Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

An Anniversary Schmooze

from the desk of Bob Siederer

Hello again Science Fans!

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the reporting of the first COVID-19 cases in the US.  Let that sink in a bit.  In some ways it doesn’t seem like it, but we’ve been hearing about and dealing with this virus for a year now, and it has affected all aspects of our lives.

It has changed the way we work, shop, recreate, and entertain ourselves.  It has cost the lives of more than 400,000 of our friends, relatives, and neighbors.  It has contributed to an awareness of racial and economic inequality.  It has taught businesses around the world that just in time manufacturing has downsides (remember the toilet paper shortage?).

We’ve responded in heroic fashion, with medical researchers around the world developing vaccines in record time.  Those working on the front lines, first responders, hospital personnel, super market employees, delivery people, have risked exposure to keep things going.  New treatments have lowered the percentage of cases resulting in death from over 5.9% to under 1.59%.

What a difference a year can make.

Going forward, there is reason to feel relief.  The Biden administration has taken over, replacing a non-existent plan to address the pandemic with promises to fix the vaccine supply issues, coordinate and prioritize at the Federal level, and provide consistent guidance based on science.  While the “normal” we all knew a year ago may never return, a new normal is on the horizon that should allow travel and closer contact with friends and family sooner rather than later.

Second-Generation COVID vaccines are coming.  In creating the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, a new technology was developed for attacking the virus. That technology will have uses combating other diseases in the future, and should allow for quick adjustments if new versions of COVID-19 prove resistant due to mutations. New, faster, cheaper, and more practical tests have been developed, also in record time, to confirm infections.  One has been approved for at-home use.

One of the most vexing questions is why some people test positive for COVID-19 but show no symptoms, while others get seriously ill.  Many studies are looking for patterns in the data to find ways to predict who might fall seriously ill.  One such test is being validated and, if it passes, will really help doctors quickly predict who will need intensive care and who won’t early in the cycle, perhaps saving lives.

If we had to do it all over again, I hope some things would be done differently.  Early in the pandemic, health experts around the world decided to discourage the general use of masks, fearing that not enough of them would be available for doctors and nurses treating cases.   They also weren’t sure if the masks were effective.  When they changed their message, the public was skeptical.  Which types of masks were effective and which weren’t? (Multi-layer = good, bandanas and gaiters = not so good).  Those resistant to being told to do something were understandably reluctant (and still are), given the mixed messages.

So now we’re facing another major milestone with vaccinations, and again the overall message is mixed.  Headlines say the vaccines are not 100% effective, that people might still spread the virus after vaccination, and trumpet allergic reactions.

Let’s look at that.  32,000 people were subjects in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines tests.  The vaccine proved to be 95% effective.  What does that mean?  95% of those 32,000 did not test positive for COVID-19.  5% did, and those 5% were counted as “failures” in the statistics.  But only one person out of those 32,000 came down with a serious case.  The remainder of the 5% had mild cases, comparable with the flu.

To date, no study has shown that vaccinated people can spread the virus.  No study has shown that they can’t either, but, as Dr Paul Sax of Harvard wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, ” [i]f there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect – prevents disease but not infection – I can’t think of one!”

Every vaccine causes allergic reactions in some very small percentage of people.  Life in general is not risk-free.

For more on this, see The Morning newsletter from the New York Times.  For more perspective on this anniversary, see Lisa Krieger’s article in today’s San Jose Mercury News as well as this review of how California and the US compare to the rest of the world.  All of these served as sources for my commentary.

There are, of course, many other things happening in the world, especially in space.  Next month several different Mars landers will arrive at the red planet.  NASA has a bunch of presentations on the upcoming landing of the Perseverance Rover, which will be attempted on February 18.  Here’s the full schedule.

While that is exciting, so is the return to Earth of some asteroid dust collected by the Hayabusa-2 Japanese space probe.  This mission took six years!

Researchers now believe that the Milky Way, our home galaxy, collided with at least one other galaxy early it its life.  Over the past two years, almost everything they though they knew about the Milky Way’s history has been rewritten, all due to better data.  Here on earth, the first 500 million years were pretty intense, with continents being formed, then destroyed.  Things we take for granted, like the current conditions on Earth, are really anything but constant when viewed in cosmic terms.

As long as we have been on the planet, we have been creating things.  We don’t give this much thought, but given a historical perspective, the weight of all the human-made materials now weighs more than all life on Earth.  That’s a lot of stuff!

Not every event we learn about fits the format for our calendar.  One of those is a virtual STEM camp for middle school students put on by ChalkBox.  They have two programs running on Saturdays starting February 13th that are worth considering if you have 10 – 14 year olds at home.  For information on “The Science of the Pandemic” and “Exploring Your World”, go here.  Cost is $160 per participant, with scholarships available to those in need.

Lastly, it is not too late to sign up for Andrew Fraknoi’s mini-course on Black Holes which starts Thursday.

Have a great week in Science, and, since this is my first newsletter since November, Happy New Year!

Bob Siederer

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