27 December 2020 – Sunday – #127

There are a couple of odd Christmas traditions in Catalonia, el Caganer y el Caga Tió. Ruben taught these to Brad and me when we arrived last year. The polite way of explaining el Caganer is that he’s a pastor symbolizing fertility, but fertility in the sense of fertilization. As in, how to say this tastefully, taking a dump.

At Casa Solar, we had un Caga Tió. Tió in this case is not an uncle (that’s tío in Spanish), but a log (in Catalan), and, in the case of Caga Tió, a log that Catalan children feed and then hit until it poops Christmas presents.

Caga Tió at Casa Solar.

Not sure why the scatalogical fixation in Catalonia, but word is that the log got a face upgrade to make it easier to feed (and to compete with Santa Claus in retail). The Catalan traditions make as much sense, of course, as a man in a reindeer powered sled who slides down chimneys to deliver presents.

Although Brad and I didn’t feed or hit our Caga Tió, I, for one, believe it’s entirely responsible for the Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine that showed up in Spain for Christmas.

In the tradition of celebrating Christmas as an extended marketing event, the Spanish government has outdone itself with its Covid-19 Christmas wrapping paper. Spain and other countries moved quickly to deploy the Pfizer vaccine after EMA gave it full approval (not a EUA) last Monday. Not to be outdone by EMA and in the holiday spirit, the Vatican also gave the new Covid-19 vaccines its blessing, even if some of the underlying technology uses fetal tissue.

The first vaccination is like the immaculate conception. Every country has its iconic first vaccination Tweet. It’s the contemporary Madonna and child. Here is the Spanish first vaccination from Prime Minister Sánchez this morning.

Given the way Covid-19 numbers have risen since restrictions were relaxed at the beginning of December, the Spanish government can use good Covid-19 P.R. In the days before Christmas, Spanish regions started clamping down again. In Catalonia, restaurant hours have been cut back to two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Para llevar is allowed any time, so many restaurants continue serving in the evening from their front door. Travel is limited again, curfew at 10p (except Christmas Eve and New Yearś Eve at 1:30a), and social gatherings cannot exceed six.

Caga Tió gave us another Christmas present. US vaccine surveys show that Covid-19 vaccination attitudes are changing as actual vaccine arrives. “In polls by Gallup, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center, the portion of people saying they are now likely or certain to take the vaccine has grown from about 50% this summer to more than 60%, and in one poll 73% — a figure that approaches what some public health experts say would be sufficient for herd immunity.”

Word of caution: Lots of debate about what percentage of the population needs vaccinations to achieve Covid-19 herd immunity. Second word of caution: I’m still encountering lots of vaccine misinformation on my social feeds.

One last Christmas present, an amazing jamón serrano from Jim, all 15 lbs of it. Our small Christmas Eve orphans’ dinner started by learning how to carve el jamon. We needed vocabulary lessons for parts of the ham and carving equipment. If you’re in the mood to give a late Christmas present, we still could use carving lessons. The best maestro cortador charges €4,000 to slice a jamón. It’s an art that takes practice.

Jamón serrano at Casa Solar.

Our Christmas Eve feast included roast chicken and artichokes. Alexa, who’s returning to Germany soon, cooked up excellent German sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. For dessert, Cristián made a delish German-style vegan berry tart and Amy brought creamy tiramisu. Brad survived his first Christmas intact.

Most of the Covid-19 news before Christmas sensationalized new virus strains from the UK (reportedly more transmission in children, stronger binding) and South Africa (reportedly more virulent, higher viral load). Bottom line is that more study is needed of both new strains to characterize their virulence and transmission.

The UK strain got more press as countries stopped travel to the UK to contain the spread. That didn’t work very well. In addition to cancelled holiday flights, around 3,000 lorries transporting Christmas goods were stuck when their continental passage was denied. In spite of the UK transportation bans, the new strain has been detected around the world. For the UK, the whole debacle seemed to be a preview of life after next week’s Brexit.

The new strains brought up questions about Covid-19 vaccines. Specifically, will the current vaccines work as the virus mutates? The answer is that Covid-19 vaccines are based on so many proteins that a handful changing shouldn’t change effectiveness significantly.

The question is, is this virus going to change the surface proteins in a way that can obviate either the vaccines or prior immunity, and there’s no indication that it’s doing  that right now, but over time it will evolve in ways where it can probably obviate prior infection or vaccines to some degree, so we’ll probably need to adapt our vaccines over time.

Former FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb, CNBC, “‘I think this is already in the U.S.,’ Dr. Scott Gottlieb says of new U.K. Covid strain” 21 December 2020.

If you want to get into the weeds, here’s a good Twitter thread about “antigenic drift,” the dance between the mutating virus and vaccines.

To me, the bigger question is whether Covid-19 IFR will change as the virus mutates.

Marc Bevand, comparison of Covid-19 and flu IFR by age based on several studies. Source: https://github.com/mbevand/covid19-age-stratified-ifr

The only way we know how IFRs change is to measure each new dominant strain. The risk of letting the virus essentially run wild is that more infections lead to more mutations and to more uncertainty about vaccine effectiveness and IFRs.

If you’re a software nerd who wants a software explanation of how Covid-19 vaccines work, Brad passed me this article on reverse engineering the BioNTech mRNA code. Even if you’re not a software nerd, the technology is impressive.

Since it’s the end of 2020 (thank goddess!), I’m going to post a year end review of Covid-19 mortality.

Cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million by country. Source: Australian Broadcasting Company.

This chart is based on confirmed cases. The actual Covid-19 deaths for countries at the top of the chart are much higher according to excess death statistics. At the end of the year, it looks like the US did end up copying Sweden as so many anti-lockdown pundits recommended. Too bad.

One local Covid-19 note: there sure is a lot of road construction going on around Barcelona. Not far from Casa Solar, Avinguda Diagonal is completely closed at the intersection of Passeig Sant Joan. This is like closing Broadway at 42nd Street in New York City, or Market Street at Van Ness in San Francisco, or the 405 in Los Angeles.

Road construction on Av. Diagonal

Brad mentioned that during the pandemic, while there is so little traffic, San Francisco has prioritized all approved and funded infrastructure projects that slow traffic. I suspect Barcelona is doing the same thing.

Covid-19 bits.

I arrived in Barcelona on the first of January, so this coming week I’ll celebrate my first anniversary living here. This article, 72hrs in Barcelona, describes the city I expected to enjoy in 2020. It’s a quaint read now. Covid-19 has changed life here and everywhere. I feel lucky to have met so many great people in spite of the Covid-19 restrictions. Going forward, Barcelona seems like it will be a little less touristy than it used to be. I can’t wait to enjoy more live events and to travel around Spain and Europe more.

It’s not only the winter holiday season, it’s also still 2020. That, and I’m living in the land of scatalogical Christmas symbols. So what more perfect way to end this Christmas blog post than a touching Covid-19 fecal transmission story.

Covid-19 fecal airborne transmission.

I write this to create a long form record of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you like it, please pass it on to friends and family. For more frequent Covid-19 updates, please follow me on Twitter.

Until we reach herd immunity, please wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear a mask.

Happy New Year from Barcelona!

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