22 June 2020 – Monday – #99

The first day after Spain’s Covid-19 State of Alarm went fine. And then.

Four Spanish regions recorded Covid-19 outbreaks.

In terms of the number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last seven days, Madrid tops the list, with 7.91, up from 7.04 the day before. Aragón is second, with 6.9, and Catalonia third with 6.57. This parameter has risen in 12 of Spain’s 17 regions, as has the average across the country, going from 3.08 in Saturday’s ministry report to 3.53 on Sunday.

El País, “Coronavirus infection rates rise in Spain due to outbreaks in Aragón, Madrid, Canaries and Catalonia,” 21 June 2020.

Should I be concerned?

Spain is not alone in seeing Covid-19 cases increase after a Covid-19 lockdown. On Friday, Germany reported its Covid-19 R spiked from 1.06 to 1.79. The increase in the German Covid-19 reproduction rate was due to infections at a (surprise, surprise) meatpacking plant in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The German government explains why the spike in its R is not a big concern for the country.

“Since case numbers in Germany are generally low, these outbreaks have a relatively strong influence on the value of the reproduction number. A nationwide increase in case numbers is not anticipated.”

Robert Koch Institute statement, Reuters, “Germany’s coronavirus reproduction rate jumps to 1.79: RKI,” 20 June 2020.

So, I’m concerned, but not really concerned, about the increase in Spanish Covid-19 infections because Spain’s total case numbers are still relatively low. I admit I’m in less of a hurry to visit Madrid after I read it had the highest per capita case count. If Spain’s increase in cases had occurred when hundreds of people were dying daily, I would be very concerned. As long as public health officials detect and contain these new Covid–19 outbreaks, I should be okay.

Everyone is learning that the value of R has different connotations at different points in the epidemic. Welcome to the New Abnormal.

Spain’s borders opened when the State of Alarm ended. Except that, for instance, I can travel to Sweden, but not next door to Portugal.

From July 1, the Spanish government is planning to open the country’s borders to states where the coronavirus pandemic is under control, but for now there is no list of candidates. The administration is intending to accept a European pact on this list, but other EU states are already saying that they will take unilateral decisions on the matter.

El País, “European borders are reopening, but there is a lot of small print to digest,” 21 June 2020.

I’m sure all the details will be worked out in the next week. It’s only 27 countries at different points in their Covid-19 epidemics that have to agree on safety protocols. Europe’s advantage is that Trump isn’t involved.

The risks for getting travel policy right are significant. Yesterday I wrote that sick passengers are like Covid-19 embers. Many of the infections they carry will die out without significant consequences, but a few may ignite new Covid-19 outbreaks.

When Brad and I were discussing his flight to Barcelona in August, I realized that travel safety has two components. One is passenger safety, the other is the spread of Covid-19 to new locations. For obvious reasons, Brad is concerned about passenger safety. If passengers don’t feel safe, they don’t buy tickets.

On the other hand, if air travel starts a second wave of Covid-19 infections, air travel will close down again regardless of whether passengers feel safe enough to buy tickets. So, solving the passenger safety problem with, say, masks, may not keep the airlines afloat if sick passengers ignite new Covid-19 outbreaks. A low-cost screening method would keep sick passengers off planes in the first place. As with so many things Covid-19, though, no one knows for sure how to screen for Covid-19 short of a PCR test. A smell test would reduce screen about 1/3 or the cases.

Which brings me to the bigger topic of Covid-19 and capitalism. In theory, free market capitalism allocates resources optimally, but Covid-19 provides cases studies of how profit motive doesn’t seem to line up with economic problems created by the virus.

Low cost screening would have a huge payoff for industries like travel and entertainment, but the only development efforts I know about for Covid-19 screening (besides PCR testing, which is costly and slow) are big data efforts, mostly with data from wearables. Perhaps the lack of development is because the travel and entertainment industries are not in a financial position to make Covid-19 screening investments. If the free markets aren’t creating low-cost Covid-19 screening, maybe governments should initiate a Manhattan Project for Covid-19 screening.

As I noted before, there is unprecedented investment in Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, but more in low-risk re-purposing than in high-risk novel approaches. With luck, the sheer number of development and re-purposing efforts will yield a quick Covid-19 knockout punch. The calculus of profit being what it is, a knockout punch will take longer if it depends on a high-risk solution because economic resources are concentrated on solutions deemed to be low-risk.

Covid-19 also is reorganizing the way we work. Why did it take a virus to show us that many information technology employees can work remotely at lower cost? Why didn’t the free markets shows us that same thing? Covid-19 is reallocating real estate in unimaginable ways, sometimes for better (telecommuting), sometimes for worse (theater, restaurants, churches).

In particular, Covid-19 has reorganized the science community. I noted how UCSF organized a worldwide Covid-19 drug re–purposing team in days. In Wired, Maimuna S. Majumder describes the work of scientists she recruited with Twitter to work on Covid-19 problems.

Since our first hackathon, the volunteer network has grown to nearly 100 people, with 23 active research projects. One team is analyzing text extracted from hundreds of thousands of news articles to better characterize the quality of the US media’s pandemic coverage. Another is sifting through millions of tweets to understand how public sentiment toward face masks has shifted since early April, when the CDC recommended that everyone wear them. Without question, the diversity of the network, across disciplines and institutions but demographically too, has been a tremendous boon to the formulation and investigation of problems that really matter.

Wired, “Coronavirus Researchers Are Dismantling Science’s Ivory Tower—One Study at a Time,” 18 June 2020.

Of course, free market capitalism depends on the quality of the information used for pricing a transaction. We know more know now about Covid-19 than when I started Covid Diary BCN 99 entries ago. We still have more to learn.

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