A Video Guide to Understanding Covid-19 without Freaking Out

It’s a complicated time, and we’re all emotionally worn out.

Here at emptywheel we’ve covered the current pandemic’s scientific side in some depth. (see Jim White’s look at the origin of the virus, Rayne has done several very good updates on the science, politics, and misinformation,
and I’ve gone into the mechanisms of the disease and how it compares to other pandemics )

But we haven’t done as much for the overtaxed, overwhelmed reader who just wants some pretty pictures and gentle talking heads to make Covid-19 make sense. Even those of you who voraciously keep up with Marcy’s intricate political  and media analyses might like to give the emotional roller coaster a break, and still feel like you have some frickin’ idea what is going on.

The Modeling

Nothing is more calming yet informative than 3Blue1Brown’s soothing and surprisingly clear explanation of epidemic models. This 3Blue1Brown explainer uses SIR, a mathematical modeling system for epidemics. While simplified, it can give you a sense for how more complicated models work, and why policies like social distancing and contact tracing are important and effective.

SIR stands for:
S = the number of susceptible individuals
I = the number of infected individuals
R = the number of removed individuals (removed here means no longer infectious, and includes both immune and deceased.)

3Blue1Brown is also one of the most pleasant-to-watch Youtubers of all time. Even when you don’t have any clue about the math he’s describing, it all comes together and you feel smarter by the end. “It’s the mental equivalent of ice-skating,” my daughter says, “You’re a little bit worried about falling over, but it’s nice.”

The smartypants at minutephysics and Aatish Bhatia teamed up to visualize the progress of Covid-19 cases around the world. They use a visualization with a logarithmic map of total cases versus new cases to clearly show both how similar the track of the disease is, and what it looks like for a geographical area to get a handle on the spread. This video explains how it works, and here is the site where you can watch the model play with current data.
But why did this happen?

The why us and why now question is lurking in the back of everyone’s mind, and SciShow comes through on it. SciShow has a long and storied history of well-researched and approachable science education, and their video tackling the zoonotic source of Covid-19 (and other viruses) in bats keeps in the tradition. Bats have evolved different approaches to having a mammalian immune system, which makes them better at handling some of the viruses and worse at handling other pathogens we can overcome easily — this is why their viruses can be so rough on us. We have a lot to learn from them, but we should probably stop disturbing their habitats if we don’t want to keep catching novel viruses from them.

The Medicine

If you’ve heard a lot of terms and you don’t know what they mean, Dr. Hope’s Sick Notes goes through 26 of them with clear and non-technical definitions. Dr. Hope is an NHS doctor who teaches and works in an English emergency department as well as a YouTuber. (His ongoing Covid-19 vlog is great, but more stress inducing than the videos featured here.) He gives easy explanations of complicated concepts with handwritten flashcards, a nice soft focus, and some comforting quiet background music. At the end he hands it over to Dr. Sonia, an anesthesiologist at the same hospital, defining some of the more hardcore technical terms we’ve been hearing in the media, but with equal calming friendliness.

Dr. Sonia appears in our next video as well, as an avid AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego). Dr. Hope and Dr. Sonia discuss how the ICU and ventilation really work, demonstrating with a detailed Lego model built by Dr. Sonia in her day off. It goes over all of the scary terms and procedures and why and how they’re used, but with Lego, so it’s fine. My daughter confirmed this too.

 

 

There’s a lot of questions about immunity, herd immunity, and the potential for re-infection, and a lot of misunderstanding about what any of those terms mean. Dr. Seema Yasmin breaks it down on a spectrum from life-long immunity to HIV (The worst). Where and how Covid-19 might fit into this is yet to be found, but she lays down the situation and puts it in context.

 

And Finally, Something of Less Value

Watching night shows, comedy news, and Youtubers adapt to filming inside their houses has been some hits and a lot of misses, but there’s a few amazing hits. These aren’t so much information about Covid-19 as a few gems life in quarantine has generated. Relax, it’s what everyone’s therapist is suggesting we do.

Stephen Colbert interviewing fellow Daily Show alumnus John Oliver is somehow both unbearable and ten minutes of comedy gold. I wish all late night interviews could be like this, but I also think that would kill me.

 

Kate McKinnon takes to a spare bedroom to reprise her role as Barbara DeDrew, trying to get you to adopt a cat, any cat, all the cats, from Whiskers R We.

 

 

 

Last but not least: what would you say to yourself, if you could travel back to January?


Please feel free to add your own calming and informative, or just funny contributions in the comments, BUT NO STRESS INDUCERS!!!11!!!!!

Um, am I doing this right?


My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon. Thanks to H.alhajji for the featured image.

Trump Policy Maximizes Deaths in Food Factories

Even before coronavirus spread to the United States, the risk to meat-packing plants was known. Major meat-packers in the US are either owned by Chinese companies (Smithfield) or have factories in China (JBS and Cargill). Still, the plants were slow to offer their workers masks, much less space out the lines sufficient to prevent infections. In most cases, workers were not given sick pay to encourage infected workers to stay home.

All of those policies could have cut down on infections. Those policies might have prevented shutdowns of at least 15 plants. Those policies are within the emergency authority of OSHA. AFL-CIO called on OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for protecting workers back on March 6. And a bunch of Democratic Senators called on Eugene Scalia to do the same days later.

At the time, a number of industries wanted to mandate masks, but could not because of the shortage of personal protective equipment destined for medical workers. Trump could have deployed the Defense Production Act to mandate manufacturers like 3M to prioritize first line workers.

Trump didn’t do any of that.

Indeed, OSHA waited until yesterday to issue non-mandatory guidance for meat facilities. Upwards of 20 workers at a number of facilities have died. Even a food inspector died.

And today — as livestock slaughter starts to backlog and red state voters contemplate lost sales — Trump will announce he’s going to (try to) use the DPA to mandate that meatpacking plants — including some that have closed because of COVID outbreaks — open and remain that way (it’s not clear the DPA authority extends this far). Apparently, he will provide liability protection for the companies, even as their workers continue to infect each other and their surrounding communities.

Trump’s action might address the failure of the food supply chain.

But along the way, his inaction will have led to infections and death before today, and any success he has at forcing workers to work while sick will lead to infections and death after today. At each stage, Trump’s policies have maximized the deaths of workers.

He has only prioritized that his meatpacker executive donors can keep killing cows and pigs and chickens, along with their workers.

Update: UFCW, which represents some of the affected workers, demands that this order include safety provisions. It reveals the union wrote Pence last week asking for five safety actions:

In the last week, UFCW sent a letter to Vice President Pence urgently calling for the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety actions targeted toward the meatpacking industry, including: (1) increased worker testing, (2) priority access to PPE, (3) halting line speed waivers, (4) mandating social distancing, and (5) isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.

Today, new internal UFCW estimates have confirmed 20 worker deaths in meatpacking and food processing. In addition, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus. Those directly impacted include individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized, and/or are symptomatic.

UFCW announced today that new estimates show 22 meatpacking plants have closed – including union and non-union plants – at some point in the past two months. These closures have resulted in over 35,000 workers impacted and a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.

Shi Zhengli Provides Proof SARS CoV-2 Was Not An Accidental Release From Wuhan Institute of Virology

On Saturday, I took a deep dive into the origin of SARS CoV-2, the virus that is the cause of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. That post was the result of several long days of deep reading and thinking. Somehow, I missed that Scientific American had put out an update on Friday of their profile of Dr. Shi Zhengli, the scientist responsible for much of what the world knows about bat coronaviruses, including isolating the bat coronavirus from Yunnan Province that is the closest relative to SARS CoV-2 that has been seen in a laboratory. Even worse, commenter Zinsky linked to the Scientific American article in one of the earliest comments on my post.

I finally got around to reading the article today. As you might imagine, this editor’s note at the top really got my attention:

Editor’s Note (4/24/20): This article was originally published online on March 11. It has been updated for inclusion in the June 2020 issue of Scientific American and to address rumors that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from Shi Zhengli’s lab in China.

I strongly urge you to read the entire article. It provides an effective look into work that Shi had been doing prior to the outbreak and then takes us along with her as she gets the news on December 30 that a novel coronavirus had been detected in two patients in Wuhan with atypical pneumonia. On instruction from the lab director, Shi left the conference she was attending in Shanghai and rushed back to Wuhan to concentrate all of her attention on the new virus.

It is important to keep in mind that Shi’s career up to the SARS CoV-2 outbreak was aimed at just such an event. In fact, she and her team had warned us. From the Scientific American article:

With growing human populations increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitats, with unprecedented changes in land use, with wildlife and livestock transported across countries and their products around the world, and with sharp increases in both domestic and international travel, pandemics of new diseases are a mathematical near certainty. This had been keeping Shi and many other researchers awake at night long before the mysterious samples landed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on that ominous evening last December.

More than a year ago Shi’s team published two comprehensive reviews about coronaviruses in Viruses and Nature Reviews Microbiology. Drawing evidence from her own studies—many of which were published in top academic journals—and from others, Shi and her co-authors warned of the risk of future outbreaks of bat-borne coronaviruses.

With that as background, her actions in digging into the new virus make perfect sense for how a respected scientist engaged in work with dangerous viruses would seek the source of the outbreak.

She and her team jumped into work on the train trip back to Wuhan from the conference in Shanghai:

On the train back to Wuhan on December 30 last year, Shi and her colleagues discussed ways to immediately start testing the patients’ samples. In the following weeks—the most intense and the most stressful time of her life—China’s bat woman felt she was fighting a battle in her worst nightmare, even though it was one she had been preparing for over the past 16 years. Using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, which can detect a virus by amplifying its genetic material, the team found that samples from five of seven patients had genetic sequences present in all coronaviruses.

But here’s where the character of a person who has been dedicated to science her entire career comes out:

Shi instructed her group to repeat the tests and, at the same time, sent the samples to another facility to sequence the full viral genomes. Meanwhile she frantically went through her own lab’s records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. “That really took a load off my mind,” she says. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

Yes, months before the rumors of an accidental release from her lab started circulating, one of Shi’s very first steps was to make sure that the sequence of the virus found in patients from the wet market did not align with the sequences of any of the viruses isolated from bats that she had in her lab. She had already warned the world of the danger posed by some coronaviruses jumping from bats to humans. [Note: even though we talk about SARS CoV-2 and the bat virus RaTG13 being “closely related”, they still differ by enough that it is clear that SARS CoV-2 came from a different source than either the virus circulating in that bat population at the time it was isolated or the virus as it exists now in the lab.]

Even more importantly, she checked lab safety records and did not sleep until she could eliminate the nightmare of her lab being responsible for the outbreak.

The article goes on to detail the steps taken to confirm SARS CoV-2 as the agent for the outbreak and the use of sequencing of multiple isolates from different patients over time to indicate that it’s very likely that there was only a single introduction of the virus into humans.

Clearly, the rumors of a leak from her lab have bothered Shi, but she will not allow them to stop her:

Despite the disturbance, Shi is determined to continue her work. “The mission must go on,” she says. “What we have uncovered is just the tip of an iceberg.” She is planning to lead a national project to systematically sample viruses in bat caves, with much wider scope and intensity than previous attempts.

/snip/

“Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks,” Shi says with a tone of brooding certainty. “We must find them before they find us.”

Epilogue

In my post on Saturday, I posited that if we are to believe that the outbreak was the product of an accidental release from Wuhan Institute of Virology, we would have to claim that China has removed from the record any evidence of workers from the lab, or the family or other close contacts, being infected or dying.

Now, after the details that Shi has provided, we would have to believe that a scientist with a long history of top-notch peer reviewed research would be involved in such a lie and would further fabricate the story that none of the previous isolates in her lab match the outbreak.

A scientist of this caliber would know that such a lie would eventually be uncovered. That Shi intends to continue her work unabated is very strong evidence that she is being truthful and can rightfully proceed with a clear conscience.

Those considerations prompted me to return to the “evidence” that was presented to suggest an accidental release. Recall that in my post Saturday, I was perplexed by what looked like the outlines of an information operation. First, the specificity, out of the blue, of the question from John Roberts of Fox about an intern at the lab being infected. I still haven’t heard any others make this same suggestion, so that still stands out as suspicious.

But then I went back and looked at the Josh Rogin column from the same day, where Rogin concentrated on two State Department cables from 2018 about Wuhan Institute of Virology. Here’s the setting Rogin provided for the cables:

In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). WIV issued a news release in English about the last of these visits, which occurred on March 27, 2018. The U.S. delegation was led by Jamison Fouss, the consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health. Last week, WIV erased that statement from its website, though it remains archived on the Internet.

What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

And yet, even though Rogin says he got a copy of the first cable, this is the only money quote he chose to put into his column:

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists. (The State Department declined to comment on this and other details of the story.)

Rogin then adds what I think is the most important part:

The Chinese researchers at WIV were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the Chinese requested additional help. The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.

Really? The scariest language that Rogin could lift from the cable warned of a “shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate”, but then he grudgingly had to note that this was in fact tied to a request from the lab for more outside assistance in getting that training. When we couple that thought with the failure, so far, of Rogin or anyone else to have actually published the full cables, I am more convinced than ever that the whole cable story is part of a coordinated information operation where Roberts asked the specific question and then Rogin took information that had been twisted inside-out from a cable asking for help with training at the lab to try to turn it into a potential whistle-blowing event.

One more bit. I did some digging. Rick Switzer, the “embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health” is not a scientist:

Rogin says the cable he saw was written by “two officials  from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists”. One would hope that there was at least one actual scientist among those two officials.

Mitch McConnell Just Helped Trump Take Kentucky’s Cops and Teachers Hostage

“I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

There’s been a lot written about Mitch McConnell’s motives for refusing to give aid to states and localities whose budgets have been decimated by coronavirus response in the last round of COVID relief.

John Harwood described it as an anti-government effort, generally, though notes it could backfire among white working class voters.

Wealthy Republican donors disdain government as an unwelcome source of taxes and business regulations. They can purchase private alternatives to broad-based public services in realms such as education, health care and transportation.
Republicans in Congress see unionized government workers as hostile soldiers fighting against their reelection. Responsibility for financing the services those workers provide falls to governors and state legislators, not them.

The GOP infused those sentiments into the 2017 tax law that remains Trump’s principal legislative achievement. It limited deductions for state and local levies from federal tax bills — which both punished taxpayers in blue states that provide more services and made it harder for those states to finance those services.

The wild card in this constellation of forces is the party’s increasing dependence on working-class white voters. Republicans have long capitalized on their suspicion that many government programs benefit others, not them. Trump placed appeals to their racial resentments at the center of his 2016 campaign.

Axis of Evil expert David Frum described how, by forcing states into bankruptcy, Republicans hope to exercise power even after Trump has been defeated.

Republican plans for state bankruptcy sedulously protect state taxpayers. The Bush-Gingrich op-ed of 2011 was explicit on this point. A federal law of state bankruptcy “must explicitly forbid any federal judge from mandating a tax hike,” they wrote. You might wonder: Why? If a Republican Senate majority leader from Kentucky is willing to squeeze Illinois state pensioners, why would he care about shielding Illinois state taxpayers? The answer is found in the third of the three facts of American fiscal federalism.

United States senators from smaller, poorer red states do not only represent their states. Often, they do not even primarily represent their states. They represent, more often, the richest people in bigger, richer blue States who find it more economical to invest in less expensive small-state races. The biggest contributor to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign and leadership committee is a PAC headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey. The second is a conduit for funds from real-estate investors. The third is the tobacco company Altria. The fourth is the parcel delivery service UPS. The fifth is the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical corporation. The sixth is the home health-care company, LHC Group. The seventh is the Blackstone hedge fund. And so on and on.

A federal bankruptcy process for state finances could thus enable wealthy individuals and interest groups in rich states to leverage their clout in the anti-majoritarian federal system to reverse political defeats in the more majoritarian political systems of big, rich states like California, New York, and Illinois.

[snip]

But McConnell seems to be following the rule “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” He’s realistic enough to recognize that the pandemic probably means the end not only of the Trump presidency, but of his own majority leadership. He’s got until January to refashion the federal government in ways that will constrain his successors. That’s what the state-bankruptcy plan is all about.

Andrew Cuomo recognized the same dynamic. Amid a rant noting that, as governor, he serves people of all (or no) party, he described the hypocrisy of bailing out airlines and small businesses but not cops and other first responders.

I understand that, but state and local government funds police and fire and teachers and schools. How do you not fund police and fire and teachers and schools in the midst of this crisis? Yes, airlines are important. Yes, small businesses are important. So police and fire and healthcare workers who are the front line workers, and when you don’t fund the state, then the state can’t fund those services. It makes no sense to me. Also, it makes no sense that the entire nation is dependent on what the governors do to reopen. We’ve established that. It’s up to this governor, it’s up to this governor, it’s up to this governor, but then you’re not going to fund the state government. You think I’m going to do it alone? How do you think this is going to work? And then to suggest we’re concerned about the economy, states should declare bankruptcy. That’s how you’re going to bring this national economy back? By states declaring bankruptcy? You want to see that market fall through the cellar?

Let New York state declare bankruptcy. Let Michigan declare bankruptcy. Let Illinois declare bankruptcy. Let’s California declare bankruptcy. You will see a collapse of this national economy. So just dumb. Vicious is saying, when Senator McConnell said, this is a blue state bailout, what he’s saying is if you look at the states that have coronavirus problems, they tend to be democratic states. New York, California, Michigan, Illinois. They are democratic states. So if you fund states that are suffering from the coronavirus, the democratic states, don’t help New York state because it is a democratic state. How ugly a thought. I mean, just think of what he’s saying. People died. 15,000 people died in New York, but they were predominantly Democrats. So why should we help them? I mean, for crying out loud, if there was ever a time for you to put aside your pettiness and your partisanship and this political lens that you see the world through Democrat and Republican and we help Republicans, but we don’t have Democrats. That’s not who we are.

It’s just not who we are as a people. I mean, if there’s ever a time for humanity and decency, now is the time. And if there was ever a time to stop your political, obsessive political bias and anger, which is what it’s morphing to, just a political anger, now is the time and you want to politically divide this nation now, with all that’s going on? How irresponsible and how reckless/ I’m the governor of all New Yorkers. Democrat, Republican, independent. I don’t even care what your political party is. I represent you, and we are all there to support each other. This is not the time or the place or the situation to start your divisive politics. It is just not.

Cuomo also noted that McConnell’s own state, Kentucky, is a net aid recipient, not New York.

Let’s talk about fairness, Mitch. NYS puts $116 billion more into the federal pot than we take out. Kentucky TAKES $148 billion more from the federal pot than they put in. But we don’t deserve help now because the 15,000 people who died here were predominately democrats?

David Sirota is the only one I saw who observed that McConnell’s own state of Kentucky would be one of the hardest hit states.

In a half-assed play to avoid looking like he’s deliberately enriching his elite financiers and starving the peasants, McConnell cast himself as a principled opponent of “blue state bailouts” — a seemingly shrewd anti-coastal framing for his own potentially difficult reelection campaign.

In reality, though, McConnell’s opposition to pension aid is even worse than a pathetic Gerald Ford impression. It is him giving the big middle finger to hundreds of thousands of his own constituents whose Republican-leaning state is now facing one of America’s worst pension crises after McConnell’s Wall Street courtiers strip-mined Kentucky’s public retirement system.

That’s right: for all the talk of pension shortfalls in blue states like Illinois and California, the bright red state of Kentucky has one of the most underfunded pension systems in the country. The gap between promised benefits and current resources has been estimated to be between $40 billion and $60 billion. One of the state’s pension funds is less than 15 percent funded.

Those shortfalls are not the product of Kentucky’s public-sector workers being greedy or lavishly remunerated — Kentucky teachers, for example, are paid 23 percent less than other workers with similar educational credentials, and they do not receive Social Security benefits.

No — the shortfalls are the result of 1) state lawmakers repeatedly refusing to make annual contributions to the system, 2) investment losses from the 2007 financial crisis and now the COVID downturn, and 3) especially risky hedge fund investments that generated big fees for politically connected Wall Street firms, but especially big losses for the state’s portfolio. (Executives from some of those specific firms are among McConnell’s biggest collective donors, and those firms could be enriched by other parts of McConnell’s federal stimulus bill.

The pension emergency in Kentucky has become so dire that teachers staged mass protests last year, resulting in national headlines and a PBS Frontline special, and a court case that ultimately overturned the Republican legislature’s proposed pension cuts, which the GOP literally attached to a sewer bill.

There’s another aspect of all this, however: leverage. Mitch McConnell says he won’t dole out aid for states and localities until the Senate comes back into session. That’ll give him the opportunity to resume packing the courts.

In addition (as I predicted), part of this is an effort to retain leverage with which to force states to reopen.

BUT FIRST … SENATE AND HOUSE DEMOCRATS have been pushing hard in negotiations for $150 billion in funds for state and local governments to pair with the hundreds of billions the administration wants in small business lending. But THE WHITE HOUSE and TRUMP ADMINISTRATION have been holding out because, in part, they believe if Congress keeps cutting checks for state and local governments, they will be disincentivized to open up their economies.

Trump tried and tried and tried to say he got to decide how to reopen the economy. And then the first state that tried — his ally Brian Kemp — made him look bad by ignoring the White House’s own guidelines.

To regain any control over this, short of Billy Barr making good on his suggestions that DOJ might start litigation, Trump needs something to withhold to force governors, of both parties, to take actions they otherwise wouldn’t.

Aid to keep states and localities running is one of the few things Trump has. Want to pay your cops? Okay, then, “but I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

And here’s where Mitch’s actions become really perverse. Kentucky’s own governor, Andy Beshear, is one of the red states with a Democratic governor. Under his leadership, Kentucky has a lower level of infections than any neighboring state but West Virginia (which is even more rural). Kentucky is a member of the Midwestern pact that, along with a bunch of Democratic governors that Republicans would like to damage ahead of the elections, also includes Mike DeWine, one of the three most proactive Republican governors. Of those states, Beshear might be most susceptible to pressure from nutjobs.

That is, among the governors that Mitch is helping Trump to blackmail — to withhold aid from until they give Trump a favor — is Mitch’s own state. Like all other governors, Beshear will need to make some devastating budgetary decisions, decisions that will hurt public workers in Kentucky, and those decisions will start immediately, affecting Beshear’s ability to serve the people of Kentucky.

This is an ugly, vicious ploy. But it’s also one that Mitch’s opponent, Amy McGrath, really ought to be able to use against him in November.

Research Misinfo/Disinfo: Ain’t No Sunshine Kill COVID-19 Gone

[Check the byline, thanks! /Rayne]

I thought this series would end after three posts but clearly the misinfo/disinfo related to research studies on COVID-19 continues.

This time Department of Homeland Security is one of the problem children.

By now you know about Trump’s wrong-headed comments about light and disinfectants used in and on humans’ bodies to eliminate SARS-CoV-19. You’ve also heard he gaslighted the public by claiming he was being sarcastic during Thursday’s briefing about light and disinfectants, followed by even more dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

You may have heard speculation that bleach as a COVID-19 therapy specifically may have been the result of communications with Trump by some crackpot who sells this re-labeled chlorine dioxide product as a miracle cure-all.

What you probably haven’t seen is the DHS’s “study” which may also have spurred Trump’s idiotic remarks about light or sunlight. Yahoo News reported about the “study” a week ago, sharing a link to the DHS document it received outlining DHS’s findings.

It’s not a paper. It’s a goddamned slide presentation of which stability of SARS-CoV-19 on surfaces was only a portion.

No peer-reviewed study has been published by DHS in any of the articles since Trump’s ridiculously inappropriate comments last evening.

News outlets have been all over Trump’s remarks, which as Marcy said elicited justifiable uproar. But outlets are doing a pissy job covering the sources of Trump’s practice of medicine without a license at the podium.

Newsweek offers a great example:

Fortunately, CNN got it right:

If DHS’s science and technology advisor Bill Bryan isn’t qualified to make declarative statements relying on research, who is?

Who did the research and where’s their data and output?

Why did the American public have to hear what DHS learned filtered through Trump who has proven himself to be incapable of understanding science let alone demonstrate respect for it?

We need to see the work because there are other studies which do not appear to agree with DHS’s presentation.

This widely cited piece tested the viability of SARS-CoV-2 on different surfaces after exposure to aerosolized virus. The temperature of the study was comparable to a nice spring day — 21-23 degrees Celsius or 69-73 degrees Fahrenheit — with 40% relative humidity.

Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
van Doremalen N, Bushmaker T, Morris DH, et al.
March 17, 2020
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2004973
https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2004973

SARS-CoV-2 is quite stable in conditions one might find in an air-conditioned indoor setting according to this study. This much agrees with what DHS presented.

This study looked at viability of the virus over time at different increasing temperatures and exposure to ultraviolet light — like solar radiation.

Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions
Alex W.H. Chin, Julie T.S. Chu, Mahen R.A. Perera, Kenrie P.Y. Hui, Hui-Ling Yen, Michael C.W. Chan, Malik Peiris, Leo L.M. Poon
https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.15.20036673v2.full.pdf

Here’s a table from the study addressing viability of SARS-CoV-2 at different temperatures:

You can see the virus is viable at 37 degrees C — that’s coincidentally 98.6F, the old average temperature for humans. The virus is stable at that temp for as long as a day. It’s not stable for long at 56C (132.8F) and not at all at 70C (158F) but then neither are humans.

Unsurprisingly, disinfectants disinfect according to the study’s results shown in the table above. Only one little burp with hand soap solution — one of three attempts showed some viability.

This study looked at the differences in number of outbreaks over time in a particular region of China, as the season changed and both temperature and amount of sunlight increased.

No Association of COVID-19 transmission with temperature or UV radiation in Chinese cities
Ye Yao, Jinhua Pan, Zhixi Liu, Xia Meng, Weidong Wang, Haidong Kan, Weibing Wang
Published online April 8, 2020.
European Respiratory Journal 2020, 2000517; DOI: 10.1183/13993003.00517-2020
https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/early/2020/04/01/13993003.00517-2020

These researchers hypothesized that COVID-19 transmission may decrease or even disappear when the temperature and UV radiation increase in the summer.

They collected the confirmed case numbers of 224 cities from China’s National Health Commission, the daily mean temperature and relative humidity collected from the China Meteorological Data Sharing Service System, and daily erythemally-weighted daily dose of UV radiation data extracted from the Dutch-Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument aboard NASA’s Aurora satellite. After adjustment for relative humidity and UV, they found temperature held no significant associations with cumulative incidence rate, and that UV was not significantly associated with cumulative incidence rate after adjustment for temperature and relative humidity.

These studies — though some are pre-print and in peer review — do not agree with what DHS’s Bill Bryan or the DHS presentation published a week ago said.

And none of them match what Trump said, whatsoever.

Media outlets really need to have a science reporter covering Trump’s briefings rather than the usual White House correspondents — people who are already highly versed in COVID-19 research and are able to put Trump on the spot.

Or the media needs to give up covering Trump’s briefings live if they can’t do real time pushback and demand better of the guy occupying the White House. Carrying his unfiltered bullshit will get somebody killed and damage businesses which are doing their best to operate under the strain of pandemic conditions.

~ ~ ~

We know now from the Washington Post that Trump’s unacceptable remarks on light and disinfectant therapy for treatment of COVID-19 may have been inspired by a briefing about a DHS study:

Trump’s commentary seemed to be inspired by a presentation from a Department of Homeland Security official about a promising but still inconclusive government study exploring the possibility of heat, humidity and light to kill the virus, as well as the effectiveness of disinfectants in killing it on surfaces such as tables, countertops and office workspaces.

Emphasis mine. An in-fucking-conclusive study, the same one on which Bill Bryan gave a presentation. Why was it offered at all? To provide happy talk for the daily propaganda program?

William Bryan, the department’s acting undersecretary for science and technology, first shared the study with members of the White House coronavirus task force on Wednesday and returned Thursday. He said his department had studied the virus in an air chamber and never said chemicals or UV light had been studied on humans nor suggested they be used in humans, according to several administration officials.

Why did he come back? Did some asshat on the White House coronavirus task force think Bryan could finesse this inconclusive report?

Others on the task force, including Birx, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, as well as McEnany and others in the communications and press shops, were concerned that the Department of Homeland Security study had not been thoroughly vetted. “It was not ready at all to go to the president,” the senior official said. “There was no guideline. There was no data. There was nothing.”

Oh. Now we have sources named. At least one of these people and/or Dr. Fauci are most likely to have said this “study” was not ready to go to Trump. If these three and Dr. Fauci didn’t think it was ready, how did it end up getting in front of Trump?

Still, Vice President Pence and his team wanted Bryan to present the information to the president and to the public, eager to have something positive to share. They hoped the study would help encourage people to spend more time outdoors and to disinfect their homes, aides said.

Oh great — Mr. HIV-outbreak-of Indiana Pence with a history of ignoring public health officials’ advice to the public’s detriment, probably ignored the opinions of task force members who felt the DHS “study” was not ready for Trump’s propaganda show.

This time Pence’s bad decision-making resulted in an onslaught of calls to poison control center numbers and at least 20 people in New York alone who ingested bleach or disinfectant.

No word yet as to whether someone has fried themselves crispy outdoors in an effort to get rid of SARS-CoV-2 using ultraviolet light having relied on the misinfo/disinfo served up by the idiocracy in the White House.

Digging Through The Science—And The Noise—On What Is Known About The Origin Of SARS CoV-2

Update: In a new post we find that Shi Zhingli of Wuhan Institute of Virology has provided convincing evidence to Scientific American that SARS CoV-2 is the result of a natural jump to humans from an animal host and was not accidentally released from her lab, which had no isolates of any viruses that match closely enough to be the outbreak virus.

Although it seems that all of this has been going on forever at this point, it’s important to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak probably began less than six months ago. In the context of how we develop an understanding of a disease like this one, and the virus that causes it, SARS CoV-2, that means that we really have only just begun our analysis. Nevertheless, because of the ongoing disastrous impact on global public health as well as the global economy, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can as fast as we can.

In this post, I want to take a deep dive into what virologists and epidemiologists have pieced together on the emergence of SARS CoV-2. The problem is that what might initially appear to be straightforward scientific and public health questions eventually get muddled by accusations of disinformation, accusations of hiding data and offerings of potential leaks of intelligence that also have a chance to be disinformation. These noisy battles relate to basic facts that have a direct bearing on our understanding of the virus’ origin.

As a result, it needs to be stated from the outset that because some of the needed basic information may be hidden or some of what we think we know might be wrong. Therefore, this analysis will be unable to come to a definite conclusion. With any luck, the discussion will help us to have a framework within which we can proceed as more facts become verified.

Overview Derived From SARS CoV-2 Genetic Sequence

I want to start with the science.  The very helpful graphic below is lifted from this paper in Current Biology. It is in three sections. The section on the left illustrates what we know from the genetic sequence of the virus when that is compared to other known viruses. What it shows is that the closest overall relative to SARS CoV-2, with a sequence identity of 96%, is RaTG13, another coronovirus isolated from a bat:

Let’s move to this Nature Medicine article from March 17 and this Cell article from April 16 for the narrative on diving into the distinguishing features of SARS CoV-2 from its genetic sequence.

From the Nature Medicine article, we get a description of the features of SARS CoV-2 that distinguish it from other known viruses (these features are what the center and right panels of the graphic address):

Our comparison of alpha- and betacoronaviruses identifies two notable genomic features of SARS-CoV-2: (i) on the basis of structural studies and biochemical experiments, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be optimized for binding to the human receptor ACE2; and (ii) the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 has a functional polybasic (furin) cleavage site at the S1–S2 boundary through the insertion of 12 nucleotides, which additionally led to the predicted acquisition of three O-linked glycans around the site.

To translate some of the terms and clarify a bit, there are four genera of coronaviruses, with alpha and beta infecting mammals and delta and gamma infecting birds. The genome is the genetic sequence of the virus. I would usually say the DNA sequence, but coronaviruses are RNA viruses. There has been much discussion of ACE2 on this blog in the comments, so for now let’s just say ACE stands for angiotensin converting enzyme and ACE2 is present on the surface of many cell types found in many different tissues within the body. So what stands out here is that the structure of the virus spike protein, as determined from its genetic sequence and tests in the lab, allows it to bind exceptionally well to ACE2 when compared to other coronaviruses.

The middle panel of the graphic shows us that although the overall sequence of SARS CoV-2 is very closely aligned to the bat virus, when we narrow it down to only compare the region where the spike protein binds to ACE2, it is a perfect match of that part of a pangolin virus, while it is very different from the bat virus. For the important stretch of the spike protein (these amino acids are not next to each other when the gene sequence is read from start to finish, but once the protein is assembled from amino acids, the amino acids are close to each other from the way the protein assumes its three dimensional structure), the gene encodes a string of five amino acids in the protein that matches exactly with the pangolin virus sequence but in only the first of the five positions on the bat virus sequence.

But that final panel and the second half of the Nature Medicine snippet goes further in what is different about this virus. The gene for the spike protein encodes two subunits, S1 and S2. Remarkably, SARS CoV-2 has acquired a site where the two subunits can be separated using a enzyme called furin that is found in mammalian cells. The right panel shows us that neither the bat sequence nor the pangolin sequence has a furin cleavage site.

The Cell paper tells us that a furin cleavage site has not been seen in the betacoronaviruses closely related to SARS CoV-2. It has been seen in other human coronaviruses, though. Of further significance is that a furin cleavage site also appears in the more pathogenic bird flu viruses.

Not A Lab Construct

From the Nature Medicine article, we get one of the most convincing arguments I’ve seen against the virus being created in a lab:

While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

So, in other words, if someone in the lab wanted to set out to make a virus with the best possible ACE2 binding site, this is not the sequence the computer or the literature would have given them. That suggests that this very good binding sequence is a product of natural evolution instead. The Nature Medicine article also further noted that the genetic sequence of SARS CoV-2 differs too much from that of any other known coronavirus sequence for one of the known viruses to have been used as a starting point in engineering this stronger pathogen.

The Species Jump

Perhaps the most important step in the emergence of SARS CoV-2 is the jump from its initial host species to humans. This could have happened directly, or as in the case of MERS CoV, which went from bats to camels to humans, with an intermediate host. Note that MERS still has not adapted to efficient human to human transmission, and so when we see it, it’s usually from multiple camel to human events.

The problem here is that we don’t have proof of the host from which humans were first infected with SARS CoV-2. In other words, no virus isolated from an animal so far is related closely enough at the sequence level to SARS CoV-2 that we can say this is where humans were first infected, as we can tell from the MERS jumps from camels to humans. As we will discuss below, and as you are well aware, early suspicion on the origin of human infection centered on the wet market in Wuhan. Remarkably, authors of the Cell paper visited the market and took these pictures in October 2014 because they were concerned that wet markets in general, and this one in particular, represent a particularly large risk for bringing humans into contact with less commonly encountered hosts of potentially deadly viruses:

The caption properly notes that many early cases are linked to the market, but we don’t yet have proof of where and how the first human infection(s) took place. In discussing the jump and subsequent outbreak, the Cell authors continue:

The emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19 signifies a perfect epidemiological storm. A respiratory pathogen of relatively high virulence from a virus family that has an unusual knack of jumping species boundaries, that emerged in a major population center and travel hub shortly before the biggest travel period of the year: the Chinese Spring Festival.

/snip/

While our past experience with coronaviruses suggests that evolution in animal hosts, both reservoirs and intermediates, is needed to explain the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, it cannot be excluded that the virus acquired some of its key mutations during a period of “cryptic” spread in humans prior to its first detection in December 2019. Specifically, it is possible that the virus emerged earlier in human populations than envisaged (perhaps not even in Wuhan) but was not detected because asymptomatic infections, those with mild respiratory symptoms, and even sporadic cases of pneumonia were not visible to the standard systems used for surveillance and pathogen identification. During this period of cryptic transmission, the virus could have gradually acquired the key mutations, perhaps including the RBD and furin cleavage site insertions, that enabled it to adapt fully to humans. It wasn’t until a cluster of pneumonia cases occurred that we were able to detect COVID-19 via the routine surveillance system. Obviously, retrospective serological or metagenomic studies of respiratory infection will go a long way to determining whether this scenario is correct, although such early cases may never be detected.

So, the sequence information comes to a dead end here until the details of the epidemiology are reconstructed. As the authors note, it likely will prove impossible to sample many of the most important animals and humans that would clarify the route and timing. It is further worth noting that the bat from which the RaTG13 sequence is derived was found in Yunnan province, a very long way from Wuhan.

Epidemiology

It appears that as of this writing, the earliest known infection may have been a shrimp seller in the wet market who first developed symptoms on November 17. Also, this Lancet article provides further details on some of the early studies showing a high concentration of cases affiliated with the market in December. The Lancet graphic suggests a case on December 1 not affiliated with the market and the start of the market cluster on the tenth, with 27 of the 41 early patients considered here being associated with the wet market. If that were indeed the earliest case, we might think we’ve seen the index case. But if the South China Post article is to be believed, the shrimp seller fell ill on November 17 and, according to the article, one to five people a day from that day forward had the disease. If we believe that information, then the virus appears to have already been circulating before the middle of November.

It is when we start getting into this information that accusations of hiding information are thrown about. Were there earlier cases that China suppressed or that simply went undetected? We have no way of knowing at this point.

A further point that comes from the Cell paper is that SARS CoV-2 has been circulating long enough that minor variations in the gene sequence are arising that don’t affect pathogenicity but allow for tracing of various lineages of the virus in its spread around the globe. They also note that the lineages allow them to go back in time over the evolution of those sequences and the diversity diminishes a lot as they get back to the early isolates from Wuhan. This is further confirmation for Wuhan being essential in the earliest part of the outbreak.

Accidental Release

It is here that the noise gets really loud. If we accept the really strong evidence that SARS CoV-2 was not deliberately made in a laboratory, there remains the possibility that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory that studies potential pandemic agents.

As long ago as 2004, Rutgers scientist Richard Ebright spoke out against the massive amount of funding that was funneled into research on bioweapons after the 2001 anthrax attacks. From the New York Times:

Dr. Ebright disagrees with much of the security community about how best to protect the nation from attacks with biological weapons.

The government and many security experts say one crucial step is to build more high-security laboratories, where scientists can explore the threats posed not only by deadly natural germs, but also by designer pathogens — genetically modified superbugs that could outdo natural viruses and bacteria in their killing power. To this end, the Bush administration has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to erect such laboratories in Boston; Galveston, Tex.; and Frederick, Md., among other places, increasing eightfold the overall space devoted to the high-technology buildings.

Dr. Ebright, on the other hand, views the plans as a recipe for catastrophe. The laboratories, called biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, are costly, unnecessary and dangerous, he says.

”I’m concerned about them from the standpoint of science, safety, security, public health and economics,” he added in an interview. ”They lose on all counts.”

Ebright continues:

The labs, Dr. Ebright says, are a perilous overreaction to an inflated threat and will do more harm than good.

Although the threat of biological warfare is real, the weapons used by terrorists are unlikely to be the next-generation agents that the high-security labs are intended to study, he says. Yet by increasing the availability of such pathogens, Dr. Ebright argues, the labs will ”bring that threat to fruition.”

”It’s arming our opponents,” he said.

In addition, he says, the laboratories could leak. They could put deadly pathogens into irresponsible hands and they will divert money from other worthy endeavors like public health and the frontiers of biology. Moreover, their many hundreds of new employees would become a pool of deadly expertise that could turn malevolent, unleashing lethal germs on an unsuspecting public.

Note the “leak” bit. The article goes on:

But Dr. Ebright noted that the deadly SARS virus recently escaped from BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs in Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing, in each case setting off minor epidemics that killed or sickened people.

This 2014 paper from the Center for Arms Control goes into detail on two separate escapes of SARS from the same laboratory in Beijing,  along with four other documented cases of releases of possibly pandemic pathogens if you care to read further. Suffice it to say that Ebright was right that with the proliferation of these new labs, there would be leaks. So far, they’ve all been accidental instead of the type feared by Ebright where someone from inside a laboratory deliberately releases a pathogen.

With regard to the SARS CoV-2 outbreak, rumors from nearly the very beginning swirled about a lab in Wuhan. There is in fact a level 4 containment lab in Wuhan and there is also a level 2 lab as well, that I believe is very close to the wet market.

Should there have been an accidental release from either of these labs, at this point we would have to postulate that China has specifically quashed all information relating to this event and kept the laboratory personnel and any close family or other contacts who may have been infected out of the databases of patients.

But that hasn’t stopped the noise. Some aspects of the noise even begin to look to me like an information operation of sorts. Of course, since we don’t know the originator of the operation, we don’t know if it is actual intelligence being leaked or if it is disinformation being sown to add to the chaos.

At any rate, this April 2 column from David Ignatius put the idea of an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab into the Washington Post. Those who follow intelligence community news know that Ignatius is often thought of as a mouthpiece for information the CIA wants disseminated. Are they his source here? Was some other information operative his source?

Then things really heated up on April 15. Here is John Roberts of Fox News asking Trump a question during the April 15 “press conference”:

Wow. That’s an incredibly specific question. It assumes a female intern at the lab who infected a boyfriend and then she (or did he, not clear to me from Roberts’ phrasing) went to the market. Even though this was April 15, I’ve seen no further pushing of this specific version of the story.

But Trump’s response is a bit concerning. Note that he says they’re “hearing that story a lot”, but then makes a really big deal of the word “sources”. Given Trump’s history of spilling classified intelligence, and the constant warnings to him about such leaks compromising “sources and methods”, I almost wonder if that’s a genuine response of his lizard brain to all those warnings. We simply have no way of knowing that or knowing if perhaps those “sources” happen to lie outside the intelligence community and among circle of wingnuts who have the ears of Trump and Fox News and he’s really proud of them but doesn’t want to divulge them.

That same day, Josh Rogin put out a Washington Post column pushing the leak from a lab story, this time tying it directly to the State Department cables in 2018 about lax biosecurity protocols at the level 4 containment lab in Wuhan that Roberts mentioned. But Rogin didn’t include the specifics about the intern.

I’ve heard nothing further on the intern question, but the general idea of an escape from a Wuhan lab still gets tossed around. Ignatius returned to the idea of an accidental release on April 23. He even talked to Ebright:

“Science is not going to shift this from a ‘could have been’ to a ‘probably was,’ ” messaged Richard H. Ebright, a leading biosafety expert at Rutgers. “The question whether the outbreak virus entered humans through an accidental infection of a lab worker . . . can be answered only through a forensic investigation, not through scientific speculation.” Ebright told me the Chinese government should launch a forensic investigation by reviewing “facilities, samples, records, and personnel.”

Given Ebright’s history of predicting just such an accidental release, I find it very reassuring that he isn’t ready to say that’s what happened. As he rightfully points out, we can only know what happened when detailed information is assembled on the epidemiology of the earliest cases. Only Chinese medical investigators can know whether any laboratory personnel, and especially whether any family or other close contacts of them appear on the timeline of the early infections. It is also crucial to know where any such infections, if they exist, fall on the timeline in relation to cases affiliated with the wet market.

My gut feeling is that the evidence still very strongly points to the virus originating through the wet market, but I also think the index case there likely goes back even earlier than the November 17 case discussed above, since there are suggestions there were other cases appearing daily by then. Also, it’s hard to imagine that if the official intelligence community had a story as specific as the intern story and had evidence to back it up, that Trump wouldn’t be trumpeting it on a daily basis to deflect the criticism being heaped on his response to the outbreak.

Stay tuned. I suspect the story will take several more turns before we ever reach any level of certainty.

Lysol and UV Rays: Running a Pandemic Like a Reality TV Show

After news outlets wrote their both-sides stories about the President’s musings about ingesting Lysol, and after they mapped out the four different excuses Trump offered on Friday — he told you to check with a doctor (Kayleigh McEnany); he was just joking (Trump himself); Trump was just thinking out loud (Dr. Birx); it’s the briefer’s fault (anonymous officials), several outlets set out to figure out how it came to be that the President of the most powerful country in the world went on live TV and suggested it might be a good idea to ingest cleaning supplies.

The NYT discovered that some of Trump’s advisors claim (anonymously in the NYT version, but named as Mark Meadows and Kayleigh McEnany by CNN) to have realized that allowing acting DHS Undersecretary for Science at William Bryan was going to be a mistake even before it happened. But Mike Pence liked the pretty pictures and good news he offered, so it went into the briefing.

Others inside the administration raised questions about why Mr. Bryan, whose background is not in health or science, had been invited to deliver a presentation. Mr. Bryan, whose expertise is in energy infrastructure and security, is serving in an acting capacity as the head of the department’s science and technology directorate.

Mr. Bryan served 17 years in the Army, followed by yearslong stints as a civil servant at the Defense and Energy Departments. The latter role led to a whistle-blower complaint accusing him, in part, of manipulating government policy to further his personal financial interests, and then lying to Congress about those interests.

The United States Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints, asked the Energy Department last year to investigate the accusations against Mr. Bryan. In January, the Senate returned his nomination to the White House.

Mr. Bryan was invited by the vice president’s office to coronavirus task force meetings on Wednesday and Thursday to talk about a study that his department had done relating to heat and the conditions in which the coronavirus can thrive or be dampened. On Thursday, Mr. Bryan presented a graphic to the room, according to four people briefed on the events.

Mr. Pence’s advisers wanted Mr. Bryan to brief the news media on his findings, but several West Wing staff members objected, partly because they were concerned the information had not been verified.

Before Mr. Bryan took the lectern in the White House Briefing Room, Dr. Birx and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force, made a few revisions to his presentation, officials said.

As he listened to Mr. Bryan, the president became increasingly excited, and also felt the need to demonstrate his own understanding of science, according to three of the advisers. So Mr. Trump went ahead with his theories about the chemicals.

CNN described how Trump didn’t attend either of the task force meetings where Bryan presented his findings, but nevertheless ad-libbed a response after Bryan delivered his presentation.

President Donald Trump was absent from the Situation Room on Wednesday when William Bryan, the acting head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, presented the findings of a new study to the White House coronavirus task force.

[snip]

When Bryan arrived Thursday with a camera-ready presentation, Trump again wasn’t at the 3 p.m. ET coronavirus task force meeting, the sources said. But in the minutes before Trump’s planned early evening news conference, Bryan quickly explained his findings to the President in the Oval Office.

Moments later, Bryan was standing at the White House podium explaining how sunlight, ultraviolet rays and disinfectants — such as bleach and alcohol — could shorten the half-life of coronavirus.

But when Bryan’s explanation ended, things went sideways. As his health advisers looked on expressionless, the President started lobbing questions about whether light or disinfectants could be used inside the human body to cure coronavirus.

Trump and the White House spent the next 24 hours trying to rationalize the comments while health departments reminded Americans that ingesting bleach is lethal.

The really important detail from the CNN article, however, is that Trump doesn’t actually attend many of the Task Force meetings, which are held in the Situation Room. He attends maybe one a week, and doesn’t always warn members he’s going to drop in.

While he almost always attends the daily press briefings, Trump rarely attends the coronavirus task force meetings that precede them. The task force doesn’t seem to mind.

According to one person close to the task force, the meetings become more prolonged if Trump attends and often go off script. When Pence is at the helm, aides say, they usually tick through the agenda rapidly. Trump comes to roughly one briefing a week. At times, 10 days or more have passed without him attending.

[snip]

Trump often turns up when he’s not expected. His presence often throws the meeting well off its assigned agenda and frequently centers on how his performance is being viewed in the media or in polling.

That means Trump has been spending upwards of 10 hours a week emceeing briefings, without doing any of the homework to learn about the pandemic.

All the attempts to understand what happened have reminded me of the New Yorker article that described how Mark Barnett made a “skeezy hustler” like Donald Trump into a titan by repackaging the unprepared, impulsive things Trump said after the fact.

He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.”

[snip]

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.

As with the Apprentice, Thursday’s fiasco ended with reaction shot, this time of Dr. Birx realizing in real time what Trump had done.

Burnett has often boasted that, for each televised hour of “The Apprentice,” his crews shot as many as three hundred hours of footage. The real alchemy of reality television is the editing—sifting through a compost heap of clips and piecing together an absorbing story. Jonathon Braun, an editor who started working with Burnett on “Survivor” and then worked on the first six seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me, “You don’t make anything up. But you accentuate things that you see as themes.” He readily conceded how distorting this process can be. Much of reality TV consists of reaction shots: one participant says something outrageous, and the camera cuts away to another participant rolling her eyes. Often, Braun said, editors lift an eye roll from an entirely different part of the conversation.

Of course, this time it’s real. And no one gets to go back and edit Trump’s dangerous comments to make them look like leadership after the fact. By then, people were already drinking Lysol.

On Thursday, after Trump made his comments and had Dr. Birx comment on it, Philip Rucker asked him why he was spreading rumors. For me, it was the most remarkable part of an unbelievable briefing. Trump responded, first, by stating, “I’m the President and you’re fake news,” the kind of comment that might be a ratings hit if it wasn’t getting people killed.

THE PRESIDENT: Deborah, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light, relative to certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus?

DR. BIRX: Not as a treatment. I mean, certainly fever —

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.

DR. BIRX: — is a good thing. When you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But not as — I’ve not seen heat or (inaudible).

THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s a great thing to look at. I mean, you know. Okay?

Q But respectfully, sir, you’re the President. And people tuning into these briefings, they want to get information and guidance and want to know what to do.

THE PRESIDENT: Hey — hey, Phil.

Q They’re not looking for a rumor.

THE PRESIDENT: Hey, Phil. I’m the President and you’re fake news. And you know what I’ll say to you? I’ll say it very nicely. I know you well.

Q Why do you say that?

THE PRESIDENT: I know you well.

Because I know the guy; I see what he writes. He’s a total faker.

Q He’s a good reporter.

THE PRESIDENT: So, are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready? It’s just a suggestion from a brilliant lab by a very, very smart, perhaps brilliant, man. He’s talking about sun. He’s talking about heat. And you see the numbers. So that’s it; that’s all I have. I’m just here to present talent.

Trump ended, however, the most powerful man in the world rendered helpless by an actual crisis with actual consequences, by claiming, “I’m just here to present talent.”

Update: WaPo catalogued what has been going on in Trump’s COVID rallies, both since March 16 and since April 6. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s a taste of what they found.

The president has spoken for more than 28 hours in the 35 briefings held since March 16, eating up 60 percent of the time that officials spoke, according to a Washington Post analysis of annotated transcripts from Factba.se, a data analytics company.

Over the past three weeks, the tally comes to more than 13 hours of Trump — including two hours spent on attacks and 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, but just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victims. He spent twice as much time promoting an unproven antimalarial drug that was the object of a Food and Drug Administration warning Friday. Trump also said something false or misleading in nearly a quarter of his prepared comments or answers to questions, the analysis shows.

If my math is correct, there have been almost 47 hours of briefings since March 16, and they’ve been an average of an hour and twenty minutes (the average for the later range is shorter, no doubt skewed by the 22 minute briefing Friday). So for the briefings Trump attends, he can spend over 9 hours a week mouthing off about stuff he knows nothing about.

 

Trump’s Medical Quackery Exposes the Press’ Both-Sides Quackery

Last night, an increasingly desperate President went on live TV and advised that people might try ingesting disinfectant to cure COVID-19.

The comment has elicited justifiable uproar. It renewed questions about how long Trump’s medical experts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, can remain on stage while he touts junk cures (this video capturing Birx’s response is painful). It sparked a fascinating thread from former Special Envoy on ISIS, Brett McGurk, explaining how Trump’s instability makes it impossible to credibly advise him:

  1. You can’t stay above crazy: On any issue, the crazy will catch up to you
  2. There’s no policy: You’re always a Tweet away from all going sideways
  3. You can’t speak credibly: Since there’s no policy, nobody speaks credibly for our country
  4. Diplomacy is impossible: Foreign parties know that only Trump counts and he changes on a whim
  5. You may need to resign: In any senior role, your integrity will be tested

It generated a lot of attention on Trump’s outrageous comments and as a result shifted attention away from the fact that we’ve probably surpassed 50,000 deaths (though not in official counts, yet) and that Trump explicitly disagreed —  “I don’t agree with him” — with Fauci’s earlier comments that we’re not where we need to be on testing.

But it also elicited both sides reporting.

WaPo did a piece that called Trump’s suggestions as “medical musings,” put his suggestions high up in the story labeled as “bizarre,” like a nifty circus act, then called ingesting Lysol as only “potentially” dangerous.

It went on to air the FDA Commissioner, Stephen Hahn’s sycophantic excuse for Trump’s comments — just a conversation between an idiotic patient and his doctor, not the most powerful leader of the world seeding hoaxes on live TV — without noting that by apologizing for his boss, Hahn himself was refusing to do his job to keep us safe.

The WaPo treated this as a both sides thing, Lysol’s manufacturer and Sanjay Gupta arguing the partisan side of “science” against Trump and Hahn arguing the partisan side of, “miracle cures.”

WaPo isn’t the only one, though. NYT (by-lined by one of the journalists responsible for Mobile Bioweapons Labs in Iraq), too, treated the disinfectant and related UV ray questions as a matter pitting experts against the President.

President Trump has long pinned his hopes on the powers of sunlight to defeat the Covid-19 virus. On Thursday, he returned to that theme at the daily White House coronavirus briefing, bringing in a top administration scientist to back up his assertions and eagerly theorizing — dangerously, in the view of some experts — about the powers of sunlight, ultraviolet light and household disinfectants to kill the coronavirus.

[snip]

Experts have long warned that ultraviolet lamps can harm humans if used improperly — when the exposure is outside the body, much less inside. But bottles of bleach and other disinfectants carry sharp warnings of ingestion dangers. The disinfectants can kill not only microbes but humans.

NBC, too, pitched this as a dispute between Lysol and their own health expert, Vin Gupta, versus Trump.

There’s no dispute here!!!!

We don’t actually need to call Lysol (which is undoubtedly panicked that liability claims will undermine an otherwise welcome spike in sales) or consult experts about whether drinking disinfectant will hurt us. It’s something we learned as small children. The fact that outlets are treating this as a both sides issue is all the more troubling given that Trump’s statement clearly misrepresented what Acting DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology William Bryan said in the briefing, which addressed how to kill the virus outside of the human body, not inside it. That is, outlets could cover the statements by describing them as a matter of Trump totally misunderstanding what he just heard — which is, itself, newsworthy — rather than presenting the efficacy of drinking poison as a matter open to debate.

What yesterday’s comments did — on top of indicate just how unhinged the President is getting as he realizes you can’t cheat your way out of a pandemic — is illustrate once and for all that, five years into covering Donald Trump as a national politician, some journalists still haven’t learned how to avoid being complicit in Trump’s dis- and misinformation. It may well show that not just Hannity, but even some in the so-called objective press, will own some responsibility for the idiotic choices that Americans make after listening to Trump. It certainly shows that it is high time for the press to treat the President’s ramblings as a problem unto themselves, not as anything conveying actual information.

VOA Africa correspondent Jason Patinkin made this point presciently in a long thread the other day by comparing how Ebola got covered — by journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo and internationally — with how COVID-19 is getting covered now. He asked,

Anyways, did media (DRC and intl) covering outbreak coddle conspiracy theorists with both sides-ism, and give nonstop coverage to people encouraging such theories? Did they breathlessly report unproven cures and vaccines? Did they gently describe armed groups as “protesters”?

He noted that presenting “verified, critical information” means that, yes, journalists will and should default to taking the side of public health.

Journalists in DRC’s ebola outbreak in some ways “chose” a side: the side of public health. It seems to me that many US journalists, so obsessed with false ideas of neutrality, have not chosen the side of public health. This is wrong.

It has always been wrong to treat Trump’s disinformation as one side of a dispute up for debate. It was wrong on Russia, it was wrong on Ukraine, it was wrong on climate, it was wrong on North Korea.

But doing so now may make journalists complicit in getting people killed.

Update: This NBC report explains why Trump was pushing these particularly miracle cures.

Update: NYT has slightly updated its story (though not entirely eliminating the both-sidesing), and deleted their especially bad both-sides tweet on it. Trump, meanwhile, claims that he was being sarcastic, a claim that conflicts with what his spox said earlier today, a claim that even Fox’s Bret Baier has debunked.

Long Overdue Policies that Look Obvious in the Age of Pandemic

I’m not usually a fan of George Packer. But I keep coming back to this column, We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, which is something I might have written. It argued that this pandemic, to which the US responded like a corrupt poor country, was actually the third crisis of this century, and our responses to the previous two — 9/11 and the Iraq War, and the Wall Street crisis — simply brought this country to the place where Trump could loot it.

Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.

Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.

Packer ends with a call for renewed solidarity.

But he might as well also call for a fix to all the failures of the past twenty years. Right now, mind you, Trump is failing, miserably, in part because he believes maximizing the opportunities for looting by his friends is all the policy he needs.

But the sheer scale of the crisis makes policies that long made sense for the United States more urgent and far easier to justify. I plan to keep a running list of those policies.

Medicare for All

No one has figured out how all the people put out of work by the shut-downs will pay for COVID-related health care. Trump has persisted in a plan to kill Obamacare, and some badly affected states never even expanded Medicaid.

Early reports suggested that Trump’s administration has claimed it is willing to pay hospital bill, so long as they pay those bills directly (thereby avoiding establishing a policy, I guess). But with so many people out of work and with hospitals reeling from the shut-down, the far better solution is to make Medicare available to all.

Universal Basic Income

The US government has been backing credit for big industry and tried, but failed, to provide free money for small businesses to keep their employees on staff. Instead, 26 million Americans have applied for unemployment, a sixth of all workers (and a third of all workers in MI, KY, and RI). Meanwhile, the Administration botched even a one-time $1,200 payment.

The government could better ensure that markets don’t crash entirely–and keep states from buckling as they try to serve all these unemployed people–if they simply gave a UBI to all people, as Spain has decided it will do. By keeping it, the US might be able to address the underlying inequality problems that have led to such a disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color.

Decarceration

Closed spaces, generally, amount for a huge percentage of COVID cases and (in the case of nursing homes) deaths. ACLU just rolled out a paper that argues the models for COVID (which were originally based off other societies’ social patterns, including their prison system) underestimate the total number of deaths because they don’t account for the spread in our prisons.

COVID will remain lethal for long enough that states and the federal government will need to achieve some level of decarceration to prevent the prisons from becoming a source of spread to the wider community (as they have become in the localities with harder hit prisons).

In this case, even before COVID hit, there was bipartisan support to wean ourselves from overincarceration. Prisons will become less lucrative in conservative communities, especially as some states begin to end prison gerrymandering (which gives rural communities representation for prisoners who can’t vote, just like slavery did).

So now is the time to end incarceration for minor crimes, and improve the humanity of incarceration for those who need to be jailed.

Deindustrialization of the Food System

We’ll be lucky if we avoid famine conditions. That’s partly because our food system has the same institutional/retail split our toilet paper supply chain does, meaning the market for half of the food out there disappeared when restaurants and other institutional buyers shut down. That’s partly because bottlenecks in our food supply chain — most notably, thus far, meatpacking plants, but there will be others — have further undermined the market for our plentiful food production. And that’s partly because Trump’s farmer support, thus far, has emphasized direct payments that are effectively a continuation of his earlier bribery of farmers whose markets his trade war screwed, rather than purchasing up surpluses to provide to food banks.

Trump hasn’t shown an ability to get any other needed supplies where they’re needed; it’s unlikely he’ll do better with food.

Meanwhile, food supplies that bypass these commodity markets remain. We need to make this food supply chain more resilient and one way of doing so is to bypass the industrial bottlenecks.

Broadband as a Utility

When schools shut down, it suddenly became acutely visible how many Americans — both rural and urban — don’t have broadband. While some areas have gerry-rigged solutions (like driving wifi-enabled busses to poorer neighborhoods) to get some kids online and learning, that’s not possible everywhere. And even for adults, it takes broadband access to be able to social distance.

Trump is already talking about using infrastructure investments to get America working again. Extending basic broadband as a utility should be part of that.

Update: Arne Duncan describes what needs to happen for existing efforts to expand broadband access to be really effective.

Industrial Policy

Two months after we first identified shortages in necessary medical supply, we’ve barely managed to switch production to those necessary objects, even as entire factories were otherwise shut down. We’ve got shortages of not just testing kits, but the underlying supplies. We’ve got drug shortages too (and had them, even before the President started pitching miracle cures).

It’s long past time to admit that we do have an industrial policy — but right now, it’s focused on building the troubled F-35, not ensuring that the United States has the ability to build the things we need domestically, even if we interact openly with the rest of the world. This story uses the failed lithium battery investments Obama made, largely in Michigan, to talk about how we came to be unable to supply our own medical equipment.

We have an industrial policy. We just need to be willing to match that policy to our society’s real needs, not exporting warmongering.

Brian Kemp Suggests Workers at Nail Salons Don’t Own Their Own Lives

Fox News’ Martha MacCallum did a good job last night pushing Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to justify his order to reopen non-essential businesses like hair and nail salons and gyms. The order supersedes any city-wide orders, meaning even devastated cities like Albany must comply.

The entire thing is worth watching. The same guy who claimed neither he nor his health commissioner understood that COVID-19 can be spread by asymptomatic people three weeks ago — and in this clip suggests temperature screening could be effective to stop the spread — now claims that, “our people in our state have learned a lot … we’ve all been, learned how to do” social distancing and that’ll be enough to open businesses that require close proximity for extended periods.

He also suggested that the data on Georgia cases and fatalities are dated by as much as six days, meaning he’s claiming that Georgia passed its peak already.

But the real tell came when he explained that,

We’re talking about a few businesses that I closed down to help flatten the curve which we have done in our state. But for us to continue to ask them to do that while they lose everything, quite honestly, there are a lot of civil repercussions of that … When you close somebody’s business down, and take the livelihood of that individual and those employees, and they are literally at the face of losing everything, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Kemp treats small businesses — not life itself — as “everything.” And he doesn’t consider that, for people who work in these small businesses, their health and their life is what they own. Effectively, he’s stripping them of their ability to work in safety.

And, as many people have suggested, he’s also stripping people who choose not to work in unsafe conditions of unemployment benefits.

Kemp went on to suggest that “if you take Albany out of the situation right now our state is a much different place,” correctly noting that it has more deaths (but not more cases) than Atlanta but, in making the suggestion, imagining he could take Georgia’s rural black population out of the state’s general condition.

Kemp cited Trump repeatedly in this interview, even claiming that this move complies with his guidelines on reopening (it is being done before cases decline adequately and in businesses not included even in Trump’s irresponsible list, which includes gyms). He didn’t, however, say that if the Trump Administration hadn’t botched the PPP, then these small businesses wouldn’t have to choose between reopening or their lives.

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