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Sensemaker: Science 3 – Covid 2

Wednesday 3 February 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Thousands more Russian protesters were detained after Alexei Navalny was handed a three-and-a-half year jail sentence.
  • Ryanair’s “Jab and Go” ads were banned as misleading for their sunny images of Covid-free overseas holidays. 
  • Captain Sir Tom Moore, who raised more than £30 million for NHS charities, died after testing positive for Covid.

Science 3 – Covid 2

It’s not hard to find reasons to worry about the pandemic or politicians’ response to it, but sometimes science beats worry and politicians get lucky, and this feels like one of those times. 

First, the caveats:

  • Existing vaccines may not work as well on the South African variant (and others carrying the E484K mutation to the spike protein) as on the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • Prior Covid infection doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get the South African variant too. You can.

However:

  • The new data on the AstraZeneca vaccine, trumpeted overnight by the UK government, vindicates its strategy of stretching the gap between first and second doses for this vaccine (Pfizer’s is another matter; the data isn’t in yet). Protection from dose one builds to 76 per cent by 22 days, which is better than the overall efficacy number announced last year. It remains at roughly that level at 12 weeks and rises to 82 per cent with dose two. And of course if you prioritise first doses, more people get them.
  • The same data offers the first evidence that the AZ vaccine also cuts transmission – by about two thirds.
  • Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine turns out to be about 92 per cent effective according to a peer reviewed study to be published in the Lancet. Like the AZ vaccine it’s based on the viral vector concept which means it doesn’t have to be frozen, and it’s relatively cheap. Mexico and Hungary have signed up for it. Germany might too, and Russia plans to push it hard in developing countries to show what it can do. Forget the geopolitics for a moment. Epidemiologically, this is good.
  • In the UK at least, work is already under way to tweak existing vaccines to make them more effective against new variants, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, says the modified versions should be available more quickly than the originals.

There are bear traps, no doubt, between saying vaccines can beat back the variants and showing that it’s true. But for now the signs are that the lab coat people are holding their own in the race against spread and mutation, and that Hancock deserves some credit for making his own luck. He has not been taking risks with people’s health – contrary to some French assertions and unlike his Russian counterparts, who started injecting people without full gold-standard trial results – but he has been taking risks with policy, and they seem to be paying off. 

Side note: it turns out he’s obsessed with the film Contagion, as a cautionary tale.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Money trees
Jeff Bezos’ decision to step aside as CEO of Amazon is an excuse to focus briefly on the company’s real cash cow: Amazon Web Services. Why? Partly because it’s the head of AWS, Andy Jassy, who’s taking over day-to-day running of the company. And mainly because of the amazing story of how AWS evolved – from an internal effort to untangle Amazon’s own web servers into an infinitely scalable “operating system for the internet”. AWS earned profits of $13.5 billion last year, 63 per cent of Amazon’s total. Jassy has been the driving force all along. He’s currently worth $377 million, which is about a five-hundredth of Bezos’ net worth, but that could change. 

Bezos is going to spend more time on his Blue Horizon space company, which may mean more time bumping into Richard Branson. Shares in his space company, Virgin Galactic, rose by a fifth on Monday after attracting the attention of day traders on Reddit. That could be good, or it could be bad, but for now Branson’s net worth is up a bit at £7.8 billion.


New things technology, science, engineering

You’ve got kale
Scientists have taught spinach to send emails alerting them to the presence of landmines in the ground. It works like this: roots, naturally attuned to sense changes in nutrients and water levels, detect explosive materials in groundwater. Then, carbon-based molecules within the spinach are engineered to send off a signal which is picked up by an infrared camera, triggering an email to the researchers. The findings, published in 2016, took Twitter by storm yesterday after it was reported by Euronews that the technology could also have useful ecological implications. The MIT scientist leading the nanobiotics research has previously taught plants to detect not just mines but pollution, too.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Fire down under
It’s wildfire season in Australia again. More than 70 homes have been destroyed in hills northwest of Perth and forecasters say prevailing winds will keep the fires burning for at least three more days. Last year fires destroyed nearly 3,000 homes across 72,000 square miles of Australia, mainly in New South Wales, which has sent water bombers to Western Australia to help fight the fires there. Last week John Kerry, the new US climate envoy, said Australia’s experience of wildfires “ought to stop every single one of us in our tracks”.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Captain Tom
Little could anyone have known when plain Tom Moore appeared with Terry Wogan on Blankety Blank in 1983 that he would round out his days Captain Sir Tom Moore, pride of the nation and single-handed fundraiser to the tune of £32,794,701. He died yesterday in Bedford Hospital surrounded by his family after testing positive with Covid – for which he couldn’t be vaccinated because of medication he was already taking for pneumonia. It had been an abiding wish of his to take a winter holiday in the Caribbean, and British Airways flew him and the family there first class before he fell ill. “He didn’t have a stress-free life,” his parish’s retired vicar told the BBC, “but his attitude… was always put your best foot forward.” Which he did. A 100-year life exceedingly well-lived.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Unconscionable
For being out of the country in a coma recovering from an assassination attempt ordered by the Russian government, a Russian court has sentenced Alexei Navalny to three and a half years in a labour camp. There have been many harsher sentences handed to brave dissidents by abominable regimes, but few top this for sheer cynicism. The charge of violating the terms of his parole was an insult based on a fabrication. The length of the term is long enough to deter others and short enough to prevent Navalny gaining an even wider following – or so Vladimir Putin hopes. It’s up to the Russian people now to prove him wrong.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ellen Halliday
@ellen_halliday

Photographs by Getty Images