Covid Musings

Mr. Trump and objectivity, last Monday, August 17, at a campaign rally in Minnesota (quote and video here)

Referring to some nations now seeing a new wave of coronavirus cases, Trump said “they were holding up names of countries and now they’re saying ‘whoops’.”

“Even New Zealand, did you see what’s going on in New Zealand? ‘They beat it, they beat it.’ It was like front page, they beat it, because they wanted to show me something,” he added. “The problem is, big surge in New Zealand … it’s terrible.”

Surely, his comments were received with glee. His message: “Sure Covid is bad here, but I’m doing a great job. See how these other countries are doing worse!” No one in the Fox News silo will be discussing what is actually going on elsewhere in the world. The context of quoted numbers is almost never presented.

The population New Zealand is around 5 million (comparable to our South Carolina). The U.S. is population is roughly 330 million. Trump was giddily riffing on a report of nine, count them, nine new cases of Covid 19 recently reported in a community cluster in Auckland. Trump, of course, offered no numbers and no context. New Zealand had just gone 102 days without evidence of community spread. The total death toll in New Zealand from Covid-19 is 22 souls. (2,401 have died of Covid to date in South Carolina.) New Zealand had cautiously returned to something close to normal. In response to the new cases Auckland immediately went into a three day lockdown to facilitate contact tracing, limit the spread from asymptomatic cases, and to give time for other infected people to emerge. This is exactly the sort of contact tracing and flexibility in dealing with the virus that epidemiologists were recommending here early on–at the same time that Trump was declaring “We have it under control.” When Trump spoke last Monday the U.S. logged 42,000 new Covid-19 cases and reached approximately 170,000 total Covid dead. The comparative, cumulative score: 4.4 Covid dead/ million people in New Zealand; 515 Covid dead/ million in the U.S. 

I used to wonder if Trump were truly ignorant or if he were dissembling, sly like a fox, twisting facts he actually understood for his own rhetorical benefit. I no longer wonder. If you are still wondering I recommend this video featuring Miles Taylor former chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration. 

So what is happening with Covid-19 in the rest of world? Surely, no one at the Trump rallies (or Trump himself) analyzes Covid news from across the globe. To do so would risk acknowledging that other countries strategies for dealing with virus might be superior to ours. Trump followers are led to believe we are doing great (or, at least better than the rest of the world). The truth is that, indeed, America is First! We currently have the highest number of Covid-19 deaths (absolute numbers, not per million), at around 176K. Brazil is second at 111K. Argue about the accuracy of reported numbers all you want, it is hard to discount differences this large. 

I recommend a fascinating on-the-ground, first hand factual account of what is going on in southeast Asia in this podcast: “How South East Asia Flattened the COVID-19 Curve” at . In our smug “we’re the best” nationalism we tend to think of every other country as in some way horribly backward. Even our mainstream media report numbers in a way that fails to offer perspective. (Before I had traveled much, I was guilty of a similar bias. For decades, my mental image of China was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a book I read in high school.)

A Russian Vaccine Breakthrough? Anyone who greets Putin’s Sputnik V vaccine announcement without a great deal of skepticism needs to review the story of Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet agronomist and biologist. His ideas, based more on ideology than science, were supported by the Soviet state under Stalin. Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics and natural selection, setting back the Soviet biological sciences by decades and resulting in the starvation of millions of Russians and Chinese in the mid 20th Century. (Read the article-there are many cautionary parallels to Mr. Trump’s embrace of junk science and opinion.) Russia beat the U.S. into space in 1957 with the original Sputnik. That was rock solid physical science and technology. Biology is a different bear. It would be lovely if the vaccine, Sputnik V, were proven safe and effective in carefully conducted and published clinical trials, but Sputnik V has barely gotten past square one.  

A Breakthrough in Covid-19 Viral Testing? On August 15 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to a new test test for presence of Covid-19 virus. Its name, “SalivaDirect,” also tells us of its major advantage. Developed in a collaboration of Yale University, the National Basketball Association, and the National Basketball Players Association, it tests saliva you can spit out rather than the material collected by a professional inserting a nasopharyngeal swab deep into your nose.

SalivaDirect has been tested against the conventional tests and has proven very nearly as accurate. Processing the samples is also a bit simpler and the cost of the test should be around ten dollars per sample. (Of course, in our non-free market health care system there is no guarantee that price will carry through to the patient or the patient’s insurance. 

So SalivaDirect does sound like an incremental improvement over the currently available tests. BUT, this is not the fast and cheap Covid-19 equivalent of the home pregnancy test I wrote about last week. SalivaDirect is still a lab-based test with all the attendant complications of sample transport, tracking, and reporting. It is not a dipstick. It still relies on detection of the viral genetic material, that is. it is a”molecular” test, not a test for viral antigens (bits of viral proteins) using manufactured antibodies to detect them. A viral test before you go out the door to school or work in the morning is still beyond our reach.

Keep to the high ground,