Like millions of others around the world, Gulf News Foreign Correspondent Mick O’Reilly is currently under COVID-19 lockdown. This is what life is like in social isolation in Ireland, where there are strict rules about who is allowed out, where, and under limited circumstances.
Friday June 19, 9am
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
DO YOU KNOW YOUR BLOOD TYPE?
O MAY HELP, A HURT WITH COVID-19
Nearly 13 weeks into restrictions from this pandemic and we are still learning new things about coronavirus every day.
Our accumulated knowledge will help us find a way out of this, just as we have found vaccines for polio and other serious illnesses before.
Now, a genetic analysis of COVID-19 patients suggests that blood type might influence whether someone develops severe disease.
Scientists who compared the genes of thousands of patients in Europe found that those who had Type A blood were more likely to have severe disease while those with Type O were less likely.
A report on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine does not prove a blood type connection, but it does confirm a previous report from China of such a link.
“Most of us discounted it because it was a very crude study,” Dr Parameswar Hari, a blood specialist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said of the report from China. With the new work, “now I believe it,” he said. “It could be very important.”
Other scientists urged caution.
The evidence of a role for blood type is “tentative ... it isn't enough of a signal to be sure,” said Dr Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego.
TESTED 2,000 PATIENTS WITH SEVERE COVID-19
The study, involving scientists in Italy, Spain, Denmark, Germany and other countries, compared about 2,000 patients with severe COVID-19 to several thousand other people who were healthy or who had only mild or no symptoms. Researchers tied variations in six genes to the likelihood of severe disease, including some that could have a role in how vulnerable people are to the virus. They also tied blood groups to possible risk.
Most genetic studies like this are much larger, so it would be important to see if other scientists can look at other groups of patients to see if they find the same links, Topol said.
Many researchers have been hunting for clues as to why some people infected with the coronavirus get very ill and others, less so. Being older or male seems to increase risk, and scientists have been looking at genes as another possible “host factor” that influences disease severity.
There are four main blood types – A, B, AB and O – and “it’s determined by proteins on the surface of your red blood cells,” said Dr Mary Horowitz, scientific chief at the Centre for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.
People with Type O are better able to recognise certain proteins as foreign, and that may extend to proteins on virus surfaces, Hari explained.
SARS WAS LESS LIKELY IN TYPE O BLOOD
During the SARS outbreak, which was caused by a genetic cousin of the coronavirus causing the current pandemic, "it was noted that people with O blood type were less likely to get severe disease," he said.
Blood type also has been tied to susceptibility to some other infectious diseases, including cholera, recurrent urinary tract infections from E. coli, and a bug called H. pylori that can cause ulcers and stomach cancer, said Dr David Valle, director of the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
“It's a provocative study,” Dr Valle said. “It's in my view well worth publishing and getting out there,” but it needs verification in more patients
Certainly, given the need to find out as much as we can as quickly as we can, then this is an area that will be looked at closely.
ASPIRIN IN HONEY: DUBIOUS COVID-19 'CURES' SPREAD IN BRAZIL
But then there are the kooks out there too.
In Brazil, home to the world’s second worst coronavirus outbreak, one thing seems to be spreading faster than the virus: the suspect, and sometimes strange, strategies to treat it.
Suggestions for countless improvised remedies are transmitted by WhatsApp, Facebook or old-fashioned word of mouth.
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Sometimes, messages encourage the use of mainstream medication like malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro – like his ally US President Donald Trump – has promoted, despite little evidence of its effectiveness against COVID-19.
But just as often, they lean towards the eccentric: from beans with magical powers to aspirin dissolved in hot honey.
“I got the coronavirus, but I treated myself solely with medicinal herbs,” said Beth Cheirosinha, a pink-haired street vender in the northern city of Belem.
“I got some cotton leaves and wormseed. I mashed it up in a blender, mixed it with honey and drank a half cup three times a day,” she added in front of her market stall, where she is selling the mixture. Business is booming, she said.
DANGEROUS UNPROVEN STREET ‘CURES’
Latin America’s largest nation is no stranger to misinformation but medical professionals warn that it has rarely been as dangerous as the unproven cures being pedalled during the pandemic.
It is unclear how these quack remedies originate, though experts say widespread anxiety is a key ingredient, especially when politicians give conflicting messages or dismiss the advice of medical professionals.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro has dismissed the coronavirus as a “little flu” and said his history as an athlete makes him immune to the worst of the illness.
COVID-19 has now killed more than 45,000 people in Brazil, more than anywhere except the US, and confirmed cases are approaching 1 million.
Unusual suggested coronavirus ‘cures’ received by Reuters reporters on WhatsApp in recent weeks include the consumption of fruits like avocados and pineapples.
Another message suggested the novel coronavirus naturally vibrates at a frequency of 5.5 megahertz. Among the things that can kill it are “unconditional love,” which, the message said, naturally vibrates at 205 megahertz.
HERBAL REMEDIES IN THE AMAZON
In the Amazon, villagers are relying on herbal remedies like tea of jambu, which is usually used to treat toothache.
Natalia Leal, content director of Agencia Lupa, a fact-checking website, said Brazil was a world leader in terms of coronavirus misinformation. An analysis done by the website drawing on around 100 fact-checkers indicated Brazil had produced by far the most inaccurate posts related to the number of coronavirus deaths and cases of any country worldwide.
Reuters did not find any accounts of patients falling dangerously ill from fantastical cures, but doctors said some Brazilians are ignoring medical advice on social distancing and instead relying on unproven remedies.
It does not help, said Nalia Pasternak, a biologist and head of the Question of Science Institute, a Sao Paulo think-tank, that Bolsonaro has frequently promoted unproven treatments.
RAW GARLIC REMEDY GIVEN TRACTION
Last week, for example, Bolsonaro said he would order the Health Ministry to meet with one of his supporters who claimed raw garlic cures COVID-19. He has since promoted anti-parasitic medication ivermectin as “even better than chloroquine.”
One study found that ivermectin can kill the coronavirus in 48 hours in a laboratory setting, but the US Food and Drug Administration says it should not be taken as prevention or treatment for COVID-19.
Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“There are certain people looking to create confusion around information, and it ends up generating uncertainty,” said Fábio Malini, a professor at the Espirito Santo Federal University, who studies online disinformation.
He said one person on a WhatsApp group for parents at his childrens’ school asked about ivermectin last week.
To Malini’s surprise, many parents had already given the medication to their children.
THE REAL SCIENCE THAT’S MAKING PROGRESS
After the news earlier this week that a cheap steroid drug showed remarkable success in treating seriously ill COVID-19 patients, here’s a look at some of the other area where progress has been made.
Dexamethasone is the first drug shown to save the lives of severely ill COVID-19 patients in a study researchers hailed as a "major breakthrough" in the coronavirus pandemic.
Results from the trial announced on Tuesday showed dexamethasone reduced death rates by around a third compared with a placebo in severely ill hospitalised COVID-19 patients.
Among patients with COVID-19 who did not require a ventilator or supportive oxygen, there was no benefit from treatment with dexamethasone.
The results suggest the drug should become the standard of care in severe cases, researchers said.
MICROSCOPIC SPONGES MAY BE ABLE TO SOAK UP THE CORONAVIRUS
Scientists have developed microscopic sponges – a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair – they hope might be used inside the body to attract and neutralise the coronavirus.
The “nanosponges” are coated with membranes from lung cells or from immune cells known as macrophages, study co-leader Liangfang Zhang of the University of California, San Diego told Reuters. These cell membranes have the same receptor proteins on their surfaces that the virus uses to break into cells in the body.
In test tube experiments, the nanosponges successfully acted as decoys to attract and inactivate the virus, Zhang’s team reported on Wednesday in the journal Nano Letters.
“In principle, the nanosponges should work everywhere in the body,” Zhang said. “If we directly administer the nanosponges to the lungs...they will primarily stay in the lungs. However, if we administer them to the blood directly through intravenous injections, they will circulate in the blood and go through all organs.”
The nanosponges, which are biodegradable, are being designed to protect healthy cells no matter what virus attacks them, he emphasized. In theory, they could be used to neutralise mutations and new viral species as well, Zhang said.
TWO ANTIBODY DRUGS LIKELY BETTER THAN ONE AGAINST CORONAVIRUS
Scientists at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc have determined a combination of two antibody drugs may be the best approach for attacking the new coronavirus.
The drugs, known as monoclonal antibodies, are among the most commonly used type of biotech medicines.
The researchers screened thousands of antibody candidates to identify highly potent pairs that attach themselves to the virus simultaneously in different places.
Two papers published on Monday in the journal Science explain the selection process and why the researchers believe such a “cocktail” is better than one drug, even though one would be less expensive and easier to manufacture at scale.
The double-antibody approach is designed not only to be effective as a treatment, the researchers say, but to protect against the virus developing resistance to single antibody therapies.
Regeneron last week began testing the combination called REGN-COV2 in a clinical trial comparing it to a placebo in hospitalised patients and in patients with symptoms who are not sick enough to require hospitalisation.
MEME OF THE DAY
Thanks again to my friend Dave in Toronto for sharing this with me on WhatsApp. Yes, for those of us of a certain older generation, this does ring so true. Then again, what would have happened if it happened in the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone age? Just the radio and television to entertain us on the airwaves.
SUMMER SOLSTICE SUNRISE TO BE STREAMED LIVE FROM STONEHENGE AMID PANDEMIC
The ancient Druids and Celts thought that the Summer Solstice was a special day – the longest day of the year, where the Earth is at its closest to the Sun before it drifts back to its farthest point in mid-winter.
Because of the pandemic, summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge will not take place this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
English Heritage, the organisation that manages the site in Wiltshire, southwestern England, has said it will instead livestream the event, which is of spiritual significance to many pagans and druids.
Announcing the cancellation on social media last month, English Heritage said: “For everyone's safety and well-being, we’ve had to cancel this year's summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge. We know how special this occasion is to so many of you, and we'll be livestreaming it for free online.”
The organisers added that the decision was taken to cancel the event, which takes place on or around June 21, after consultation with the emergency services, plus the druid and pagan community.
A statement released by English Heritage said the decision was taken in line with the current ban on mass gatherings in the UK.
STONEHENGE HAS BEEN CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC SINCE MARCH 18.
Nichola Tasker, director of Stonehenge, said in a statement: “Given the sheer number of major events worldwide which have already been cancelled across the summer, from Glastonbury to the Olympic to Oktoberfest, I doubt this will come as a huge surprise, but we know how much summer solstice at Stonehenge means to so many people.
“We have consulted widely on whether we could have proceeded safely and we would have dearly liked to host the event as per usual, but sadly in the end, we feel we have no choice but to cancel.”
Stonehenge has been associated with the Northern Hemisphere’s summer and winter solstices since its inception.
Gathering at the site on the summer solstice is an age-old tradition that thousands still observe. About 10,000 people flock to the ancient site annually to mark the longest day of the year.
There are numerous theories about the purpose of Stonehenge – but the design of the mysterious ring of standing stones, some of which are 10 metres’ high, serves as evidence as the dawn of astronomy. As dawn breaks, the rising sun appears behind one of the main stones, creating the illusion that the sun is balancing on the stone.
HOW I’M PRETENDING TO GROW £10,000 IN PLAY MONEY
These have been a few difficult weeks, with only one day so far out of the past nine being on the plus side.
A reminder that this is all pretend, I started out in lockdown with £10,000 – about Dh45,000 to invest on the London Stock Exchange, I don’t pay for trades and I can only buy or sell when the market is closed. There’s no minimum on the amount of share I can buy.
My Ryanair shares were up, so too Dignity, but PowerHouse and Halfords retreated, leaving me with a loss of £138 on the day. This is how things stand:
Net worth £12883.38
Dignity, 700 shares: £1963.50
Halfords, 1500 shares: £2526.00
PowerHouse, 1200 shares: £4110.00
Ryanair, 375 shares: £4275.0
Cash in hand: £8.88
£ loss on last trading day: £138.00
% gain overall: 28.8 per cent
£ Gain overall: £2,883.38
CORONAVIRUS LEAVES MORE AMERICANS DEAD THAN FIRST WORLD WAR
With 740 new coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, the United States has seen more people die from the pandemic than died in the First World War according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
The new figure, counted Tuesday evening, brought the country’s total COVID-19 deaths up to 116,854, the tracker from the Baltimore-based university showed.
The increase came after two days of death tolls under 400.
And 23,351 new cases in the same 24-hour period brought the total US count up to 2,134,973, making it by far the hardest-hit of any country in the world.
The country’s pandemic death toll had already passed that of its soldiers in the Vietnam War in late April.
The US, where many businesses are reopening, continues to register around 20,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus each day. Several states are even recording their highest levels of new cases since the start of the pandemic.
President Donald Trump has come under scrutiny for an upcoming campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – his first since March when the pandemic halted mass gatherings. It is so far planned for an indoor arena that holds about 20,000 people.
The US also agreed to keep its borders with Mexico and Canada closed until July 21, officials said Tuesday, extending travel restrictions for a third time due to the pandemic.
A GOOD TIME TO LIVE ON THE OCEAN? 'SEASTEADERS' DOUBLE DOWN DURING PANDEMIC
The seasteading community has for years pushed the futuristic idea that living in independent, human-made communities on the ocean is the way to move society forward.
And what better time than a pandemic.
“The safest place to be in a pandemic is a seastead,” said Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, an organisation based in San Francisco that promotes the creation of new living spaces on the high seas or on far-flung islands.
Seasteaders have always been persistent, saying they will overcome big challenges in ocean engineering with time, creativity and an ethos fuelled by Silicon Valley techie libertarianism. The idea began to gain steam a decade ago, NBC reports, with help from an ex-Googler and money from Facebook board member Peter Thiel, and quickly became an extreme example of the tech industry's interest in reimagining every corner of society.
And now, rather than retreating in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, proponents have been as zealous as ever in the past few months about the drive to start new communities and, eventually, independent nations in remote corners of the ocean.
BETTER ODDS AT SURVIVING A PANDEMIC AT SEA
Advocates have delayed some plans because of travel restrictions, but through social media posts, an online conference and interviews, they said they were confident in their odds of surviving a pandemic at sea rather than land with more traditional access to food and medical care.
“If we lived under water in isolation or in our small groups, and we’re down there for extended periods of time, we wouldn’t have to worry about the coronavirus,” Adam Jewell, co-host of the Colonise the Ocean podcast, said on a recent episode.
Some seasteaders advocate building not on top of the ocean but underneath the water.
In the Reddit group r/seasteading, people have discussed how they would respond in the event a pandemic came to their sea home, with one suggesting that sick residents could simply “detach and float away to a safe distance.”
In Singapore, one advocate said the pandemic had underscored the need for less crowded housing for migrant workers in the Southeast Asian city-state, and that floating communities near shore were the answer.
“Land use must be reviewed regularly for a compact country like ours. COVID-19 has put the spotlight on an area that needs urgent rethinking,” Lim Soon Heng, founding president of the Society of Floating Solutions, wrote in an opinion piece in the Straits Times.
PACIFIC ISLANDS LARGELY SPARED
Quirk pointed to a list of Pacific island nations that, so far at least, are believed to have been largely spared from the pandemic, including the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Samoa.
“Almost all continental nations report COVID-19 cases. Almost all island nations report zero cases,” Quirk said in an email.
Zero cases do not mean, of course, that remote islands will never experience coronavirus outbreaks before the development of a vaccine or effective treatments. Another kind of floating community, cruise ships, were the site of early outbreaks.
But Quirk said that island-based health care systems at least won’t be overwhelmed by a rapid increase in cases, which is more likely to happen in populous cities.
“When it comes to coping with a spike in COVID-19, we should worry more about Seattle than Palau,” he said.
Seasteading communities don’t currently exist — or if they do, aren’t advertising themselves — so it’s not as if people can flock to them even if they wanted to, but there is planning and money behind the dream.
ESCAPE FROM THE REAL WORLD
Like virtual reality headsets or trips to Mars, seasteading fits a theme in Silicon Valley of seeking escape from the real world — and unlike the other options, the ocean is close by and the experience lasts longer than a couple of hours.
But the pandemic — and the disorganised US response to it — has also confirmed the fears of some people that centralised institutions aren’t up to the task of governing and should be replaced, possibly where no nations yet exist. They even have an existing motto to go with the idea: Vote with your boat.
“If there’s any moment in history where we’re rethinking institutions, now is the time,” Joseph McKinney, president of the Startup Societies Foundation, told a virtual audience last month in the opening address of an online conference hosted by the foundation.
McKinney added in an interview that new communities could even be hubs of medical tourism and other innovation during a pandemic. “Before it all seemed kind of kooky, but COVID has been a great reset,” he said.
INDIVIDUALISM, UTOPIANISM – AND TAX AVOIDANCE
Seasteading combines streaks of various ideologies, including off-the-grid individualism, utopianism and sometimes anarcho-capitalism that values both profit and tax avoidance.
“Not always, but in many cases this is a version of disaster capitalism. No crisis is going to go unexploited,” said Raymond Craib, a history professor at Cornell University who is writing a book on early examples of seasteading.
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, self-described “Puertopians” arrived on the island seeking low taxes and a dream of turning it into something like a Hong Kong of the Caribbean through Bitcoin investments.
Craib, who has criticised seasteaders as “libertarian exit strategists,” said he is not surprised to see its adherents becoming more zealous. “It’s an ideological project that they are not going to relent on,” he said.
The pandemic has caused some delays. In Panama, the firm Ocean Builders was setting up a test near a marina where “tech enthusiasts” could stay for a month or more while contributing expertise, but that has been postponed, Quirk said. Ocean Builders said this week that some construction there continues.
THAI NAVY TOWED STRUCTURE AWAY
There are significant barriers, including some existing governments. A seasteading effort by an American former bitcoin investor affiliated with Ocean Builders ended last year when the Thai navy tower the structure away, and two years ago French Polynesia scuttled a plan to create artificially made islands off Tahiti.
And there are daunting logistical challenges involved with building homes on the ocean, supplying food and planning for what could go wrong — now with the added pandemic complication, as well as more people getting used to having groceries delivered right to their door.
Seasteaders have discussed possible solutions, such as pandemic-safe drone deliveries and hydroponics systems for growing food out at sea.
“There’s a solution for everything, but they’re not very realistic solutions,” said Isabelle Simpson, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University who is studying seasteaders. “There’s a way in which the seastead community can quickly become a prison.”
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I’m not an expert, but I might be able to help you make a bit of sense of this. And we can all get through it together. Isn’t this what this is all about.
Send your questions for me to Readers@gulfnews.com.
That’s it for now. Let’s check in with each other tomorrow. I have used files from Reuters, AP, DW, Sky News, Twitter and other European and North American media outlets in today’s blog. And remember to stay safe.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe