Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

England

As the COVID mutates

Just another reminder that we need to continue trying not to spread the virus while we wait for everyone to get vaccinated.

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus first found in Britain is spreading rapidly in the United States, doubling roughly every 10 days, according to a new study.

Analyzing half a million coronavirus tests and hundreds of genomes, a team of researchers predicted that in a month this variant could become predominant in the United States, potentially bringing a surge of new cases and increased risk of death.

The new research offers the first nationwide look at the history of the variant, known as B.1.1.7, since it arrived in the United States in late 2020. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that B.1.1.7 could become predominant by March if it behaved the way it did in Britain. The new study confirms that projected path.

“Nothing in this paper is surprising, but people need to see it,” said Kristian Andersen, a co-author of the study and a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “We should probably prepare for this being the predominant lineage in most places in the United States by March.”

Dr. Andersen’s team estimated that the transmission rate of B.1.1.7 in the United States is 30 percent to 40 percent higher than that of more common variants, although those figures may rise as more data comes in, he said. The variant has already been implicated in surges in other countries, including Ireland, Portugal and Jordan.

“There could indeed be a very serious situation developing in a matter of months or weeks,” said Nicholas Davies, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was not involved in the study. “These may be early signals warranting urgent investigation by public health authorities.”

[…]

“There’s still a lot that we have to learn,” said Nathan Grubaugh, a virologist at Yale University who was not involved in the study. “But these things are important enough that we have to start doing things now.”

It’s possible that chains of B.1.1.7 transmission are spreading faster than other viruses. Or it might be that B.1.1.7 was more common among incoming travelers starting new outbreaks.

“I still think that we are weeks away from really knowing how this will turn out,” Dr. Grubaugh said.

The contagiousness of B.1.1.7 makes it a threat to take seriously. Public health measures that work on other variants may not be enough to stop B.1.1.7. More cases in the United States would mean more hospitalizations, potentially straining hospitals that are only now recovering from record high numbers of patients last month.

Making matters worse, Dr. Davies and his colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine posted a study online on Wednesday suggesting that the risk of dying of B.1.1.7 is 35 percent higher than it is for other variants. The study has yet to be published in a scientific journal.

And if you’re worried about that, you can also be worried about this.

The likely more transmissible variant of COVID-19 first detected in South Africa has arrived in the Houston area, according to Houston Methodist Hospital.

The hospital system said it found the region’s first case of the new, faster-spreading variant on Saturday while sequencing the genomes of positive test results. It also found two cases of the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom. The UK variant first was confirmed in the Houston area in early January.

The infected person is a Fort Bend County man, who tested positive weeks ago and has recovered from the illness, said Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Minter, Fort Bend County Health & Human Services Director. The patient had traveled domestically before his diagnosis. His household members have tested negative, and he did not work while infected so there was no exposure at his job, Minter said.

Still, Minter said she would not be surprised to learn the South Africa variant was spreading through the community.

[…]

Dr. Wesley Long, who works with the Methodist sequencing effort, said there is no evidence from the clinical trials of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that they are less effective against the variants, especially the U.K. strain. He said there is limited evidence that certain other vaccines and therapies that target the spike protein of COVID-19 may be less effective against the South African variant, though they still should provide benefits to most people.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says “rigorous and increased compliance” with mitigation strategies like social distancing and wearing masks is needed to combat the spread of the virus.

Yes, the same basic techniques to avoid spreading the disease are still effective – masking, social distancing, washing hands, avoiding indoor gatherings – but they have to be strictly followed, because the newer versions of the virus are easier to transmit. So far there’s no evidence that these mutations are resistant to the vaccine, but the risk there is that the more infections, the greater the chances of further mutation, and thus the greater the chances that such a variant could emerge. All of this is to say, stay vigilant. Infection numbers are finally starting to drop, and with that comes the temptation to ease up. It’s still way too early for that.

On grand juries

Some folks are trying to change the makeup of grand juries in Harris County.

HarrisCounty

It was a largely black crowd with at least a third of the audience made up of white people and a few anarchists sprinkled in. They were there to share ideas, sign some petitions, and to vent about injustice in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner deaths.

Inside the packed El Dorado Ballroom in the Third Ward, the shirt on a lonely hipster said it best: Murder Beats Not People.

A group called the Houston Justice Coalition, made up largely of students from nearby Texas Southern University, organized the outing. They shared their platform, which calls for Houston to implement police body cameras (something already working its way through city council) and for raising awareness about grand juries.

“I’ve served four times, twice as a foreman,” Third Ward Councilman Dwight Boykins said. It’s a hard sell, but everyone was encouraged to help diversify grand juries, which are commonly racially and economically lopsided and are easily swayed by prosecutors. “You have to commit not only to the $28 per day two times a week, but three months out of the year. And some people don’t like to do that,” Boykins said.

The event was advertised on social media as an organizing call for millennials, the target audience for all the #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack responses on Twitter. It’s an age group that’s historically been the foundation of rights movements. This might all be a test to see if today’s young activists can keep the energy going.

It’s a start. Changing the grand jury system here from the current “pick a pal” method, which is a big driver of the non-diversity of grand juries, to a random selection like what is used for regular juries, would also make a difference. Sen. John Whitmire has filed a bill to require just that for Harris County, but a better question might be why do we have grand juries at all?

The concept [of grand juries] comes from our colonial parent, England. “It goes back centuries here,” explains London-based legal writer Joshua Rozenberg. “In medieval times, it was drawn from the local neighborhood. And these were men who were expected to look around and report criminal behavior within the community. They’re people who actually knew the offenders, as we’d call them today, and could perhaps bring them to justice.”

By the 16th century, that morphed into the system we’d now recognize as a grand jury: A group of people listening to a prosecutor’s evidence and deciding whether to indict.

But the United Kingdom actually abolished its grand jury system in 1933. “We now send cases that are serious enough straight to jury trial,” Rozenberg says. That way, both sides are able to present evidence and make their arguments, which is definitely not the case with a grand jury.

In fact, the UK exported grand juries to most of their former colonies — Canada, Australia, New Zealand — and virtually all of them have stopped using them.

“They are said to be ‘putty in the hands of the prosecutor.’ In other words, the prosecutor really tells them what he or she wants and they will go along with it,” he says. “Or that’s what we are told, because we don’t really know. We can’t watch grand juries at work.”

That’s why former New York judge Sol Wachtler once famously said that a district attorney could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” But, Rozenberg points out, “it must be even easier to get the sandwich acquitted if that is what the district attorney may actually want.”

Link via Grits. Why shouldn’t we make District Attorneys be the ones that are accountable for these decisions? I’d be interested to hear from the attorneys out there what the down side to this might be.