COVID 19 update, June 5, 2020: ex-MI6 chief drops bombshell; “chaos disguised as strategy”; Trump admin selects shortlist of five vaccine candidates

(1) The former head of MI6 (the UK’s foreign intelligence service — its CIA if you like), Richard Dearlove, says flat-out COVID-19 was engineered in a Chinese lab but escaped from there. 

He continues:

Although he did not believe that the Chinese released the virus intentionally, Sir Richard told the Telegraph that the Chinese regime handled the outbreak very differently from the way a Western government might have dealt with it, and that the incident should be a wake-up call for the rest of the world on underestimating the scope of Chinese global ambitions. 
“Look at the stories… of the attempts by the leadership to lockdown any debate about the origins of the pandemic and the way that people have been arrested or silenced,” he said. “I mean, we shouldn’t really have any doubt any longer about what we’re dealing with. 
“Of course, the Chinese must have felt, well, if they’ve got to suffer a pandemic maybe we shouldn’t try too hard to stop, as it were, our competitors suffering the same disadvantages we’ve got. 
“Look, the Chinese understand us extremely well. They have made a study of us over the last decade or longer, particularly through attending our universities. We understand the Chinese very poorly. It’s an imbalanced relationship in that respect.” 
Australia has been taking the lead on pushing for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19, an ambition which was agreed to by the World Health Organization in late May. China launched cyberattacks and trade restrictions against the Antipodean state in response. 
“I think it’s very courageous of the Australians to take China on,” Sir Richard said. “I mean, there’s an obvious, huge imbalance in terms of power, both economic and military and political, but they are showing the way. You have to have a critical relationship with China.” 
He urged the British authorities to do the same, calling for the government to scrap plans to place the construction of Britain’s new 5G network in the hands of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei, and to reduce reliance on Chinese-made personal protective equipment for health workers. 
“We need to go into reverse,” he said. “It’s important that we do not put any of our critical infrastructure in the hands of Chinese interests. So telecommunications, Huawei, nuclear power stations, and then things that, you know, we require and need in a crisis, like PPE.” 
“We have allowed China so much rope that we are now suffering the consequences, and it’s time to pull the rope in and to tighten the way we do business. It’s very, very important that we keep a keen eye on this and do not allow the Chinese to, as it were, benefit strategically from this situation that has been imposed on all of us.”

Wow.  

(2) Die Welt (in German) continues to pour withering criticism on the Swedish sonderweg. They call it “chaos disguised as strategy” (Chaos getarnt als Strategie). Private corporations are now stepping up with immunity testing for pay. Due to high demand, they had to limit their offerings to Sweden’s two largest cities, Stockholm (by far hardest hit) and Göteborg, but other companies are looking to fill the void. 

Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Prof. Anders Tegnell, gave a remarkably self-critical interview on Swedish radio: “Too many have died too soon”. He regrets not having been more proactive to protect the most vulnerable. My translation (2nd hand via German): “I believe there is definite room for improvement in what we ‘ve been doing in Sweden, of course., And it would have been good if we’d known more precisely what to close to prevent infection spread.” Also, he said, if we’d encountered the same epidemic but with the knowledge we have today, then the correct course in his opinion lay intermediate between the road Sweden took and what the rest of the world did. “Unambiguously, we could have done better in Sweden, I believe.”

(3) Operation Warp Speed, an initiative of the White House, selected a shortlist of five vaccine candidates for mass manufacturing in the US

The five vaccines include Moderna’s mRNA1273, currently in phase 2 trials; AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s AZD1222, now in clinical trials at multiple UK sites; a candidate from Johnson & Johnson; a Merck vaccine based on that company’s successful Ebola vaccine; and Pfizer and BioNTech‘s BNT162.

The accelerated programs are funded through $10 billion from Congress and $3 billion directed for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research.

Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was confident more than one COVID-19 vaccine would prove effective in a reasonable period of time.

Francis Collins, MD, NIH director, said some vaccine candidates will be ready for large-scale testing as soon as the beginning of July. The phase 3 trials would involve as many as 30,000 volunteers for each candidate vaccine, with half the volunteers receiving a placebo, Collins told National Public Radio.

If successful, this will be the most rapid vaccine development program in history.

 

ADDENDUM: GenomeWeb reports that another Surgiscape-sourced paper, in the New England Journal of Medicine, has now been retracted. 

The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine have retracted two COVID-19 papers because of questions regarding the data used in the studies. The papers were both previously the subject of expressions of concern.

The now-retracted Lancet paper had reported that the antimalarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine may increase the risk of death among COVID-19 patients, while the now-retracted NEJM paper noted that though cardiovascular disease increases someone’s risk of dying from COVID-19, ACE inhibitors did not increase that risk.

Both studies relied on a database run by Surgisphere, which said it had detailed data on about 100,000 COVID-19 patients from 1,200 hospitals around the world, but as the New York Times noted earlier this week, clinicians and medical researchers have raised concerns about the data it houses.

The authors of the Lancet study who were not associated with Surgisphere noted in the expression of concern that they would be seeking an independent audit of the data. However, in the retraction notice, they wrote that Surgisphere would not transfer the full dataset to its independent reviewers, citing client agreements and confidentiality. Because of this, the Lancet notes in a statement that three of the four authors — the fourth author being Surgisphere chief executive Sapan Desai — said they “can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources.” 

The NEJM retraction notice similarly says that the authors, this time including Desai, could not “validate the primary data sources” and requested a retraction.

COVID19 update, May 26, 2020: Sweden revisited; homes for the elderly; new drug on the block

(0) Israel today celebrated its first day with zero new cases.

(1) Via Instapundit, SSRN (Social Science Research Network, a preprint server similar to arXiv.org, medrxiv.org, biorxiv.org and chemrxiv,org) has a article in press about the Swedish COVID19 epidemic. 

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3609493

Their per capita death rate is an order of magnitude larger than neighboring Scandinavian countries. It is tempting to attribute all this to Sweden’s Sonderweg (“road alone”) — but this article makes a case that at least part results from factors unrelated to Sweden’s decision not to go on lockdown.

Not only is half of Sweden’s mortality concentrated in just the capital city Stockholm, but over 70% of Sweden’s mortality is in nursing homes. As the article explains, in Sweden the elderly tend to stay at home for as long as possible, assisted by home helpers assigned by the public healthcare system. (Independent assisted living facilities do exist, apparently mostly in the private sector.) But normally a home for the elderly is a last-resort option, and those who move in there are generally so frail that their median stay there is under one year. (Such facilities in Sweden have doctors etc. on site.)

Now in a facility where everybody needs a lot of hands-on care, there is plenty of room for nosocomial (i.e., caregiver-transmitted) infections unless staff is (a) healthy and (b) has extensive training and/or experience in biosafety. Guess who does the most “hands-on” work at such care homes? First-generation immigrants from the Third World, often with at best high school education. And guess what else? Immigrants are the second most common group of COVID19 victims in Sweden, after the elderly. 

Immigrants tend to live in crowded conditions, and many probably have  major issues with vitamin D deficiency (and hence a weakened immune system) in winter. (Even light-skinned “Vikings” would be in trouble in a sub-arctic winter, were it not that Scandinavians tend to fortify their diet with vitamin D supplements — I was floored once to see cod liver oil at a hotel breakfast buffet!)

Intriguingly, overall year-over-year mortality is not as elevated as you might expect — COVID19 mortality was compensated in part by an unusually mild flu season.

Now Sweden is just an egregious example of a general trend: Steve “Vodkapundit” Green points out that  42% of Americans whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 were in nursing homes or assisted living centers. 

He links to a report of the International Long-Term Care Policy Network about deaths in such facilities in a number of countries. A few quotes:

On the 3rd of May there had been 7,844 deaths linked to COVID-19 in Belgium, of these, 4,164 people died in care homes (53%). The report also includes suspected cases and, of the total deaths, 83% of all care home deaths were suspected cases, and only 17% had been confirmed. The reported % of deaths in care homes has increased since the first date these data were published, from 42% on the 11th April to 53% on the 3rd May. The report also contains data on the numbers of care home staff and residents that have been tested since the 10th of April. As of May 3, 88,883 staff were tested, of these, 3% were positive, and of those who tested positive, 72% were asymptomatic. Of the 68,336 residents who had been tested, 7% were positive and of these, 74% were asymptomatic.

[…] In British Columbia[, Canada], counts published by the BC Centre for Disease Control11 on May 1 illustrate a total of 112 deaths as a result of COVID-19, of which 70 (63%) were patients/residents in care facilities, which includes acute care institutions, long-term care homes, assisted and independent living establishments. On that day, there were a total of 2,145 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province, of which 260 (12%) were patients/residents in these establishments. 

[…] In Ontario[…] The official report included a total of 1,216 deaths as a result of COVID-19, of which 590 (49%) were residents in long-term care homes.

[…] Quebec is the province with the highest cases and the most deaths related to COVID-19 in Canada. According to the most up-to-date estimates from both governmental and media releases on April 29, a total of 1,859 deaths as a result of COVID-19 occurred in the province, of which 1,469 (79%) were residents in long-term care homes. Tabarnak!

[…] The total deaths in Germany on the 3rd May were 6,649, so deaths in communal settings represent 36% of all deaths (36.5% including mortality of staff in communal settings)24. […]

The first COVID-19 patient in Israel was diagnosed on February 27th and since then the number of confirmed cases has risen to 15,782 (as of April 29th), with 120 in serious condition and 202 deaths. Of the deaths, 65 were long-term care residents (32%).

[…] According to their data of the 3rd May41, the total number of deaths in nursing homes is 16,878, which, according to this source, adds up to 67% of all deaths by COVID-19 in Spain. The greatest number of deaths happened in Madrid (5,828) and Catalonia (3,044). […]

 

 

Figure1

(2) Via the Jerusalem Post, here is a preprint from the Israel Institute for Biological Research

https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.18.103283

indicating that an analogue of Cerdelga (Eliglustat), a drug for the rare metabolic disorder named Gaucher’s Disease, might be a useful broad-spectrum antiviral. From the abstract:

Since viruses are completely dependent on internal cell mechanisms, they must cross cell membranes during their lifecycle, creating a dependence on processes involving membrane dynamics. Thus, in this study we examined whether the synthesis of glycosphingolipids, biologically active components of cell membranes, can serve as an antiviral therapeutic target. We examined the antiviral effect of two specific inhibitors of GlucosylCeramide synthase (GCS); (i) Genz-123346, an analogue of the FDA-approved drug Cerdelga®, (ii) GENZ-667161, an analogue of venglustat which is currently under phase III clinical trials. We found that both GCS inhibitors inhibit the replication of four different enveloped RNA viruses of different genus, organ-target and transmission route: (i) Neuroinvasive Sindbis virus (SVNI), (ii) West Nile virus (WNV), (iii) Influenza A virus, and (iv) SARS-CoV-2. Moreover, GCS inhibitors significantly increase the survival rate of SVNI-infected mice. Our data suggest that GCS inhibitors can potentially serve as a broad-spectrum antiviral therapy and should be further examined in preclinical and clinical trial. Analogues of the specific compounds tested have already been studied clinically, implying they can be fast-tracked for public use. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, this may be particularly relevant to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

 

(3) Miscellaneous:

Charlie Martin about YouTube censorship of comments about the “Fifty-Cent Army” (the paid internet commenter brigade of the CCP). 

DIE WELT refers to Angela Merkel’s silence in the face of China’s repression of Hong Kong as “Merkel’s kow-tow”.

Elsewhere, the German paper reports on the “nightmarishly” empty beaches in St.-Tropez on the French Azure Coast. Now any tourist would be welcome — not just the rich and famous — but they aren’t coming. It would seem obvious that tourism is one sector of the economy that was going to get near-fatal blows with or without lockdowns.

According to the Daily Telegraph, remdesivir will be rolled out in the UK for treatment.