COVID-19 Day 70: Letter to Kamala Harris on SB580

One of my state senators and one-time DNC presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, recently co-authored Senate Resolution 580 which aims to condemn and denounce anti-Asian sentiment, racism, discrimination, and religious intolerance as evidenced in the use of such phrases as “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese virus,” and “Kung-flu.” 

I wrote this letter to her:

Ms. Harris,

“Wuhan Virus” and “Kung-Flu” are not any more racist terms than “Russian Collusion” or “Ghetofabulous”. ‘Made in China’ is just a term unless your intention is derogatory to indicate cheapness or a matter of pride for authenticity. As an Asian-American liberal, please stop wasting time on woke posturing. We have many more pressing and substantive issues, like providing economic solutions for people at high-risk for COVID-19, who must continue to shelter-in-place as the country opens up. Please deal with those.

Thomas DelMundo

As a ‘classical’ liberal (I’m old-school), any regulation on free-speech, no matter how well-intended, raises red flags. Reading the actual text of the resolution, it is at best ‘virtue signaling’ reaffirming her colleague’s stance against discrimination (not that any member of Congress recently said they were for Asian discrimination). But at worst, it is ‘virtue signaling’ without actually proposing any improvements on existing laws on anti-Asian discrimination that it purports to address. A cynical reading would be that SB580 is merely an empty ‘achievement’ that can be cited as an actual accomplishment in the November campaign season.


COVID-19 Day 69: Why Cloth Masks Work Better Than You Think


This graphics is used by some to claim that cloth masks are ineffective in stopping the spread of COVID-19 or most viruses. Similar memes claim that even N95 masks can’t filter out particles smaller than 0.3 microns in size and coronavirus are 0.1 microns in size. Both claims are wrong because they fail to understand some key concepts in how viruses are spread, and how small particles actually behave in filters.

If you see one of these memes you can simply cut and paste the following in reply:

That’s funny. But I really need to debunk it so you aren’t passing along false information.

It’s true that COVID-19 virus particles are about 0.1 microns in size, smaller than the 0.3 chemical particulates used to measure N95 effectiveness.

But viruses aren’t leaving your body as individual particles. They are trapped inside respiratory fluid droplets that are 0.6-1.0 microns in size. These droplets are large enough to get caught and absorbed in cloth fibers, trapping the viral particles on those fibers. Which is why you need to change and wash those masks often.

Furthermore, at sizes below 0.1 micron, objects are effected by static electrical attraction and Brownian motion, making them more likely to get caught by fibers, rather than pass around them. Here’s an article explaining that:

Finally, no mask is perfect, nor protective measure is absolute. Cloth masks are only about 50%-80% as effective as surgical masks.
These are measures we can take to lower the chances of getting infected and lower the chances of infecting others unintentionally. You can take your own chances for yourself as you see fit. But you should do your best improve the odds for your friends and neighbors.

COVID-19 Day 68: A Safer Treatment Than Hydroxychloroquine


Despite early hopes by President Trump and Chinese researchers, chloroquine, and its less toxic derivative hydroxychloroquine, has disappointed as a cure for COVID-19. At high doses, hydroxychloroquine has caused dangerous heart arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) which could easily kill a critical patient, clinging to life, intubated in an ICU. Patients with moderate-to-severe symptoms are less at risk of death due to heart arrhythmia, which is why it’s still used to treat COVID-19.

Hydroxychloroquine’s immune suppressant with anti-inflammatory properties are thought to help calm the cytokine storm that causes the lung and organ damage and leads to death. French doctors were among the first to report positive results in COVID-19 cases but a larger US study didn’t find similar results. Further studies are starting to determine effective it truly is compared with other treatments. And a new competitor has entered the ring.

Researchers in Michigan tried using a different class of anti-inflammatory drugs to blunt the cytokine storm. Like hydroxychloroquine, the corticosteroid methylprednisolone is also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients. Researchers found methylprednisolone reduced average hospital stays from 8 days to 5 days in patients with moderate-to-serious symptoms. 

Prolonged methylprednisolone use does have some known side-effects including headache, nausea, weight gain, acne, feet swelling, and high blood pressure. But the COVID-19 treatment was a short 3-day, twice-a-day IV infusion, so none of the test subjects experienced any of the typical side-effects. More importantly, corticosteroids do not cause dangerous heart arrhythmia. Additional studies are underway to confirm these results.

While not a cure, a safer treatment for COVID-19 is certainly something to be pumped about.


COVID-19 Day 67: The CDC Didn’t Hide Chloroquine Research


On social media we’ve been seeing posts claiming the government knew that chloroquine could treat COVID-19. They cite a 2005 scientific paper from CDC scientists. The implication is that this and other ‘COVID cures’ are being suppressed by the government, CDC, Dr. Fauchi, or the ‘bad guy’ du jour. Perhaps they didn’t bother reading the actual study or weren’t able to understand the technical language in it. But there is one bit of vocabulary in the paper that everyone should know, ‘in vitro.’

‘In vitro’ is Latin for ‘in glass’ refers to the study or manipulation of microscopic organisms or cells in a test tube, flask, or petri dish. Most people have at least heard of ‘in vitro fertilization’, from which we get the term ‘test-tube baby’. The 2005 study clearly states that CDC scientists found that chloroquine, in high concentrations, could kill SARS coronavirus “in vitro.

After the 2003 SARS outbreak, the CDC and many health organizations tested many common drugs to determine their effects on SARS coronavirus. This 2005 paper was one of those tests. It was an interesting discovery that lead to further trials, but it wasn’t a game-changer.

Many chemicals and drugs that appear to work test-tubes often fail when tested on humans. Sometimes the drugs are non-effective or even less effective than placebo due to how that drug is metabolized by our organs and many other unknown factors. Current studies of chloroquine, and its less toxic derivative hydroxychloroquine, have shown less than hoped for clinical results on COVID-19 patients.

In addition, chemicals or drugs that have been found to kill viruses in a test-tube may be toxic at the same high concentrations in the human bloodstream; chlorine bleach for example. This is something President Trump failed to understand when he asked the question about disinfectant chemicals and UV light at an infamous press conference. Hydroxychloroquine in high concentrations produced dangerous side-effects critical COVID-19 test subjects.

Since this 2005 CDC paper was published, this information was shared with virus researchers around the world. A Google Scholar search shows this study was cited by 377 other studies and papers. In fact, this paper led to Chinese scientists trying Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesiver against SARS-Cov-2 in test-tubes, which lead to human trials of Hydroxychloroquine by doctors in France, which got Tweeted about by Elon Musk, which got reported on by Fox news, which led to President Trump promoting it in the COVID Taskforce press conference.

So the claim that this study was hidden just doesn’t hold true.


COVID-19 Day 31: The Batshit Crazy Story of Chloroquine

COVID-19 Day 66: Conspiracy Parody

I was frankly getting tired of seeing crank conspiracy videos so I created a parody of one.  ?

COVID-19 Day 65: The Pitfalls of Scientific Peer Review

We rely on scientists in these uncertain times for the ‘truth’. But as Indiana Jones said, if you want the truth, ask a philosopher, not a scientist. 

As a guy from the corporate world, I never knew the academic world was so cut-throat or that peer review had a dark underbelly. I thought a peer-reviewed scientific paper meant that it had passed some 5-point quality inspection for accuracy and trustworthiness. But as we’re discovering with the rapid revisions in the understanding of COVID-19, the science often isn’t settled. And that peer-review isn’t a guarantee of excellence, it’s just a fence to keep the riff-raff out of the pool.

In a paper, “Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals” published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the author (a former editor of the journal) bemoans its many shortcomings. The classic peer-review process itself is not a guarantee of the quality of the papers published. And perhaps a broader crowd-sourced method similar to Amazon reviews or Reddit could be employed?

Scientific journals publish research papers submitted to them by scientists. But before a paper accepts and publishes that paper, it first sends out copies to be reviewed by other experts in that field, ‘Peers’. If the reviewer finds faults in the method, content, or just doesn’t think the information is significant, the journal will often reject the paper.

A big flaw in the process is that most reviews are unpaid. So scientists must volunteer their time to review papers, out of their own sense of duty (or mutual benefit). Reviewing papers often fall to the back-burner for scientists; behind teaching or their own research. As a consequence, it can take months, even years for a submitted paper to be published or even rejected.

Peer-review is also subject to personal politics, conflicts, and rivalries. Scientists rely on grants to fund their research. Grants are more often awarded to the scientists who are perceived to be the more successful and noteworthy because they have published the most papers. ‘Publish or perish’ is the academic axiom.

The reviewers are supposed to be anonymous but scientific fields are small worlds. Scientists tend to know what kind of work their peers are doing, so inferring the identity of a peer-reviewer is apparently not difficult. Scientists compete with each other for grant money and have a vested interest in promoting the papers of their friends and colleagues over the papers of rivals.

This is not a new phenomenon. Feuds involving history’s most famous scientists like Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, and Jonas Salk, reveal personal enmities and backstabbing snipes that would make for good Soap Opera. When a junior scientist submits a paper for peer review they also run the risk of having rival scientists reject the work to stifle them or outright steal it.

On a podcast with the evolutionary biologist, Brett Weinstein, he revealed for the first time, a story of scholarly theft that happened to him decades ago and sidelined his career. He co-authored a paper and submitted it to the prestigious journal, Nature and was rejected. He discovered his submission was blocked by a famous molecular biologist, with whom Brett had previously corresponded to help with his research. What was more galling was that she would later use Brett’s findings in her own lectures, after she was awarded a Nobel prize for science.

The peer-review process has even more consequences than a scientist’s career. Government agencies rely on peer-reviewed papers in promoting drugs like Remdesivir or Hydroxychloroquine. We’re also seeing a politicization of science with the shut-down vs. re-open camps debating models of herd immunity and COVID-19 death numbers. And we can’t forget climate science.

The concern is that non-scientists (like myself) make assumptions as to the validity of scientific papers we come across. Especially if those non-scientists are journalists who often turn ‘implications’ into ‘absolutes’ for sensational, click-bait headlines. I’m old enough to remember the media hype around  ‘Cold Fusion’. This is why scientists and journal editors are focused on trying to get things right before a paper is published. A retraction is far more damaging to the scientific confidence than a rejection.

With all of its faults and biases, peer-review is only one step in the process of disseminating science. Once reviewed by the journal’s editors, who are also scientists, a peer-reviewed paper may be published. The scientific community that reads that journal, traditionally voice their own opinions out in the open. Some conduct confirmation research to disprove or build upon the original papers’ findings, and in turn submit their own papers. The process goes on.

Science is not truth. It’s an iterative process of testing and skepticism that attempts to discover a greater sense of certainty. But like all human attempts, it reflects the humans that engage in it; all of our passions, pettiness, and prejudices. We should all aspire to greater objectivity in science. But the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.


COVID-19 Day 64: Why the 2nd Wave of Spanish Flu was more deadly


We’ve been warned to be careful about re-opening because the 2nd wave of COVID-19 could be worse. Experts remember the devastating Spanish Flu of 1918 which killed an estimated 675,000 people in the United States. More than half of these deaths occurred in the 2nd wave of infections that occurred in the Fall of 1918. 

These were the early days of modern medicine. They wouldn’t discover penicillin until 1928 and they wouldn’t identify the flu virus until 1933. In 1918 people thought the Spanish flu was caused by bacteria.

Why was the 2nd wave so much more deadly than the 1st or 3rd wave? Some think it was because people who survived the 1st wave in the Spring, let their guard down and stopped following safe hygiene practices. Others think returning soldiers from WW1 fueled the rise in cases. Some modern virologists hypothesized that the flu virus may have mutated into a more deadly strain. Unfortunately no live virus samples existed from 1918 to test this hypothesis. Until nearly a hundred years later, samples were unearthed. Literally.

In 1997, microbiologist Johan Hutin was able to recover flu virus from a body frozen in the Alaskan permafrost. He got permission from tribal elders to exhume the graves of tribal members who died of the flu in 1918. Hutin was able to find retrieve frozen samples and bring them back to the CDC for research. The full story is even more amazing and spans over 40 years of failed attempts. You can read it on the CDC website, but I’ll summarize the results here. 

A team was able to retrieve flu viral genes from Hutin’s sample and reconstruct a live virus. Under Level 4 safety protocols (the highest level reserved for the most deadly pathogens like Ebola), they tested the revived 1918 virus on special lab mice with human-like lung cells. They discovered the 1918 strain replicated 50x faster than the normal seasonal flu virus.


Fig A. Seasonal flu infecting lung tissue Fig C. 1918 flu infecting lung tissue

Fertile chicken eggs are used to breed normal flu virus to develop our yearly vaccines. When the 1918 strain was injected into live eggs, it killed the chick fetuses. Molecular biologists found a unique set of mutations in both the virus’ shell and in its RNA that made it more deadly than the seasonal flu.

The scary thing that keeps virologists awake at night, is that these random mutations might happen again. Flu viruses mutate all the time, which is why we have to get a new flu shot every year.  There’s no guarantee another flu strain won’t randomly assemble the same combination of genes that made the 1918 strain so deadly. 

Thankfully, evolution favors less-deadly virus strains. That’s because deadly strains tend to kill their hosts before they are able to infect more people, which is how the 1918 pandemic burned itself out. The less-deadly strains are able to keep going. COVID-19 is now too widespread and will probably stay with us year after year but become less deadly too. In fact, it’s mostly harmless to people under the age of 45.

That doesn’t mean we can expect the 2nd wave of COVID-19 to be less deadly. Epidemiologists expect that the 2nd wave will likely occur this Fall, along with the return of flu season. Combined cases could more easily overwhelm the hospitals, which is why we need to prepare now, restock PPE, and remain vigilant. Let’s just hope history doesn’t repeat itself.