Black Death, COVID & Renewal

“So, our outline for today:

1. Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)

2. Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)

3. Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)

4. Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance”

—Ada Palmer, “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.” ExUrbe.com. June 4, 2020.

What does the history of Black Death suggest for our post-COVID-19 future? A complicated question. This is a precis, i.e., most essential points, of a book length answer to that question. Academic and long, but also interesting.

Kondratiev Waves & Social Unrest

“In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020. We are also entering a dip in the so-called Kondratiev wave, which traces 40-60-year economic-growth cycles. This could mean that future recessions will be severe. In addition, the next decade will see a rapid growth in the number of people in their twenties, like the youth bulge that accompanied the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. All these cycles look set to peak in the years around 2020.”

-Peter Turchin, “Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade.” Nature 463, 608 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/463608a

“What does it mean for the current wave of protests and riots? The nature of such dynamical processes is such that it can subside tomorrow, or escalate; either outcome is possible. A spark landing even in abundant fuel can either go out, or grow to a conflagration.

What is much more certain is that the deep structural drivers for instability continue to operate unabated. Worse, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several of these instability drivers. This means that even after the current wave of indignation, caused by the killing of George Floyd, subsides, there will be other triggers that will continue to spark more fires—as long as the structural forces, undermining the stability of our society, continue to provide abundant fuel for them.

-Peter Turchin, “2020.” Clio Dynamica on PeterTurchin.com. June 1, 2020.

Counterglow

“This map shows factory farms and other animal facilities in the United States.”

Counterglow

“The map is meant to offer a rare bird’s-eye view of the scale of the industry, while also providing a research tool for activist investigators. Kecia Doolittle, the leader of the team that created the map, is an animal rights activist who has participated in a number of farm investigations herself. Footage uncovered by Doolittle and others over the years has revealed conditions such as overcrowding; wounded, sick, and dead animals left in pens with the living; painful procedures like tail removal and castration without anesthesia; and physical abuse by farmers, at times resulting in boycotts or criminal charges.

Most recently, as The Intercept reported on Friday, activists with the organization Direct Action Everywhere captured footage of a harrowing mass kill method called ventilation shutdown. The closure of meatpacking plants due to Covid-19 outbreaks has left farmers with nowhere to take mature livestock; in response, they have exterminated millions of animals. One particularly torturous tactic involves corralling pigs into a barn, closing the doors and windows, and shutting down the ventilation system. ‘This causes the buildup of excessive temperature and moisture from body heat and respiration of the animals and results in death from hyperthermia,’ according to guidelines from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which endorses ventilation shutdown in ‘constrained circumstances.’

Doolittle said that despite her knowledge of the industry’s brutal practices, this method caught her off guard. ‘I didn’t believe it was real,’ she said. To Doolittle, the use of ventilation shutdown should be a call to action, and more than images are needed.”

-Alleen Brown, “Animal Rights Activists Uncover the Locations of Thousands of Factory Farms.” The Intercept. May 31, 2020.

In light of the recent protests, it is hard not to notice that the way we treat The Other, whether it be people of a different race or different species, have a commonality.

Time to Mitigate, Not Contain

“We have long needed a Plan B for the scenario where a big fraction of everyone gets exposed to Covid19, and for this plan I’ve explored variolation and other forms of deliberate exposure. To be ready, variolation just needs a small (~100) short (1-2mo.) trial to verify the quite likely (>75%) case that it works (cuts harm by 3-30x), but alas, while funding and volunteers can be found, med ethics panels have consistently disapproved. (Months later, they haven’t even allowed the widely praised human challenge trials for vaccines, some of which would include variolation trials.)

-Robin Hanson, “Time to Mitigate, Not Contain.” OvercomingBias.com. May 28, 2020

I’m thinking an intervention that involving volunteering to get COVID-19, when there are no effective treatments and with a fatality rate somewhere between 0.5-1% is going to be a hard sell. If herd immunity is at 60%, this means a death toll of almost 1 million in the United States, on the low end.

Chances of a COVID-19 Vaccine

“The objective is to calculate risk profiles for vaccines targeting human infectious diseases. A database was actively compiled to include all vaccine projects in development from 1998 to 2009 in the pre-clinical development phase, clinical trials phase I, II and III up to Market Registration. The average vaccine, taken from the preclinical phase, requires a development timeline of 10.71 years and has a market entry probability of 6%.”

-Pronker ES, Weenen TC, Commandeur H, Claassen EHJHM, Osterhaus ADME (2013) Risk in Vaccine Research and Development Quantified. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57755. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057755

A pandemic changes the risk profile in the sense that figuring out whether a vaccine is profitable is no longer the key consideration. However, it is worth noting that the current record for vaccine development is for Ebola, which took five years. And what about the original SARS? We still don’t have a vaccine for it, or for any coronavirus.

But, what about the recent news about Moderna’s vaccine? It’s based on mRNA. Let’s see what the CEO of one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world had to say on the topic, over a month ago:

“[GSK CEO Emma Walmsley] noted that mRNA vaccine candidates, such as the vaccine Moderna Inc. (NASDAQ:MRNA) is developing, have gotten into clinical trials more rapidly than those based on more conventional approaches, but there is some uncertainty about mRNA technologies.

“We are seeing several mRNA candidates coming forward,” Walmsley noted. “They may get earlier visibility of results. These are new technologies that haven’t been manufactured at scale.”

“Messenger RNA is a promising technology; it’s very versatile and it can produce candidates relatively quickly,” Loew said. “It has, however, never been tested in large Phase III trials and there is also no registered vaccine available today using that technology. It remains to be seen what this technology can really deliver.”

-Steve Usdin, “As COVID-19 vaccines progress, science and policy questions become more urgent.” BioCentury. April 15, 2020.

There are many coronavirus vaccine prospects, with frontrunners and others. Many different approaches are being tried to develop a vaccine. But, the target of getting one that works, is safe, can be manufactured and distributed at scale, and is available before the pandemic has run its course is not something that is likely to happen. Even if it were, it won’t be this year. Odds aren’t good for next year either.

Let’s hope a vaccine can be developed in time. But, let’s also be clear-eyed about the chances of that happening. They aren’t good.

Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff Say This Time Really Is Different

“And you want to talk about a negative productivity shock, too. The biggest positive productivity shock we’ve had over the last 40 years has been globalization together with technology. And I think if you take away the globalization, you probably take away some of the technology. So that affects not just trade, but movements and people. And then there are the socio-political ramifications. I liken the incident we’re in to The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy got sucked up in the tornado with her house, and it’s spinning around, and you don’t know where it will come down. That’s where our social, political, economic system is at the moment. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s probably not in the pro-growth direction.”

-Simon Kennedy, “Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff Say This Time Really Is Different.” Bloomberg. May 18, 2020.

Probably the best thing I’ve read on the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic. If you have any interest in GDP, the economy, etc., this is worth reading in full.

U.S. COVID-19: The Long Plateau

Trevor Bedford is a scientist that studies viruses. Worth checking out the whole thread.

Knowledge of the Future

“…there are (a) facts, (b) informed extrapolations from analogies to other viruses and (c) opinion or speculation.

…if you’re experiencing something that has never been seen before, you simply can’t say you know how it’ll turn out.

…There’s no algorithm for deciding whether to favor life for a few (or for thousands) versus economic improvement for millions.”

-Howard Marks, “Knowledge of the Future.” Oaktree Capital. April 14, 2020.

Interesting throughout.

Grim News: Cutting Through the COVID-19 Bullshit

Flu pandemics for the last 250 years have had two peaks. Weather does not appear to effect their severity. Original assessment of the basic reproductive number, i.e., R0, of COVID-19 was ~2.5, with the Wikipedia entry on herd immunity citing a possibility as low as 1.4.

But, R0 of COVID-19 has been reassessed, and it is now thought to be ~5.7. This is important because at 1.4, it has low transmissiblity. Only 29% of people need to have had the disease and recovered to break chains of transmission. As R0 increases, so does the percent of the population required for herd immunity, i.e., R0 of 4, requires 75% immunity, 5 is 80%, 6 is 83% and 7 is 86%. As a point of comparison, Spanish Flu had an R0 of ~2.

Without a vaccine or effective treatment that can be produced at scale, you want to reduce the infection rate to get to herd immunity at a slower pace. By reducing the burden on health care systems, you also reduce the number of people that die because they cannot get modern medical care. As time is shortened, less people get care and more people die. It’s the idea behind “flatten the curve”. More time also means more time to develop some kind of treatment or a vaccine to get to herd immunity without so many dying or even getting the illness.

The important questions right now are: (1) How many people have been infected, since some were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms? (2) Of people infected, how many died?

The initial results from the first “sero-surveys”, that is blood tests taken from a representative sample of a population looking for antibodies that indicate a person had COVID-19, indicate herd immunity is ~15% for a population that have been through their first peak and the death rate from COVID-19 when hospital systems are not overwhelmed is ~0.4%.

So, why is the above important? It means to get to herd immunity, something like 82% of people will have to get infected and of those that get infected, 0.4% will die. Then, we can calculate:

Population * Percentage of People For Herd Immunity * Death Rate = Deaths

In the case of the United States, that works out to something like:

341,000,000 * .82 * .004 = 1,118,480 U.S. deaths

If you look at the entire world and assume the fatality rate doubles on average because of how much of the world does not have access to healthcare, you get:

7,800,000,000 * .0.82 * .008 = 51,168,000 worldwide deaths

And with this knowledge in hand, when the yahoos in government tell you that “their model” indicates that only 60,000 people will die in the U.S., that things can go back to normal after a few weeks of “shelter-in-place” and May is a good time to restart the economy, you’ll know that you are being bullshitted.

The reality is that May will be the down slope of the first peak. The crisis will continue through the summer at a lower level and likely have a second peak in September/October. Given how badly it is being handled in the United States, we will reach herd immunity faster, with all the additional fatalities that entails.

Wait for the serological tests in the United States to look like the German ones that have already been done, and hopefully, in a sane world, a “pivot” back to something like the grim reality of what we are dealing with here by what passes as the U.S. federal “government”.

“Some limited data support a potential waning of cases in warmer and more humid seasons, yet none are without major limitations. Given that countries currently in “summer” climates, such as Australia and Iran, are experiencing rapid virus spread, a decrease in cases with increases in humidity and temperature elsewhere should not be assumed. Given the lack of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 across the world, if there is an effect of temperature and humidity on transmission, it may not be as apparent as with other respiratory viruses for which there is at least some pre-existing partial immunity. It is useful to note that pandemic influenza strains have not exhibited the typical seasonal pattern of endemic/epidemic strains. There have been 10 influenza pandemics in the past 250-plus years – two started in the northern hemisphere winter, three in the spring, two in the summer and three in the fall. All had a peak second wave approximately six months after emergence of the virus in the human population, regardless of when the initial introduction occurred.”

-National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Rapid Expert Consultation on SARS-CoV-2 Survival in Relation to Temperature and Humidity and Potential for Seasonality for the COVID-19 Pandemic (April 7, 2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25771.

“”Initial estimates of the early dynamics of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, suggested a doubling time of the number of infected persons of 6–7 days and a basic reproductive number (R0) of 2.2–2.7. We collected extensive individual case reports across China and estimated key epidemiologic parameters, including the incubation period. We then designed 2 mathematical modeling approaches to infer the outbreak dynamics in Wuhan by using high-resolution domestic travel and infection data. Results show that the doubling time early in the epidemic in Wuhan was 2.3–3.3 days. Assuming a serial interval of 6–9 days, we calculated a median R0 value of 5.7 (95% CI 3.8–8.9).”

-Sanche S, Lin YT, Xu C, Romero-Severson E, Hengartner N, Ke R. High contagiousness and rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 Jul [April 11, 2020]. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.200282

“From the result of their blood survey, the German team estimated the death rate in the municipality at 0.37% overall, a figure significantly lower than what’s shown on a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins, where the death rate in Germany among reported cases is 2%.

The authors explain that the difference in the calculations boils down to how many people are actually infected but haven’t been counted because they have mild or no symptoms.”

-Antonio Regalado, “Blood tests show 14% of people are now immune to covid-19 in one town in Germany.” MIT Technology Review. April 9, 2010.