Archive for SARS-Cov2

Per Ardua ad AstraZeneca

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

The extent to which AstraZeneca’s dishonesty concerning its purchasing agreement with the EU is becoming clearer, and the company is increasingly engulfed by a PR disaster resulting from this and misleading claims about the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine (see here, here, here, etc). Perhaps they will now get their finger out and actually honour their contract?

Here in Ireland there is expected to be a delivery of “large volume” of doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine next week, though I doubt it will be as large as their contractual obligations specify. We’ll see what actually happens. There isn’t much confidence in AstraZeneca around these parts I can tell you.

This morning the Covid-19 tracker app for Ireland was updated with the latest vaccination figures for Ireland (25th March) which are as follows:

  • First doses: 548,945
  • Second doses: 211,223
  • Total: 760,168

That is definitely speeding up, which is welcome. Not as fast as the UK, of course, who have been the beneficiaries of 21 million doses exported by the EU. That’s about 2/3 of the total shots administered there. The number exported from the UK to the EU is zero. Nada. Zilch. The same is true of the USA. There’s no doubt in my mind who the bad guys are.

Anyway, not to dwell on that issue I was wondering when I might get around to having a jab myself. I am not particularly high in the pecking order, but from April onwards Ireland is supposed to receive about a million doses per month. Assuming that this actually happens, and AstraZeneca doesn’t crap out yet again, I estimate they should get to me in May (2021).

Another question that occurred to me, given that under-18s are not given the current vaccines – is how many doses are needed to vaccinate the adult population of Ireland. The total population of Ireland is about 5 million but that includes quite a large number of children. Looking at the 2016 census I see that the number of people living in Ireland who are under the age of 18 is about 1.25 million. That means to fully vaccinate the entire adult population will take about 7.5 million doses. Currently about 14.6% of the adult population have received one dose, and about 5.6% have received two. We probably won’t get to anything like full vaccination of the adult population until the autumn.

Let me just correct yet another misunderstanding often presented in the UK press concerning unused vaccines. The number of doses imported to Ireland currently exceeds the number administered by over 100,000, but that does not mean that these vaccines have been refused or wasted. Because the vaccination programme here follows the manufacturers’ guidelines, and because the supplies have been unreliable (especially from AstraZeneca), there is a buffer to ensure that a second dose will always be available on the necessary timescale for anyone who has been given the first. That means that at any time there will always be some doses in storage. It wouldn’t be necessary to do this if we could trust the delivery schedule, but there you go.

I wouldn’t be too worried about the slowish pace of vaccination were it not for the fact that new Covid-19 cases in the Republic are on the way up again:

The demographic for these new cases is quite young (a median age of 32 yesterday) and the increase almost certainly arises from lax adherence to the restrictions by a subset of the population. The relatively young age distribution and the fact that those at greatest risk of death or serious illness are being vaccinated should mean that the mortality figures remain low even as cases rise. Although the increase in new cases is worrying it is nowhere near as bad in Ireland as on the Continent of Europe and elsewhere around the world (especially Brazil). More worrying still is the likelihood of vaccine-resistant strains arising through mutation. Indeed there is already some evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not as effective against the B.1.351 South African variant, although this has been disputed. Let’s hope that all the AstraZeneca doses administered so far don’t turn out to be useless.

It seems to me that it’s very likely that in order to deal with variants we’ll be having regular (perhaps annual) updated vaccine shots for the foreseeable future, as the only way to stop mutations happening is to immunize a large fraction of the world’s population and that will take a considerable time.

A Year of Covid-19 in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 28, 2021 by telescoper

Last night I was updating my Covid-19 statistics and plotting new graphs (which I do every day – the results are here) when I noticed that I now have 365 data points. The first officially recorded case of Covid-19 in Ireland was dated 29th February 2020 (although there is evidence of cases in Ireland before that, including one of community transmission). I can’t actually mark the anniversary of that date exactly – for obvious reasons – but it seems a good point to look at what has happened. I didn’t actually start doing a daily update until 22nd March when we were all in the first lockdown but there were relatively few cases in the intervening time and it was possible quite easily to fill in the earlier data.

Little did I know that I would be doing an update every day for a year!

Anyway, here are today’s plots:

 

On a linear y-axis the cases look like this:

 

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

 

The recent trend is for a slow decline in new cases, hospitalizations, ICU referrals and testing positivity rates which is all good news. The rate of vaccination- severely limited by supply issues – is starting to increase and from April to June is expected to reach a million a month and then two million a month thereafter. There is therefore some grounds for optimism that a significant fraction of the population will be immunized by the end of the summer, assuming the supply ramps up as expected and there are no more dirty tricks from certain pharmaceutical companies.

Comparing with the situations elsewhere I’d say that Ireland has in broad terms handled the pandemic quite well: worse than some (especially Scandinavian countries) but better than many. It does seem to me that there have been three serious errors:

  1. There has never been – and still isn’t – any sensible plan for imposing quarantine on arrivals into Ireland. A year on one is being put in place but it is simply ridiculous that an island like Ireland failed to do this earlier.
  2. Those lockdown measures that have been imposed have been very weakly enforced, and have often been accompanied by confused messaging from the Government, with the result that a significant minority of people have simply ignored the restrictions. The majority of the population has complied but the others that haven’t have kept the virus in circulation at a high level: the current daily rate of new cases is 650-700, which is far too high, and is declining only slowly.
  3. Finally, and probably the biggest mistake of all, was to relax restriction for the Christmas holiday. The huge spike in infections and deaths in January and February is a direct result of this catastrophic decision for which the Government is entirely culpable.

The situation in the United Kingdom with regard to 3 was even worse:

The excess mortality from January is a direct consequence of Boris Johnson “saving Christmas”. The difference in area under the two curves tells you precisely how many people he killed. I hope politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea are one day held to account for their negligence.

As for myself, I am reasonably optimistic for the future, and not just because Spring appears to have arrived. I have found the Covid-19 restrictions very irksome but I am fortunate to be in a position to cope with them reasonably well, especially now that I have my own house with a garden in a nice quiet neighbourhood.

It has been very hard work doing everything online, and it’s essential to take a break from the screen from time to time, but the upside of that is that by keeping busy you avoid becoming bored and frustrated. One thing that does annoy me though is the number of people who thinking that “working from home” means “not working at all”. I’m sure there are many others, especially in the education sector, who will agree with me!

Although I have coped reasonably well in a personal sense I still very much want to get back to campus to resume face-to-face teaching. I like talking to students and find teaching much more rewarding when there is a response. Moreover, since we’re now going to be off campus until the end of this academic year, that means that a second cohort of students will complete their degrees and graduate this summer without their lecturers being there to congratulate them in person and give them a proper sendoff into the big wide world. I find that very sad.

Anyway, tomorrow we start week 5 of the Semester, which means 4 weeks have passed. That means there are two weeks before the Study Break, the halfway point of teaching term, and we are one-third of the way through the semester. Life goes on.

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.

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…

Vaccination in Ireland

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2020 by telescoper

A very interesting twitter thread from Dr Ronan Glynn (Ireland’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer) inspired me to write something in response to the very positive recent developments with regard to a SARS-CoV2 (Covid-19 vaccine). In Switzerland the regulator does not feel that there is enough data yet for approval to be granted yet, so I have some reservations about the fast-tracking of the process in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless there has to be a tradeoff between the risk of potential reactions or side-effects of a vaccination and the immediate danger to public health arising from Covid-19. As someone recently said to me on Twitter: “if you’re not going to fast-track during a global pandemic, when would you?”.

Here in Ireland it is likely that a vaccination programme will commence early in the New Year. To answer a question I posed a few weeks ago, priority will be given to front-line health care workers, especially those working in care homes, and the elderly. If all goes to plan there will be something like full vaccination of the population by September 2021.

I am not in a priority group so will have to wait a while for my jabs, but I will certainly take the vaccine as soon as it is available to me.

No doubt there are some people out there who for various reasons will refuse to be vaccinated. I doubt anything I say here will persuade them but it is I think valuable to look at the history of vaccination programmes in Ireland for various illnesses, which is what Dr Glynn’s thread does.

To give a few examples:

  • Smallpox. In 1863 vaccination against smallpox was made compulsory for all children born in Ireland. Deaths fell from 7,550 for the decade to 1880 to the last reported death from smallpox here in 1907. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1979 – this one vaccine saved 100s of millions of lives globally.
  • Diptheria. Diphtheria was a very common cause of death among children until the 1940s – there were 318 deaths from it reported in Ireland  1938. With the introduction of a vaccine, the number of deaths fell year on year with 5 deaths in 1950; the last death notified from diphtheria was in 1967.
  • Poliomyelitis. In Ireland, polio infection (mainly affecting young children causing long term paralysis) became more common after 1920 with major epidemics during the 1940s & 1950s. A vaccine was introduced in 1957. The last reported case of polio here in Ireland 1984.
  • Measles. The number of cases of measles declined dramatically after introduction of measles vaccine in 1985, from 10,000 cases in 1985 to 201 cases in 1987.
  • Meningococcal Meningitis. In 1999, there were 536 cases of meningococcal meningitis in Ireland The meningitis C vaccine was introduced in 2000, with the meningitis B vaccine introduced in 2016. Cases of meningococcal meningitis have dropped more than 80% since these vaccines were introduced.

These are of course wonderful advances in public health, but none of them provided total relief immediately. It will be the same with Covid-19. The availability of a vaccine will not end the pandemic overnight, but at least it will enable us to plan for a phased return to normal.

 

While there is great cause for long-term optimism, there are still reasons to be anxious in the short term. There will be many months before a full vaccination programme is in place and in that time cases (and, sadly, deaths) could rise substantially. There is a real danger will think that it’s all over, that they can let down their guard and ignore social distancing.

Ireland is currently relaxing its Covid-19 restrictions for the Christmas period, but it is doing so from a level of over 260 new cases per day. The Coronavirus is currently circulating in the community at a far higher rate than it was in the summer and if it increases at a similar rate to August then we could be in for a huge surge. I fear that by the New Year we might be in real trouble again. It would be tragic if people lost their lives owing to complacency with safety so nearly in sight.