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
Jun 252020
 

Here are the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases per day, here in the province of Ontario:

In the whole of Canada:

In the great United States:

And in the entire world:

The plots tell the story. I don’t think that there is anything that I can add.

 Posted by at 10:26 pm
Jun 162020
 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Parliament of Hungary granted Viktor Orban’s government extraordinary powers to rule by decree. Opponents likened this to the infamous “enabling act” that marked the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

In response, Mr. Orban and his supporters argued that the government has no intention of abusing these powers, and that Mr. Orban should be judged by how he relinquishes these extraordinary powers once the crisis is over.

So here it is: Parliament just voted to end the state of emergency and requested the government to take the necessary steps to return to normalcy. So far so good. The corresponding act of Parliament is short and sweet, and to the point. The legal part of the text is only four terse clauses. In my translation:

1. The Legislature requests the government to end, in accordance with section 54, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, the state of emergency that was declared in government decree 40/2020 (March 11) (henceforth: the state of emergency).

2. The act of Parliament concerning measures against the coronavirus, Bill 12 (2020), is no longer in force.

3. (1) The present act – with the exceptions defined in paragraph (2) – shall be considered in force the day after it is proclaimed.

(2) Clauses 2 and 4 shall be considered in force when the state of emergency ends.

(3) The calendar day when clauses 2 and 4 shall be considered in force will be decided by the Prime Minister as soon as the date is known, by immediately proclaiming the date in the Hungarian Gazette.

4. Clause 2 of this bill, in accordance with section 29, paragraph 3; section 2, paragraph 1; section 24, paragraph 9, section 31, paragraphy 3; section 35, paragrapha 1; and section 54, paragraph 4, is considered fundamental.

All looks kosher, right?

But just in case you are still paying attention… there was also a second bill on the table. It has an unassuming title: “About the rules of transition concerning the end of the state of emergency and health preparedness”. Seems eminently reasonable, since under the state of emergency, the government has taken many steps, all of which must be reconciled with the system of laws and regulations.

And there is a lot. This supplementary bill is not four pages. It is 247 (two hundred forty seven) pages in PDF form. Yikes!

And on page 135, we read clause 97:

97. Changes to Bill 128 of 2011 concerning emergency preparedness and modifications of related laws

§339 Section 5 of Bill 128 of 2011 concerning emergency preparedness and modifications of related laws will be amended by the following subclause 24/A:

“24/A Emergency acts of government in case of a state of emergency concerning a human epidemic causing mass rates of infection”

§51/A. (1) The Government, in order to prevent, or mitigate the consequences of, a human epidemic that causes mass rates of infection, threatening lives and property, in order to protect the health and life of citizens of Hungary in a declared state of emergency – in addition to the emergency measures and rules described in subclauses 21-24 – in order to guarantee the lives, health, personal security, security of property, and legal protection of citizens and the stability of the national economy, may, by decree, suspend certain laws, deviate from existing laws and make other extraordinary decisions.

(2) The Government may practice the authority prescribed in paragraph (1) – to the necessary extent, in proportion with the desired outcome – in order to prevent, deal with, and eliminate an epidemic, and furthermore, to prevent or avoid such an outbreak.

There you have it. There are many other clauses concerning other laws, and most seem quite reasonable and appropriate considering the circumstances. But this one?

I highlighted the problem text in red. The law gives the government extraordinary powers. But, though the words seem reassuring on the surface, it offers no checks and balances concerning any justification of invoking these powers and the extent to which they are practiced. In the right hands, these are powers that can be used wisely in case of another pandemic or a resurgence of COVID-19, and I am sure Mr. Orban’s supporters believe that this is precisely how the government will use these powers (if at all). But opponents of Mr. Orban are concerned, not without grounds, about the lack of checks and balances and the very real possibility that these powers can go unchecked in the wrong hands.

In short, this is precisely what many feared: That though the state of emergency is lifted, a backdoor remains, a means for Mr. Orban’s government to have its cake and eat it, too, relinquish its extraordinary powers yet keeping them at the same time.

In the end, it of course all depends on how the law is put into practice. But for now, my conclusion is that the concerns of Mr. Orban’s opposition are not unfounded.

 Posted by at 6:19 pm
Jun 022020
 

I don’t always like commercial publishers. Some of their textbooks are prohibitively expensive, yet often lacking in quality. (One persistent exception is Dover Publications, who published some of the best textbooks I own, as low-cost paperbacks.)

Last night, however, I was very pleasantly surprised by Springer, who made several hundred textbooks across a range of disciplines available for free, on account of COVID-19.

I did not get greedy. I didn’t download titles indiscriminately. But I did find several titles that are of interest to me, and I gladly took advantage of this opportunity.

Thank you, Springer.

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
May 242020
 

Still playing with some COVID-19 maps, so here is another one: This one ranks countries by the number of COVID-19 cases per 1,000 square kilometers.

What’s the point, you might ask? Well, when there are lots of people confined to a small area, even a few cases can mean trouble; in contrast, when you have many cases but spread over half a continent, you may never come across a single infected person in your travels.

Again, the color legend remains a little whacky; it is logarithmic, but I don’t know how to convince this R package to display it nicely.

The numbers are pretty high. It goes without saying that densely populated microstates like Monaco win the contest, but then there is Qatar (3494), Belgium (1866), the Netherlands (1324), the UK (1051)… numbers that are way too high. For comparison, the USA is at 180, Hungary at 41, Russia at 20 (no surprise there), China at 9 (!), and so is Canada.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
May 232020
 

Maps that show the spread and mortality rate of COVID-19 are worrisome, to say the least.

So here is something slightly more encouraging: the day-to-day growth rate of COVID-19 infections, in the world, the United States, Canada, and the province of Ontario where I live.

What this plot shows is that the growth rate has been consistently and steadily decreasing (note that the vertical axis is logarithmic). Furthermore, the overall behavior of the worldwide, US, and Canadian plots is remarkable similar.

Of course this plot is also a reflection of the fact that the cumulative number of cases increases, so even if the number of new cases remains steady, the growth rate will indeed decrease. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that at least for now, the pandemic’s exponential spread has been arrested.  This can, of course, change for the worse quite dramatically if we lose our collective patience and start relaxing too soon.

 Posted by at 10:18 pm
May 232020
 

I suppose the most important thing to know about COVID-19 is not so much the total number of cases or deaths, but the number of cases or deaths per million people. A number like 1,000 deaths is huge in a country of one million, a drop in the bucket in a country like India or China.

In that vein, I produced two maps using my rather rusty R programming skills. I am sure I could have done a better job labeling the legend, but there is only so much time I wanted to spend on this. The color bar legend is logarithmic between its two end values.

First, the cumulative number of cases per million people (May 22 data):

Next, deaths per million:

Not a pretty picture. It appears that the countries that are the most disproportionately affected (or the most likely to offer accurate reports?) are in Europe (including Russia), North and South America and the Middle East.

But now, here is perhaps the scariest map of all:

Yes, in many countries more than 10% of the confirmed cases result in death. The global average is 6.4 per 100 confirmed cases. The fact that COVID-19 is deadly in countries with underdeveloped health care systems is perhaps understandable, but the fact that the reddest parts of the map are places with the most sophisticated health care systems in the world is food for thought.

 Posted by at 7:25 pm
Apr 152020
 

Just as things are beginning to look ever so slightly hopeful with infection rates at least stabilizing, conspiracy theorists are now having a field day.

In case you are wondering, we “know” that SARS-CoV-2 was manufactured (or at least released) by that Wuhan “bioweapons” lab, as its intended purpose was to weaken China’s strategic opponents, in particular the US military, so that they can mess with Taiwan. And even more blatantly, they did so using in part funding from the United States, according to information that was “just revealed”. And all in the service of some demonic Chinese plot to achieve some nefarious goal, such as the subjugation of the renegade province of Taiwan.

Like all good conspiracy theories, this nonsense is also based on a carefully picked set of selected facts. So much so that it reminds me of those old Soviet-era Radio Yerevan jokes.

Meanwhile in the real world…

  1. We know that SARS-CoV-2 is “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. [Andersen, K.G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W.I. et al. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med 26, 450–452 (2020).]
  2. The funding provided in part by the NIH was never a secret in the first place. The funding source is explicitly listed in research published by scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And while the research was indeed about SARS-related coronaviruses, its aim was (and remains) to help prevent or mitigate the illness, not cause it. In fact, some of the recipients of this grant went so far as to warn us that their “work provides new insights into the origin and evolution of SARS-CoV and highlights the necessity of preparedness for future emergence of SARS-like diseases.” [Hu B, Zeng L-P, Yang X-L, Ge X-Y, Zhang W, Li B, et al. (2017) Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus. PLoS Pathog 13(11): e1006698.]
  3. Yes, the two nuclear powered US aircraft carriers usually patrolling the Pacific are presently in port because of COVID-19 cases on board. Yes, China is parading their toy carrier in the region. But an amphibious assault ship, the USS America, is also in the region, and in case “amphibious assault ship” sounds less impressive than “aircraft carrier”, it may help to note that the USS America is similar in size to China’s Lianoning and unlike its Chinese counterpart, it is a modern warship commissioned in 2012, not something built upon the hull of an unfinished 1980s Soviet carrier that was once sold for scrap.

None of this matters to conspiracy theorists, of course. If they want to believe that it was all some evil Chinese plot, they will do so, damn the evidence. (Sadly, I think it is a safe bet that they get at least some help from Russian troll farms. Unfortunately Putin’s regime has not stopped spreading disinformation about health care, epidemics, pandemics, vaccines and now, the origins of COVID-19.)

So to all the conspiracy theory fans out there, please keep this in mind: Conspiracy theories serve a single purpose. They turn us: individuals or entire nations, against each other. They are the means to sow discord. Just when the world has to act in unison more than ever, they pull us apart. Conspiracy theories are weapons: dangerous in the wrong hands even when used unintentionally, but deadly if used purposefully.

Please… listen to the actual science. Don’t believe every piece of garbage you hear.

 Posted by at 12:14 am
Apr 132020
 

I haven’t blogged in two weeks. In my excuse, I was rather busy. The good kind of busy, that is, busy with paying work, busy with scientific research, not busy with illness or anything on that front.

Anyhow, even though I haven’t blogged, I’ve been keeping track of the numbers. And for the past few days, a ray of hope began to emerge.

To make a long story short, there are significant signs that mitigation measures are working. Here, this chart shows the doubling rate of COVID-19 infections worldwide:

Infection rates doubled every 5-6 days back in late March; now, the doubling rate is over 15 days and rapidly rising.

Perhaps the world data are manipulated. But then, here is the doubling rate for Canada. The data are much more noisy (the population is much smaller, so this is to be expected) but the similar trend is unmistakable:

But there is another sign that things just might be working. I’ve been following US data in more detail, and lately, the simple SIR model’s predictions began to match the data rather well. If the model is to be believed, we may not be out of the woods quite yet, but we may be surprisingly close:

What a difference a few weeks make: Back in late March, the same model predicted catastrophic numbers. Now, it seems to tell us that we are mere weeks away from life gradually beginning to return to normal.

I dare not believe it just yet, but it is a ray of hope.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Mar 292020
 

While I applaud the fact that there are very few partisan voices in Canada, and that governments at all levels constructively cooperate with each other, I cannot help but wonder if the measures taken are sufficient to fight this demon of a virus, COVID-19.

Take these two notifications that I received on my phone from the Radio Canada app yesterday:

  • 11:23 AM: À compter de lundi midi, les Canadiens ayant des symptômes de la COVID-19 ne pourront plus prendre des vols intérieurs ou le train
  • 11:38 AM: Justin Trudeau affirme qu’Ottawa n’envisage pas de fermer les frontières interprovinciales

My question is… why exactly do we still have non-essential travel within Canada? And why exactly are the interprovincial borders still open?

This virus will not be beaten with half-measures. If we are not able to bring down the infection rate, soon an extremely large number of people will become simultaneously sick, completely overwhelming the intensive care capacity of our health care system. Which means that a great many people who could survive with adequate medical care will die.

SIR model prediction based on US data as of March 28, 2020.

See this simple simulation of the US situation that I put together, using the simplest epidemiological model. If its predictions come true, at one point in late April more than 20% of America’s population will be sick. If 5-10% of these patients require intensive care, that is up to 6 million people or more, only a small fraction of which will receive the care that they will need to stay alive. The rest will die. The same thing can happen here in Canada if we don’t take the necessary measures.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm