Archive for the Covid-19 Category

SARS-Cov-2 Vaccine strategy: One Jab or Two?

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the issue of the Coronavirus vaccination programmes currently underway and have had some interesting and informative exchanges on Twitter about it. This morning’s news that AstraZeneca has finally applied to the European Commission for permission to market its vaccine within the European Union reminded me of those discussions so I thought I’d post a question here. I genuinely don’t know the answer, incidentally, so there’s no agenda here!

As you probably know all SARS-COV-2 vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer/Biontech and AstraZeneca) require two doses, administered about three weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. It’s worth saying before going on that the scientists involved deserve high praise for developing these highly effective vaccines at a speed that has exceeded all expectations.

At the moment however supplies of these vaccines are fairly limited and it’s early days for immunization programmes so there are serious logistical problems to be solved before we get anywhere near full vaccination. I grabbed this from Twitter yesterday showing the state of play in various countries:

Note, incidentally, that Denmark is doing particularly well within the EU but France, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium have started very slowly. Ireland is about mid-table.

At the top of the league is Israel, though  they are not offering vaccination to the Palestinian people whose lands they occupy. Israel has just reported that after 12 days the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has about 50% efficacy after one dose based on results from its own programme. That number is roughly consistent with initial estimates of from trials this vaccine but the statistics aren’t great and there is a considerable margin of error on these figures.

Now the question I am asking myself is that given the limited supply is it better at this stage to give as many people as possible one dose of the vaccine, or follow the manufacturers’ original plan and give two doses to half as many people? There are reports that the UK has been deferring the second dose beyond the recommended interval, where there is no data on its efficacy. Perhaps I’m being excessively cynical but it seems to me that the UK Government’s approach is more driven by public relations than by public health considerations.

I understand that there are difficult issues here, not least the ethical one of having people sign up for a specific two-dose vaccination only to find that’s not what they get. Another issue is the speed with which doses are being made available relative to the size of the population. Yet another issue is who you prioritize.

Above all, though, there is the question of what you mean by “better”. One criterion would be to save as many lives as possible. Another might be to slow the rate of infections as much as possible. Another might be to allow the economy to open up as early as possible. These are all different and would lead to different decisions, particularly with regard to who should get the vaccine. Saving lives obviously means protecting the vulnerable and the people who care for them (e.g. health workers). Economic considerations would however lead you to prioritize those on whom the economy depends most directly, which would include workers who can’t easily work from home (many of whom are in low-paid manual jobs).

The following poll is therefore going to be very unscientific, but I’m interested to find out what people think. In  order to keep it simple, lets suppose you have a batch of two million doses of a vaccine (say the Pfizer one) and the next batch is due in three months.

You have to decide between the following two options:

  1.  Give 1,000,000 people one dose now and another dose in three weeks’ time
  2.  Give 2,000,000 people one dose now and hope that it is effective for three months (or that additional supplies appear more quickly than anticipated).

Vote now!

A similar poll I did on Twitter a while ago can be found here: there are some quite interesting comments in the ensuing thread.

Comments are of course welcome through the Comments Box!

P.S. I’m quite low down the pecking order in Ireland so it’s unlikely I’ll get vaccinated before the summer.

Covid-19 in Ireland: where it all went wrong

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on January 10, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t buy a daily paper, but I am a regular reader of the Irish Times Weekend edition. The reporting, especially on international news, is generally good and although it is basically an Establishment newspaper it is fairly balanced. That can’t be said for the opinion pieces however, which are frequently execrable. A particularly shitty example is provided by a column by Political Editor Pat Leahy in this Weekend’s edition.

It’s bad enough that he writes as if the most important thing about the pandemic is not that people are dying but that there might be implications for Ireland’s political establishment. And that he takes the opportunity to take churlish swipes like “Many public servants have, of course, been working furiously hard. Some haven’t.” As a public servant who has put in countless hours of unpaid overtime over the past year that snide comment really got my goat, coming as it does from a Political Editor who trots out lazy evidence-free rubbish for a living.

This is the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland.

Restrictions were lifted on 1st December. New cases started to climb steeply almost immediately, doubling roughly every 7 days. It was obvious then – by simple extrapolation of the exponential curve – that there would be around 1000 new cases per day by Christmas and about 2000 by New Year.

The only reason we didn’t have 2000 cases per day by 31st December was that the system couldn’t cope with so many positive test results and a backlog developed. Today, 10th January, 6888 cases were reported. Hospitalizations, ICU admissions and, sadly, deaths are now tracking upwards after the inevitable delay.

Loosening the restrictions with new cases at hundreds per day always looked to me to be very wrong-headed. I’m not happy to have been proven right.

Against this backdrop Pat Leahy says this:

What?

This is simply untrue. It is true that there was a general expectation that the growth curve would not be so steep, with perhaps 500 cases by Christmas. That was wrong by about a factor two but given the doubling time and no interventions 1000 would have been reached a week later. As someone who argued for relaxation in December, Mr Leahy is rather obviously trying to rewrite history to make him appear less culpable.

In my view the reason why the residual restrictions in December did not slow the increase in Covid-19 cases was that the messaging from the Government was too complicated, had too many exceptions, and gave the appearance that it was arbitrary and without clear justification. This, together with persistent lobbying by vested interests in the hospitality sector, encouraged enough people to ignore even the weakened restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and through the holiday period. In short, the Government has lost the room. Worryingly, I don’t think that it understands this even now.

Even now with a dire health emergency in clear view, I still see people circulating in groups without face coverings. What went wrong, in my opinion, is that the Government was too weak to stick to the advice given to it from the National Public Health Emergency Team and instead started tinkering about trying to satisfy various lobby groups.

But back to Mr Leahy. The statement that “nobody suggested the price for Christmas would be so severe” is plainly untrue: plenty of people knew exactly what was coming and said so loudly and publicly. Neither he nor the politicians listened. If there’s any justice the “political fallout” from this catastrophic weakness will be severe.

Anyway, after being angered by that dreadful Opinion column I’m seriously thinking of switching to a different paper. Any suggestions?

There’s a Moose Loose Aboot this Hoose!

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Music with tags , on January 8, 2021 by telescoper

Artist’s Impression

I am working from home at the moment owing to Covid-19 restrictions on campus activity but I have been informed by on campus staff that an unauthorized mouse bas been seen in the Department of Theoretical Physics. This is a very serious situation as access to the Science Building is for essential work only and this does not include rodents, even if they have a PhD. Furthermore, the mouse is not wearing a face mask and, from what I have heard, is not observing proper sanitary procedures.

More importantly, our Covid-19 protocols require all visitors to the Department to be in receipt of a letter authorizing their presence. I have contacted Human Rodent Resources and no such letters have been issued.

I have therefore instructed all staff and students in the Department that if they see this mouse they should instruct it to leave and that any refusal to comply will be met with disciplinary action, initially taking the form of a formal written warning but escalating if necessary to a meeting with Maynooth University Library Cat.

There now follows a  message concerning these developments from Professor Brian Dolan.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Níl tuile dá mhéad nach dtránn

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on January 5, 2021 by telescoper

The title of this post is an old Irish saying that in English means “There’s no flood so high that it won’t recede”. The relentless increase in Covid-19 cases over the last few days is starting to make me wonder whether it is true.

Even with 7-day averaging and a logarithmic y-axis the rise looks very steep. On a linear y-axis the new cases look like this:

It’s even more dramatic without the 7-day smoothing:

The numbers for deaths on a linear scale look like this:

After doing extraordinarily well through the summer, things have gone very badly wrong. The standard measure using for comparing countries is the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 population. On that measure Ireland is now on 674.4, with some counties over 1000 (Limerick, Louth and Monaghan). That’s not quite as bad as the latest figures for London, but getting there.

By staying in and reducing the number of contacts now we can influence what happens in a few weeks, but we know the results of Christmas and New Year infections haven’t fully filtered through into cases numbers yet, let alone deaths. It’s like standing on a beach watching an enormous wave coming at you and knowing you can’t do anything to get out of the way.

Last Day Off

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on January 3, 2021 by telescoper

Tomorrow is officially my first day back at work after the Christmas break. Not that I’ll be going back to my office on campus in the morning. Thanks to the state of the Covid-19 pandemic I will be working from home for the foreseeable future. It’s looking pretty grim at the moment, and I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better:

 

I know I’m not alone in thinking that it was a big mistake to relax the Covid-19 restrictions so soon before Christmas with cases at such a high level. What has happened since then in terms of new cases and hospitalizations is even worse than the experts predicted; today almost 5000 cases were reported, taking the total past 100,000. I hope the current Government is properly held to account for the way it bowed to pressure from vested interests (especially the so-called “hospitality industry”) the way it did.

I haven’t read my work emails since the end of last term (December 18th 2020). I do hope I don’t have to work through a mountain of them when I finally open my inbox tomorrow morning. No doubt as  we get back to work there will be detailed instructions on what we can and can’t do. Semester Two of teaching in Maynooth doesn’t start until February 1st so we have a bit of time to see how things progress, but I honestly can’t see any prospect of a return to on-campus classes for the rest of the academic year. I do hope we’re not going to be required to make yet another set of elaborate plans that will never be put into practice…

At least this term I will be “working from home” in better conditions than previously, in my own house with a good internet connection and a proper study that I can close the door on when I need a break. I’ll be teaching three modules next Semester, including one (Advanced Electromagnetism) that I’ve never taught before. Teaching isn’t the only thing, but the other important matters to be dealt with this month are not things I can really write anything about at this stage.

The January examination period starts on Friday (8th) and ends two weeks later (Friday 22nd) so getting through that and getting the examinations marked is going to be the first priority. As in May all these examinations will be in the form of online assessments. We have done this sort of examination before, which makes it a bit easier than last year, but they still cause a lot of stress for staff and students alike. I will have about 100 scripts to mark and will have to do all of them on screen. I’m not looking forward to that at all, but it has to be done. In between those we will be running our first Astrophysics & Cosmology Master Class, which I am looking forward to enormously. It seems to have generated a lot of interest, but we won’t know precisely how many will tune in until the day arrives. It might be a lot if the Schools are closed, which they may be.

I was tempted at this point to make a list of all the things I have to do tomorrow, but that would be breaking my resolution to take a complete break so I will leave that until the morning and instead go and have a nap.

End of Year Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Poetry on December 31, 2020 by telescoper

The Royal Canal, Maynooth, looking towards the Railway Station; the harbour is on the right.

The last morning of 2020 found Maynooth covered in a light dusting of snow. Since then the snow has turned to sleet and rain and the town looks a bit less picturesque as a consequence, not least because we haven’t really seen any proper daylight. My trip out this morning was a rare excursion from my house, but I’m glad I was able to get a bit of fresh (though freezing) air without there being lots of people around. I’ll be sitting cosily at home for the rest of the day (and, probability, tomorrow).

It’s extraordinary to think that this time last year there wasn’t an inkling of what was to come in terms of the Coronavirus pandemic. The first cases had been detected in China in December 2019 but I don’t think anyone seriously thought it would go global in the way it did. A year on and we’re still not out of it. Not by a long way. I think this are going to get a lot worse before they get better, but at least there are vaccines on the way.

Looking back over some of my posts from early in the year I’m reminded of two  events in particular- the 200th Anniversary Dinner of the RAS Club in January and the Irish General Election in February, both of which seem now to have happened at least a decade ago. I went to London again in mid-February, but had to cancel my planned trip back to the UK in March because FlyBe went bust. After that I made a couple of trips to Dublin (including a performance of Fidelio)  but since then I haven’t left Maynooth. It’s extremely likely that by March 2021 I will have spent an entire year without leaving the boundaries of Maynooth.

It’s almost a whole year since I posted a list of things I wanted to do in 2020. The first three were:

    1. Go to more live concerts.
    2. See more of Ireland.
    3. No more working weekends

That went well then! I don’t think I’ll bother making a list for next year, or perhaps I’ll just carry over this year’s. Obviously the Covid-19 restrictions and vastly increased workload involved in switching teaching to online put paid to most of my plans for 2020. Although I did manage to buy a house in Maynooth, I will have to wait until the Third Wave is over before I can retrieve the rest of my belongings from Wales and relocate fully.

Although I didn’t make an impact in this year’s Beard of the Year (finishing in last place in the final poll), at least I have the honour of being St Patrick’s Day Beard of Ireland for 2020.

You have to take what positives you can but I’m sure I’m not the only person to think, on balance, this has been a spectacularly awful year. I haven’t myself had Covid-19 but I know people who have and some of them are still struggling with the after-effects. I know many have also lost loved ones to the Coronavirus; condolences to everyone so affected. Although nothing to do with Covid-19, I still feel a very deep sadness that my former thesis supervisor John Barrow is no more. I hope after the pandemic there can be some form of proper tribute to him.

Anyway, to end with, here are a few verses from In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Level 5 New Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on December 30, 2020 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise the Taioseach this evening announced that the whole of Ireland would go immediately into full Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions. Officially these will apply until January 31st, but nobody thinks they will end then. Nor should they. The past few days have seen the number of cases and hospitalizations skyrocket and the current positivity rate of tests is 10.5% (7-day average) with a figure of 18% recorded yesterday.

Here are the latest plots of 7-day averages. First, logarithmic:

Second, linear:

I’m not alone in thinking that it was a very big mistake to relax the restrictions in early December, but that’s done now and we have to deal with the situation as it is now. Unfortunately the Christmas wave hasn’t really hit these figures yet so I think thinks are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The current exponential phase with a R number of around 1.6-1.8 means the cases will probably double by this time next week.

Anyway, looks like a quiet night in for New Year’s Eve (not that I mind that) and my horizon for January is back down to a 5km radius, although its centre has shifted a little as I have moved house since last time!

Erasmus Minus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , on December 27, 2020 by telescoper

The news that the UK is to leave the Erasmus+ scheme for student exchanges shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly promised in the House of Commons in January 2020 that it wouldn’t happen and what he says is virtually guaranteed to be the opposite of the truth.

I quote:

There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. We will continue to participate. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will continue to be able to come to this country.

In a similar vein, the stated reason for this decision (“financial considerations”) is also untrue. (Contrary to popular myth the United Kingdom is not the most popular destination for Erasmus students; that is Spain.) The cost of participating in Erasmus is modest and the benefits huge for both incoming and outgoing students and indeed the relevant home and host institutions. The real reason for this act of vandalism is demonstrated by the announcement of a new £100 million Turing scheme that is one-way only. Evidently the UK doesn’t want any nasty foreign students coming here. Equally evidently the UK Government believes that other countries will gleefully accept thousands of UK students in their universities while not having the mutual benefit of an exchange programme. Above all, most young people in the United Kingdom did not vote for Brexit in the referendum and remain strongly pro-EU. To the Brexit Government that means they must be punished. Come to think of it, the Erasmus slogan (“Enriching Lives, Opening Minds”) is pretty much the antithesis of the UK Government’s isolationist stance.

It’s “interesting” (and, to me, sickening) that the name of Alan Turing has been appropriated for this new programme. Turing, I’ll remind you, was a man whose life was destroyed by the British authorities despite everything he did for the United Kingdom during World War 2. The (perhaps unintentional) symbolism is obvious. If any of the institutions to which participating students are sent via this scheme are in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, the irony will be complete.

According to the UK Government’s own numbers, the £100 million cost of the Turing scheme will support 35,000 students to study or work internationally. That works out at less than £3000 per student. How much will that pay for? In the absence of a mutual fee waiver (which is how Erasmus+ works) it seems it will cover only a small fraction of the cost of a year abroad. Not to mention the need to acquire a visa which was not the case for movement within the EU. Still, that probably doesn’t matter, as it is only the rich who are meant to benefit.

There are a number of interesting points about UK participation in Erasmus+ which may not have been fully thought through by the Johnson government. I know it’s astonishing to think that a Cabinet full of such stellar intellects might have missed something important, but in fact Higher Education is a devolved responsibility in the United Kingdom. What the Government says about Education policy therefore only really applies to England. Scotland and Wales could in principle decide to continue as members. Moreover, if the Turing scheme is administered through the Department of Education, appropriate funding should be passed to the devolved nations by the Barnett formula which they can spend on continuing Erasmus+ participation if they wish. There’ll be legal arguments of course, but on the face of it that seems to be the situation.

Students in Northern Ireland won’t have to worry, however, as the Republic has already offered to fund the participation of NI students, a decision as generous and politically astute as the English decision is petty and mean-spirited.

The decision to withdraw from Erasmus+ will make life very difficult for many UK Higher Education institutions as many run degree programmes that include a year abroad facilitated by the scheme. As of January 1st 2021 they will no longer be able to offer these programme. I know from my own past experience how long it takes to set exchange programmes, how much work is involved in keeping it going, but how rewarding the participating students find it. Tragically, all that will disappear in the New Year.

But there may be silver lining for Ireland. Students from the EU wishing to study in an English-speaking country are likely to be looking at Irish universities in increasing numbers. We already have quite a few at Maynooth (though not this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions); for information see here. I think there’s a strong case to exploit the British mistake and boost the involvement in Erasmus+ across the Republic.

I would very much like to do this in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Though a small Department, we are in a good position to develop more international partnerships because of our collaborative networks. Indeed, although it is the Christmas break, I today received two emails from colleagues abroad wondering if we would be interested in replacing UK institutions. I think we could offer a very nice option for students from Spain and Italy. The problem is that to balance the books we really need to encourage more of our own students to venture abroad. That is difficult because, in Ireland (as in the UK), only a small number of students studying Physics at third level institutions have proficiency in a European language (other than Irish). That may not effect the teaching too much, as many European universities do teach science courses in English, but for life in general it is more difficult if you can’t speak the local language to any real extent. For this reason, it may be better for us to target postgraduate rather than undergraduate students for such an arrangement.

That’s another job to add to my list for the New Year!

Mutatis Mutandis

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , on December 21, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am, first full day of Christmas vacation and, boy, am I pleased I didn’t try to take a trip to the UK for the festive season. Had I tried to do so I’d either have got stuck there for an indefinite period or be still here frantically doing some food shopping for a solitary Christmas. Having settled for a solitary Christmas some time ago I’ve actually got – without getting the least bit frantic – most of what I need not only to survive Christmas here in Maynooth but also to have a massively self-indulgent time. I’m looking forward to cooking myself special dinners on Christmas Eve (Sea Bass), Christmas Day (Confit of Duck) and Boxing Day (Lamb Shank) together with carefully chosen wines.

The cause of the sudden isolation of the United Kingdom is, allegedly, the appearance of a new “mutant” variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus. I say “allegedly” because it isn’t clear to me that this is any different from the thousand-plus other variant forms of this particular Coronavirus. One thing viruses do rather well is mutate.

It seems perfectly possible to me that this mutation has been seized on by the Johnson administration as an excuse for a changing a policy that they should have changed ages ago but didn’t want to lose face. They did, after all, know about this variant way back in September. They may not have known then that this strain might be more infectious, but their response to Covid-19 generally has been careless and inept even without this new development. As it has been on other matters too, on top of their laziness and corruption. Am I being too cynical? Perhaps, but the Tories have shown themselves time and time again to be pathological liars so I hope you’ll forgive me for not believing a word.

What seems to have happened is that Johnson hyped up the threat from this new variant for a domestic audience but it put the wind up Macron and other leaders. Assuming Johnson was telling the truth they closed their borders.

There’s quite a strong chance that there will be some disruption to food supplies here in Ireland as a consequence of the land route from the continent being closed so I will try to get the last of my “essentials” today. It will be worse in the UK, though, and I feel very sorry for all my friends there who will be effectively cut off for the holiday season. I hope they can console themselves with the fact that Christmas isn’t cancelled this year, it is just Australia-style…

End of Term Blue Screen

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on December 18, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are. We have arrived at last at the final day of term. I don’t actually have any teaching today so I’ve just been pottering about at home trying to tidy up a few loose ends.

My (work laptop) has for some time been hassling me to restart it to do an update but I’ve been too busy. This morning I consented. The screen stayed as shown above for 7 minutes. As I write this, an hour later, it is on 17%. Sigh.

UPDATE: two hours later I can at last log in to find this:

It seems to be working again but it has removed my desktop background and has replaced it with solid black. I wonder what other settings it has deleted?

The problem with this device (apart from it being a Windows machine) is that it is encrypted with Bitlocker so whenever it restarts I have to type in my PIN. That means scheduling an “out of hours” uodate is pointless as it will just grind to a halt at every restart. Anyway if and when it finishes doing its business I am going to set an “out of office” email and that will be that for work until after Christmas.

I have to confess that I’m completely exhausted and my own systems need a full refresh.

I’m also very much afraid that the Covid-19 situation is going to be very grim next year as infections increase over the holiday period. Cases are already starting to rise.

I won’t be at much risk myself, however, as I intend to stay at home on my own for the entire break (unless I run out of wine and am forced to venture out to replenish stocks).