Dr. Robin’s Covid-19 Updates

My Covid Ode to Science Teachers

Vaccines and Variants and Career Arcs

Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

Vaccines and Safety

Last week 10 million Covid vaccines had been given. Today it’s 20 million.

There’s been no changes in safety issues. We see a serious allergic reaction maybe six times in a million doses; and many people are getting (as expected and welcomed) mild to moderate reactions of sore arms and sometimes fevers and discomfort.

So so far, so good with safety. Now we just need to rebuild a mass vaccination program out of thin air with no public health infrastructure. It’ll happen, but unfortunately not overnight.

As soon as the vaccine program gets seriously underway I’m going to feel increasingly optimistic:

  1. It’s quite possible post-vaccination transmission will be low. We don’t have the data yet (and we have to stay careful until we do), but we do have history to go on: several vaccines like the polio and rotavirus vaccines didn’t eliminate asymptomatic transmission, but the diseases still ended up being vanquished.
  2. It’s possible we’ll see cases go down as we move into warmer weather.
  3. We may see cases decline because so many people have already had Covid (knowingly or not) and are immune.
  4. Everybody vaccinated will be incredibly safer!

Some scientists even feel optimistic about having things get significantly better by the summer.

The wild card here is the variants.

Variants

The variants could turn out to be no big deal. Viruses change all the time and mutations usually don’t have much impact.

But some could be impactful, we just don’t know how yet. In the US, we only recently started to look for these variants through a fancy technique called “genomic sequencing.” The more we look, the more we’ll find. I personally don’t doubt the variants are already all here as well as others we haven’t discovered yet.

We don’t yet know much about any of them except that they exist. They could be no big deal, or they could be a bad development causing real setbacks.

How could they cause setbacks?

  1. Some variants appear to be more transmissible. Anything that is more transmissible automatically means more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.
  2. If one of these variants turns out to not be able to be picked up by our tests that would be a bad thing. We’d invent new tests, but still, a setback.
  3. If one turns out itself to be more lethal (this hasn’t happened and usually doesn’t), that would be a very bad thing.
  4. If one turns out to be able to escape from the vaccine, that would be a bad thing (so far this hasn’t happened either).
  5. The good news is we don’t know if the “escape” would be a tiny bit or a lot.
  6. The bad news is it will take a while to figure it out.
  7. The good news is scientists say they can pretty easily re-manufacture a new vaccine if it’s needed (in fact, they’re already working on it just in case).
  8. The bad news is we might have to re-vaccinate again or get a booster booster. Do-able, but a setback.
  9. If a variant turns out to be able to reinfect us, that would be a bad thing.

Again, right now we don’t know if any variant is going to be a bad thing, a non-thing, or a nuisance. All we know is we have to:

  1. find new variants through more genomic sequencing
  2. trace them through better contact tracing
  3. do more research of tests and vaccines for each variant
  4. and then publish it all

It’s kind of like Whack-A-Mole. But it’s Scientific Whack-A-Mole.

Teachers

In the car on the way to get my first vaccine on Tuesday I kept thinking about how grateful I am to the last century of science and scientists who helped invent this miraculous vaccine.

And my gratitude to all scientists.

I’m grateful to the scientists who created the laptop I type on. I’m grateful to the scientists who figured out how to heat our houses. And how to keep the Tobin Bridge from falling down. And how to keep our children safe from bacterial infections with antibiotics and from viral infections through vaccines.

And lately I’ve been feeling extreme gratitude to the scientists who figured out how to put stents into hearts through a groin artery rather than sawing open a chest. And how to find tumors on CT scans rather than by having to open up that chest, too, and who invented the immunotherapy that keeps those patients alive. And who figured out how to send love letters via texts. And who figured out how to fly to the moon and Mars and live in space.

And for all the scientists who never gave up. Scientists who moved from one failed experiment to another; who tried “A” and “B” and when that didn’t work, shook their heads and didn’t sleep for days and then tried “C.” Which worked, or didn’t.

Or the scientists who had four years of experiments lost during an earthquake or a hurricane or just a stupid power surge and then reopened their labs weeks later and started again. Or who lost their funding, twice, and went back to it when times and priorities had changed.

But this week at the vaccination clinic I felt a different kind of thankful.

Right after feeling the Moderna Magic slide into the muscle of my upper arm, I felt just overwhelmed (actually a little teary) with gratitude for all the high school science and math teachers who started all these scientists out on their paths.

To all the high school teachers who lit a fire, all the math teachers who said, “You’ve got this,” all the physics teachers whose eyes glittered when they described a theorem, all the calculus teachers who helped somebody prove that theorem, all the biology teachers who showed a freshman the majesty of a cell, all the chemistry teachers who watched a junior finally get the energy of atomic attraction.

To all the high school teachers who took those kids, the unfettered, the questioners, the bookish, the geeky, the curious, the nerdy, the numbers-obsessed, the restless, the driven, the library-ensconced, the spreadsheet hobbyists; the teachers who took little frightened freshman and triggered something that made them stand up and say “Hey, this is so cool,” and go on to get BA and MS’s, MPHs and MDs, PhDs, EdDs and whatever and then become associates, technicians, scientists, statisticians, researchers, epidemiologists, principal investigators.

To all of our high school teachers: we owe you (as the vaccine triggers our immune systems and saves the day) our very lives. Thank you, so very much.

{Robin Schoenthaler, MD is a Boston-based cancer doctor who has been writing straightforward fact-based no-blame-no-rumors-all-science-all-the-time essays about Covid-19 since March 2020.}

Covid-Translator. Cancer doc: ~Three decades at MGH. Writer and storyteller: Moth Grand Slam Champion. Mom. www.DrRobin.org, @robinshome, robinshome2@gmail.com

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