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Today, a friend suggested that I listen to The Daily podcast from the New York Times. He wanted me to hear an episode featuring science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. titled “The Next Year (or Two) of the Pandemic,” which, he told me, was largely about the stark societal divisions that will likely emerge in the United States, as people with COVID-19 antibodies go on to live happy, normal lives, while the rest of us stay locked inside, waiting for a vaccine that may never come. [I’m envisioning the two groups looking like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.]

Well, I found the transcript, and now I’m stuck in a loop, wondering how this might all play out, assuming McNeil is correct when he says that a vaccine may take as many as four years. [That’s apparently the fastest time in which a vaccine has ever been produced.] McNeil talks about the very real possibility that people will eventually just accept the risk, opting to infect themselves, rather than remaining in the purgatory most of us now inhabit. It would be a huge risk, of course, but I can see how, after a year of sheltering-in-place, someone might decide that a 2% death rate is worth the gamble to once again rejoin society — a society where participation is likely to be predicated upon one’s ability to demonstrate that they’ve survived COVID-19, and have the antibodies to prove it.

The thing I’m wondering about is what this begins to look like after a few years, especially if there’s no prospect of a vaccine in sight. At what point, I wonder, do people decide that we no longer want to subsidize the existence of a class of people who are, by that point, unemployable for not having the COVID-19 antibodies? I’m imaging a Gattaca-like dystopian future where huge public health campaigns are aimed at getting the “un-evolved” ready to be infected. Society-wide smoking cessation programs. Mandatory weigh loss clinics. And, eventually, mandated participation in a lottery, where you’re given an assigned date and time to appear at a regional COVID transmission center. I suspect it would just be a quick squirt in the eyes at the desk of a Holiday Inn, before you’re assigned a cot, and introduced to the other members of your cohort, but I’d like to think that we could find a way to add a little spectacle, perhaps making it something like Carousel in Logan’s Run.

Here, for those of you who didn’t hear McNeil’s interview, or read his piece in the New York Times that predated the podcast, is a bit of the transcript from The Daily.

…(M)aking a vaccine within 18 months is extremely optimistic. The record we’ve ever had for producing a vaccine is four years. That was a mumps vaccine produced back in the ‘50s. We’ve got new techniques that speed it up, but some things can’t be sped up. And then after we design the vaccine, we have to think about producing the vaccine. If we need 300 million doses of vaccine, or if we need two shots — if we need 600 million doses of vaccine — that’s a gigantic undertaking. I talked to some vaccine production experts, and they said, the average vaccine plant in America makes 5 to 10 million doses. So we’ve got to find some way to make 300 to 600 million doses of vaccine, and we have to start planning now, even before the vaccine exists.

That’s a kind of worst case scenario, as far as timing is concerned. Everything may get lowered in this. We may test vaccines in a way that we would think of as ethically unthinkable in normal times. We may go with somewhat lower safety standards for vaccines, because we’re facing a situation where life is dangerous. But yeah, the fastest human vaccine ever made was mumps. Four years, from start to finish.

…There are a very small number of people now who are immune. And they’re very much in demand. They’re in demand for their blood, because you can harvest antibodies from their blood. They’re in demand for doing medical jobs that are dangerous, like intubating patients, because they can do it without fear of infection. They’ll be in demand for all sorts of other jobs, because they can travel anywhere. They can do face-to-face interactions with customers without any fear. And they’re going to be a special class in society. There’ll be different standards, different ways of living for two different classes in society. So say you’re an immune and I’m not. I basically have to stay inside here in hiding, and I’m depressed as hell about it. I have a granddaughter who’s going to be born in June, and I sit here in my apartment thinking, I may not see her until she’s two years old. And that’s horrible to contemplate, but it may be a fact. Meanwhile, you, as an immune, could go visit my granddaughter, or go out and take my job.

….Germany is talking about issuing certificates, but you don’t want something you can pass from person to person. So China takes people’s cell phones and has a QR code that you read as you come into the subway, you come into a restaurant, you come into any place where somebody can check your phone. And that readout tells the person looking at your phone that you’re immune. So yeah, people are already thinking about this.

…In the years before smallpox vaccine, people used to take pus from the blisters of smallpox victims, or dried up scabs from smallpox victims, and put the pus into — stab a little hole in their child’s arm and put some of the pus in there, or blow the scabs into your nose. And that would give you a usually mild case of smallpox. And I talked to an immunologist who said, look, the child had about a 1 percent chance of dying, and the parents recognized that. And that was better, because if you had a smallpox epidemic come through, usually, about a third of the susceptibles died. So if you had six kids, you might think hard about giving them all a little bit of smallpox in their arm…

There are two big things to consider when talking about the idea of purposefully infecting people. The first is that, even if you live through it, and develop antibodies that give you immunity, we have no idea how long that immunity might last. As McNeil points out, “this disease has only been around since November at the earliest,” and we just don’t know how long you might be immune if you get COVID-19 and survive it. And, second, we can’t accurately predict who will die. “We know that there are people who are more at risk,” McNeil says, “but we also know that it’s unpredictable — that young, athletic, healthy people, totally unpredictably, end up on a ventilator, and a few of them die.” Maybe, over time, we’ll have a better sense of who might likely survive the ordeal, but one would think there would always be a little doubt, especially among older people who might not be in the best possible physical condition.

Regardless of how it plays out, it’s going to be absolutely fascinating. If the government can’t convince people that a vaccine is imminent, we’re going to start hearing more about COVID parties. And, I imagine, we’re going to start hearing more about the possibility of controlled, government sanctioned exposure for those who statistically look like good prospects, and encouraged isolation for those who don’t. [Imagine new, enclosed cities for the elderly who have money.] I doubt that it will look like Carousel, but it’ll be surreal… I’d love to hear what science fiction writers are talking about these days during their Zoom happy hours, and what their imagined scenarios look like. But, absent that, I’d be curious to know what you think. How do you think all of this may play out?

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36 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I would imagine it with everybody wearing masks, not going out too much, but just taking a chance of being infected and infecting others while going about daily business. Kind of like working in the hospital, but not as a direct COVID care giver that goes into isolation rooms. Think of a unit secretary, maintenance, food services, etc. After a while one gets used to it and accepts the risk. Our Medicare and Social Security problem may be solving itself organically.

  2. Posted April 21, 2020 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    It will be interesting because currently, the divide is between those who can safely isolate and those who cannot, mostly out of economic necessity. I don’t know how it will change things. I like to think that it will change things for the better and we will all come together to help each other. I worry that it will make people afraid and we’ll see a rise in fascism and totalitarianism.

  3. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Aloha there is no evidence that the antibodies produce long lasting immunity.
    We must crush the virus. Health and safety strike till we make workplaces and public places safe.
    Dont accept coexistence with this new plague. Demand better of our “leaders”.

  4. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Aloha, read that China has locked down an area along the Russian border because of Covid entering the country from Russia. Anyone leaving this area of China is now subject to a 28 day quarantine.
    China seems absolutely committed to crushing the virus.
    All of China is only reporting 100 or so cases a day, almost all in this border region.

  5. John Brown
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    McNeils story is compelling, but assumes immunity is conferred, which may not occur uniformly. One theory for the “2nd positives” happening in recovered folks is that a low viral load and asymptomatic infection may not produce adequate antibodies to defend against a high viral load incident infection. Science is hard.

  6. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Aloha we are clearly at a transformative time. The Paris Climate accord called for 8% reduction in carbon out put. The virus has caused up to a 5% reduction. Now is the time to transform the economy. It maybe our ladt opportunity.

    https://www.severe-weather.eu/global-weather/april-strong-arctic-warming-event-fa/?fbclid=IwAR1DkCpH8pakK7fkbdYTB8oFndl2K39HrOILWXEMJt3dTKWNF4B_YRs7oHc

  7. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Oh Wobblie– There are ways to reduce emissions as required but the current economic standstill is not sustainable. We can’t afford it.
    We didn’t build the robots necessary in time for all of us to stay home and do nothing.

    It amazes me how naive conspiracists who believe themselves to be independent thinking skeptics can be.

  8. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    It is Earth Day. Since most of us have more time on our hands, please consider spending some time watching the original EarthDay call-to-action speeches of Gaylord Nelson, which I believe to be prescient and which presented environmentalism as a social movement. If we ever do this work seriously, I believe it will look like the vision Sen Nelson laid out.

    http://www.nelsonearthday.net/video/vha593_nelsonearthday.php

  9. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Aloha , the feds pulled 6.5 trillion dollars out of no where to prop up the banks. They have about 20 trillion available before we would have serious monetary problems.

    Here is a good analysis of why the Death Cult is forcing the working poor back to work in Georgia.

    https://mobile.twitter.com/aishacs/status/1252407674559332359

  10. Jesse
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I’m more interested in how the covid blame game plays out. Now that someone has “proven” they hacked the CDC, Wuhan lab, WHO & Gates Foundation with emails and passwords, the nutter community is going to believe whatever nonsense the Russia/China/Iran trio channels through that crack in our society. With a crippled economy, what better really cry to production and jobs is there… besides war?

  11. Jesse
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I did have a conversation with a national guardsmen that was in a meeting talking about personal tracking devices, like an Apple Watch, we’d have to wear. I can give you his contact, he has a paper from his briefing

  12. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    “the feds pulled 6.5 trillion dollars out of no where”
    Yes they printed that money. And the actual need for economic relief is already estimated at 30 trillion to get us through a few months.

    We can not do this for more than a few months. Truly. It’s not sustainable.

    When cornered on their economic magical thinking, people on the left always seem to imagine there is money hidden under the floorboards. While I’m not denying that we put the money we do have to the wrong purposes most to the time, there are not reserves or wealth so vast that we can simply stop functioning for an extended time period.

  13. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Re the horror scenario posited by the podcast and Mark: since Covid already appears to have mutated several times, it’s unlikely immunity is conferred for any sustained period of time so the entire scenario is flawed from it’s overly simplistic premise.

    Reality is more complicated than horror stories. But we love a horror story.

  14. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    During a pandemic in which it has become very clear that our ability to predict the future is very very limited, the degree to which we will lean even more on simplistic predictions of the future, especially horrible ones, is fascinating.

    It appears to be an anxiety response, not the reasoned one it presents itself as.

    Chaos is not predictable and it dominates human-created reality. We are not reaonable creatures. We use our capacity to ‘reason’ largely to create the illusion of control and understanding from our anxiety and fear.

    Why else would so many lay people continue to try to frame this disease as a narrative without any real expertise or reliable data?

  15. Posted April 22, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    No one will buy what you are selling if your message is “we don’t know what the fuck is going to happen” LOL. People want predictions and it absolutely is about having control. Sometimes there are ways to make predictions that are more accurate than just chance too. For example, I recently read an article written by a scientist who specializes in viruses. They were saying that it is very common for a fast mutating virus like this to become less deadly and less harmful as it mutates. Much more common than a virus becoming more deadly and harmful as it mutates. If that is true, a prediction that this virus will become less harmful all on its own may be more likely to be true than not. That kind of prediction can sell because it is what a lot of people want to hear. Even so, it is still just a guess.

  16. Anonymous
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Jean, I don’t think Mark was trying to make a prediction. I think he was only trying to engage people in a conversation as to what this might look like in the future using the McNeil interview as a jumping off point.

  17. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Anonymous– I’ve grown tired of all the lay person speculation. I wish we would all stop giving our opinions so much weight when they regard a fucking epidemic about which there is not enough information.

    I see how it is helpful for people to weave fairy tales and horror stories of their worst fears, but we should call them what they are and not pretend they give us useful information.

    Sometimes, very occasionally, writers if science fiction get one small piece right. And those people are heralded for their ability to prophecy. When,it seems to me that the Greek playwrights, who focused on human error and fallibility evident in their time, seemed to get more right about what the future held than any science fiction writer ever.

  18. Bob
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Warlord, How many people will have died because Der Cheeto denied the epidemic, refused to act and recommended a deadly, untested drug called hydroxychloroquine, that has been completely discredited by actual scientists? A thousand times as many as died in Benghazi? A hundred thousand times as many? Should Trump stand trial for this HDumb?

    Lock him up. Shoot him in the fucking head. Infect his already diseased family in their dick holes and lady parts. Even that idiot son and all Donald’s grandkids. None of them should be allowed to survive and procreate.

  19. Bob
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “I’ve grown tired of all the lay person speculation. I wish we would all stop giving our opinions so much weight when they regard a fucking epidemic about which there is not enough information.”

    I nominate Jean Henry for the irony impaired award of the week.

  20. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    https://www.cake.co/conversations/1nPbHfT/images-that-make-you-go-hmmm-during-a-pandemic-a-wordless-conversation/w6zwJ7y

  21. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Bob– Have I woven out any scenario of what I expect to come from this disease in an area outside of my area of expertise? No I haven’t.

    I have pointed up that very recent studies showing up to 30 mutations of covid and one major one since the outbreak began would tell us immunity is not likely to be permanently conferred.

    That’s not anything I made up and it weaves no elaborate scenario; it questions the premise of one.

    I so appreciate your unique ability to jump to an attack without actually paying attention to anything I do. It’s impressive.

    Thanks for all the attention,
    Your pal, Jean

  22. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Travel ban ten days after first US case. Europe travel ban. Border closed. Isn’t the question how many hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives were saved by the President’s actions? Remember there were some 2.2 million projected deaths with no action; 100,000 to 240,000 deaths with action. We are beating the fuck out of that so what’s wrong, derpus?

  23. iRobert
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Are you saying someone misrepresented what you have said, Jean?

    Oh you poor thing.

  24. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Aloha JH thanks for reading the article I posted from China indicating the rapid rate of mutation.
    Your magical thinking that anything will be like “before”, is on par with EOS hiding in its bunker till the rapture and HW thinking a casualty level 50% of WWII is a good thing.

  25. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    You don’t think it would be good to come in under the best case projection. Hm.

  26. Bob
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I think you ignored the fact that your Pennsylvania Ave rimjob recipient of choice urged Americans to take a dangerous drug that has caused great harm. All for the slight chance it might work and save his ass. You’re pathetic.

  27. Jean Henry
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Wobblie— where did I say anything would be like it was before?

    I did not.
    (Nice projection)
    Very interesting that you equate acknowledging an incapacity to predict the future with believing things will remain the same. You have a lot of certainty for Someone who believe himself a skeptic.

    IRobert— people here, especially you, misrepresent what I say all the time. I correct them (sometimes) . I don’t complain about it. Bob, As you may have noticed, is a unique brand of bully for this site. He isn’t interested in any dialogue. He just wants to attack people and make no point. And I’m not complaining about him either. He just warrants a different level of response. Since there is never any larger point than personal attack, my only possible retort is to go personal. I’m just pointing out what a lame and insecure POS he is.

  28. Dan Richardson
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, “it’s going to be absolutely fascinating.”

  29. iRobert
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Jean! You feel things you say are misrepresented? That must be terrible for you. I’m sure everyone here will agree with me when I say I can’t imagine what that must be like for you. You poor thing.

  30. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Aloho JH you know Im not a skeptic you named me a dogmatic dolt. It is either my way or the highway, if I only knew which direction go.

    It seems though that the rational ones on this web site would tend to agree with maintaining the lockdown long enough to truly be effective. I think we also have a right to expect safe workplaces and public spaces. We would also support rational return to work programs. I also think we also would support efforts to minimize the economic hit delivered to individuals. I also think we would agree that profiteering, and corruption should be restrained and punished.
    The economic reality as we start to returning to work will be that millions will have no jobs to return to. That the various moratoriums against evictions, foreclosures, job losses will have expired.
    The starved and semi privatized social service safety net will be totally unable to meet the needs. Wouldn’t now be a good time to decide what kind of future we build out of this disaster?
    For one this seems like the perfect time to get off of fossil fuels- kinda like killing two existential crisis with one economic program.

  31. bet HW that McCabe wouldn’t be fired and all I got was this stupid name
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Aloha. Here is a program for crushing the virus proposed in NEJM on April 1. When the Death Cult members begin saying “who could have known” and “there was no other viable strategy “

    https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe2007263?query=featured_coronavirus1

  32. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Why don’t you expound on the “great harm” of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin then.

  33. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Stupid name is unintelligible.

  34. Posted April 23, 2020 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    wobblie, I certainly hope that this time will make people see things differently but I have my doubts. I guess we will find out soon enough!

  35. Bob
    Posted April 25, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    HDumb, your God suggested injecting yourself with cleaning products. Dumbass. Bow before your idiot Lord and Savior.

  36. iRobert
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    With testing, people identified as having the SARS-Cov2 corresponding antibodies could be returning to work. With millions of such tests being performed weekly, those millions could be returning to work weekly.

    FF suggested the tests have some unreliability. Administering multiple tests over a period of a few days would dramatically increase reliability.

    But we have an administration too incompetent to get it done, and a President too stupid to even understand that.

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