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Don't be a Stepping Stone
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Peering through the window of my study because of an unusual noise in the street last night, I saw three loud men walk by, one of whom saw me at the window, and gave a sardonic half-acknowledgement. Then, shortly afterward three women walked after them. It may not be relevant, but they were all young, well-dressed and slim. No self-isolation for them.

Even those neighbours who claim to be self-isolating talk to each other within a 1 metre distance: breathing range. They have also been shopping, and altruistically collecting prescriptions for older folk. Bluntly, the virus is finding stepping stones.

Today, the UK government finally closed pubs, restaurants, cafes and gyms, but kept open take-away food providers.

People are in search of facts, and there are facts out there to be debated and understood. In the absence of the summary I’m looking for, I’d like to given an explanation from the point of view of the virus. Yes, I know that a moiety of RNA does not have a point of view, but bear with me.

Viruses propagate by finding hosts. Once they enter a person, they must jump to the next one. Hosts are stepping stones. Increase the distance between the stepping stones and R0 falls below 1.

So, calculations depend on transmissibility and lethality: viruses can cause a lot of damage, and also be easy to transmit. The difficulties in these calculations are well known.

Not everyone gets tested, and not everyone with the virus shows symptoms, so it is often hard to get a reliable base rate. Testing random members of the population, or a variety of sub-groups who differ in potential exposure would help refine calculations. Absent those figures, the time between infection and symptoms, and then the most severely affected people eventually requiring hospitalisation is hard to calculate. When people die, countries vary in what is written on the death certificate. In Italy it is assumed that if an elderly person dies in a hospital which is dealing with coronavirus, then coronavirus is implicated in the death. Perhaps not.

Data are now more plentiful, and approximations can be made. The disease is transmissible enough and damaging enough to swamp most health-care systems. The public health message is very simple: Don’t be a stepping-stone.

Recent modelling suggests that as many as 23 million UK citizens may already have the virus, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests.

For a scenario with a death rate of 1 per cent, where each infected person infects three more – which is closest to what is currently thought to be happening – the team at LSHTM found that one death points to a minimum of 37 cases, a maximum of 138,624 and a median average of 1,733.

With the current number of deaths at 167, it means that between 6,179 and 23 million people could already be infected, with an average of nearly 290,000.

More from The Daily Telegraph

Scientists at the Universities of Oxford, Warwick and Lancaster found that contact tracing could reduce the transmission rate from 3.11 people to 0.21 – enabling the outbreak to be contained.

They carried out a postal and online survey, asking 5,802 people how many social interactions they had on a given day and found the average number of contacts over a 14-day period was 217.
Of these total encounters, an average of 59 contacts (27 per cent) met the definition of a close contact (within two metres for 15 minutes) and 36 (61 per cent) could be traced.
However, the team said that even with contact tracing, they would still expect 15 per cent of all infected people to generate at least one case that could not be identified.
Separate modelling by the LSHTM also found that if an infected person infected another 1.5 people, tracing fewer than 50 per cent of contacts was enough to control the outbreak.

The six young revellers will probably be alright themselves. I think of them dancing as they face the wave of infection. Certainly, they have helped that wave hit us, by providing the stepping stones the virus needs to thrive.

• Category: Science 
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  1. LondonBob says:

    The more data I have seen the less concerned I am. I think it is more contagious but less fatal than I first thought. To be honest I think it has been circulating in London for awhile and to have only a hundred odd for the city is telling. The economic impact is many times worse than I anticipated though.

    • Agree: Bill Jones
    • Replies: @Realist
  2. You say “don’t be a stepping stone”, I say “don’t be a panic monger”. LondonBob has it right, the virus itself is no big deal. Put it this way: is the death of an unwell 80 year old just as tragic as the death of a healthy 18 year old? I think not.

    We *are* suffering from a pandemic but it’s one of pervasive insanity, not a virus.

    • Agree: Kratoklastes
  3. dearieme says:

    I am now inclining in the sceptical direction but only inclining. Our data are incomplete and biased, and some may just be artefacts or downright lies.

    I loathed it when people just laughed it all off without pausing to think. I loathe it again when over-reaction to it often looks equally unthinking.

    Really, it would have been better if I’d been appointed Tyrant for six months. Though I’d have need a co-tyrant with substantial knowledge of molecular biology and so on. Maybe we could have been called Consuls rather than tyrants: it sounds so much more respectable. On the other hand, wouldn’t a third have been handy so that there would be always be a majority vote? Dr T, say.

  4. “Panic Pandemic – Why are people who should know better buying the Covid19 hype?
    Exaggerated or invented, the true danger Covid19 poses is shutting down our sense of reason”
    Catte Black

    I just read that article @ OffGuardian, (s)he have a valid argument and present his/her case well.

  5. Cortes says:

    The “clavi figendi causa” category of Dictator

    may be what’s needed?

  6. @dearieme

    Nice splitting the difference.

    Russian proverb: Good czar, good government: bad czar, bad government.

  7. I don’t believe modeling, statistics, government statistics especially, news reports, the opinions of “experts,” and the opinions of non-experts.

    I don’t know what is going on. I suspect skullduggery, but do not expect to find out the truth of the matter any time in the next century.

    I think the current emergency is a good opportunity for confident people to take a long, self-searching self search. So many people, especially on such organs as this, but everywhere, actually, got it all figured out. I don’t just mean the virus. I mean everything. I remember 20 years ago, asking Harry Shearer, one self-confident guy if there ever was one, why, how he was so sure of everything. No response.

    Now, it is true, I have written things in an assured tone of voice. But mostly because it is easier to spot complete imbecility than to know the truth. It is easier to be assured that, whatever is right, that there bonehead is wrong.

    But nevertheless, like Keynes, I change my mind when faced with new information.

    I’d like to be better safe than sorry. But I don’t know how to do that. We’re running out of rubbing alcohol. And that means lots of shopping, extra shopping, visiting more stores, because the stores, well, you know, the stores. My sister found some toilet paper yesterday, out in the boondocks. A triumph.

  8. I posted this elsewhere but it’s apropos:

    I’ve been sounding the tocsin about the current pandemic for about six or eight weeks now.

    But I’m beginning to think that we need a much more moderate public health policy than that which our establishment is now imposing across this country and much of Europe. First, it’s unlikely these policies will eradicate this new virus. It will spring up again next Fall or early winter, just as virulent as now. Second, as so many have noted, these policies will wreak havoc on an economic system that is already near collapse*. Third, these policies are already wreaking havoc on the lives of a large segment of the population, which was already experiencing profound difficulties, e.g., single parents of school age children, whose only day care recourse was the public schools, which are now closed. The end result will likely be levels of civil disobedience and unrest that will eventually erupt into rioting on a scale not yet seen in this country. When public health restrictions are finally eased we may emerge from our sheltering in place to find a society, economy, and political system that is irreparably damaged. What will emerge in its place God alone knows. I suspect that whatever it may be, it will not be able to deal with a resurgence of the novel Corona virus. So beginning in the Fall of next year we may face the same epidemic we are now but without the resources to prevent the very thing we are currently trying to prevent.

    It might have been better – and it might still be better – to accept that the Corona virus is sooner or later going to burn its way through the population and adopt less strict social separation policies. As an adjunct, put in place ad hoc emergency treatment centers to prevent our current inadequate medical system from being overwhelmed. Be prepared to accept many deaths, realizing that the best you can do for these doomed souls is provide comfort and palliative care. Let life go on as before with some minimal common sense regulations discouraging direct contacts, isolating the clearly ill, and encouraging the wearing of masks and other preventive measures.

    However, our establishment and its political cadres have already panicked and over-reacted. I doubt they’re willing to admit this and backtrack on bad policies. After all, this would require that they admit they’ve made a mistake. I doubt they are willing to do this, particularly in an election year.

    I sent this followup to a friend:

    If you review my emails from about six or seven weeks ago, you can see that I used data from Wuhan to project where we are now. I also suggested that there was a small window of opportunity back then to prevent my projection by immediately implementing stringent public health measures. In the absence of these measures, I projected that we’d wind up with a difficult, if not impossible, to control worldwide pandemic.

    A couple of weeks ago my first projection came to pass. As is always the case in pandemics like this, after the initial spread of the disease through the affected populations, numbers of new cases and deaths grew rapidly and in a manner that was impossible to ignore. At that point, as usual, the complacent idiots in charge panicked and began desperately and mindlessly seeking ways to curb epidemics, which were already out of control.

    Now I’m making some further projections, based on the current stringent public health measures, which are being adopted in Europe and European settled countries:

    (1) These measures will ultimately fail in preventing Covid-18 epidemics and large increases in numbers of deaths associated with them. Some public health officials are beginning to acknowledge this.

    (2) Although it will be impossible to prove after the fact, the stringent measures now in place have come too late to affect the numbers who will be infected, who will be severely ill or permanently disabled, and who will die. Numbers of deaths are just beginning to rise despite the stringent methods being employed to control epidemics that can no longer be controlled.

    (3) From now on numbers of infections and deaths will be rising rapidly until the epidemics burn themselves out.

    (4) These methods have already begun destroying peoples’ lives and are irremediably damaging local, national, and global economies.

    (5) Stringent restrictions will very soon lead to a backlash like that against Prohibition although on a much reduced time scale. Minor acts of disobedience will escalate into open criminal behavior. The inner city underclass, particularly the youths, who are now out of school for several weeks with absolutely nothing constructive to do, will eventually start rioting, looting, and setting fires. We’re already getting harbingers

    (6) The current stringent public health measures and their interference with the economy and normal life may ultimately worsen the situation by causing people to hide their illness and interfering with supply lines and the work of necessary employees and industries
    Although I cannot immediately find an apposite cite, it’s clear that many workers, essential if the current situation is to be ameliorated, e.g., emergency responders and health care workers, are being drawn from the work force or having their effectiveness diminished by school closings of two weeks or more.

    My current projection is that stringent public health measures policies currently in place or being promulgated will not prove very effective. They will probably worsen an already dire situation. They will damage our society, economy, and political system to a severe degree.

    We would have been better off if our leaders had announced that we were facing a severe epidemic in which

    (1) Many people would become severely ill and many others would die.

    (2) Infected persons had a public duty to isolate themselves and would be provided assistance in doing that by the government, OTOH those who failed to do so would be subject to involuntary restraint and criminal penalties. All this accompanied by a clear description of the symptoms that suggested infection.

    (3) The best ways to protect one’s self and one’s family and to avoid accidentally infecting others are methods standard in controlling epidemics elsewhere in the world: wear a mask, wash hands regularly, avoid close and/or physical contact with others, etc.

    (4) The schools would be temporarily closed with options provided for daytime care of children whose parents relied on the schools to provide child care. (Something similar proved effective during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

    It’s probably too late now and I seriously doubt that the sociopathic idiots who constitute the majority of our politicians, would have the decency to admit that they’ve made mistakes and draw back from the abyss towards which they are leading us.

    • Replies: @ploni almoni
  9. @dearieme

    It was possible to laugh it off without doing so half-cocked – all that was required was a disinterested look at the data. Not enough people were – or are – dying.

    Once tests were being done, people started losing their minds because the number of ‘confirmed cases’ was rising (in line with the number of people being tested FFS!!!).

    A very large number of people who ought to know better, have treated a positive test as if it’s Holy Writ – withholding the fact that tests are not infallible.

    As I pointed out a month ago, a new test should be expected to have a very high proportion of false positives.

    For a disease of low prevalence, large-scale testing will result in more than half of all tests being false positives, unless the test specificity is 100%: that has to be the specificity achieved in clinical practice, with all the vagaries involved.


    As a dyed in the wool Bayesian, I approach everything with a suitable prior. If I know nothing about a thing, then the prior is uniform. From there, evidence updates the probabilities, and at some point it becomes possible to declare that the evidence definitively fails to reject one side of the argument.

    As is obvious from my comment history regarding covid19, I started from a very strong prior that it was horse-shit. 90/10 in favour of ‘bullshit’.

    That prior is always the best choice when a politician or political apparatchik is involved; if the media is all-in as well, then it’s mandatory to be more than just ‘skeptical’.

    Having a strong prior only has one effect: it alters the amount of evidence needed to ‘flip’ the conclusion.

    We are a long way into this ‘pandemic’, and there has been absolutely no evidence that it presents a non-trivial risk of excess mortality to any age group. It’s bringing forward some funerals of elderly sick people, and it’s doing that in relatively small numbers.

    ‘Frenzied’ analysis – flailing about without bothering to take time to understand differences in reporting standards etc – get all the exposure, because it generates traffic (and if they’re wrong nobody gives a shit).

    This is what ends up happening…

    Next up… the US government’s response to the first charlatan who claims to have a vaccine/threapy/cure…

    Wait until late April when the daily temps on the East Coast of the US start to routinely get into the 20s: this story will be dropped quicker than you can say “Wasn’t there that Mexican-beer virus a week ago?”

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  10. dearieme says:

    I saw today an interesting suggestion about what the Chinese govt did in Wuhan. It locked everyone up in 30-storey cruise ships – sorry, apartment blocks – until everyone had become infected and thereby (perhaps) immune. Then it waited until they had become, it hoped, non-infectious.

    Quite a few must have died but I don’t suppose that that number will ever be reported.

    I suppose the strategy might have worked, depending on what you mean by “worked”.

    And now China, reportedly, is going back to work. If the epidemic restarts will the rest of us find out? Perhaps not, since China will presumably ban visitors for quite a while. To avoid import of the infection, don’cha know?

  11. @Kratoklastes

    Half the positive tests on the Diamond Princess were asymptotic positives. If what you say is true, the real infection rate after 4-6weeks exposure was 8%. The Apocalypse Now model from Imperial College assumed 50% infection rate after hours of contact.

  12. Kim says:

    Or I could be appointed tyrant and I could use the opportunity to advance an entirely different agenda.

    Sound familiar?

  13. Outside of the central theme of the article. But concerning the comments, of what the effects of Wuflu might engender.

    At the medical perspective, we have seen no data as to lasting, life-long effects of the Covid-19 infection to a number of the infected. This should be a major concern, not so much the death-toll.

    On the economical level, probably we will somehow be back and surpass the level of con-Z-umerism @surplus-population and waste producing and resource exhausting, population numbers ignoring, migrations stimuluses of before Covid-19 @elites-in-power.

    Another mention to share: Covid-19, it´s global effect might be a plea as we did for years now, to understand the logic of complexity. There is a trade-of with derivatives to the negative, and a threshold where the derivatives are more important then whatever benefit. To put it in simpler terms, the relative distance between “rich” and “poor” is an indicator of this. Only few people benefit, until even them, as a cluster of in-groups must succumb to the evidenced. The amount of logistics usurps the result. The parking space and concrete of the high-ways, the exhaust and energy requirements, the crawling commutes, suffocate the “freedom” promise of car culture as an every-day example.

  14. mh505 says:

    Certainly, they have helped that wave hit us, by providing the stepping stones the virus needs to thrive.

    I am sorry to say so – but this is hogwash. It stands to reason that what helped during the spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago can help now, namely fresh air and above all sun. Some countries have understood this and let the people promenade.

    And if – which remains entirely debatable – this virus should really be worse than the common seasonal flu, massive doses of Vitamin C will take care of it.

  15. Linus Pauling Vitamin C? Really?

  16. Realist says:

    There is a good possibility it was misdiagnosed in many countries…the US included.

  17. LondonBob says:

    I find it interesting that Antigua, Jamaica and Grenada have had all their first cases from people who traveled from London, did they have it in London or pick it up at the airport or on the plane. I also wonder about that with all the cases from people returning from holidays in Spain and Italy. Is air travel speeding transmission?

    Apparently someone I played football with a couple of weeks ago has it. So the first person I know.

  18. @Coronaskeptic

    Actually my mother is 90 years old, and while her health may be not perfect, it would be tragic for her to die needlessly early.

  19. @Jus' Sayin'...

    You are saying one thing and its opposite: “(4) The schools would be temporarily closed with options provided for daytime care of children whose parents relied on the schools to provide child care. (Something similar proved effective during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.”
    That is double talk. The questions of our time can only be settle by blood and iron.

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