Pfizer Vaccine Trial Update

The Pfizer vaccine trial I’m a part of went up for review yesterday before a review panel of outside experts convened by the Federal Drug Administration. The panel recommended that the vaccine be approved. Odds are the F.D.A. will grant approval later this evening.

This comes at a very dark period in which we’re seeing an exponential increase in cases and deaths here in Los Angeles and the rest of the country. As more than one panelist noted yesterday, we’re looking at many hospitalizations, deaths and a strained hospital system in the days and weeks ahead. In short the virus is out of control. The vaccine will take many months to roll out and things aren’t returning to normal anytime soon.

Chart of side effects of the Pfizer vaccine from their presentation.

The good news is that the Pfizer vaccine is very safe and 95% effective. Before I decided to participate in the third stage of this trial I carefully went through the results of the first stage as well as the release forms that I had to sign. I’ve since closely followed the results of the third stage and can assure readers of this blog that it’s safe and that side effects are mild to moderate. I’ve heard similar good results from the other mRNA vaccine being developed by Moderna. Yes, there have been a handful of allergic reactions, but those incidents have been exceedingly rare. Your chances of getting Covid are much, much greater than any side effects from the vaccine. Most importantly, by getting the vaccine we express our love and solidarity with health care workers and respect for our elders, the two most vulnerable populations to this disease. Nobody should have to spend their last moments saying goodbye to their loved ones on an iPad especially the doctors and nurses who take care of us when we get sick.

Screen shot of TrialMax app.

My participation in the trial involved a checkup, two blood tests and two injections. This is a placebo controlled study so there’s a 50/50 chance of getting the vaccine or a saline injection. Each week I check in with an app to report if I’ve had any symptoms such as fever or sore throat. The study is projected to last for two years and I will, periodically, go in to have blood taken to monitor for antibodies. The study is blind do I won’t know the results of the antibody tests.

Both the FDA and Pfizer are considering what to do with the placebo group since it would be unethical to ask those in that group to stay un-vaccinated. Some in the F.D.A. suggested keeping the study blind and giving the vaccine to the placebo group and giving the placebo to the already vaccinated group. Pfizer balked at the cost and logistics of doing this and countered with simply vaccinating the placebo group and continuing the study to monitor for long term effectiveness of the vaccine. If this happens the study will no longer be blind and will lose some safety data, but will still yield results on long term effectiveness.

I’m going to guess that Pfizer will get their way. Pfizer proposed vaccinating the placebo group in the order that everyone else in a given state or municipality is vaccinated. This would start with health care workers, who make up around 20% of the third stage trial as well as nursing home residents. Judging from my lack of side effects, I think I’m in the placebo group and I’m more than happy to stay a part of the placebo group until my turn comes up for vaccination. I don’t think I should get special treatment and jump ahead of the line just because I’m in the clinical trial. Right now we need healthy nurses more than we need healthy bloggers (Is their anytime that equation is reversed? Probably not). Pfizer suggested that those of us in the study would jump to the head of the vaccination line within our respective age/need groups as the vaccine becomes available.

The silver lining to any crisis is that it forces us to do things once deemed not possible. A crisis, of course, can be exploited for good or bad. My hope is that one of the lessons we will take from this difficult period will be a sense that we all need to work together. The press tends to focus on anti-maskers and Covid deniers but I think, at least where I live, most people know that the reason we take precautions is for the sake of other people, particularly those who grow and deliver food as well as health care workers who take care of us when we get sick.

Happy Cranksgiving

What air travel looks like as of the publishing of this blog post on Wednesday at 5pm PST.

Thanksgiving? Current mood is Cranksgiving, that feeling when you type out three angry blog posts, think better of it and fail to push the publish button. So rather than that one belabored and cranky post I offer up a few fragments longer than an aphorism but just short for a proper rant. Here we go:

It’s Never Time for Brunch
We seem trapped, in this country, between two heads of the same neoliberal hydra. One party that denies the reality of the pandemic and another party that demands that people stay home (which, to be clear, we need to do) but offers no help to those who can’t work. We need to pay people to stay home. It’s not fair to bail out wall street but kick workers and small businesses to the curb.

Covid Denial
Why do people deny the reality of Covid? Because, counter-intuitively, it’s rational to do so. If your organizing principle in life is the pursuit of personal happiness, which is what we were all brought up with, then it makes no sense to change your lifestyle to prevent the spread of the virus . Most of us are unlikely to get coronovirus and if we do odds are we’ll recover (though, I have to say I sure don’t want to take the risk–I’m just trying to imagine why some people don’t seem to care). The problem with this kind of selfish thinking is that if I get coronovirus I’m also likely to spread it to other people who will then, possibly, bring it into the household of a multi-generational family, a nursing home, a hospital or a prison where it will grow exponentially and kill a lot of people. But unless I’m a health care worker, odds are those deaths will be out of my sight. Another problem is that if I do behave well and take precautions I’ll never see that my actions had an effect. Since Covid denialism is ideological and baked into our culture, I don’t think we should blame individuals for espousing it. Rather we need to focus our energy on changing the systems that promote toxic individualism. Let’s tell stories about solidarity instead. Not me us, in other words.

Stats, stats, stats and more stats
I never studied statistics. Most people never studied statistics. This is probably why there are so many statistical errors in the media. If I’m spotting them it must drive the mathematically inclined insane. Most of us seem to be especially bad at appreciating exponential growth in something like, say, a communicable disease.

Junk Science
This pandemic is also a reminder that, as research has shown, at least half of all science studies are junk. Unfortunately the press has a bad tendency to uncritically report on junk science. The crappy New York Times repeated a easily discredited study this week that purported to show that masks don’t make a difference. The very basic problem with this study is that the virus is spreading in households where people don’t wear masks, which this study failed to account for. We have better editorial standards here at Root Simple than they do at the Grey Lady and we’re pretty sloppy. Makes you wonder what else they’re getting wrong . . .

Good Science
A study in India shows how Covid is spreading: children and young adults are bringing the virus into multi-generation households. So, unfortunately, it looks like putting kids in school right now isn’t a great idea. Most schools in this country closed for the 1918 flu epidemic so this isn’t a new situation.

Covid Theater
I was perusing our local health department’s new closing guidelines and came to the conclusion that they are just making stuff up on the fly. Some things are open and some closed and it’s obvious that the decisions aren’t based on any research since their probably isn’t any. When you see a multi page list of directions for “model airplane facilities” you know they are winging it. Again, the solution is simple. In a surge like we’re having right now, close everything except what we need to survive and pay everyone to stay home until we can get the numbers down. Do this periodically until we get vaccinated.

Let’s Cancel Thanksgiving Permanently
Capitalism, as Mark Fisher often noted, is great at causing anxiety and then selling solutions. Think of the way women are made to feel body anxiety and then sold beauty products and plastic surgery. The same applies to the holidays. Make people anxious and then offer a Butterball hotline. How about we skip this particular holiday permanently? Who’s in (or out) on the cancel Thanksgiving idea? At least this year, a pandemic seems like the perfect excuse not to fly somewhere to eat dried out turkey.

My New Hustle
I was joking with a friend about writing a book called “Rhetoric for Families: how to have an argument at the dinner table.” Talk about creating an anxiety and selling a solution! Who wants this book?

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing or not doing, Root Simple wishes you a happy holiday season. Please stay safe. If you’re bored check out this flight tracking website and be thankful you’re not traveling.

In Defense of Theory

In an attempt to cope with this crisis we all find ourselves in I reached back and re-read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Thanks to the library’s free reading app I was also able to read Fisher’s K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, an anthology of his blog posts, interviews and magazine articles. If there’s a ghost that haunts my everyday thoughts it’s Mark Fisher. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Fisher’s thoughtstylings.

I’ll have to devote a longer blog post to why I think Fisher’s work is important for me, a lowly homesteading blogger. But let me just say that he does a better job than I did of explaining why theory is important to consider rather than dismiss. It turns out that the most rarefied and abstract theories of your Deleuzes and Foucaults can, paradoxically, turn out to be more practical than those who preach the practical.

In a magazine article he wrote in 2009, “Real Abstraction: the application of theory to the modern world” he says of the 2008 financial crisis, “Understanding the credit crunch and the recession demands the acknowledgment that abstractions are real.”

Fisher struggled with and wrote perceptibly about depression. Sadly we lost him too suicide in 2017, but his writing becomes more and more relevant as time goes on. You can read his blog here. If we weren’t in the midst of the need to social distance I’d be grabbing strangers, shaking them and yelling READ CAPITALIST REALISM! I feel like Fisher’s writing is a kind of key that unlocks a door on the horrors and mysteries of our present moment as well as offering a possible way out.

Whale of a Meme

Responding to my post on finding a mysterious plaster footprint cast in our garden, Root Simple reader Peter sent a hilarious link to what I’ve since learned is an early viral internet meme, the so-called “Smithsonian Barbie” letter.

Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled “211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull.” We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents “conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago.” Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be the “Malibu Barbie”. It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to it’s modern origin:

  • 1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.
  • 2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.
  • 3. The dentition pattern evident on the “skull” is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the “ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams” you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:
      • A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.
      • B. Clams don’t have teeth.

    It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in it’s normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating’s notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation’s Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name “Australopithecus spiff-arino.” Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn’t really sound like it might be Latin.

    However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation’s capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the “trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix” that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

    Yours in Science,

    Harvey Rowe
    Curator, Antiquities

I did a little Googling and kept finding this letter on old web 1.0 pages only to discover via the always party pooping Snopes that this bit of genius is a creative writing effort from 1994. The real Harvey Rowe does not work for the Smithsonian but was, in fact, a bored medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina. Rowe was interviewed in 1998 about how his fake letter went viral. He described himself in that interview as a, “42 year old Emergency Room physician turned computer nerd. I’m widowed with two boys, aged 8 and 10. I apparently have the power to cloud minds.”

As the old saying goes, “if it be not true at least it is well invented.” If there’s one thing I despise it’s debunker/skeptic types who run around ruining a perfectly good story. If anything we need a few more good tall tales to counter the bad ones.

There’s a story about Mark Twain showing up at a news event and being disappointing to find other journalists since that meant he couldn’t make up a more interesting story. I obviously missed an opportunity in my plaster foot post to be the next Harvey Rowe. At least you can review my new non-profit on Yelp.

Speaking of old internet memes it’s the 50th anniversary of the exploding whale video which the folks at KATU have thoughtfully remastered for us, though I’m a bit nostalgic for the original glitched VHS original. One Jungian synchronicity uncovered by researchers at the Center for Land Use Interpretation is that the car destroyed by falling whale blubber had been purchased that very day at a car dealership that advertised a, “whale of a deal.”

I’ll leave you all with a Twitter post from today that deserves to go viral: