Lessons for COVID Vaccinations And Herd Immunity From Influenza And Rubella

Note: The following is modified from the blog post, “Rubella: We vaccinate for far less,” by Katelyn Jetelina, MPS, PhD who is an “epidemiologist, biostatistian, professor, researcher, wife, and mom of two little girls.” She writes a blog entitled, “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

 “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

 George Santayana

 

In the US, more than 300,000 kids aged 5-11 have been vaccinated with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which has proven that the vaccine is safe and can benefit some kids. It prevents infection, COVID-19 disease, death, long COVID-19, and keeps kids in school. Admittedly, only a few kids develop serious COVID disease and fewer have died from it. Most infected kids only have mild, if any, symptoms. Vaccine skeptics use this fact to stridently argue against childhood COVID vaccines. So, why are we pushing to vaccinate children who rarely get seriously ill?

There are two reasons why we vaccinate anyone. The first reason is to protect the vax recipient from the disease; this is an individual-level benefit of the vaccine. The second is to protect a larger population by trying to retard disease spread; this is a population-level benefit of vaccines that is better known as herd immunity.

But, anti-vaxers only focus on the fact that childhood vaccines provide little individual-level benefit to children and wholly ignore the larger population-level benefit of the vaccines. As I have written before, vaccinating children who are at low risk for serious disease is still very important for reducing viral spread in order to  prevent more dangerous viral mutants from emerging. It also is important for reducing infection and disease in more vulnerable people in the population. It is these population-level benefits that are the most important reason to vaccinate low-risk children. Vaccinating children for a population-level benefit, rather than for individual-level benefit, is not at all new and is a very acceptable practice. Here are a couple of examples.

Influenza: A few decades ago, Japan mandated flu vaccines for all school kids. That vaccine slowed the spread of flu in schools leading to many fewer student illnesses and absences. More significantly, vaccinating all school kids also caused a sharp drop in flu deaths in older people like school teachers and staff, parents, and grandparents who have close contact with the kids.

Kids are walking incubators for respiratory viruses and readily spread their germs to others. Infected children essentially are virus vectors much like mosquitoes are vectors for malaria and yellow fever. Therefore, in Japan, the flu vaccine effectively shut down a major vector of influenza infection for at-risk older people. That is an undeniable and important population-level benefit of vaccinating school kids against the flu.

Rubella: Now, let us take a deeper dive into rubella, or German measles, and its vaccine, which is the “R” in the MMR shot. It is especially enlightening to compare the natural history of rubella to what we are learning about COVID-19.

Both COVID and rubella are caused by airborne viruses that spread when infected people cough, sneeze, or even talk. As with COVID, rubella symptoms in children are quite mild. They include its tell-tale measles-like rash, sore throat, low grade fever, mild pink eye, and general discomfort. But, about 25 to 50% of infected children will not experience any symptoms. Likewise, many CoV-2 infected kids also do not develop symptoms. But, asymptomatic kids infected with either rubella or CoV-2 readily spread their viruses to friends and family; hence, they can be significant vectors delivering both viruses to people at-risk for serious disease.

Over the last two years, we have learned that COVID mostly (with significant exceptions) causes serious illness and death in older people or for those with certain other health conditions. Similarly, while rubella only causes mild disease in most children, it is incredibly dangerous for developing fetuses. A woman infected with rubella during the first 3 months of pregnancy has a 90% chance that the fetus either will not survive or will develop Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS), characterized by deafness, blindness, heart defects, and/or severe brain damage. In the early 1960s, a rubella outbreak began in Europe and spread to the US. In 1964-65 ~12.5 million total cases were reported in America affecting nearly 50,000 pregnancies. More than 11,000 of the infected mothers miscarried, or delivered still-born babies. Of the >20,000 infants born alive to infected mothers, the majority had severe illnesses: 2,100 died shortly after birth, 12,000 were deaf, 3,580 were blind, and 1,800 had permanent mental disabilities.

The rubella outbreak proved hard to contain because, as with COVID, infected asymptomatic people make it hard to know when someone is spreading the virus. Rubella also is just as contagious as COVID. Both viruses have an R0 = 6-7 meaning that each infected person will infect, on average, 6-7 other people. For comparison, flu’s R0 = 2-3, which means it is about half as contagious as the other two viruses. It, therefore, is not surprising that like rubella, the COVID outbreak is proving hard to contain.

Soon after the 1960s rubella pandemic began, a safe and effective vaccine was quickly developed and approved for use in Europe and North America (this is reminiscent of the quick development of the COVID vaccines). Early on, there was a robust international debate on who should get the rubella vaccine. There were two schools of thought:

  1. Despite the fact that rubella only caused mild problems in kids, some proposed vaccinating all children hoping to provide indirect population-level protection for pregnant women and their at-risk fetuses.
  2. Others argued that because children were only minimally affected they should not be subjected to the vaccine and that only women of childbearing age should be vaccinated. This, proponents argued, would more specifically protect those most at risk.

Ultimately, it was found that countries that chose #2 were not able to sufficiently reduce the virus, because it still spread unfettered among children. This strategy did not reduce the rates of CRS. Eventually, option #1, vaccinating low-risk children (like what we are moving toward with the COVID vaccine) was adopted world-wide. Vaccination rates of school kids reached ~85% in the US, which last experienced a serious rubella outbreak in 1995. In 2004, transmission of rubella was eliminated in the United States and in 2015, it was eliminated in all the countries of North and South America.

Soon, the MMR vaccination was mandated for children in all 50 states. It is important to realize that these mandates were not to protect kids from the mild disease but to protect the at-risk population, or fetuses. In other words, we vaccinate kids against rubella not so much to protect them, but to provide a significant population-level benefit to others.

Today, because of broad rubella vaccination of low-risk children, we see an annual average of just 10-15 cases of CRS in the US that are traced back to international travel to countries with poor rubella vaccination rates. In contrast, in countries with low vaccination rates, about 120,000 children are born each year with severe CRS birth defects and even more die in utero.

Bottom Line: This country, and indeed all of the Americas and most of Europe came together to eliminate endemic rubella through broad population-level vaccination programs targeting low-risk groups responsible for spreading the virus to the high risk population. Japan saw the same effect with influenza. They focused on broadly vaccinating a low-risk population (school kids) and saw great benefits in the high-risk older population. As we approach a broad COVID vaccination strategy that includes giving the shot to low-risk children, it very likely will have a population-level benefit and help protect those most at-risk for serious disease.

It is important to note that the population-benefit conferred by the COVID vaccine also applies to all of us and not just to children. When we are vaccinated, not only does it protect us, it also provides significant protection to at-risk people around us. That, in fact, is called “herd immunity.”

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The History Of Vaccine Mandates In The US

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As employers and the President are pushing vaccine mandates because too many have refused them, voices are crying out for their perceived rights saying “my body my choice.” They do not like their bosses or the government telling them to get vaccinated. This is a clash between individual rights and public health measures designed to save lives and to protect the larger community. Who gets to make the key decisions? How far can the government and employers go? Do individual rights trump community safety?

On Sept. 9, Biden announced the most sweeping vaccine requirements in American history, ordering that businesses with 100 or more employees ensure that all their workers are either vaccinated or get tested weekly for the coronavirus. The new rules also require vaccinations for federal workers and for federal contractors, as well as for workers at healthcare facilities that receive funding from Medicare and Medicaid. This will affect about 100 million people.

The authority for these government mandates, claims Biden, is a 1970 federal statute that gives the Secretary of Labor authority to issue a six month Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to protect workers from “grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful.” His move has triggered a political and legal battle, with many Republican governors vowing to fight the mandates in court. The mandates raise several new questions regarding this vague statute: Is a virus a “…toxic or physically harmful substance?” Does COVID-19 present a “grave danger?” Has the executive branch exceeded its authority in offering a solution to a problem previously reserved to the states? Do these mandates violate the 14th Amendment by depriving workers of their personal liberties? It is important to note that Biden’s mandates do not actually make vaccines compulsory: The government may levy a fine or forbid a child from attending school, but no American will be forced to get an unwanted jab. This has not always been the case.

There are historical precedents for vaccine mandates and even for forced vaccination.

In February 1991, five Philadelphia children died from measles, a disease that was mostly eradicated in the US, due to vaccination. Measles once sickened millions of kids, each year hospitalizing ~50,000 and killing close to 500 before a successful vaccine was developed in 1963. After that, cases dropped dramatically as all states mandated measles shots for school children. Vaccine hesitancy and resistance were rare because people saw the tangible success of the measles vaccine.

But, in Philadelphia that winter of 1991, the serious cases of measles came from a single source, a church cult that rejected “…all means of healing apart from God’s way.” Church members took no medicines, owned no thermometers, and saw no doctors. Rejecting all birth control, they raised large families in close quarters, a recipe for the measles epidemic, which they cooked. Trying to contain the threat to the rest of the city, officials worked through the courts to gain access to the homes of the congregants and received the authority to vaccinate the children against the wishes of their parents. In this public health emergency, defending the parents’ anti-vax actions was close to impossible. Even the ACLU took a pass.

Vaccine mandates even appeared during the Revolutionary War. George Washington mandated that all his troops be immunized against smallpox, even against their will. He described smallpox to Virginia’s Governor Patrick Henry as “more destructive to an Army in a Natural Way, than the Enemy’s Sword.” As I wrote earlier in these pages, smallpox had doomed the Colonial Army’s assault on Quebec in 1775, and it threatened Washington’s main force. Washington’s mandate proved a brilliant gambit and smallpox largely disappeared from the ranks. Some historians point to the mandate as a major factor in winning the war against the Brits.

During that war, smallpox vaccination entailed a primitive vaccination procedure known as variolation. That involved opening a lesion from an infected person and scraping its contents into the arm of a recipient. It was effective, but the vaccinated person became quite ill for a couple of weeks, and about 3% of them died from the pox. Later, in 1796, the English scientist Edward Jenner discovered a much safer method of immunization using cowpox, a virus similar to smallpox that did not cause significant disease in people. But the new smallpox vaccine got a mixed reception in the US as some resisted it for reasons of personal safety based on the variolation experience. They rationalized, “what good could possibly come from polluting the body with dangerous foreign matter?” Or, “Why challenge the plans of the Creator?” Still, Jenner’s vaccine was a clear improvement over variolation and drove a steady decline in smallpox outbreaks throughout the 19th century. States began passing laws mandating smallpox vaccinations for school children, and some forcibly vaccinated prisoners, paupers, and orphans.

In 1905, the issue of vaccine mandates reached the Supreme Court in the seminal case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Henning Jacobson, a Lutheran pastor in Cambridge had defied a city ordinance requiring smallpox vaccinations during an outbreak. He refused to pay a $5 fine so he was arrested. Jacobson posited that “healthy and law-abiding” people like himself (even though he was disobeying the law at the time) posed a minimal danger to the community. He argued that even if his refusal to be vaccinated led to him spreading the smallpox virus, the only victims would be others “who failed or refused to be vaccinated.” In other words, he reasoned that it would be ok to not get the vax because the vaxed would be safe, but wholly ignored the rights to safety of those who were not vaxed. 

It is an argument that is repeated today about the CoV-2 vax. Using modern science that was not available in the early 20th century, experts have repeatedly refuted this argument, explaining that many people who want the vax cannot be fully vaccinated because they are immunocompromised, or allergic to the vaccine’s contents, or do not have access to the vaccine. Also, we now know that the more RNA viruses, like the coronavirus, are allowed to spread, the greater the chance more deadly variants can appear. Jacobson’s contention that the decision to vaccinate solely belongs to the individual, not to the state, employers, or to medical authorities remains a central tenant of today's anti-vaxers.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Jacobson. The majority opinion, written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, asserted that “the liberty secured by the Constitution does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.” Rather, he argued, the Constitution rests upon “the fundamental principle of the social compact…that all shall be governed by certain laws for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people, and not for the profit, honor or private interests of any one man, family or class of men.” Jacobson had not only broken the law, the court suggested he also had violated the principle upon which a well-ordered society depends. We are not wholly independent the court ruled. The greater good of the community can trump individual rights.

Using Jacobson as precedent, the Supreme Court in 1922, upheld a local ordinance in San Antonio requiring proof of smallpox vaccination for people entering “public schools or other places of education.”  

Later, during World War II, the US military made vaccines mandatory for a host of diseases, such as typhoid, yellow fever and tetanus, and it still mandates certain vaccines for troops in certain deployments. Soon after the war very successful vaccines were developed against several childhood diseases like polio, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Guided by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jacobson, all 50 states put laws on the books mandating many of these vaccinations for school children. Even today, many school districts and colleges mandate certain vaccines for students and staff. Hospitals, too, often mandate certain vaccines for their staff. Until lately, vaccine mandates have not generated much angst and anger.

Why is this? Perhaps vaccines have done their job too well: Many of them have erased the tragic evidence of why they were needed in the first place. The world no longer deals with small pox, thanks to the vaccine. Almost no one in this country has seen someone ravaged by polio, or a child hospitalized with measles, or who lost his hearing due to chicken pox, all thanks to vaccines. Yet, now with COVID-19, anti-vaccine anxieties have found their way into the political mainstream, especially among conservatives. An estimated 80 million American adults remain unvaccinated against COVID and represent potential factories for producing the next deadly coronavirus variant, which is very preventable.

As I have addressed before in these pages, many factors fuel resistance to the life-saving shots, including doubts about their quick development and their possible long-term effects. But a growing distrust of professional expertise, including medical science, has also played a role, which is unwarranted. Who are you going to believe, a medical scientist like me with nothing to gain in the debate (except the safety of my friends, family, and self), or someone who read a web post from folks who are selling nostrums they claim will protect you, like Dr. Steve Hotze, or from one of America’s Frontline Doctors whose web site claimed that gynecological problems were caused by having sex with demons? Do you jump on the side of those who tout that their individual freedoms have been abridged, but who do not consider the freedoms from disease of the greater community, and whom the courts already have decided against?

Almost 300 years ago, Benjamin Franklin struggled over whether to have his sons variolated against smallpox. In his “Autobiography,” he worried that well-meaning people were tragically misjudging the calculus between the risks and benefits of the procedure, as he had once done, with a tragic result. He wrote, “In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox….I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”


Clue: Dr Mustard In The Parlor With A Hypodermic

In earlier posts, I noted odd and unexpected effects of the pandemic. These included farmed fish growing too large for restaurant plates, Denmark culling all its mink from mink farms, a shortage of individual condiment packets, and a problem with rattlesnakes in the landing gear of mothballed commercial planes.

And now this.

The Associated Press just reported that there has been a surge in in-home pet euthanasia services because of the pandemic. Companies, such as Pet Loss at Home, or Lap of Love, offer home pet euthanasia services because the pandemic has led to restrictions on people inside vet clinics and hospitals, meaning that pets would have to be put down without their human companions present. By offering house-call euthanasia, the pet’s family members can be present for the depressing deed and say goodbye to their furry friend. In non-pandemic times, the animals would be put to sleep in a vet clinic with family members present. But, these are pandemic times.

Although it has been well documented that house pets can catch CoV-2, viral infection is not what is driving the calls for home euthanasia. Rather, these home pet deaths are being driven by normal pet maladies such as cancer, lymphoma, kidney disease, etc. The owners just want some way to be with their chums at the end.

Who can blame them?


Unvaccinated People Are 11 Times More Likely To Die Of COVID-19

People who were not fully vaccinated this spring and summer were ~10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19, than those who were fully vaccinated, according to one of three major studies published mid-September by the CDC.

That study did not distinguish between which vaccine the vaccinated cohort received. But, a second study compared the different vaccines and found that the Moderna vax was somewhat more effective in preventing hospitalizations than the Pfizer and J&J vaccines. This assessment was based on the largest US study to date of the real-world effectiveness of all three vaccines, involving about 32,000 patients seen in hospitals, emergency departments and urgent-care clinics across nine states from June through early August. While the three vaccines were collectively 86 percent effective in preventing hospitalization, protection was higher among Moderna vaccine recipients (95 percent) than among those who got the Pfizer (80 percent) or J&J vaccines (60 percent). That finding echoes a smaller study by the Mayo Clinic Health System in August, which showed the Moderna vaccine to be more effective than the Pfizer vax at preventing infections from the Delta variant.

Vaccine effectiveness against infection dropped from 90 percent last Spring, when Delta had not yet gained significant traction, to less than 80 percent from mid-June to mid-July, when Delta began out-competing other viral variants. Importantly, effectiveness against hospitalization and death showed barely any decline during the entire period. Thus, all vaccines remain quite effective and useful in protecting against illness.

Get one!

Why there is a difference in preventing infection between the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines was discussed earlier in these pages.


The Long Haul, Part 2: What Is Long COVID?

In the 1890s one of the biggest pandemics in recorded history, known then as the “Russian flu”, swept the world and killed one million people (for perspective, that is out of a world population about ¼ of today’s population). That “flu” is now thought to have been a novel coronavirus. Like the current coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the Russian “flu” was a new human pathogen so few people had any natural immunity to it and it was quite lethal. Not only that, but as the pandemic waned, it left in its wake a global wave of long-lasting neurological problems in the survivors. A similar long-lasting post-acute disease wave followed the next big pandemic, the “Spanish” flu of 1918 (which really was due to the influenza virus). The common symptom following the Spanish flu was lethargy so bad that in Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), for example, it caused a famine because people were too debilitated to pick the harvest. Other viral outbreaks, including SARS, MERS, and Ebola, also have been associated with long-term sequelae in survivors. However, today’s long COVID complications are far more common and far more variable than the persistent symptoms following these other viral pandemics. The variety of unrelated long COVID symptoms has flummoxed doctors hard pressed to diagnose and, hence, treat the constellation of chronic problems that appear in each patient.

As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, a wave of what has become known as “long COVID” is emerging in many people who have recovered from the acute disease. A recent review chronicling the effects of long COVID reported that “long haulers” commonly experience fatigue, sleep problems, and joint and muscle pain long after their bodies cleared the virus. Other symptoms range from the mundane to the bizarre: brain fog, shortness of breath, fatigue, tremors, tooth loss, racing heart, glaucoma, and diabetes among others. Long haulers are also at a significantly increased risk of dying months after infection. A large study found that after surviving acute COVID-19, patients had a 59% increased risk of dying within six months after their initial diagnosis. This translates into an extra eight deaths per 1000 patients. Thus, the consequences of the acute disease itself are just the tip of the iceberg.

Because the official definition of the chronic problem is fluid, we are still learning what this new malady is. A UK study published last December simply defined the syndrome as a collection of symptoms lasting for more than 28 days after initial diagnosis. However, another British study as well as Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence vaguely and broadly define long COVID as “signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, and that continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis”. It does not specify a list of what the symptoms are.

But, there are many. A global survey tallied 205 different symptoms across 10 different organ systems that can persist after COVID infection has cleared, including those affecting the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal system, muscles, and joints. There also are frequent neurological and neuropsychiatric symptoms as highlighted in Part 1 of this series. A sufferer typically has several of these problems at a time (14 different symptoms on average), with the most debilitating usually being one of three: severe breathlessness, fatigue, or “brain fog”. Other common symptoms included compromised function of the lungs, heart, and kidneys sometimes requiring transplantation. There also have been skin rashes, and newly diagnosed diabetes.

What exactly is long COVID? About the only thing we can say with any certitude at this time is that long COVID exists but is not easy to describe, possibly because it really is more than one malady. The only constant between different long COVID patients with different symptoms is that the conditions are a collection of varied symptoms that persist long after the acute disease subsides, which sounds as vague as the British definitions described above. Long COVID clearly represents a new health malady or maladies since it is not generally found in uninfected people, but is common in COVID survivors; yet not all COVID patients experience it. Long COVID can affect any post-COVID patient at any age, but it mostly presents in middle-aged people and seems to slightly prefer women. Even people with asymptomatic CoV-2 infection can have late arising effects that fit the profile of long COVID.  Multiple studies have shown that infected people who do not get acutely ill can still show irregular lung scans, for example. One such study found that nearly 60% of people with asymptomatic infection showed some lung inflammation in CT scans. Other studies have shown that young people with asymptomatic or mild infections can have long lasting cardiac issues, while others show signs of small blood vessel damage.

Some of these symptoms can be similar to other recognized, if not fully understood chronic problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which is one of the most common complaints that long haulers have. CFS remains a mystery malady with an unknown cause, but it often follows a viral or bacterial infection. It is, therefore, possible that long-COVID CFS-like problems might be no different from classic CFS. It also is possible that CFS-like long COVID symptoms are not at all related to what is recognized as classic CFS, and they are simply different illnesses with similar symptoms. Time and research will tell.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of long COVID patients, according to one NIH scientist. The first are generally characterized by “exercise intolerance”, meaning they feel out of breath and exhausted from even mild physical activity. The second are characterized by cognitive complaints like brain fog and/or memory problems. The third type experiences problems with the autonomic nervous system, which controls things like heartbeat, breathing and digestion. Patients in this group suffer from symptoms such as heart palpitations and dizziness. Impairments of the autonomic nervous system are known as dysautonomia, which is an umbrella term for a variety of syndromes. Physicians treating long-COVID patients say there has been a marked increase in dysautonomia since the pandemic began. A rehabilitation doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York, says that roughly 80% of people who show up at his long COVID clinic have dysautonomia of one type or another.

Not only do long COVID patients suffer chronic debilitation, they also are at increased risk of dying. One of the largest studies of Covid-19 “long haulers” found that COVID survivors had a 59% increased risk of dying within six months after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The excess mortality translates into about 8 extra deaths per 1,000 patients. Thus, the pandemic’s hidden toll is that many patients require readmission, and some die, weeks after the viral infection abates.

What causes long COVID? What causes the myriad of symptoms lumped under the long COVID umbrella are being studied, but it seems that not all are actually caused by the CoV-2 virus. Based on what we have gleaned from observations of a few million long COVID patients around the world, the focus is on three possible biological explanations. One is that long COVID is due to a persistent viral infection. A second possible cause could be an autoimmune disorder. The third possibility is that it is a lingering consequence of tissue damage caused by inflammation during the initial, acute infection.

Supporting the first hypothesis that the infection persists even after COVID disease has passed is that some patients very slowly clear the virus completely. The virus or its remnants persist along with the long lasting symptoms. These patients are not infectious so it could be that they harbor some altered form or fragment of the bug which does not replicate, but is nevertheless making some viral product that their bodies are responding to. This is known to occur with other viruses, including measles, dengue and Ebola. RNA viruses are particularly prone to this phenomenon, and CoV-2 is an RNA virus. Direct proof of this hypothesis is lacking, but pertinent clues abound. A study published recently in Nature showed that some people had traces of CoV-2 proteins in their intestines four months after they had recovered from acute COVID-19. Viral products from CoV-2 have also been found in people’s urine several months after their recovery. All this is circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but viral persistence is consistent with long COVID in certain patients.

The second hypothesis, that long COVID is an autoimmune disease, holds that the virus causes something to go awry with the immune system inciting it to attack some of the body’s own tissues. Some evidence backs this idea, too. The immune system is a complex, tightly regulated machine designed to discriminate between your own cells and foreign entities such as viruses. Sometimes this ability to distinguish self from non-self fails and an immune response is generated to one’s own tissues. Some patients suffering from long COVID have badly behaving macrophages, which are immune cells responsible for gobbling up foreign invaders and displaying them to immune cells inciting them to make antibodies or to kill infected cells. Other long COVID patients exhibit abnormal activation of their B-cells, which churn out antibodies against the pathogen that can sometimes cross-react with the body’s own cells causing complications. Since antibodies circulate for several months after an infection, it makes sense that this could cause problems months after recovery from the disease. Again, this evidence is circumstantial, but consistent with the observations in some long haulers.

The third hypothesis about the cause of long COVID holds that the body’s inflammatory response during the acute illness causes long-term damage to cells and tissues leading to chronic inflammation. This sometimes happens with other viral diseases, but it could be particularly likely with COVID-19 since out-of-control inflammation, caused by a cytokine “storm” is a common hallmark of severe cases of acute illness. One guess is that the inflammation damages parts of the autonomic nervous system, or that the virus might damage the cells that line blood vessels, either by infecting them directly and/or via inflammation from the immune response. This could change the way blood flows to the brain and other organs, and may thus explain the brain fog and other organ failure that is sometimes seen. This too remains circumstantial, but consistent with current observations in certain patients.

Bottom line: Long COVID probably embraces several different chronic conditions with different causes. Studies to investigate each of these possibilities are under way.

We will see.


Where did the term “long hauler” come from?

In the early weeks of the pandemic, a school teacher in Portland, Oregon, had a fever and tested positive for COVID-19 at a drive-up site. Because she did not feel well, she did not shower or wash her hair, so she threw on a trucker hat with a picture of a squirrel on it went to get tested, and snapped a selfie to share on social media.

Later that month, she was still experiencing a range of chronic symptoms and had contacted other COVID-positive people who also had persistent problems that their doctors had a hard time diagnosing. So, she decided to set up a support group on Facebook. The trucker hat, which was sitting her coffee table got her thinking of long-haul trucking, which inspired her to name the Facebook group “Long Haul Covid Fighters.” As the group kept growing, members began referring to each other using the bantam handle, “long-haulers.” Eventually the term was picked up by the press and during testimony in September 2020, Tony Fauci used the term to describe patients suffering from the COVID-associated new malady. It stuck.


Don’t Forget The Drugs: An Update

In these pages last March, I reminded readers to be thankful for the vaccines that prevent COVID-19, but to not forget the antiviral drugs that are being developed that might treat the disease. Both vaccines and antivirals are part of the same quiver of weapons we have to fight the pandemic. In that blog post, I mentioned an experimental drug, molnupiravir that was being developed by Merck and Ridgeback Therapeutics. Well, they just posted an encouraging update. It continues to show success at preventing serious disease when given to high-risk people early after infection. Its only side effects were similar to the placebo, meaning it is very safe. In animal studies, the drug also was effective against different CoV-2 variants, including Delta, and against other coronaviruses including SARS and MERS. Molnupiravir is a “prodrug,” which means that it has no activity on its own; rather it is metabolized after ingestion to an active drug that was developed in the early 2000s to treat hepatitis C.

This is a significant step for being able to easily protect high-risk patients at home. The pill that patients take on their own cuts their risk of hospitalization or death by ~50%. The results were so encouraging that the study was halted after consultation with the FDA. Early termination of studies like this is only done when interim data analyses show such good efficacy of a treatment that it would be unethical to continue enrolling subjects, some of whom would receive placebo, thereby being denied an effective therapy.

The drug slows the spread of the virus in infected people by forcing the enzyme that copies the viral genetic material into making so many mistakes the virus cannot reproduce. That, in turn, reduces the patient’s viral load, shortening the infection and damping the type of over-exuberant immune response (cytokine storm) that causes serious problems in many COVID patients. It was not effective when given to already hospitalized, or advanced, patients. It is on track to be approved by the FDA by the end of the year, and would be the first proven and approved oral antiviral drug for treating COVID-19 (neither ivermectin nor hydroxychloroquine have been proven or approved).

The FDA has already cleared another antiviral drug, remdesivir, for treating COVID-19, but it is only used to treat advanced patients who are already hospitalized (interestingly remdesivir was also originally developed to treat hepatitis C and it is also used to treat Ebola). Several lab-produced monoclonal antibody treatments have also been approved by the FDA for treating mild to moderate COVID-19 and they are more successful than molnupiravir at preventing advanced disease. But both remdesivir and the antibody treatments require an intravenous infusion done in a health care setting, making them more complicated and more expensive than just taking a pill at home, which is a decided advantage of molnupiravir. Finally, one of the more effective approved drugs against COVID-19 is the steroid, dexamethasone, but that is only given to very sick patients since its side effects are significant. Therefore, there is much room in the anti-COVID quiver for effective, simple-to-administer drugs such as molnupiravir. Both Pfizer and Roche also have other antiviral drugs that block viral replication in advanced stages of development. Stay tuned.

As of October 5, 2021, the Milken Institute tracker shows that there are 331 “treatments” for COVID-19 in development worldwide. This effort recently got a $3.2 billion boost from the US Antiviral Program for Pandemics, which is a rejuvenated initiative that was started during the MERS outbreak in 2012, but was tabled after MERS fizzled out. Then there is the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) program, also sponsored by NIH. These programs focus on developing non-vaccine therapies designed to treat not prevent the disease and they include studies of medicines currently used to treat other diseases (including ivermectin, which has yet to be proven effective) as well as studies of new drugs.

While the news about molnupiravir is encouraging, health experts are concerned that the news also could increase complacency regarding vaccines in the vax-hesitant. It is important to realize that prevention (vaccination) is almost always preferable to treatment (drugs).

Get the vax.

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The Long Haul, Part 1: What Long COVID Is Like

This is the first part of a multi-part blog series on long term morbidity associated with COVID-19 infection (how many parts there will be in the series remains to be determined). When public health scientists assess the impact of a disease on society, they consider both mortality as well as morbidity. In fact, the CDC’s primary assessment of US health is a publication called the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This blog series was prompted, in part, by repeated assertions by vaccine nay-sayers that since the mortality of COVID is only about 1.5% of those infected (they usually cite a false and much lower mortality rate), the vaccines and mandates are unnecessary. To that naive statement I make three points that the nay-sayers typically ignore:

  1. The Spanish flu had a similarly low mortality rate as COVID-19, but in just 24 weeks during its second wave, it killed more people around the world than were killed in the 10 years of WWI and WWII combined. Hence, just looking at the percent of infected people who die does not tell the whole story if you do not also mention the total number of people infected. One percent of a billion people is a very large number, for example.
  2. By focusing only on the low mortality rate, the vax nay-sayers are engaging in a logical fallacy called “confirmation bias.” That is, they totally ignore the statistics that do not support what they want to believe. What they ignore here is the cost incurred by disease survivors, or the morbidity. Morbidity rates usually swamp mortality rates and, as we shall see in this blog series, long COVID can cause a disproportionate cost to individuals and society in terms of damaged health, lost productivity, increased burden on health systems (which also affects care of critical non-COVID patients) and insurance payors, lost earnings, interrupted careers, and even delayed deaths that are not attributed to COVID, such as suicide, which I discuss below.
  3. Last December, just before the vaccines first rolled out, I reported that COVID-19 deaths had become, by far, the number one killer in the US, which contradicts the “negligible death rate” narrative of the nay-sayers. At that time COVID deaths far outpaced deaths due to cancer and heart disease, the previous top two causes of death in the US. That high COVID death rate dropped because of the vaccines. These facts put the lie to anti-vaxer’s claims that we do not need vaccines or public health mandates because the death rate from COVID is low. The COVID death rate had become very high, but is now much lower precisely because of the vaccines and mandates.

In this post, Part 1 in the series, I relate what long COVID is like to some long haulers. In future posts, I will focus on the costs of long-term COVID, and on the specific devastating health effects long-haul COVID can have on the neurological system, on the kidneys, lungs, and on new-onset Type 1 diabetes. And I will discuss what we have learned about the causes of long COVID and how to treat or manage it.

What is it like for long haulers? I began this blog in April 2020, and one of the first posts I made was about the experience of an emergency room doctor who was on the front lines of the early pandemic working in an ER in NYC, which was very hard hit by the pandemic. She caught the disease and spent a couple of weeks in the ICU recovering from it. But, something was not right with her after she was discharged from medical care, and she was re-admitted to an in-patient psychiatric unit to treat her mind. After a few weeks, she was released to convalesce at her sister’s home. But, she was still not right in her mind and eventually shot herself in the head. Her suicide was not counted as a COVID death. There have been other post-COVID suicides since then.

There are the recent post-COVID suicides of Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor and "Dawson's Creek" writer Heidi Ferrer and several others, which reveal a heightened risk of suicide as a sequelae of long COVID.

Sometime early in the pandemic, a healthy, young journalist who had recently graduated from journalism school also caught the disease. She eloquently wrote about the ordeal, which began in full four weeks after she had been diagnosed and two weeks after she no longer tested positive for the virus. She wrote how her body shook for five days before checking into a North Carolina hospital not knowing what was wrong. She wrote that two nights before going to the ER, and after being “cured” from COVID-19, she was jolted awake by what felt like a “brain zap.” She staggered into the hallway which she described feeling like it was on a funhouse tilt. She said she felt like she was in a Salvador Dali painting, “distorted and oozing.” When she tried to speak to her husband, the words came out drowsy and slow. I personally found the description of her feelings interesting since a friend of mine who had experimented with drugs in her earlier life once told me about tripping on LSD and feeling like her “face was melting like in a Dali painting.” For the young journalist, long COVID was somewhat similar to the experience of my friend on LSD.

Like 10-30% of the ~200 million, globally (a large number), who have survived COVID-19, the journalist did not get better after she was declared to be COVID-free,  and in fact she said that what came next was much worse than the disease. After a month of non-stop post-COVID malaise, she found herself in the emergency room complaining that she had a “shaky, electric feeling” in her stomach, and that she could not think or sleep. Eight months later the waves of illness had not let up. She was one of the early cases of long COVID, which we now know occurs in 10-30% of COVID survivors (although one study from Italy claimed that >50% of COVID survivors experienced symptoms at least four months after their infection).

The journalist wrote in July 2021, “Since December (2020), I've seen 15 specialists, received eight scans, visited three ERs and--even with insurance--spent $12,000 seeking a return to normal life. Since February, I moved across the country (from North Carolina) to receive treatment from a post-COVID recovery clinic at (the) Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. The clinic refers its patients to specialists depending on their symptoms and provides a social worker. I receive weekly treatment from a physical therapist, occupational therapist and neurologist there.”

“I've had more than 50 symptoms ranging from cognitive impairment, insomnia, vertigo, extreme light and sound sensitivity, and fatigue, to convulsion-like shaking, slurred speech, hair loss, muscle weakness, anxiety.” She said that she was too “foggy” to read or even to watch TV news, which was her occupation. She was unable to write for six months, and had not had a symptom-free day since November 6, 2020, the day she tested positive for Covid-19. Most of these symptoms occurred simultaneously.

She writes on, “Before my illness, I never had any thoughts about suicide. This changed after I got sick. I'm no longer in this dark place, but the months it held me hostage I inched closer to the edge than I ever wished to be. As my brain fog intensified, I developed such a palpable anxiety, it brought with it new compulsive behaviors like "trichotillomania," or hair pulling. The days blended into one dream-state. I had only what I can describe as brain zaps. I'd wash my hair, forget, then wash it again. The further I slipped away from reality, the deeper my depression became.”

“I found myself researching death-with-dignity laws. I learned that Northern European countries have some of the most lenient.” She entertained suicide for the first time in her life. Other post-COVID patients have also described having thoughts of suicide and some have acted on that.

The experience of this journalist and a few million others like her quickly became noticed anecdotally by the medical establishment and the patients were referred to as “long haulers.” Their constellation of symptoms became known as “long COVID,” or more formally Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). As long COVID became increasingly recognized, the medical establishment realized that it was something entirely new and that they had little clue on how to deal with it other than try to manage the myriad symptoms, now numbering at more than 200. We now know that long haulers can suffer months of “brain fog,” persistent headaches, chronic fatigue-like symptoms, breathing problems, lung failure (sometimes requiring transplants), new-onset diabetes, depression and/or anxiety, dizziness, muscle and joint pain, and more. These occur in 10-30% of old and young infected people, and even in those who had mild COVID-19.

Medical science is slowly catching up, but progress is slow, not for lack of effort, but simply because medical research takes time. The very recent FAIR Health study of COVID-19 patients, the largest to date, analyzed health records of nearly two million people who have been infected with the virus in the US and found that hundreds of thousands have sought care for new health conditions after their acute illness subsided. New research points to neuropsychiatric changes in Covid-19 survivors potentially due to brain inflammation or to a disruption of blood flow to the brain. Then there are other theories, partly borne out by an Oxford study, that the virus affects serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters, affecting brain function and physiology. A recent case published in the Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience and Therapeutics reported that "autoimmune-mediated psychosis" caused a 30-year-old without previous health or psychological conditions to become delusional after recovering from COVID. In response to this increasing concern over long COVID, NIH launched a large nationwide study of long COVID and recently  awarded $470 million to New York University Langone Health. This NIH REsearching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative aims to learn why some people have prolonged symptoms or develop new or returning symptoms after they recover from the acute phase of infection.

In future posts in this blog series, I will cover in more detail what we have learned to date about long COVID. Since the data keep coming in, I cannot predict when this series will end.

So, stay tuned and please ask questions.

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HIV And Coronaviruses: A Bad Combo

Africa is the continent least vaccinated for COVID-19 and it also has been where several CoV-2 variants have arisen: Beta in South Africa, most recently C.1.2 (not yet given a Greek letter designation) also from South Africa, and Eta in Nigeria. A possible reason for the appearance of these variants is because Africa is also home to the most immunocompromised people. HIV is common in Africa and tuberculosis is rampant on the continent.

One HIV-positive woman in South Africa was reported to carry active CoV-2 infection for 216 days, during which time it mutated 30 times according to Tulio de Oliveira, who runs gene-sequencing centers at two South African universities. This is concerning since South Africa has the world’s largest HIV epidemic. It is estimated to have 8.2 million people infected with HIV. While most of these take antiretroviral drugs, which keep the virus at bay, many do not. And neighboring countries, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini also have very high HIV infection rates. The burden of HIV, TB and other chronic diseases is higher in these countries than in other countries around the world due to extreme poverty and poor health care for millions of Africans. When these people also become infected with CoV-2, they grow and shed the virus longer than someone with a good immune system and good health care. That means that the virus has longer to mutate in an infected, immunocompromised person.

In wealthier countries in the West, a rich debate is ongoing about whether to add another shot (booster) to already vaccinated people. One of the biggest arguments against this is that those booster vaccines are needed much more in poorer, and woefully under-vaccinated countries, such as those in Africa. The concern is that our boosters come at the expense of basic immunization of these impoverished countries, which facilitates the generation of troublesome viral variants. On the other hand, if CoV-2 is running rampant because the health care infrastructure in these countries is not up to delivering those vaccines, maybe it would be better making sure that richer countries are as protected as possible.

These are the proverbial two horns of a dilemma. Which horn would you choose?