was looking for something else in my blog when I came across this post of mine from last May, putting my rusty R programming skills to use and producing some maps representing COVID-19 statistics.

Needless to say, the situation is quite different today, but in some ways at least, the more things change the more they remain the same.

The number of cases per million people is up, way up of course.

However, the trend remains the same: the worst numbers come from Europe and the Americas. I still cannot decide if this is a characteristic of COVID-19 or simply a result of more thorough testing and more transparent reporting in liberal democracies.

The death statistic is also similar:

The reddest areas are again the Americas and Europe, including Russia, but also Iran. The encouraging news is that the death rate per million didn’t rise quite as fast as the number of cases per million population. This may indicate that we have become more successful treating people (of course a more sinister possibility is that the most vulnerable, such as the elderly in homes, died first, pushing up last year’s death statistic.)

To see this more clearly, here is the mortality rate, that is, the percentage of deaths per cases:

Last year, North America and Europe, along with China, led the pack. This year, it’s quite different: both North America and Western Europe have fallen behind, which is to say, fewer people who catch COVID-19 actually die.

Another difference of course is that we can now protect ourselves and others around us by getting vaccinated. So please, do not hesitate, do not buy into insane conspiracy theories. Vaccines carry a tiny risk, but so does stepping outside to do your shopping, because you never know when a wayward car might jump the curb and kill you. But vaccines also protect you from a debilitating illness that often cripples even its survivors with lasting health effects. And no, vaccines are not an evil plot by Gates or Soros to get you microchipped; the technology just doesn’t work that way. Similarly, no, 5G cellular technology, which is mostly about using radio waves more efficiently, often with less power than current networks, has nothing to do with biology. Last but not least, whether the virus came from bats or a lab (there is little doubt in the literature that it is of natural origin, but that does not exclude the possibility that it was released from a lab by accident — such accidents are known to have happened even in high biosafety labs around the world) makes no difference: in the end, it can kill or maim you just the same, and the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is through vaccination and responsible behavior (masks, distancing). In short (and with apologies for preaching): it’s not politics, people. It’s epidemiology.

 Posted by at 1:30 pm
Jun 262021
 

My beautiful wife and I both received our second jabs today.

Our first dose was AstraZeneca, but it is now recommended to choose an mRNA vaccine for the second dose. My remaining concern is whether this mixed shot is good enough to enter other countries, the United States in particular, where the AZ vaccine never received emergency FDA approval. We shall see… worst case, I guess, is that we will need a third dose.

 Posted by at 1:37 pm
May 302021
 

A few days ago, I posted an old Far Side cartoon about an accident at a virology lab. It was intended as humor, appropriate in light of the announcement that the US government seeks additional information concerning the possible role of the Wuhan virology lab in the pandemic. This investigation was triggered by the revelation that back in November 2019, researchers from that lab became sick with symptoms similar to those of CODID-19, compounded by secrecy by the Chinese government.

I think this investigation is warranted. I do not prejudge its outcome.

I do feel it is important to mention, however, that there is a difference between engineering a virus vs. releasing a virus. The fact that COVID-19 is not an engineered virus was well-established early on. Conclusions can of course change in the light of new information but I don’t think there is much room for change here. It has all the hallmarks of a virus that jumped from animals to humans (which such viruses, I am told, often do) and none of the hallmarks of a bioengineered virus. So I think in light of that it is quite unlikely that the virus was the result of, e.g., a botched bioweapons experiment or worse yet, an intentional pandemic.

Could it have been accidentally released? That’s another story altogether. The mandate of the Wuhan lab, I understand, is to research illnesses such as SARS or COVID-19. This lab produced many research papers over the years warning the world that a much more serious pandemic than the SARS epidemic is possible, even likely. Those papers were prophetic, but largely unheeded. It would be ironic if the same lab was found responsible in the end for causing the very pandemic that it tried to help prevent, and if the Chinese government played a role in suppressing information that, early on, could have saved many lives, they should be held responsible.

But for now, we don’t know if any of this is true. The Far Side cartoon was not intended to imply anything. It is just… funny, and uncannily prophetic. Just like the Wuhan lab’s research papers from years past.

 Posted by at 11:51 am
Apr 282021
 

The CBC just published a very informative article on the history of vaccine manufacturing in Canada, explaining why this G7 country, one of the top industrialized nations on Earth, is entirely dependent on imports when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.

It really is disgraceful. Canada’s Connaught Labs, founded in 1914, was at the forefront of global vaccine production for many decades.

But then came the decline. Vaccine production is not always a profitable enterprise. Connaught Labs was eventually nationalized by Pierre Trudeau’s government but then, as far as I am concerned inexplicably, the emphasis for this now Crown corporation was to turn a profit!

Why???

Eventually, it was reprivatized by Mr. Mulroney, who promised that the action will bring “net benefits” to Canadians.

Yeah, right.

The federal government is now investing serious monies to expand capabilities for future pandemics. I can only hope that this lesson is not going to be forgotten anytime soon.

 Posted by at 11:34 am
Apr 142021
 

Our vaccination appointment is booked. Yippie!

Yes, it is the AstraZeneca vaccine. No, I am not concerned about blood clots. The risks are very small, and are far outweighed by the benefits of becoming vaccinated. (Our family doctor enthusiastically agrees.)

 Posted by at 4:22 pm
Feb 062021
 

In recent days, especially in light of the sudden drop in vaccine deliveries in Canada, I saw a lot of criticism aimed at the Canadian government and its perceived failure to secure vaccine supplies or vaccine manufacturing in Canada.

Reality is a little bit more nuanced. Manufacturing a 21st century vaccine is not exactly something that can be done anywhere. The fact that Canada doesn’t presently have the expertise or infrastructure is lamentable but that’s the result of a decades-long trend, not the decisions of the past several months.

Meanwhile in Hungary, Orban’s government is criticized for telling people that they will be vaccinated with whichever vaccine is available at the time; if you don’t like the vaccine being offered, you’re sent to the back of the line. A bit harsh, to be sure, but this is a bleeping global health emergency. Orban’s government may be criticized for acting in haste when they approved the Chinese and Russian vaccines (although the Russian vaccine seems effective; the Chinese vaccine is probably also fine, what is questionable is the ethical shortcuts they took with the testing and approval process). But acting in an authoritarian fashion when there is a global health emergency is precisely what even the most liberal, most democratic governments are expected to do. Orban can, and should, be criticized for undermining the country’s democratic institutions, its press freedoms, its judicial independence, its constitutional principles, but not for acting decisively when decisive action is needed during a pandemic.

 Posted by at 6:29 pm
Jan 262021
 

Today, I had to widen a column in an Excel spreadsheet in which I record some numbers.

It is a spreadsheet that I use to keep track of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The actual number of cases is likely much higher, since systematic testing is not available everywhere, and even where it is, people with milder symptoms or no symptoms at all may not get tested.

This number is also accompanied by the number of known COVID-19 fatalities: well over 2 million and counting, with the end nowhere in sight. COVID-19 may yet put the Spanish Flu to shame, despite a century of progress in medical science, despite the scientific miracle of rapidly developed, engineered I should say, mRNA vaccines.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Dec 242020
 

Tonight, this view of earthrise from the historical Christmas flight around the Moon by Apollo 8 seems and feels especially profound.

We are all in this together on our tiny blue marble. For now, hunkered down, but not beaten. As a result of 21st century science and an incredible push by researchers, we now have working vaccines that will soon be distributed to millions, starting with health care workers and the most vulnerable. Who could ask for a better Christmas present? And even amidst all this, we can still share a joke, as people from Romania to New Zealand, from Canada to Iran erect copycat versions of the famous Utah monolith.

[G]ood night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
– Frank Borman, Apollo 8 mission commander

There is hope for us in 2021 on this good Earth.

 Posted by at 12:35 pm
Nov 192020
 

It was less than three weeks ago that I blogged about a terrifying milestone: the number of new COVID-19 cases reached 100,000 a day in the great United States.

And now here we are today, with over 192,000 new cases registered in the past 24 hours.

Frankly, this is beyond terrifying, especially considering the horrific stories of many COVID-19 survivors about the debilitating consequences of this disease.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Oct 312020
 

Would you like me to scare you into offering me some Halloween candy?

Here are some plots from the spreadsheet that I’ve been using to keep track of COVID-19 numbers since the spring.

I am tracking global figures, numbers in the US, Canada, the province of Ontario and my city Ottawa, as well as the country of my birth (and where our elderly parents live), Hungary.

The number of cases needs no explanation. The trends are not good. Hungary, in particular, appears to be a representative case of Europe in general, where the numbers began skyrocketing in recent weeks, per capita figures far exceeding those in Trump’s America. (So perhaps it’s not politics, after all.)

The daily growth rates are also alarming. The only place with a downward trend is Ottawa. Everywhere else, the growth rate is increasing. A constant growth rate in this chart would correspond to an exponential rise in the total number of cases; an increasing growth rate implies super-exponential behavior.

This is also reflected in the doubling rate. In this chart, the higher the number, the better; a high number of days means that the spread is slow. Again, with the exception of Ottawa, the numbers are trending downward (which is bad), or at best, are perhaps stagnating (in Canada and Ontario). And look at Hungary again! According to the latest data, the number of cases there doubles every 16-17 days or so, which is frightening.

These charts show seven-day averages. Again, the usual disclaimers apply. Country-to-country comparisons need to be made with care, due to differences in testing and reporting regimes. But the trends are another matter.

 Posted by at 1:14 pm
Oct 302020
 

The latest figures from the United States are scarier than ever. It appears Dr. Fauci was right when he predicted that the daily number of new cases will reach 100,000; according to the World-o-meter data that I’ve been following, there have been 101,461 new cases in the US today.

Does this mean that the United States officially qualifies as a “shithole country” with regards to how it manages the pandemic?

Not so fast.

Per capita, these figures mean 306 new cases per million people in the past 24 hours.

But look. Here’s my country of birth, Hungary. They were doing well until they weren’t. In the past 24 hours, they produced 3,286 infections. For a country with only 9.65 million people, that’s a lot. So much, in fact, that at 340 cases per million people, they are actually ahead of the United States. (What a relief: America is not number one.)

And wait! Before you jump to the conclusion that Mr. Orban’s illiberal populism is to blame, look at France. In the past 24 hours, they produced a staggering 49,215 new infections. Granted, that’s less than half the number of new cases in the US. But they only have less than one fifth the population! So per capita, their figures translate into a truly whopping 754 new cases per million people.

So perhaps it’s not politics, after all.

None of that excuses Mr. Trump as he mocks experts and holds “super spreader” campaign events. Perhaps 306 is less than 340 or 754, but it is still a lot of people. And as a result, around a thousand Americans die every day who could otherwise have lived. Clearly, the country could do a better job.

Canada, too. Perhaps our statistics look better than American statistics, but there is no room for complacency. This second wave is hitting us hard, much harder than the spring outbreak, and there is no sign of it ending anytime soon. On the national level, the rate of new infections is below 100 per million people, but it’s much higher in hotspots. Today’s breaking news: The province of Manitoba registered 350 cases per million, exceeding the US average.

A vaccine may or may not be coming soon. Even if it does, it will likely be imperfect, offering limited immunity. And it will take months for a mass vaccination program to reach the requisite level for vaccine-induced “herd immunity”. Long story short, the end is not yet in sight. This is likely going to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better.

But it’s not politics, people. Wear those damn masks. Wash your hands. Keep away from other people. Resist the temptation to visit grandma on her birthday or hold a large Christmas family dinner. For crying out loud, this is not some backdoor to communism. You are not a lesser human, a less manly man if you wear a mask and keep your “social distance”. This is centuries-old science, which is how human society was able to cope with past epidemics. Ignore it and you may be directly responsible for infecting, perhaps crippling, even killing your loved ones.

 Posted by at 9:55 pm
Oct 302020
 

I don’t usually write about such matters, but a letter like this one is always a nice one to get even when there is no raging pandemic:

Let this serve as a public service reminder: If you are, like me, in your fifties, especially if you are a male, with a sedentary lifestyle (spending your days in your office chair), perhaps overweight: You are at risk. Early detection may mean the difference between surviving to a ripe old age in good health vs. dying before you get to enjoy life as a pensioner.

 Posted by at 5:53 pm
Oct 192020
 

Since when is listening to the scientists a bad thing?

Now as to the claim that if he listened to the scientists, he’d have tanked the economy… here is what Mr. Trump’s pandemic response accomplished with respect to the US economy:

Compare this against China, where the totalitarian government, to their credit, actually listened to the scientists:

Even Canada, with a much less spectacular pre-pandemic economic performance than the United States, fared much better than our southern neighbor on which much of our economy depends:

So I suppose, Mr. Trump, you just gave millions of thinking Americans another reason to vote for Mr. Biden. I’d laugh but… neither the state of the US economy nor the number of dead, rapidly approaching a quarter million, qualify as laughing matter. Not to mention the seemingly inevitable march towards an increasingly illiberal, increasingly authoritarian America, driven by structural causes that go back decades and which a Biden Administration is just as unlikely to address as preceding administrations.

 Posted by at 1:21 pm
Sep 102020
 

In the last few days, I was:

  1. scolded in one Facebook group, when I commented on a post and made a mention of other personalities (who are not directly connected to the topic of the group), intended to serve as examples showing that the issue being discussed was a much broader one;
  2. had a repost of mine of a funny image to a humor group unceremoniously deleted, for supposedly reposting “ad nauseam” something that I have not yet seen in that group since I became a member a few months ago.

Yes, I know, discussion group moderation is a thankless task. Been there, done that.

But, as I often reminded all-powerful witches and wizards in our favorite MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) games, there is no point overdoing the policing. It sucks away the fun for everyone. By all means, step in and police blatant violations… but also be wise and know when it is more appropriate not to notice things, even when they technically qualify as infractions. The goal, simply put, is to make things fun for everyone, not to enforce rules at all costs. In short, rules exist for our convenience, not the other way around.

If only people were this conscientious when it comes to pandemic-related rules for social distancing and wearing masks… Rules that are there, you know, because they actually save lives?

Oh well. Done ranting for the day.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Sep 042020
 

This is intriguing. Thanks to a recently published study, we may now know better why COVID-19 wreaks havoc with the human body, and perhaps know a little better how best to treat the illness.

I am generally wary when it comes to research that relies heavily on computer codes. I have zero experience in medicine or molecular biology, but when it comes to physics, I’ve seen unjustified reliance on computer programs that were treated as opaque black boxes and which, when I looked at the source code closely, turned out to contain code that was not particularly well written, difficult to decipher, and obviously not subjected to proper quality control by experienced IT professionals. I have no reason to believe that the situation is any better in other fields, such as medicine.

But in this case, the mechanism that they are uncovering actually makes sense. The “bradykinin hypothesis” basically amounts to the discovery that COVID-19 messes with the very receptors that allow it to enter the body in the first place: it hypersensitizes these so-called ACE2 receptors, which in turn suppresses the breaking down of bradykinin, a chemical that regulates blood pressure. The resulting runaway buildup, the “bradykinin storm“, causes blood vessels to leak, the lungs to fill up with fluid (gel-like, to make things worse, and to make ventilators less effective) and even lead to neurological effects, in part because of a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier.

All this sounds quite horrible, and it is, but understanding it can also lead to better treatment. Medications to deal with a bradykinin storm are readily available. And something as mundane as Vitamin-D can be immensely helpful.

Related to this, I read also that COVID-19 can mess with the thyroid gland. This is of obvious concern to me, as I’ve been taking thyroid medication for hypothyroidism for decades. I was relieved to learn that a pre-existing thyroid condition does not seem to cause complications.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Aug 062020
 

I know, I know, the idea is far from original, and I feel compelled to apologize for turning tragedies into a form of dark humor but still, this calendar that I made last night accurately sums up how I feel about this glorious year of 2020:

And I didn’t even include everything (e.g., BLM protests and accompanying riots). But then, there are nearly five more months to go… plenty of time for more stuff to happen, even without aliens or killer asteroids. Or a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Yes, let’s just say, I am mildly concerned.

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Jul 112020
 

Today’s editorial cartoon in the Toronto Star perfectly captures how many Canadians, myself included, feel about the Canada-US border:

What can I say. Things are not looking good in Trumpia. In fact, things are looking so bad that after months of denial, even the narcissist-in-chief decided to wear a bleeping mask today while visiting a hospital.

I have been trying to remember why the American attitudes towards COVID-19 felt vaguely but strangely familiar. It just hit me. It was the 1970s oil crisis, and the general attitude by leaders in the former Soviet Bloc. This was a crisis of the decadent capitalist West, they told us. The pandemic of fuel shortages, mile long lines at gas stations, high energy prices would not reach us, they told us. Well… they were wrong. Just like those Americans who refuse to wear masks, who refuse to take precautions, who refuse to accept the need to shut down nonessential businesses, because, you know, it’s just like a bad case of the flu…

 Posted by at 11:49 pm
Jul 082020
 

I grew up in a country with closed borders. I despise closed borders. I find the right to travel, unimpeded, almost as fundamental as the right to breathe.

Yet… For the time being, I support fully the closure of the US-Canada border. As a matter of fact, I wish it was kept even more tightly closed.

Here is why.

What Americans are doing to themselves is unfathomable. That they have an narcissist idiot, an incompetent imbecile running the White House is one thing. But all the other idiots, from state governors to individual citizens, who ignore the threat, cheer as their nation abandons the World Health Organization, even condemn their immunocompromised children to death?

When you live next to a lunatic asylum, you do want to keep your front door under lock and key.

 Posted by at 1:48 am