What day is it? It’s definitely Friday, but Day Fifty Something for Lees on Lockdown. At this point most of us are well past the biblical 40 days of temptation and testing, but I think we’re collectively doing all right. From my screens, I see people reaching out to help those struggling mentally, financially, and spiritually. Our Steps to Success fundraiser could only be held via email blasts and status updating, but somehow raised more money for low-income students than we thought possible. Those who know how are sewing masks; those that don’t are buying them and delivering. Free meals, sidewalk chalk encouragements, Teddy Bear hunts, crooning from city balconies, family dinners, and Lisa on YouTube. This is the good stuff.
I’ve let loose only two primal screams of rage that were mostly directed at teenage boys WHO HAVE ONLY ONE JOB SO GET OUT OF BED ALREADY OMG WHY ARE YOU ASLEEP, but otherwise we’re safe and home and healthy, if also drinking far too much. One night after salivating over episodes of Salt Fat Acid Heat, I looked at our sleepy puppy and suggested to Bernie that we call it a night. It was 9:30. NINE-THIRTY. We hadn’t even finished the Pinot Gris.
Like all of you, I feel like I should be accomplishing stuff with all of this time. In addition to actual work that needs doing (65 manuscripts in the queue), maybe I should be learning to knit? Shredding old tax returns? Teaching Hero useless tricks? Shaping my eyebrows? Something. Instead, this cartoon pretty much sums up every day:
Zealot Sister lives in Georgia, so we’ve traded thoughts about the safety of doing the things their governor is letting them do. She has no plans for urgently overdue tattooing (wtf), but is going to brave the world and odds to attend to her grays and nails. Is that bonkers?
Probably not. Her county isn’t a hotbed of positive cases. But then again, they haven’t tested everyone, so who can say? With strict hygiene and mask compliance, could it be safe? Safe enough? Honestly, I don’t know. But we’re Americans and not typically great at rule-following when doing so feels like an affront to our personal liberty—or even just makes our glasses fog up. Really, we’re gonna be the worst at this re-opening thing.
Here’s what I do know: as the country starts allowing us to eat together and permanently ink each other–either in a stepwise sort of scientific way or as a recklessly impatient public experiment– my phone is going to blow up the same way it did when the WHO finally said “pandemic.” I’m happy to be your go-to non-practicing physician and immunologist, but at the beginning, I had more answers. Now, nothing seems certain. And as a scientist, when nothing seems certain, it is because we don’t have data.
The smartest people are offering models and recommendations that seem to change daily, but they are still guessing at how many of us have been exposed. The R naught, or coefficient of infectivity—essentially how contagious a virus is—was originally estimated between 2 and 3 for COVID-19. Newer data suggests it could be twice that. And if asymptomatic virus-shedders getting their gel tips and lowlights can infect 5-6 people, a second spike bigger than the first might be inevitable. An R naught over 5 also means we need to wait until over 85% of us have “beaten” coronavirus before we can spring the kids from Zoom School and back to square pizza Fridays in a brick and mortar way in the name of “herd immunity.”
Are we willing to risk the morbidity and mortality of thousands more to achieve this? Or should we suffer this no-end-in-sight life without dine-in restaurants, grandma hugs, or Sox games until a vaccine or miracle treatment is widely available? More importantly than when this ends is how.
Most of us are itching for sero-positive proof as a Get out of Jail Free Card to get back to a pre-COVID-19 existence, and a quick and widely available antibody test will give us a clearer picture of where we stand immunologically. But it won’t be the panacea we crave. Most if not all tests that have been authorized for use are only allowable through the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) pathway. Doesn’t mean they are bad tests. They’re just tests that haven’t been… tested. And as a result there could be a significant number of false positives because coronaviruses are as common as, well, The Common Cold. There can also be a significant number of false negatives because your plasma cells pooped from combating COVID-19 have stopped making IgG because your memory B cells can always pump out antibody later, if needed.
Do you wanna know how these tests work? You can Google ELISA or trust me when I tell you that they slather a shmear of COVID-19 surface protein onto the bottom of a teeny plastic well and test if your blood is carrying antibodies that stick to it. Some identify IgM antibodies—the first ones your body uses to fight disease—suggesting a more recent response to an exposure. Others detect IgG antibodies—made by B cells that “learned” a bit more about the invader, and indicate a later or resolved infection. Some tests can detect both. But the antibody to the shmear doesn’t prove that they actually neutralize the COVID-19 you transferred from the grocery cart to your nose. The test doesn’t mean your antibodies are effective warriors, it just means they stick to the COVID-19 protein shmear.
What will an antibody test tell us and how can it shape our path forward? It will give scientists more data, but only as much as a stack of Polaroids from the table centerpieces will tell you about how great the wedding was. The IgG assay is only a snapshot. To wit, if we tested everybody right now, we’d likely find that far fewer than 85% of us have mounted an IgG immune response to COVID-19. Herd immunity is likely many months (and deaths) away. What is the power of your personal IgG positive test? Scientifically, not much other than proof that you were exposed. Also, your laminated IgG+ CoronaCardTM might not protect you from a newer, mutated version of the virus… and we have no idea if or when a COVID-20 will emerge.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO? I think the only way forward is to learn from countries that take personal hygiene (mask-wearing, hand-washing, forbidden handshaking and double kissing) seriously. We can dramatically reduce transmission if we maintain the 2-meter rule as much as possible, wear masks, and act like reasonable people in the midst of a pandemic. It won’t be forever… just until we have more data, a treatment, a vaccine, or herd immunity. As the country opens up, we’ll move about in different ways that protect others and ourselves, and I hope we’ll be patient and kind as everyone gets on board. Seven weeks ago I could meet you bare-faced at Starbucks, kiss you hello, catch a late movie, or watch the Celtics with thousands of fans. We’ll get there again. Just not tomorrow or because your governor said you can. Slowly, surely, with caution, common sense… and a mask.