Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Covid Vaccine Safety and Efficacy In Israel

The anti-vax group America's Frontline Doctors are promoting an article by HervĂ© Seligmann claiming that "the Pfizer vaccines, for the elderly, killed during the 5-week vaccination period about 40 times more people than the disease itself would have killed". The article makes a basic mistake that invalidates its main claim.

First, Seligmann makes an apples-to-oranges mistake by comparing Israeli vaccinations from Dec 19 to Feb 11 with a baseline of "death rates per day for unvaccinated are estimated for the 303 days from March 1 to December 20". (Ignore his mistake of saying "death rates per day", he meant "per-day death rates".) A big problem with that baseline is that the vaccinations were just getting started as Israel suffered a third wave of deaths that dwarfed the deaths from March 1 to Dec 20. That's like saying that aiming firehoses at a burning building must be the reason why more people trapped in the burning skyscraper died after the fire trucks arrived versus before.

The first drop of water from a firehose doesn't immediately extinguish a fire, and it's well-known that it takes several weeks for COVID-19 vaccines to reach full efficacy. During that time, it's expected that just-vaccinated people will be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than when the 2nd dose has been given its two weeks to fully kick in. 

Also, note that the earliest vaccines in Israel were given to the most vulnerable populations -- just as the third wave was heading for its peak. Seligmann's data conveniently ends at Feb 11, just as COVID-19 deaths per million in Israel were about to plummet. Israel reached 50% fully-vaccinated on Mar 16, and the data since Feb 11 indicate the exact opposite of the increased COVID-19 death risk that Seligmann claimed.

Indeed, thanks to Israel's data-intensive healthcare system, we now have detailed data on how COVID-19 differentially impacts unvaccinated people there. Studies published in Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine confirm the success of the Pfizer vaccine in Israel.

P.S. Table 1 in Seligmann's article strangely labels the first column as "community". Maybe this is a language/translation problem, but nowhere does he explicitly say that this column counts COVID-19 cases among people who have received vaccine injections but are not fully vaccinated. So for his denominator, he chose

  • a vaccine-recipient population that is known to be skewed toward the most vulnerable, and
  • systematically excluded its members once their vaccine reached effectiveness, and
  • ended his data window just as Israel's death rate was about to plummet.
The meaning of his "community" column was only clarified after I finally found this detailed debunking of Seligmann written in German. (The Google translation is amazing, and actually reads more like native English than Seligmann's own paper.)
Update 12pm: Who debunks the debunkers? The German article makes a false claim here:

But ratios obviously matter more here than absolute numbers. The death rate among vaccinated COVID-19 victims was 709/54588 = 1.3%, while the rate among unvaccinated during the same period was 1566/368826 = 0.425%. However, note that the Pfizer vaccine efficacy in the 21 days between doses 1 and 2 is 52%. So to make the comparison fair, the denominator for the vaccinated case should include all the cases that the vaccine averted. This doubles the denominator, making the relevant 1-dose COVID-19 death rate be 0.65%.   That's only 50% higher than the unvaccinated COVID-19 death rate. That could potentially be explained by the fact that in Israel the vaccine was targeted early to the most vulnerable populations.
Israel's COVID-19 death graph above, with 2.5 months more data than the table above, shows that vaccines do not lead to more deaths from COVID-19. Some anti-vaxers have made a different claim: that vaccines will cause a spike in non-COVID-19 deaths. However, that claim is so far similarly contradicted by the excess-death data from the three countries that are making the most use of the most efficacious vaccines:

In the U.S., U.K., and Israel as of April 11, 156M distinct people had received a vaccine so far, while the population-weighted excess deaths among them had already become negative (as Israel's population is only 9M). As of yesterday, a total of 207M distinct people in those 3 countries have received a vaccination. When will all those "death jabs" ever cause the de-population that some anti-vaxers say the vaccine is engineered to do?
My prediction: in 2021-2023 there will be hysteresis pressure toward negative excess deaths in the U.S. because many of the pandemic deaths were among Americans likely to die in the coming years. Any spikes in excess deaths will be traceable to new variants that might develop, especially in the virus playground consisting of the world's unvaccinated people. But such spikes should be manageable, as emerging data suggests that the existing vaccines have some efficacy against variants. And since our most effective vaccines are based on the new nimble mRNA technology, it will be straightforward to create booster vaccines for problematic variants.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What Have Your UFO Aliens Been Doing?

Assume for the purposes of this post that we believe (as I don't) that at least some UFOs involve alien technology. If so, when did this alien technology reach our solar system, and what can we infer it would do during its tenure here?

By "alien technology" I am indifferent about whether the technology is "manned". I assume that aliens are at least millions of years more advanced than humans. So I assume that aliens have long since traded biological substrates for technological ones, at least for expeditions like a mission to Sol. I also assume that they can imbue their expeditionary technology with alien intelligence and values.

We infer that the aliens aren't grabby, because 1) they haven't grabbed Sol's energy or material resources, and 2) they haven't grabbed the energy resources of our galaxy. Reasoning from the Fermi Paradox, we specifically assume that the aliens

  • were the first technological intelligence to start expanding in our galaxy;
  • are applying a Zoo Policy to not only our solar system but to nearly all of the exploitable resources of the galaxy;
  • are somehow able to coordinate and enforce their Zoo Policy across thousands or tens of thousands of light-years.
Note that this model applies even if the aliens are a federation of civilizations with independent origins, though of course Zoo Policy enforcement then becomes more problematic. (If the first civilization are adamant Zookeepers, they have to ruthlessly enforce their policy on any new civilizations they allow to federate with them.)
How long ago did they have reach Sol? We assume no exotic physics allowing FTL travel or communication. Expanding from some random point in the galaxy at 1/10 to 1/1000 of c, we estimate they arrived here between 500Kya and 50Mya.
We infer that if they forego the exploitation of our solar system's resources, it is because they value any local biosphere's evolutionary investments and achievements. So it's plausible that they would want to protect local biospheres from extinction events. Do we see evidence of this?
Venus and Mars became suddenly unfriendly to life roughly one and four billion years ago, respectfully. Neither was due to impacts, and both happened long before the aliens are estimated to have arrived. Too late to help.
It would be trivial for aliens to protect Earth from the impacts that have regularly confronted Earth with mass extinctions. (We ourselves are at most a century away from being able to do so.) So what recent catastrophic impacts should they have stopped if they were on duty at the time?
  • 66Mya in the K-Pga extinction an object a few tens of km diameter took out the dinosaurs and all tetrapods >25kg. 
  • 35Mya the E-Og extinction was perhaps caused by the Popigai impactor.
  • 800Kya the enormous Australasian strewnfield was created by an impact whose crater has not yet been found. It's unclear why this event is not associated with any mass extinction or climate catastrophe.
It's easily plausible that the aliens arrived after E-Og and so couldn't stop it. But it's only barely plausible that the aliens arrived so recently that they could not stop the Australasian strewnfield event. (And no, the strewnfield is not because the aliens blasted the object to pieces. You prevent impacts but nudging the impactors, not by turning them into shotgun blasts.) If we count the strewnfield as alien Zookeepers not being here yet, that makes it suspiciously coincidental that the aliens have arrived so recently. 
(Many UFO believers speculate that aliens arrived due to our atomic testing. These speculations are some combination of fantastical and scientifically illiterate. The physics just doesn't work. If aliens are here, they've surely been here for millions of years.)
Aside from protecting local biospheres from catastrophic impacts, what else would the aliens be up to? 
Monitor the Zoo inhabitants? When you set up permanent zookeeping in a solar system, do your monitoring missions use large easily-observed craft with spaceship-like acceleration capabilities? Or do you instead use small, stealthy, camouflaged devices, to allow close-up and loitering observation? If I were hunting alien observation tech, I wouldn't look in the skies for spaceships. I'd instead look in the trees, for birds and insects that are suspiciously hard to catch. Again, we humans are less than a century away from creating a never-ending plague of privacy-invading disguised surveillance drones. No human in 100 years will be using a flying saucer to spy on anybody. So why would aliens use them? (cf. "teasing", below.)
Abduct the Zoo inhabitants? That of course depends on Zookeeper ethics. Zoo Policy doesn't tell us whether aliens value individuals like they value biospheres. If an alien values secrecy but is willing to kidnap and probe an individual human, that alien seems more likely to euthanize the test subject than to return it to spill the beans. So no flying saucers, and no returned abductees. 
Tease the Zoo inhabitants? Some say the aliens tease us with UFOs to test our reactions and prepare us for "Disclosure". But these are aliens with a monastic devotion to leaving the galaxy undisturbed in the eyes of anyone with optical and radio telescopes. So why would they reveal themselves only a few decades after we first noticed their millions of years of self-denial?
Protect Zoo inhabitants from each other? If Mars has remnants of independent life, the aliens would know it and might very well want to protect it from Earth. There have been a lot of failed Mars missions, but Elon Musk hasn't gotten the memo. Shouldn't we expect the aliens to protect Mars? If not now, when? (In Arthur Clarke's 2010, the Monolith aliens told humanity to leave Europa alone.)
Protect Zoo inhabitants from themselves? If you think nuclear weapons give humanity the ability to extinct itself, you might expect the aliens to disarm us. Note that through most of the 1960s, a large fraction of U.S. Polaris missile warheads were inoperable. And there are claims that UFOs have deactivated nukes. So yes, if you believe in alien flying saucers, you probably believe that aliens have the ability to deactivate most nukes if launched. (But aliens surely know that nuclear war could not extinct H. sapiens, and in fact would set us back a century at most. As horrible as that prospect would be to us, the Zookeepers might consider nuclear war to be growing pains -- a minor incident in one of the zoo cages.)
Cooperate with the Zoo inhabitants? Most UFO believers say aliens are secretly cooperating with human governments. Such behavior would be strongly at odds with the Zoo Hypothesis. Recall that ZH says the galaxy looks uninhabited only because the Zookeepers are maniacally committed to not letting knowledge of their presence interfere with the advanced development of other biospheres. So again: why bother keeping the galaxy looking uninhabited if you're going to start working with the local primates around the same time that a Fermi notices you're absent? Oh sure, they're cooperating "secretly", but millions of UFO believers claim it's easy to see through the "secret". If these advanced aliens can't fool the History Channel, they're not very advanced.
Bottom line: most alien-UFO claims and theories are nearly impossible to square with what we can infer from 1) how long aliens would have to have been here, and 2) what they would and would not do once here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Fertility, Clotting, and Immune Escape

Dr. Janci Chunn Lindsay warned recently that all the Covid-19 vaccines must be halted immediately due to three safety concerns:

  • fertility risk;
  • blood clotting;
  • immune escape.
Each of these concerns can be addressed.

Fertility Risk

This concern here is that there is a segment of five amino acids that is common between 1) the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein targeted by vaccines, and 2) the synctyn-1 and -2 proteins of the placenta. This concern has been thoroughly addressed since it was raised by Michael Yeadon on December 2, 2020. The universal theme of the responses is that such segments are far too short to trigger cross-reactivity. My favorite articles about it:
  • Health Feedback on Dec 10 gave a dry and straightforward overview of the initial claim and of the various public analyses demonstrating why a sequence of merely 5 amino acids shared between the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the synctyn protein is not enough to trigger cross-reactivity. If you read only one response to the synctyn fertility concern, this is the one.
  • Edward Nirenberg posted on Dec 3 a prompt and fascinating response explaining
    • the evolution and purpose of the mammalian placenta
    • studies of women with Covid-19 during the first trimester show similar pregnancy outcomes as uninfected women
    • the biomolecular details of whether an amino acid sequence homology is significant
    • synctin and spike proteins are examples of convergent evolution.
  • David Gorski on Dec 14 posted a detailed response explaining
    • the history of infertility conspiracy theories in the anti-vaccine movement
    • inefficient old-fashioned Sanger sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 samples is unnecessary (aside from calibration) given modern sequencing techniques
    • if ADE were a problem we’d expect to have seen it by now
    • immunologist Andrew Croxford also showed it's trivial to find many other human proteins with such short homologies with the spike protein
    • Yeadon denies that the Covid-19 pandemic is real, and claims it is an artifact of mis-calibrated PCR testing
    • Yeadon argues that natural Covid-19 transmission is not to be feared, not realizing that anti-spike T and B cell responses should have the same fertility harms as anti-spike vaccine responses.
It's strange and suspicious that Dr. Lindsay echoes Yeadon's concerns four months after they've been debunked so thoroughly.
Lindsay also gestures towards 100 pregnancy losses reported in VAERS, and multiple reports of menses irregularities. She is right that these must be investigated, but investigation must include comparing with the expected background risk of such incidents. When you ignore comparative incidence, you open yourself to charges of fear-mongering, as lay readers often don't have the habit of comparing anecdotes against baseline expectations. Jen Gunter reviews the science about possible interaction between vaccination and menstruation in this excellent article from April.  (Hat tip to Vaxopedia, a guide to skepticism about vaccine skepticism.)

Blood Clotting

This concern is not really a complaint about the vaccines at all. She says "The natural infection is known to cause coagulopathy due to the spike protein. All gene therapy vaccines direct the body to make the spike protein." She then cites a paper that is all about how natural Covid-19 can cause clotting.
Again, Lindsay offers no discussion of comparative incidence among populations, but just cites 795 clotting disorders in VAERS -- without mentioning that over 100M people had received vaccine injections. More importantly: if Covid spike proteins can cause (rare) clotting problems, then it becomes even more imperative to vaccinate. Vaccine recipients will surely have lower peak loads of spike proteins than would be caused by the many severe Covid cases that the vaccines are clinically proven to diminish.

Immune Escape

Linday claims "We have enough evidence now to see a clear correlation with increased Covid deaths and the vaccine campaigns." On the contrary, Covid deaths have been plummeting in the three most-vaccinated countries: Israel, U.K., and U.S.

Regarding immune escape, McGill university posted in March a detailed explanation of why mass vaccination would give SARS-CoV-2 less room to evolve variants -- as opposed to the alternative of letting the virus evolve freely while burning through the population. It points out that immune escape would still remain a concern, and that vaccines may need updating if variants evolve far enough.
The McGill posting links to an article by Edward Nirenberg who systematically rebuts Geert Vanden Bossche, a leading proponent of immune-escape fears. Nirenberg explains
  • the clinical evidence for vaccine effectiveness against variants
  • current understanding of mechanisms for asymptomatic infection
  • an allegedly basic mistake by Bossche on the role of NK cells in vaccine mechanism
  • the ever-growing clinical evidence that Covid vaccines aren't "leaky" (i.e. they reduce transmission)
  • the resounding success of a leaky vaccine in managing Marek's Disease in chickens.
Nirenberg concludes: "Vaccines clearly reduce viral load, prevent severe disease, and disrupt transmission, and they can thankfully be readily modified to address problematic variants as is done every season for influenza with great effect."

Why Covid Vaccines For Young Adults?

Covid deaths in 2020 age 18-29: 1465

Fully vaccinated 18-29 as of May 4: 9.857M (18.39% i.e. of 56.6M total population 18-29)

Covid deaths all ages among fully vaccinated as of Apr 26: 132
Total fully vaccinated as of Apr 26: 95M

U.S. Covid deaths 18-29 all time are 2000 out of 557K, i.e. 0.35%. So assume the same ratio applies to the 132 breakthrough Covid deaths: 0.35% * 132 = 0.46, so round up to 1 breakthrough death among 18-29yo.

In 9 pandemic months of 2020, deaths of 18-29 per million per month were
1465 deaths / 56.6 18-29yo population / 9 months
= 2.8 deaths per million per month of unvaccinated 18-29yo in 2020.

Assume the 9.587M 18-29yo have been vaccinated linearly for the first 4 months of 2021.
9.587M * 4 months / 2 = 19.7M vaccinated person-months. That's 1 death / 19.7M
= 0.05 deaths per million per month of vaccinated 18-29yo in 2021.

This fits with the clinical trial data. 95% efficacy means that a vaccinated group suffers 1/20 the symptomatic Covid cases of an unvaccinated group. The above estimate suggests vaccinated 18-29yo are 1/50 as likely to die of Covid as unvaccinated 18-29yo.

We estimated above that 1 of the 132 breakthrough Covid deaths were 18-29yo (i.e. double the 0.46 deaths you would expect in that cohort if breakthrough Covid deaths have an age distribution similar to regular Covid deaths). Note that 55 vaccinated 18-29yo would have had to die of Covid in Jan-Apr 2021 to match the 2020 per-million-per-month Covid death rate of unvaccinated 18-29yo.

There are no data suggesting vaccinated 18-29yo are suffering excess non-Covid deaths compared to unvaccinated 18-29yo. If there were real data saying this, then vaccinations for this cohort would be stopped immediately. (The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused after 6.8M vaccinations because 6 women aged 18 to 48 developed blood clots, and one of them died.)

Of course, even 2.8 deaths per million per month is trivial. The primary rationale for vaccinating young adults is now de-emphasizing herd immunity, and emphasizing the suppression of variants (like the one now ravaging India):

FAQ on Covid vaccines for people younger than 18: