Wednesday, January 19, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and happy humpday!
Whether or not you’re buried in the #Snowpocalypse, if you’re still reading this, I guess you can be grateful that Asteroid 7482 didn’t bury you even further yesterday. (There’s a reason scientists are building “Earth’s Black Box” in Tasmania…)
Likewise, I’m trying not to bury you in a flurry of information this week, as I sum up the past month of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, we started with the state of the pandemic as we left it in December, in my first newsletter of “2020, too.”
Today, let’s look at some genuine science news. (Then next time, I’ll sum up things SOME people might have learned in the past month, but that we all knew before, if we were paying attention.)
Most global attention is rightly focused on Omicron, the world champion who came as if out of nowhere last month. Thousands of COVID19 strains have been identified, and 1 million genetic sequences were shared on GISAID in December alone. Currently the EU lists 4 variants of concern, 3 of interest, and 9 under monitoring – but 2 others made headlines this month…
One COVID19 variant that the WHO has considered worth “monitoring” since November is B.1.640 (with 2 sub-lineages). Although it won’t get a catchy Greek name unless it becomes a variant of concern, B.1.640 has been dubbed “IHU” after the French research institute that discovered it, the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital in Marseilles. IHU has an impressive 46 genetic mutations and 37 deletions, but has not been circulating widely. (Last I heard, 5 cases had been sequenced in Canada, 319 in France, 40 in Congo, and a handful elsewhere.)
Just last week, a uCyprus virologist announced the discovery of 25 cases of a new COVID19 variant that combined elements of both Delta and Omicron, which he dubbed “Deltacron” (which sounds more like a Transformer than anything). Most scientists dismiss it as an artifact of laboratory contamination or co-infected patients, or even as a non-existent “scariant.” (Of course, the Cypriot scientist defends his findings.) Regardless, Deltacron is not yet a variant of concern for the WHO, nor even one of interest, and it seems unlikely to outcompete Omicron at the rate it’s going. (Especially with a brand like that!)
Then again, if you think “Deltacron” is a lousy brand name, how about “Paxlovid,” “Nirmatrelvir,” “Ritonavir,” or “Molnupiravir”? It’s like the world’s pharmaceutical companies fell in love with the IKEA catalogue, or Norse mythology…
Earlier this week, Health Canada authorized Pfizer’s oral antiviral COVID19 treatment, “Paxlovid,” for adults with mild to moderate symptoms who have tested positive, and are at high risk of progressing to serious disease. (The treatment regimen combines 2 drugs, “Nirmatrelvir” and “Ritonavir,” and must begin within 5 days of symptom onset. Patients take 3 pills twice a day for 5 days. It reduced the risk of hospitalization by 85% in clinical trials.) This is the first oral treatment approved in Canada, but won’t help much in the short term due to limited supply. Priority will be given to the immunocompromised, those aged 80+, or those 60+ living in long-term care or remote communities. The US and UK gave Paxlovid emergency use authorization already. Health Canada has been reviewing a pill from Merck, “Molnupiravir,” since August. (Merck at least admits its product name is drawn from Thor’s hammer.) Both Merck and Pfizer announced in November they would permit generic versions to be manufactured by other companies for use in 95 countries, priced on a sliding scale. (And maybe the generics will even get better names!)
“[Paxlovid is] not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It’s good, and it’s very useful… But it’s not by any means a panacea.” – Michael Reider, Schulich School of Medicine, Western U
Chewing Up Covid
uPennsylvania researchers say they have developed a COVID19-fighting chewing gum that neutralizes the virus in saliva, drastically cutting viral load. If clinical trials prove it is safe and effective, the gum might be taken before dental checkups when masks must be removed.
High Hopes for CBD
Cannabinoids might just help in the fight against COVID19. An Oregon laboratory study has found that CBDA and CBGA can in fact bind to the coronavirus spike protein, at sufficient concentrations. uWaterloo researchersannounced this week that synthetic cannabidiol “appears to prime the innate immune system of cells” against 3 key proteins found in the COVID19 virus genome. And a third study has found that users of high-dose pharmaceutical CBD had a 10-fold lower risk of testing positive for COVID19.
The world’s pharmaceutical companies are working overtime to assess the effectiveness of 3, 4 or more shots of existing vaccines against Omicron, to formulate new vaccines specifically to target Omicron, and to develop neat new delivery systems to overcome fear of needles…
Oxford U began working with AstraZeneca on an Omicron-specific vaccine before Christmas. Pfizer also announced it would fast-track production of 50-100M doses of a new vaccine formulated specifically for Omicron by April, producing them “at risk” just in case they are needed. Moderna says it hopes to have an Omicron-targeted vaccine available by Fall 2022, in time for next winter’s flu season. (As I said yesterday, an Omicron-specific shot won’t come in time to save the Winter 2022 term.)
UK-based Emergex has developed a T-cell COVID19 vaccine to be delivered via a skin patch with microneedles, which might help overcome hesitancy for those suffering trypanophobia. The vaccine has been approved for phase 1 clinical trials in Switzerland starting this month.
Researchers at McMaster are testing a pair of COVID19 vaccines “designed to be inhaled as a fine mist” instead of injected hypodermically. By getting the vaccine straight to the lungs, where airborne pathogens typically start, they stimulate “mucosal immunity” in the respiratory tract.
Researchers in Texas have developed a new COVID19 vaccine they call “Corbevax” that can be manufactured fast and cheap in low-income countries, without licensing or patents, and appears to be 80% effective against the Delta variant. “We think it’s a gamechanger… If you want to develop vaccines that are for the public good, you need to share your knowledge.” One pharmaceutical company in India is already preparing to manufacture 1.2 billion doses a year.
But geez, the name…
Next time, I’ll sum up about 17 things the past month has taught everybody about this pandemic. (Although all of you could have said “I told you so” last month, I’m sure.)
Ever since I launched my “Ten with Ken” video podcast back in late 2013, I’ve been intrigued by the way some academics can create concise, entertaining and informative videos to share knowledge. (They DON’T do it by using a bunch of Swedish-sounding brand names, let me tell you!) But speaking of linguistic oddities, here’s one of my favourites this month…
Why “No Problem” is Rude
Tom Scott isn’t actually an academic, but he graduated with a degree in linguistics from uYork. Now he produces wide-ranging educational videos about history, science and more – but the linguistics ones have caught my fancy. (His YouTube channel has almost 5M subscribers and 1 billion views!) His “Language Files” are quick 4 or 5-min videos that explore catchy topics like “Why Shakespeare could never have been French,” “Abso-Bloody-lutely: Expletive Infixation,” “Crash Blossoms and Being Drunk,” “Ghoti and the Ministry of Helth: Spelling Reform,” and the example above, “Why ‘No Problem’ can seem Rude.” They’re not especially recent videos, but good examples of popularizing ideas in digestible form.
As always, thanks for reading!
I’m always on the lookout for innovative ideas about the future of higher ed, so please do drop me a line if you spot something you find thought-provoking, at your institution or anywhere else.
Stay safe and be well!
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