from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: to Mars and back to Confusion.

July 5, 2021.

We have had a busy, enjoyable week. I learnt about Mars, mushrooms, tardigrades, panspermia ….

After my Thursday tennis match, I had conversation with 2 friends. One said, ‘The rest of the world is laughing at us because we have cut our country off with this policy of ‘Fortress Australia’. I disagreed. I think the rest of the world is envious of how we have managed in the past 18 months. How normal our lives have been.

We could debate this variance of opinion. More later.

On Thursday night, we attended a Field Geology Club lecture at Adelaide University given by Assoc. Professor Victor Gostin on ‘Planet Mars, What Surprises Await us?‘ The audience of over 100 all had to wear masks because … there just MIGHT be a few Delta Covid-19 cases in the South Australian community. A miner returned from the Granites Mine in the Tanami Desert, Northern Territor, to Adelaide and tested positive. He has not been active in the local community but there MIGHT be other positive cases from the mine. Since then, there has not been any outbreak – or any cases -but the fear of the Delta variant is spooking our state premiers.

Back to Mars – Prof. Gostin explained what NASA’s Perseverance Rover has found geologically. Even without a scientific background, I was able to enjoy the lecture. Mars is without plate tectonics and so the planet is without many of earth’s features.

There are Australian connections in this Martian expedition. Brisbane-born geologist, Dr Abigail Allwood, now at NASA, leads the team who developed an instrument on the Rover’s arm that is designed to detect signs of past life. And an Australian planetary scientist, Dr Adrian Brown, is also working on the remote sensing of rocks. Rocks in some of our harshest Australian deserts – called gibber plains – resemble Martian landscapes.

Gibber Plain. Australian Plant Image Index
Australian National Botanic Gardens
Australian National Herbarium

Scientists are very excited by the Perseverance Rover mission.

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/overview/

Mars is not a place you want to visit under normal circumstances. Prof. Gostin described it as ‘hostile’ with freezing temperatures, high levels of radiation, oxidizing chemicals and no liquid water.’ The air is thin, 100 times thinner than earth and consists of 95% carbon dioxide. But once upon a time, it was different and water ran on the surface.

In 2016, NASA’s Curiosity Rover discovered glauconitic clays, and thus scientists are postualting that Mars was once (maybe a million or so years ago) habitable. But since we are making a mess of our very habitable planet, I am not sure why we would want to go and mess up another planet.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2282238-clays-found-in-martian-crater-hint-that-the-planet-was-once-habitable/

And, there might still be microbial life deep under the Martian surface. A ‘subsurface biome’ like we have kilometres deep under Earth’s surface.

Prof Gostin also raised the issue of our Moon and Mars landers inadvertently polluting other planets. In the 1950s a biologist, Joshua Lederberg, (Nobel Prize winner) alerted the USA’s National Academy of Sciences warning them about celestial contamination. Either we might inadvertently take organisms onto other parts of our solar system or we might bring them back here. Lederberg spoke about the possible ‘cosmic catastrophe’. There is a possibility that the places where the early moon landings took place are already polluted with bacteria.

Oh, tardigrades or water-bears! I must mention these tough little creatures. Why? because they might be able to travel to other planets, they are such tough micro-animals. Almost indestructible.

I was exposed to two new exciting words before I came down to our own messy Earth with all its confusion.

Panspermia (from Ancient Greek πᾶν (pan) ‘all’, and σπέρμα (sperma) ‘seed’) is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by space dust, meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and also by spacecraft carrying unintended contamination by microorganisms.’ (Wikipedia)

and Astrobiology.

formerly known as exobiology, is an interdisciplinary scientific field that studies the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology considers the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it. (Wikipedia).

Meanwhile at home in Australia…

Near panic has broken out amongst the politicians and politically employed medicos about the Delta variant’s appearance in Australia. Foremost amongst them is Dr Jeanette Young, Chief Health Officer of Queensland, (and Governor Designate of Queensland), who has come under fire for her emotional tirade against the possibility that under 40 year olds might choose to have the AZ vaccination AFTER consulting their doctors.

We have had a few Delta-variant outbreaks. The largest is in NSW and once more this involved an infection escaping hotel quarantine. Five million Sydney residents are in lockdown and 300 cases have been detected so far: about 30 new cases a day although most of these people are already in isolation. Borders are closed again and we had to cancel our planned trip to NSW – once more.

Politicians continue to heighten fears to justify their responses and strengthen their standing.’ The Weekend Australian (July 3-4)

Lss than 10% of Australians are fully vaccinated. This is a problem. Having had an easier time with closed (mostly closed) borders, we were slow to get vaccinated. If our Prime Minister had had perfect foresight, he would have set up custom-built quarantine facilities in each state, and have paid up front for an early supply of four different vaccines being developed – but he only chose only three. One (being developed by our CSIRO) did not get off the starting blocks, which left us with Pfizer and AstraZeneca (AZ).

Then in March, AZ vaccine supplies to us from the EU were slowed or cut – depending on who you listened to. (3.4 million doses did not turn up). Shortly thereafter, in April, the question of fatal blood clots arose – even though the odds were tiny, Australians and their politicians reacted. After all, there were few cases here, why should we rush to have a vaccine that was dicey – even if it was only a tiny, tiny bit dicey? (Much more dicey than taking an asprin every day). Then our ATAGI – Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation – took ‘one of the most conservative risk-adverse management approaches in the world‘ to the AZ vaccine (Weekend Australian July 3-4).

Then Federal Government found that the Pfizer vaccine was in huge demand and supplies were limited. On top of this our administration of the vaccination process – being done by our states – was slow and inefficient. Again – no sense of rush. For example, some states were slow to offer health workers – especially those working in retirement facilities – vaccinations, even though this was highly recommended. Foolishly, it was not made mandatory.

This is a time of complaint and whinging in Australia. And we are very good at that. However, It gets boring to listen to negativity on the ABC 7am news every morning – especially when you are aware of the real suffering going on in so many parts of the world through other media. Not an enjoyable start to the day.

Covid-19 has resulted in a bonanza for media companies. Not only are we all watching TV for entertainment but, daily, we seek information on what is going on. We rely on the experts – medical experts. But the medicos don’t agree and some are more expert than others!

In an attempt to cut through all the back-biting and confusion, PM Morrison has announced a ‘deal’ with our state premiers for a 4-stage blueprint for emerging from the grip of Covid-19. This hinges on vaccination rates. Optimistically, this is a step forward whereby within six months, we should be able to have no lockdowns, open the borders, and, eventually in Phase Four, something called ‘Covid-normal’ will allow uncapped travel for the vaccinated and Covid-19 will be managed as other serious infectious diseases are managed.

All likely to be very slow – but we will get there.

Finally, back to Mars. Here is a fascinating YouTube NASA video showing some of the exploring of the Martian surface that Perseverance Rover is undertaking. Beter than our 7 am news.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: ‘and we shall be changed’

24 April, 2021.

Nine days ago, we had our first Astrazeneca vaccination. A suite of offices, consisting of four rooms, beside our large doctors’ surgery has been organised into a vaccination centre.

The whole process was very simple, without fuss and with a certain determined cheerfulness. Outside the centre, yellow lines marked the approved social distancing for the queue. We could not enter until the waiting room was sufficiently empty for the next batch of people, so we were asked to wait outside until it was within five minutes of our vaccination time. No masks were required.

Once we were allowed into the small foyer, our details were checked and we were asked whether we were prepared to have a vaccination before we were given a sticker inscribed with our first names. Someone asked if they had had many cancellations. The young receptionist said, ‘Very few, and those appointments have been quickly filled.’ It seems to me that the scare campaign has not stopped us wanting to be vaccinated.

A nurse called us and led us through to one of the two vaccination rooms. Once more details were checked and once more we were asked if we were prepared to have the vaccination. Then a doctor came in and she asked if we had any questions. She also asked if we had had any reactions to previous vaccinations.

Page 1. Read carefully….

The actual vaccination was a non-event. Afterwards, we were given a three-page document listing all the possible side-effects and what to do if we were concerned about our reactions. We were then led through to a large waiting area which was divided into two sections: one marked 15 minutes the other 30 minutes. The 30-minute section was for people who had had some previous adverse reaction to vaccination. I sat and read through the rather intimidating listing of common, less-common and rare side-effects. After the allotted time our names were called out and we were told we could go out the exit door. DONE!

Our vaccination status is immediately registered on our digital Medicare profile. I am ready for a vaccination passport and almost ready to travel! (New Zealand authorities are looking at insisting on a digital proof of vaccination).

It is now nine days since our vaccinations. At first, my arm felt slightly stiff, Over the next four days I found that I was very tired, wanting to go to bed at 8 pm and reluctant to rise at 7 am. I was quite happy to collapse back and read awhile. This is unlike me.

Australia – not looking too impressive.

It behoves me to report on the media situation with the rollout of vaccinations in Australia. If you followed our media, you would think that there was a disaster going on here. It is true that announcments were made by the Federal government, and we were filled with expectations of a seamless vaccination routine. However, there has been a hiatus due to many factors such as the concern over the AstraZeneca vaccine, the delayed arrival of ordered vaccines and the shortage of the Pfizer vaccine. Each state premier was very quick to blame others. Of course. There is also the difficulty of organising between state and federal agencies. Many of these factors are beyond the ability of the federal government to change. But as I have said before, the Australian media love to complain.

On our ABC this morning it was almost as though they were encouraging people in the 1b category (those over 70 or over 50 with some sort of complicating factor) not to get vaccinated. The Victorian Government has opened mass vaccination centres. The ABC was critical of this whole process, siting uncertainties and saying it was hard for people to understand the online advice. In spite of this, I hear today that 67,000 people were vaccinated. And the graph of those getting vaccinated is pointing in the right direction. The government has announced that over 50’s can now go and get vaccinated.

The trouble is that we are still short of the Pfizer and AZ vaccine.

The federal government will receive 53.8 million doses of AstraZeneca, 50 million of which is being manufactured in monthly batches at the CSL factory in Melbourne.

Australia has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with the bulk expected to arrive in the final three months of 2021.’ ABC

The government has now appointed a military veteran, Royal Australian Navy Commodore, Eric Young, to coordinate the vaccine rollout. After all, it is a mammoth task across this vast country. Young said he has a ‘simple mission’ to get every ‘available jab’ into the arms of vulnerable Australians. Scott Morrison has put the national cabinet on a ‘warlike footing’ to fix the delayed program.

On the way back from having my vaccination Handel’s Messiah played on ABC Classic radio. It’s good to be cheeful.

Somehow, the music seemed appropriate.

…..And we shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed

For this corruptible must put on
Incorruption
For this corruptible must put on
Must put on
Must put on, must put on
Incorruption

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Herding Cats … or … It’s Coming your Way.

Rottnest Island off Fremantle, Perth, West Australia. Wouldn’t you come here just to stay in this Quarantine Village?

February 8, 2021

This week our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, hosted a ‘National Cabinet’ meeting. This is his extra-political Covid-19 group, an ‘intergovernmental decision-making forum’ including the State and Territory Premiers and Chief Ministers. It is apparent that this is a challenging business for the Prime Minister and one where decisions in a time of pandemic are important to get right – for our country and for his political future. Eleven months have passed since this group was formed and the various state leaders are getting more and more techy and determined in their self-opiniated ways of dealing with Covid-19. (5 Labor, 3 Liberal politicians) . For the PM it must be like herding eight feral cats through a narrow door.

Obviously, Prime Minister Scott Morrison would like the gathering of premiers and ministers to discuss the issues relating to the pandemic in a reasonable, if not rational way. Everyone, of course, says they are following the science of medical advice. The trouble is there are various medical advisors and interpretations.

The issue of quarantining returning Australians from overseas (and various other travellers) is one that divides and stresses our states’ leaders. The press calls these differences, ‘deep rifts’. The Labour Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and the ultra-cautious West Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, would like the federal government to be more proactive in the face of the new more contagious strains of Covid 19. Everyone loves to have someone to blame.

The numbers of travellers are small. Over 210,000 international travellers have gone into hotel quarantine in Australia. 1.4% have returned a positive Covid test. 82 hotel staff involved in the quarantine process became infected. At the moment, just over 6,000 Australians (and tennis players!) are arriving per week directly into the various major cities. The states are responsible for their own quarantine systems and have thus reacted in different ways. Recently, Western Australia had a severe five-day lockdown after a single worker in the Sheraton Hotel contracted the virus – perhaps through airflow. He had a second job as an Uber or rideshare driver. Victoria and NSW recently each had single quarantine workers infected and those states used ‘hotspot’ strategy, finding out where the individual had travelled while infected.

The sporadic infections in quarantine continue. There is the story of how one quarantined family opened the door of their hotel room to gather in their meal, deposited in the corridor, and managed to infect the family across the hallway. So now we are becoming aware that the virus is far more airborne than previously thought. It is likely to travel through air conditioning systems in large establishments like quarantine hotels.

So the question is: should quarantining decisions be delegated to states? Are hotels suitable quarantine facilities? It appears that hotels have multiple gaps in their infection prevention systems. For example, corridors need separate ventilations systems; quarantine workers should not have second jobs and should wear masks even in corridors (perhaps double masks as they are recommending overseas).

So now our federal government is in process of investigating whether to organise remote quarantine stations outside of our major cities – more like refugee villages. Perhaps in Toowoomba outside of Brisbane or remote islands. Thus, our cities would be protected and we can lessen the impact on our lives in 2021-2022-2023. The support staff and health staff would be isolated in these camps as well. The Prime Minister compares this idea to fly-in fly-out remote mining camps where you stay for two weeks at a time. Rottnest Island has aleady been used for Vasco da Gama cruise passengers in March last year. Remember that Australia is a country of a few major cities and lots of space. (16 out of 25 million live in the 6 major cities).

Hardly a mining camp! Rottnest Island off Fremantle, WA

I think that all countries should take note. This is probably the way of the future. Can you imagine the situation when most people are vaccinated, but, with international travel, people arrive from across the world and require quarantine? We will have sporadic outbreaks for years to come. Maybe new strains will be arriving having bred in the countries that could not get access to enough vaccine. Maybe the virus will become less deadly, maybe our vaccines can be adapted fast enough and given out fast enough to dampen down the world threat. Reading about how wealthy countries are hoarding vaccine supplies and how third world countries are struggling to get access, I am not optimistic.

My daughter in Seattle was told by a friend working in childcare that they were advised that this situation may continue for years to come. Up to 2025. We could be living in a world of social distancing, sporadic outbreaks, new strains with strange numbering systems, reduced local and international travel and concern about all sorts of flu-like symptoms.

Our PM is now talking about vaccination rollout starting at the end of this month. Bearing in mind that the AstraZeneca vaccine is now in question.

‘On Monday morning South African authorities said they would suspend use of the AstraZeneca shot after clinical data showed it gave minimal protection against B.1.351, a variant of SARS-CoV-2 which contains several mutations that cut the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus. (Sydney Morning Herald – Monday 8 Feb, 2021).

‘Know your virus variants

Three mutant varieties of COVID-19, first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, are more resistant to vaccines than the original strain.

The British B.1.1.7 variant was first seen in September.

  • There is some evidence, although not concrete, that the new variant may be slightly more deadly.
  • At this stage, evidence suggests the variant slightly reduces the effect of vaccine-generated antibodies but not enough to pose major problems.
  • The variant has several mutations that seem to make it significantly more transmissible. It has rapidly spread through the United Kingdom and is now emerging across the world.

South Africa’s B.1.351 is also known as N501Y.V2.
It was first spotted in South Africa in October last year.  

  • It concerns scientists because it has picked up a large number of different mutations. 
  • These mutations may make it more transmissible. It is not known if they make it more deadly. 
  • Human data suggests, but does not prove, these mutations allow the virus to reinfect people who have natural immunity to COVID-19. 
  • Early data suggests the variant’s mutations cut the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, by varying amounts depending on the vaccine.

Less is known about the  P.1 variant first spotted in Brazil.

  • It bears similar mutations to the South African variant, which scientists suspect may give it the ability to evade antibodies.’

(Sydney Morning Herald – Monday 8 Feb, 2021).