April 2021 update: It’s been over a year now since COVID became a reality for most of us in North America. We came back from our vacation in Florida on March 17th or so to a changed world, and it has continued to change rapidly ever since. My 85-year-old mother got COVID in December — as did about 120 people in her retirement home — but it was a relatively mild case and she turned out to be fine after a couple of weeks in hospital. Vaccines are being rolled out (with varying degrees of success) in most countries. After a rocky start, President Joe Biden seems to have gotten things moving in the US and more than 100 million people have gotten their first shot of one of the vaccines. In Canada, supply constraints held things back, but they are rolling out now — my wife Becky and I have gotten our first shot of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine because we are caregivers for my mother, and our second shot has been pushed out several months in order to give others the chance to get a first one (Pfizer appears to be about 80 percent effective after one shot).
The US has agreed to give Canada a bunch of Astra-Zeneca doses because it hasn’t been approved in the US yet and they will expire before it does. There have also been a number of countries that have paused or held back on providing A-Z vaccine because of about 20 cases of abnormal clotting, including some deaths — despite the fact that studies show the number of cases (plus or minus 20 out of 17 million) is well below the normal incidence of fatal blood clots. Pfizer and Moderna look to be about 90 percent effective in the real world against contracting a symptomatic case of COVID, and 100 percent effective against hospitalization or death. What remains unknown is how effective the various vaccines are against the new variants, the worst of which seems to be the British one, B117, which is significantly more contagious than the original, and also more lethal, and seems to be infecting more younger people than the previous one.
In Ontario, more than 65 percent of cases are now the British variant, and the ICUs are filling up. After a decline in the early part of the year, we and others are now well into the third wave, with case numbers rising sharply and more people being hospitalized. Ontario just went into a month-long lockdown, even though Toronto, Hamilton, Peel and other regions were already in the “grey” zone, meaning they were supposed to be locked down already. As in a number of other places, Ontario in particular seems to have struggled to find a balance between locking down quickly to prevent spread (the way countries like South Korea and New Zealand have) and keeping things open to help restaurants and other small businesses, and to keep schools open as a way of helping both kids and parents. “I’m going to pause here. I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said recently.
January 2021 update: It’s now been a year since a brave Chinese researcher released the genome of the COVID-19 virus, against the wishes of his government, which allowed vaccine makers to get to work on new mRNA or modified RNA vaccines even before the first case was identified in the United States. Two of those vaccines — from Moderna and Pfizer — started rolling out in November (see below), although the rollout in both the US and Canada has been slow, for a variety of reasons, one of which is the fact that both vaccines need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures and plenty of places don’t have those kinds of facilities. A new Johnson & Johnson vaccine is supposed to be available soon, and it is a traditional vaccine that uses part of the virus itself as the delivery vehicle, and therefore doesn’t need special storage requirements.
That’s the good news. The bad news (in addition to the recent riot in which armed goons stormed the US Capitol, breaching its security for the first time since the 1950s, in what seemed to be an attempt to reverse the results of the election) is that there are at least two new strains of the virus that are causing concern, one that was first identified in the UK and one first identified in South Africa. They are both believed by some researchers to be more infectious than the original strain — up to 70 percent more infectious. Epidemiologists and other researchers note that viruses like COVID always evolve over time, and sometimes rapidly — measles mutates very slowly, so shots are good for years, but the regular flu mutates quickly, so you need a different shot every year. It’s still not clear which of these COVID will be more like. There is some evidence that the current vaccines may be effective against the new variants.
More bad news: A number of countries are seeing outbreaks and uncontrolled spread as bad or worse as the original outbreak in March of 2020, either because of a lack of stringent controls, a lack of desire on the part of people to wear masks, etc. and/or cases of the newer, more infectious variants. In the UK, authorities confirmed more than 62,000 cases in just 24 hours; according to a number of observers, both Sweden and Japan are paying the price for having been too lenient with their lockdowns and other measures early on. The US, meanwhile, has been the victim of a combination of the Trump government’s incompetence and American “every man for himself” individualism: roughly 400,000 people have now died of COVID, and the country has about 25 percent of the cases worldwide, despite only having 4 percent of the world’s population. The death rate in the US is now the equivalent of six fully-loaded 747 jumbo jets crashing and killing everyone on board, every single day.Continue reading