#13: Happy birthday

Turns out I share a birthday week with SARS-CoV-2

November 30, 2020 • Day 263

This week there are some notable birthdays! I turn 40, and SARS-CoV-2 turns 1.

One year ago, more or less, a novel coronavirus spilled over from a bat or pangolin in central China to its first-ever human host, who passed it to others, who passed it to more, resulting in the first recorded cases of the illness that would later be named Covid-19. It would be over a month before reports of a new virus started to gain traction in Western media, over two months before the Diamond Princess or the Chinese lockdown and U.S. travel ban, all of which were before the first confirmed U.S. cases, before the outbreak in Italy, before everything.

It’s hard to remember now, but there were more than two months in 2020 where news coverage wasn’t just about the coronavirus or the election, and what virus or election coverage there was tended to have much narrower angles, because these stories hadn’t yet taken over the whole of human (or at least American) experience. This Feb 7 episode of the Eater podcast, featuring an interview with Hong Kong-based food writer Andrew Genung talking about the impact of Covid (which wasn’t yet called Covid) on the local dining scene, feels like a time capsule from another era.

The first Covid case was diagnosed on Dec 1, 2019; I turned 39 on December 3. This week I’m turning 40 in a world that has been turned fully upside down by the virus that emerged a year ago. Hopefully, next year I’ll turn 41 in a world where things are starting to turn back toward normalcy. And there’s reason to hope that’ll be the case.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this tweet, and huge scientific achievement represented by the list of dates and vaccine milestones in it:

As impressive as it is that medical science will have gone from the first known case of a novel virus to the first effective vaccinations against it in just 376 days — beating the previous record for vaccine development by more than 3 years, which was for a disease (mumps) that had been around for ages — that timeline actually obscures the real achievement here.

Moderna and the NIH designed their vaccine just five days after the virus’s genome was sequenced, which in turn was a little over a month after it was first discovered, which was likely delayed by an initial cover-up or reflexive denial by Chinese health authorities. The vaccine they designed in January is more or less the same one that will be deployed starting this month; everything since then has been testing and validation.

I think there’s a story in there for tech folks about the value of platforms. mRNA vaccine tech (as used by both Moderna and Pfizer) has been around for years, but never used in a shipping product. It’s a new ‘tech stack’ for vaccines, which means it’s relatively expensive, and the viruses for which we’d most need a new, rapidly developed vaccine are complex ones like HIV, Ebola, or Zika that are harder to vaccinate against. In a way, Covid is the perfect target for this kind of approach: it has exactly one weird genetic trick (the spike protein, which binds hard and fast to our ACE2 receptors if our immune systems don’t know to block it) and it mutates slowly (meaning that an effective vaccine is likely to stay effective longer than, say, a flu vaccine).

Today’s episode of the NYT’s Daily podcast is all about when and how we’ll get these vaccines. Pharma reporter Katie Thomas cites a recent CNN interview with Dr. Moncef Slaoui, head of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed program, who says we could achieve a herd immunity threshold (of around 70%) in the U.S. as soon as May 2021 — months earlier than previous estimates. That seems wildly optimistic, but so far nearly everything in the timeline for these vaccines has gone according to plan, which only underscores the scientific achievement.

Of course, even the best plans seldom survive contact with the enemy, and we’re overdue for a real setback. Maybe it’ll be people not wanting to get vaccinated. Maybe it’ll be major logistical problems delivering these vaccines and administering the cold-frozen, two-shot doses to everyone who needs them. Maybe Republicans will shut down the government just to make Joe Biden look bad.

But for now I say we take the win. This will have been a lost year for many people. I owe my wife an answer about whether I want takeout or a home-cooked meal for my birthday — both sound good, but neither is what I really want, which is a meal out of the house in a restaurant that is full of people and not under threat from a deadly virus.

The day when we can all do that again is coming, if not in May than by this time next year.

Here are some things I’ve been into and up to this week:

I’ve been playing a lot of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity on my Nintendo Switch. It’s a spinoff/prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, set during the war against Ganon 100 years earlier that kicked off the previous game’s story. Hyrule Warriors is a “hack and slash” game, not an open world adventure — you control a party of playable characters (Link, Zelda, the four Champions, others too) and just go to town on monsters, trying to clear levels and rack up as many KOs as you can.

In the middle-to-late game, part of the challenge is multitasking: you’ll have to defeat multiple bosses at different points on the map, while also defending a position or protecting someone — if you can’t manage to do it all, you lose. Winning means not just beating the shit out of Guardians and Lynels, but making the best use of your multiple characters and deploying them to the right places on the map.

In other levels, you control one of BotW’s giant robot animals, the Divine Beasts, the object being to defeat literally tens of thousands of monsters — whole armies — within a time limit.

The game is developed by Koei Tecmo, not Nintendo, but the Zelda creative team (and BotW’s voice actors) were involved. It’s not as perfect or engrossing as Breath of the Wild (I mean, what even is?) but it’s lots of fun.

Somehow I made it to now without ever using a Samsung device. That changed a couple weeks ago, when I got a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 (😅) for work “research.” (I kid, it actually is for a work project.) It’s a really weird, interesting device — folded up it’s a weirdly tall and thick candybar-shaped smartphone, that unfolds into a square-shaped, Kindle-sized tablet.

I can’t say I recommend this phone — it’s $2,000 unlocked (though Samsung offers trade-in deals and payment plans that lower the price) and one could get literally any other flagship phone on the market and still have hundreds of dollars left over. And because it’s Android, and my family is so bought into Apple’s ecosystem, it’s hard for me to fully commit to using it — I end up also carrying an iPhone for iMessage, Things, Apple Watch stuff, etc.

On the other hand, it’s really cool to show off, and the Kindle-ish shape and size are surprisingly appealing. It’s not quite big enough to be used as a tablet, but a nice size for a really big phone that collapses into a smaller phone, and the cameras are pretty nice.

Lastly, for a long Thanksgiving weekend project, my 6-year-old and I built the enormous, 4,000 piece LEGO Disney Castle. Once upon a time our family was slated to go to Disney World this week (as our backup plan for an originally scheduled trip in April). When those plans (and all the plans) fell through, I snagged this set over the summer so we could build a bit of Disney magic at home.

Stay safe and happy, everyone. Talk to y’all again next week.