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Sensemaker: Delta force

Tuesday 8 June 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Britain’s plan to ease Covid restrictions on 21 June may be delayed after an increase in cases of the Delta, or “Indian,” variant (more below).
  • Law enforcement agencies arrested hundreds of criminals around the world, using encrypted chat devices that the FBI operated and distributed in the criminal underworld.
  • The head of Berlin’s spy agency said that the Kremlin has increased its clandestine interference in Germany to levels last seen during the Cold War.

Delta force

The Kent variant of the once-novel coronavirus – now dubbed the Alpha strain – was the first serious “variant of concern” that changed the maths of fighting the pandemic. Researchers at UCL have possibly identified why in a working paper: they exposed lung tissue cells to the virus, and found that – compared to the garden-variety virus – the cells seemed to make little interferon, a protein that triggers a series of defence responses.

Their theory is that the Alpha variant creates a protein that blocks the interferon production. This only creates a temporary lull – but enough to allow the virus to get a head-start. This will mean, among other things, that patients are more pathogen-laden before they show symptoms, allowing them to be much more virus-laden when the coughing and spluttering starts. 

Their research suggests that Delta, too, suppresses the interferon production mechanism – although not through the same mechanism. This is all preliminary research, but it may offer a clue as to why the variant is so potent. The UK has had weeks of growth in Delta-driven case numbers: from 2,000 cases a day in early May to 5,700 now. Still low numbers – but growing. 

There are some policy responses already rolling out locally. Schools in some hot-spots are reintroducing masking rules. (A brief note: if England had not cancelled school exams, we would be in a heap of trouble as school absences started to rocket as outbreaks have risen among teenagers.) 

This growth will, in the end, be unmanageable – if it continues. The slack in the health system, in particular, is non-existent. But delay will make reopening easier. The vaccination numbers are not enough to cauterise the growth on their own right now – but with a bit of delay, they very well might be. And delaying into the summer helps, too. No one wants to be indoors in July. 

That is why today’s newspapers are full of reports that the proposed English unlocking on 21 June is in doubt: as I wrote last week, the maths makes it hard to see how the proposed end of social distancing can carry forward. This reopening hesitancy is a saga that is playing out now in Britain – but it will come to every country that has a suppression-plus-vaccine strategy.

The framing of this debate is bad news for the developing world. There is no appetite for accepting even a little delay to free up vaccine supplies to jab the most vulnerable of people in poorer states. Not even by one day. But Unicef is worried that countries with limited roll-out capacity will not get any jabs until the autumn, then they’ll get more than they can deploy in time. The World Health Organization is worried about a “two-track pandemic”. 


New things technology, science, engineering

So this is what cryptocurrency is for
The attack on the Colonial oil pipeline in the eastern US last month was a reminder that the main effect of the emergence of cryptocurrency has been to encourage the development of ransomware. Hackers can seize control of systems and either disrupt their use or blackmail the owners. And, thanks to cryptocurrency, digital online-only tokens, they can demand payment online in untraceable ways. Or so they thought: the US Department of Justice said on Monday that it had managed to retrieve money paid out to the hackers – $4 million of cash. They tracked the money’s movement through 23 accounts before landing in one where they could reach in (with a court order) and grab it. The best reason to regulate cryptocurrency is that it’s enabling crooks.


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

Alzheimer’s problem
A controversy has broken out over a healthcare issue that is not the pandemic: the FDA has approved aducanumab (or ‘Aduhelm’), the first new Alzheimer’s drug in 18 years. The NYT ($) reports that the monthly intravenous infusion is intended to attack the process that drives the disease, not just address the symptoms – and it comes in at a whopping $56,000 a year. But – here’s the rub – it has been approved for use so long as Biogen, its maker, conducts a new trial. The issue is that it is not clear if it works – and the side-effects might render it useless. But with so few good options out there, the FDA is basically letting the company have a go on real-life patients. One of the people who ran the trials that have already taken place told the NYT: “There’s so little evidence for effectiveness… I don’t know what caught the F.D.A.’s fancy here.”


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Day trippers
Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth, is taking his brother on a jolly to space. Makes Richard Branson messing about in a hot air balloon look a bit tame, doesn’t it? The men will be airborne for minutes – with three minutes of weightlessness in the middle as they fly to 100km above the earth. The rocket that takes them up will drop them off, then land. The capsule containing the brothers will come down separately. If all goes to plan, they will descend into the desert in West Texas. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

What a ripper
Big news for six year-olds everywhere: a new dinosaur has been discovered in Australia, and it’s massive. The “Australotitan cooperensis” was 6.5m tall, 30m long and lived 92 million years ago. The discovery provoked a local museum leader to say that “Queensland is quickly cementing itself as the palaeo-capital of the nation”. Anyone interested in Australian politics will confirm that’s always been the case.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Jimi Olubunmi-Adewole
There are growing calls to recognise the life of Jimi Olubunmi-Adewole, a young south Londoner who leapt into the Thames to save a stranger’s life – and lost his own. It is hard to think of a more deserving recipient of the George Cross, the highest civilian award for valour. But London has an odd monument – Postman’s Park – which is arrayed with monuments to deserving Londoners who made a “Heroic Self-Sacrifice”. The posting of new plaques fell into abeyance in the 1930s, but a campaign is underway to recommence this tradition in Jimi’s honour. I sincerely hope they do.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook
@xtophercook

Photographs by Getty Images


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