If you’re not aware of ‘B and T cell memory’, AEP’s article below will be useful. As he says: The global picture emerging from lab studies is not only that cell memory works like a charm, but that Omicron may be inherently less dangerous than delta. Prof Lockdown’s ‘apocalyptic’ Omicron claims undermine faith in vaccines and have fuelled unnecessary shutdowns. Professor Neil Ferguson’s team forecast thousands of deaths a day from the latest variant but new evidence suggests it may be far milder.
Cosas de España/Galiza
El País brings you here the latest on possible measures to curb Spain’s 6th wave, on the (fading?) assumption that Omicron is worse than Delta.
Interesting to read that the Xmas lottery left more than €20m in the O Salnés (Albariño) area just north of Pontevedra. Relatively widely spread, I imagine. And that a Galician town of less than 5,000 souls was blessed(?) with a windfall of €15.8m. Cue some divorces, I also imagine.
Good news that the warranty period for electrical goods will be extended from 2 to 3 years. How does it work out in practice, I wonder. Will it really make any difference?
Richard North today takes on the Omicron doom mongers. The crisis may be ending, almost before it has got properly started, says RN. Certainly, the dire SAGE predictions of 200,000 extra hospital admissions by yesterday didn’t, in fact, materialise. Interestingly, more than 30% of infections occur in people who have the misfortune to go into hospital for some other reason.
It’s now thought that New Year’s Eve celebrations in England are likely to escape new curbs. But not in Scotland and Wales. These, like Cataluña, like to be different. If only to please their respective nationalists.
I’m not sure what the law says about e-scooters in Spain and it probably differs between the 17 regions(‘autonomous communities). All I know is that – very probably illegally – they’re a nuisance/danger in Pontevedra’s many pedestrianised zones and in the old quarter. And, like bikes before them, aren’t policed at all. Here in the UK, it’s legal to own an e-scooter but illegal to use it anywhere on public land, unless rented as part of a government-backed trial taking place in several cities. So they’re not a lot of them right now. At least outside city centres. I can’t recall seeing one in 4 weeks. Nor tripping over one prone on the pavement.
Here in the North West, it’s common for female shop assistants to address customers as ‘Love’. Or the less young ones, anyway. I find it easy to slip into reciprocity but I do wonder how Southerners and, especially, foreigners find it. Like the French couple in John Lewis yesterday who seemed to be buying up half the menswear department. Or, rather, she was; he seemed rather quiet and compliant with her recommendations. I felt for him. But possibly un masochiste.
Which reminds me . . . When I was young, shop assistants and waiting staff in bars and restaurants would sign off with ‘No problem’ when you thanked them. Nowadays, the stock response seems to be ‘No worries’. At least oop here.
I’ve read of European schadenfreude over empty supermarket shelves in the UK. Well, I’ve shopped in several and never seen this. Indeed, the shelves of our local Waitrose were groaning with turkeys yesterday, for example.
If the UK fails to give French fishermen a further 73 licences to operate in UK waters, the French government will seek to have the EU impose customs duties on British goods. Truly a sledgehammer to crack a nut. For several decades now – because of their nationalistic buying habits – I’ve retaliated by avoiding French products. Time for every Brit to do this? There’s better wine elsewhere, for one thing.
Americans, says the writer of the 2nd article below, are losing faith in FB and other large tech companies. This link might work.
The country is redoubling efforts to control new outbreaks with a lockdown of the northern city of Xi’an after a spike in coronavirus cases. The measure comes just weeks before the country hosts the Winter Olympics in Beijing, 1,000km to the west. I think I heard that the official number of cases of Omicron there was around 40. Hard to believe.
The Way of the World
My friend Andy writes here that Francophone Africa used to be the place for ancient Peugeot 504s and Nigeria is (or was in the early 2000s) home to countless VW T3s running far beyond their expected lives. This reminded me of the astonishing number of (‘jelly-mould’)Morris 1000s – my first car – on New Zealand roads in the mid 1980s. In case you’ve forgotten what these looked like:-
I think I’ve previously said that Hamburg will surprise you with the number of lovely Morris 1000 Traveller estate cars on its streets. Would you believe, as a result of a shipment getting stuck in the Suez Canal for 8(?) years after the Six Days war of 1967.
Finally . . .
Here’s something on the tomb of Sir John Moore in La Coruña. I wonder how many British kids these days learn these lines off by heart in primary school:-
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.
We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.
No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him,
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.
Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.
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- Prof Lockdown’s ‘apocalyptic’ omicron claims undermine faith in vaccines and have fuelled unnecessary shutdowns. Professor Neil Ferguson’s team forecast thousands of deaths a day from the latest variant but new evidence suggests it may be far milder. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. The Telegraph.
The Covid modellers at Imperial College have begun to back down. About time too. Over the past few weeks, they have made extreme claims about the omicron variant that cannot be fully justified by fundamental science, let alone by clinical observation.
Academic etiquette restrains direct criticism, but immunologists say privately that Professor Neil Ferguson and his team breached a cardinal rule by inferring rates of hospitalisation, severe disease, and death from waning antibodies, and by extrapolating from infections that break through the first line of vaccine defence.
The rest are entitled to question whether they can legitimately do this. And we may certainly question whether they should be putting out terrifying claims of up to 5,000 deaths a day based on antibody counts.
“It is bad science and I think they’re being irresponsible. They have a duty to reflect the true risks but this is just headline grabbing,” said Dr Clive Dix, former chairman of the UK Vaccine Task Force.
Needless to say, these headlines have spread as fast as omicron itself. Britain is the Covid laboratory of the developed world, and what Imperial says right now has global resonance. Its dire warnings are contributing to some European countries imposing full or partial Christmas lockdowns.
Governments are so alarmed by the possibility that healthcare systems might collapse under pressure that they have neglected the opposite risk – and much more probable outcome – that omicron will largely bounce off a population where almost everybody has cell immunity from vaccines or past infection, and in the case of Britain where most vulnerable people have been triple jabbed for good measure.
“To talk of 5,000 deaths a day is a very high number. It is risky to push apocalyptic scenarios that are highly unlikely to happen,” said Professor Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute.
“What I am more worried about is a loss of trust in governments and public institutions for crying wolf. The mood is changing everywhere.”
Prof Balloux, who used to work with the Imperial team, said he understood why they had focused on neutralising antibodies: they are easy to measure and tell you how well the front-line fighters are doing against infection. But this has led to great confusion.
The second line of defence, what really matters for serious illness, comes from B and T cell memory – either from jabs or prior illness. This carries on long after antibodies are no longer circulating in the blood. Cell memory is much harder to measure but is known to last much longer.
“Cellular memory is still there for omicron and remains intact,” Balloux said.
The first studies from around the world have begun validating the potency of cell memory against omicron, more or less as theoretical science would predict.
A team at the University of Cape Town found that double-jabbed patients still had 70pc of the CD4 T cell response against the new variant, and full CD8 protection, despite the mutations.
“T cells are holding out against omicron, and the data is very consistent across vaccines,” they told the US magazine Science. “From everything we know about T cells, this is what they do – control a virus once you’ve been infected. So this is their time to shine.”
You would not know this from the series of claims in the past few weeks by Prof Ferguson and his team that omicron “largely evades immunity”, even if they are technically within their rights to use this construction.
Imperial might struggle to substantiate their initial warning that a 4.5 fold reduction in neutralising antibodies will lead to a “drop in vaccine efficacy against severe disease (hospitalisation)”.
They certainly cannot quantify hospital figures or project extreme death rates without taking into account the full effects of cell memory, which they fail to do.
Their assertion that vaccine efficacy for double-jabbers ranges from zero to 20pc was misleading. Nor can they legitimately assert that there is “no evidence of omicron having lower severity than Delta” since their sample was vanishingly small, the timeline was too short, and they did not know the denominator of actual omicron infections since so many asymptomatic cases passed undetected. The clinical pattern worldwide suggests otherwise. That is “evidence”.
Their hospitalisation assumptions have already been undermined by better data from Danish hospitals. The emerging ratios are a small fraction of the Imperial claims.
“B and T cell protection is holding up well but they did not have an immunology group working with them. They are just modellers who plug in what they are told on vaccine efficacy (ie antibody counts) and come with this data,” said Dix.
He wrote a robust critique of some of the claims, as did Professor James Naismith from Oxford University, though in gentler language.
There is an interesting twist to this. The AstraZeneca adenovirus vaccine scores well on cell memory and may ultimately protect better than messenger RNA jabs such as Pfizer-BioNTech, now that we are relying more on this second line of defence. He believes the UK should have stuck with AstraZeneca for mix-and-match boosters.
Dix said the political class in the UK – and more broadly in Europe – does not understand the difference between front-line antibodies and lasting cell memory, and is therefore succumbing to unnecessary alarmism.
He assumes that Professor Chris Whitty and his close colleagues do understand but went along with Imperial’s claims as a tool of public policy, hoping to cajole more people into getting booster jabs. Anthony Fauci in the US is apparently thinking along the same lines. But it is a double-edged strategy. It risks a loss of faith in vaccines altogether.
Dix said it is inexplicable that the NHS is not publishing daily data giving the exact percentage of those in hospital with omicron by vaccine status, comorbidities, and whether they were admitted for Covid or for another reason. They should publish the numbers needing oxygen, and those going onto critical care, as other countries do.
“It is not that difficult to put together the data. It would make a huge difference to public confidence,” he said.
The global picture emerging from lab studies is not only that cell memory works like a charm, but that omicron may be inherently less dangerous than delta.
Research by the Cambridge virologist Ravi Gupta found that the omicron spike protein cleaves far less efficiently than earlier variants, and replicates most in the upper respiratory tract rather than in the lungs where it does most damage.
“I think the evidence is mounting that the virus potentially causes less progression to severe disease,” he said.
It confirms earlier work from Hong Kong University and is extremely encouraging. “If you have to pick between bronchitis and pneumonia, I can tell you, take bronchitis any day,” said Balloux.
Balloux said the sketchy clinical evidence from South Africa, Denmark, Australia, and London is that the case fatality rate of omicron for populations with broad immunity is 25 to 30 times lower than the earlier pre-vaccinated waves.
There is a 90pc drop in hospitalisation rates, and a further two-thirds drop in death rates after admission. This takes it down to the levels of seasonal flu.
He said data from Australia is the most “elegant” yet, showing two simultaneous outbreaks of Covid in a well-vaccinated population, one delta, the other omicron. The hospitalisation rate of omicron is roughly half.
In London, omicron has already blown through the residual pockets of vaccine refuseniks but has not led to comparable parabolic mayhem amongst the rest of the well-jabbed population.
“It has already peaked in Gauteng (South Africa) and in all likelihood it will peak in London very soon. I am now quite confident that omicron won’t be as bad as they say,” said Balloux.
Global markets are sniffing this out and are learning to ignore the political noise. The equity rout earlier this week has already given way to a pre-Christmas relief rally. Airline and other “reopening” stocks are soaring again.
The high probability is that omicron will disappoint the alarmists and frustrate those of a hairshirt Puritan character who almost seem to want lockdowns as a form of self-flagellation.
The rest of us can get on with our lives and leave the antibody modellers to build castles in the air.
2. Americans lose faith in Facebook and other big tech: Hugh Tomlinson, The Times
Trust in Facebook and other tech companies has plunged among Americans in the past decade, with more than 70 per cent telling a survey they do not have faith in the social media giant’s handling of their personal information.
Only 10 per cent of Americans believe Facebook has a positive impact on society, according to the survey by The Washington Post and the Schar School. It follows a barrage of incendiary claims about the company by the whistleblower Frances Haugen in October. The survey found that 72 per cent of internet users trusted Facebook “not much” or “not at all” to manage their data responsibly.
While most Americans are increasingly dependent on big tech platforms and devices as they reshape communication, shopping and the storage of personal information, trust in those companies is on the wane.
About 8 in 10 internet users say that tech companies do not give users enough control about how their online activity is tracked and used, and 73 per cent believe that personal data collection for use in targeted adverts is an “unjustified use of people’s private information”. That marks an increase from 59 per cent in 2012, when the Pew Research Center conducted a poll on American views of social media.
In a significant shift, 64 per cent of Americans believe the government should do more to regulate internet companies and how they handle privacy issues, compared with 38 per cent in the Pew survey a decade ago.
Distrust of big tech even unites Republicans and Democrats. Support for greater government regulation of internet giants has risen to 82 per cent this year among Democrats, up from 45 per cent in 2012, while 53 per cent of Republicans, who generally oppose government regulation, also now back tougher controls, up from 30 per cent a decade ago.
In Congress, however, proposed legislation remains bogged down as the two parties remain divided on how and whether to update laws and tighten oversight on internet companies. Senators held hearings on data privacy in September, prior to Haugen’s appearance before Congress in October, when the 37-year-old data scientist accused Facebook of harming children and undermining democracy, and of prioritising “astronomical profits before people”.
Yet despite a flurry of interest after Haugen’s testimony, Republicans and Democrats remain split on tightening internet regulation. The partisan divide has been exacerbated by Haugen’s revelation that Facebook had disbanded its civic integrity team a month before the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of President Trump. That has left Facebook scrambling to limit the damage from allegations that hate speech and other material on its platform incited the violence.
By the time Haugen returned to Congress last month, the party divide was more entrenched. The whistleblower was questioned by Republicans, who summoned a conservative former Facebook staffer to testify alongside her and derided Democrat proposals for regulation of the tech giants and the algorithms they use to tailor content on social media.