The Covid Vaccine!

One blissful afternoon a few months ago, when the summer heat was beating down upon us, I was curled up on the couch overlooking the Umpqua river. The river was flowing gently in the valley below.  A deer and her fawn were grazing nearby, music was playing on the laptop, a book on the History of Medicine lay open in front of me, and every now and then, I read a piece out from the book to the family nestled nearby in various forms of ease. The unease surrounding Covid was there everywhere. (Grapes of Wrath).

History of Medicine is a somewhat misleading title for the book. Jane Goodall documented apes healing themselves by going to a cave miles away when they had stomach upsets, to find a herb to cure themselves.  So, I am pretty sure healing ourselves has an evolutionary angle.

We must’ve all seen the viral quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who supposedly said that the first evidence of civilization was a healed femur bone, since usually breaking this bone in the animal kingdom means death by starvation or predators. 

(I am not sure of the veracity of the quotation itself, but here it is)

In any case, I think the book addresses the last 200 years of practiced medicine.  

“What are you reading about now?”, was a frequent query as I made my way through the ailments listed in the book.

I told the children the hilarious tale of Jerome K Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat feeling off and searching up his ailments much like many of us first do with WebMD.

“I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.”

“I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.”

― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

The history of medicine is a fascinating one. The book contained some black and white pictures too. There was a few pages dedicated to the sad tale of James Garfield’s assassination. Apparently, hand-washing was not a prevalent practice in 1881. Though the shooting itself was not immediately fatal to Garfield, infection set in to the wound in the days following the shooting essentially killing him. His shooter infamously said, “I didn’t kill the President! I only shot at him. The doctors took care of the rest.”

Given how often we wash our hands during these Covid-times, it seems like something elementary, but was such a problem even 100 years ago. 

“I am so glad that human understanding of the microbial world has come such a long way in the past century!” I said after reading this piece out to the children. “Just think of this, within days of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus being shared, scientists had finalized the sequence of the antibody required to combat the virus. mRNA-1273

The author wrote about the time his mentor told him to document the symptoms of polio for posterity: this, at a time when the polio vaccine was not yet available. To quizzical glances, he apparently said with confidence that Polio will be cured within a few years. This was the sort of conviction and hope that is at once admirable and remarkable about the human race.

News of the corona virus vaccine is a welcome one indeed, and a true testament to Science. The first vaccines were distributed to 50 states in USA from Pfizer’s facility in Michigan today.

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What is mRNA, and how do they work? Link from CDC

Like Bill Gates said in his 2015 TED talk, it isn’t missiles that we need to fear (since we now are invested in peace, knowing how we can annihilate ourselves many times over), but epidemics such as the Spanish flu. The coronavirus really did take the world by surprise, and showed us how we are all more interconnected than we realize – we are just a small pale blue dot floating in the cosmos – united in our destinies and apparently as weak as our vilest virus.  

In 1 Week! – Covid-19

I had written this to be posted on last Monday: I then decided to not post it since everyone was worried about the Coronavirus. It is an eerie reminder of how quickly things can change.  How drastically they can change. 

Due to the pandemic of Covid-19, Bay area was issued a Shelter-in-place mandate.

It had been a regular, noisy midweek day. The trains tattled and battled their way through to the city. Cars whizzed around on roads & freeways. In the city, planes, trains and automobiles honked and blared their way through the streets. Ambulances and fire trucks screeched by.  The elevators and public transit announcements were incessant and usefully useless to the point of comic relief. 

“Elevator F, F as in Foxtrot, opening doors, closing doors, Elevator F, F as in Foxtrot. ”

“Now arriving at Bay Fair.  Doors are opening. Doors are closing. Now departing Bay Fair”. 

Even at the gas station, it seemed the world was intent on tugging my attention towards world events – a screen blared CNN news in the few minutes it took to fill the gas tank. By the time I made it back to the home, I was craving for some quiet. But the bustling urban noises went on – humming and drumming out the quiet. 

We have become such noisy inhabitants of this planet. I would like to hear how we sound in outer space – I hope our atmosphere provides for a decent enough insulating layer. 

Quiet

I then went on to write about a book that calls out the different kinds of Quiet in the world, but I shall save it for another day. Quiet – By Deborah Underwood

Like everyone around us, I am still in a state of shock at the rapid change in world affairs. Where last week, I wrote about the noises in the environment, this week I am writing about the eerie feeling that links us all together – the lack of noise on roads, the lack of noise from the joyous parties with happy people singing into the night, the lack of laughter even. The world has become a sober place.

Our street has not looked this empty since the time I went for a walk during Super Bowl. People are scurrying with their heads bent in worry and hands full of supplies to calm anxious minds in the stores that do remain open. Shelves are empty.  We have so many doom sayers, we need more doom slayers. 

Never has so much changed so rapidly and this drastically in my lifetime. It truly makes me appreciate the delight of the ordinary. Social media has given me a bad case of wanting to read about anything else – 10 things to consider before buying soap anyone? What happened to those posts?

“It is like that David Vs Goliath story huh Amma? You know the virus against humans?” said the little fellow the other day, and I smiled at the analogy.

It’s true: Covid-19 has created ruckus. If ever we thump our chests on how high and mighty we are as a race, the humblest virus is there to bring us down to size.

When I started writing the piece above, I did not anticipate in my wildest dreams that such a scenario would pan out, and yet it did in 1 week. In the past week, the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as a Pandemic, and world-wide countries started responding with varying levels of success to contain the spread of the disease. This post reminds me of the normal then, and the new normal we are adapting to. Everyone is worried by the effect of the virus on us; on hospitals, nurses and doctors; on the infrastructure and economy.

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Image By https://www.scientificanimations.comhttps://www.scientificanimations.com/wiki-images/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86436446

Please watch: TED Talk By Bill Gates in 2015 where he says that our next big catastrophe to prepare for is not missiles but microbes.

 

Running like Elephants

“Guys! Let’s hurry up a little. I like how we are dawdling, but the school bell waits for no ships to sail across the seas! ” I said. There had been a mild spattering of rain across the dry summer season. A few snails had popped out to enjoy the moist, and the son and his friends were looking at them as they chatted and made their way to school. Rain drops on the late summer roses and oleander flowers made the scene a rather endearing one.

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The response from the children was predictable – they ran, and I ran shouting like a charioteer pulling the reins on the excited steeds, “Slow down! No running here – oncoming traffic!”
“But you asked us to hurry up!”
“Yes – run like Elephants!” I said.

I had told the children earlier about the Elephant’s gait, and they exchanged glances and started laughing. The snail they were studying looked startled and showed a leap of speed as it made its way back to the comfort of the garden bed.

Is this walking? *giggle*
Is this running? *giggle giggle*
Is this fast walking? * giggle giggle giputly duggle*
Is this slow running? *giggle puddle chuckle duffle*

I smiled slowly. “Pretend you are Elephants teaching Snails to run.”

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I suppose that was a wrong metaphor altogether. By the time we arrived in the school, not only were we out of breath with the laughing, but we were also fashionably disconcerted. The legs seem to not remember how to walk straight or run properly, and were caught in this limbo of the Elephant’s Gait.

Later that week, I was sitting in the garden and watching the world go about its true business of living. I watched a hummingbird’s fast-paced wing movements up in the trees. A few butterflies were flitting hither and tither. A skein of geese were flying overhead in that beautiful v-shaped formation. Closer to the ground, a few snails were marking their slow way across the courtyard.

This combination of sitting in a garden, and watching life flit by had me take a hundred pictures with my phone. Pictures that may or may not be seen and appreciated again. I could capture the slow motion video of the humming bird whizzing up above or the butterflies in my midst. I could use time-lapse videos to capture the slow moving snails and a dozen pictures to capture the beautiful movement of the caterpillars.

As I sat there musing on the ease with which we capture movement these days, I could not help comparing and contrasting humanity’s struggle to capture that. I remember yawning in the Art galleries after seeing the n-th painting of a horse or the x-th statue of a horse drawn chariot.

But as I sat there that afternoon, I wondered whether I had appreciated them enough. After all, at the time of their making, studying movement was not all easy. One had to have an almost eidetic memory to understand the muscles and the way they moved.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s work is appreciated because of the lengths he went to study the anatomy of the creatures in his works. 300 years ago, movement must have been particularly hard to study.

In Oliver Sacks’ essay on Elephant Gaits in the book, Everything in its Place, he writes about the problem of studying movement.

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More than a century ago, Etienne-Jules Marey had made a pioneering investigation of elephant gaits. Of course, he did not use video analysis then, but still photography. I quote: “Marey’s lifelong fascination with movement started with the internal movements and processes of the body. He had been a pioneer here, inventing pulse meters, blood pressure graphings and heart tracings – ingenious precursors to the mechanical instruments used in Medicine even today.

Later, he moved onto the animal movements and analysis.
For animal analysis he used pressure gauges, rubber tubes, and graphic recordings to measure the movements and positions of limbs. From these recordings, he rotated in a zoetrope, reconstructing in slow motion the movements of the horse.

Muybridge, a contemporary of Marey, however, a peripatetic artist as Sacks describes him used 24 cameras along a track where the shutter would be tripped by the horses themselves as they galloped past to capture the movements of the horse as they raced.

When a similar technique was used to analyze the fast movement of elephants, it was found that they neither walked nor ran, but rather a combination known as fast walking.

I remember a long ago conversation with a friend who was training for a marathon on the more recent study of leopards running, and how he had changed his running technique to take a few tips from the world’s fastest runner.

As we watch the world around us, I wish different creatures could teach us some of their marvelous techniques. The dragonfly and the humming bird for flight; mallards and coots for water locomotion. Doesn’t Biomimicry as a field of study sound more fascinating than ever before? I positively yearn to be Dr John Dolittle at times!

Books/Articles to be read/referenced in this post:

The Moment of Lift – By Melinda Gates

About a decade ago, a couple of colleagues and I were having a lunch time conversation that veered towards those you will like to emulate and meet in your lifetime. As expected the list was full of celebrities, billionaires, eminent scientists and some folks, I had not heard of before. Some of them wanted to meet someone already dead if possible, and others chose people whose fields I found interesting.

When it came to my turn, I said, “Melinda Gates!” without hesitation as if the answer had been there all along just waiting to be asked. I was somewhat taken aback at how sure I was of the answer. After all, I had not given much thought to the question before, and I admired many people from different walks of life. The work of Bill & Melinda Gates through their foundation – understanding societal issues with an empathy and energy that shot them to the top of their fields in Business, is a real-life fairy tale that we are blessed to see unfold in our lifetimes. But there was more: I was inspired by her. It must not be easy being the wife of a world renowned personality and still hold her own, working to invest their considerable time and energy to making the world a better place. This, along with raising 3 children of their own.

Over the following years, my admiration for the couple has only increased. Like many others, I look forward to their annual newsletter, I watch amazed as other billionaires follow their path of philanthropy, and I certainly look forward to their book suggestions.

When I saw Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates, therefore, it was a no-brainer to read the book. I was prepared to be inspired, but the book did more than that. I was humbled, inspired, encouraged, heart-broken, and hopeful – all within the 300 odd pages of her book.

The introductory chapter had me with the simple line, “Sometimes all it takes to lift women up, is to stop pulling them down.” – Melinda Gates

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The book is peppered with the story of brave women across the world; heart-breaking tales of poverty and misogyny; and inspirational NGO’s that have helped make their lot better.

Whether it was the story of Malala that we have all heard of, or the stories of people like Ruchi, Sister Sudha Varghese, Kakenya, Mama Rosa or Hans Rosling, every one’s journey that has been included, I am sure, speaks for hundreds of others with similar backgrounds.

The empathetic and analytical nature of the Author shines through in the words, and I must say, I could not help feeling a Moment of Lift as I saw hope pierce through the pages, as she makes the effort to include marginalized people.

Albert Einstein wrote, No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

Melinda Gates’ book increases our level of awareness on several fronts. How her journey morphed from decreasing infant mortality rates to one of women empowerment; enabling family planning, access to health care and education is a powerful one, and I am very glad she decided to pen her growth and journey as a Philanthropist.