With a few weeks to go till the end of 2020 it seems clear that, despite all the other things that have happened, the year will be remembered for the pandemic. Never have so many lives been interrupted for so long. Very roughly, 55 million people across the world die every year. Assume that the 1.45 million Covid deaths so far rise to 1.65 million by the end of the year, and that all those are entirely excess deaths, then that will be a 3% increase in global deaths: significant to be sure, but not insurmountable. Say deaths rise to 2 million, then it would be 3.6%. The number would have been higher had no precautions been taken. Lockdown and isolation reduce transmission by 98%, but that is achieved at a cost, and sustaining those gains is hard. Hard choices for any government.
Governments and citizens are doing risk calculations. Governments tend to look at worst case scenarios: their survival depends on the management of blame. Citizens tend to use a pragmatic heuristic: how many people I know have died of Covid? In my case: none. How many people do I know who caught the virus? Here we come to the problem of multiple reference groups. In the defined group of my school class (n=30, all aged 75) one got it for sure, sometime between 6th to 12th March, and suffered badly for a month, but recovered without going to hospital. Once recovered, she gave us an account of the progress of her illness, just so that we should know what it was like. Pretty bad, but she consoled herself that it was just a bad case of flu. The other classmates who attended an open-air barbecue on 10 March for several hours, and came back in a bus with her, did not catch it. Since then only one other member of the group was confirmed as a case in November, but had no symptoms of any significance. (His wife, not in the reference group, had a harder time, but has since recovered).
To take another reference group, in my London street of roughly 35 houses, I do not know of a case. In the next street with about 15 houses and flats, possibly one case, not confirmed. In the next street, with about 60 houses and flats, two confirmed cases in the same flat, but with nil symptoms. There may have been other cases in that street I do not know of.
One convenient way of looking at the risk of getting Covid is to study vaccination trials. They always have a placebo group, so the rate at which positive tests occur is a reasonable indicator of community risk. However, trial results are currently being revealed by Press Releases, not detailed reports,so much of the analysis is guesswork. I have assumed that 50% of the volunteers were in the placebo group. I have assumed that volunteers were a normal selection of the public for this calculation, but they very probably were younger, healthier, and of higher socio-economic status. Taking Pfizer, Modena and Astra Zenica trials together (trials of 6 to 9 months duration?) the placebo group got infected at the rate of 7,278 per million. If so, that would suggest 56 million infected world-wide, as opposed to the 64.7 million confirmed so far. This calculation based on placebo groups is not too far out, given that the volunteers were probably taking more precautions than average.
Another approach is to ask: how many people I know have died of Covid restrictions? In my case, probably one, a cousin with a longstanding condition who was not able to meet his therapist as usual, and probably because of that discontinued necessary medication. All precautions have costs.
In the UK all risk calculations were upturned today by the adoption of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for immediate use. The United Kingdom had put its chips down on 7 vaccines, paying up front for options on all of them. Confetti money has its uses. Now there will be a race to vaccinate, starting in care homes and care staff, then the over 80s and hospital and social worker staff, and then working on down the age pyramid.
Finally, my favourite material, silica aerogel, has come into the news again. It will insulate the packaging in which the vaccines and dry ice will be transported to distribution/vaccination centres. The BBC reporters wrote of the company producing the packaging: “His firm uses aerogel as insulation, rather than dry ice – which could be handy if a global carbon dioxide shortage from earlier this year continues to affect the availability of related products, such as dry ice.” This is silly. Dry ice is the coolant, rigid plastic foams the usual insulators.
All that aside, the low risk of getting Covid, and the low chance of getting ill or dying of it, may soon be reduced by a further 95%. This is good news for older people, and for those who already have additional medical conditions. Scientists will be held in high regard, for a while at least.
The public have already had their say, in the sense of an instant poll of 5351 adults conducted by YouGov on 2 December.
Just over a quarter (27%) of people are very confident it will be safe, while 43% are somewhat confident it will be
In comparison, 11% are not very confident, and 9% are not confident at all that the vaccine will be safe to take
Confidence in the vaccine’s safety is higher among Britons from ABC1 backgrounds (32% very confident) than those from C2DE backgrounds (22% very confident)
If this is representative of UK opinion, then the possibility of getting the vaccine quickly is speeded up for those who trust that the appropriate safeguards have been met. 20 to 30 percent of the population may stay away from it, at least initially, thus becoming more likely to get and transmit it. Boccaccio would not be surprised.