Hello Quartz readers,
Some of you are spending more time in lines lately—grocery-store lines, unemployment lines, even voting lines. Queueing up wasn’t that fun to begin with, and that was before coronavirus. So thanks to reader Mike S. for sharing a charming scene from this line outside a US grocery store. Writes Mike, “This one gent decided to make the wait a little more tolerable.”
Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear masks, and play accordions.
Okay, let’s get started.
Last month, a hospital in Houston became the first in the United States to treat a seriously ill Covid-19 patient with plasma therapy, which delivers antibody-packed plasma from recovered patients to those still sick. Trials are now gaining steam at a handful of other hospitals in the US. As of last week, Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York had accepted 125 plasma donations and administered 37 transfusions to critically ill patients.
It’s still too early to say for sure how effective those treatments have been, says Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic physiologist who is leading the effort. But the hospital trials will eventually shed light on when plasma treatments could be most effective: as a protection for those at high risk of infection, in the early stages of illness to prevent it from escalating, or as a last-ditch attempt to save the gravely ill.
When faced with a virus, blood plasma cells deploy antibodies to latch on to the invader and prevent it from entering our cells. Antibodies are generally Y-shaped, but our bodies come stocked with billions of slight variations that work together to respond to countless invaders, and can linger in blood long after the virus is conquered. Researchers are working to understand what the ideal concentration of antibodies for coronavirus treatment is, how long it takes patients to develop a response, and how long immunity lasts.
In a typical plasma transfusion, all the antibodies that responded to an infection are delivered to the sick patient en masse, and usually one donation is only enough for one treatment. But for any given virus, some antibodies will be more effective than others, and the concentration of antibodies can differ greatly from person to person. Plus, there’s a clear public health need to produce hundreds of thousands of doses.
So a growing number of pharmaceutical companies are scrambling to roll out what will likely be the first generation of drugs specific to Covid-19—also built on antibodies.
The basic goal of these antibody drugs is to identify the one or more antibodies that are most effective in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2, refine and mass-produce them in labs, and pack a consistent concentration of them into shots. Like plasma, the shots could be used as a preventative measure, or to ease the symptoms of sick patients.
The approach isn’t without risk. In a study last year of lab monkeys infected with the older SARS coronavirus, antibody drugs were found to severely worsen respiratory symptoms after they provoked massive inflammation in the lungs. That will be something to watch for in trials beginning this summer. But if successful, drug companies claim the treatments could be available by the fall.
“No one jumps on the barricades when they think the barricade might have a virus on it,” says Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group. “[Coronavirus is] a deterrent to protest and it may be giving some pretty authoritarian leaders a bit of respite in this context.”
In total, there were 452 protests worldwide in the last week of March—many of which took place on balconies—down from 1,519 in the first week of the month, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). There were about 2,000 global protests in the first week of November last year.
In New Jersey, experts are needed to fix COBOL-based unemployment insurance systems—more than four decades old—that are overwhelmed due to pandemic-related job losses. At a press conference this month, governor Phil Murphy asked for the help of volunteer coders who still knew how to work in COBOL.
Standing for Common Business-Oriented Language, COBOL’s day came and went long ago. It initially made a splash by giving coders a programming language that could work across the proprietary computers of multiple manufacturers. That was in the early 1960s. After becoming a staple of mainframes, it eventually came to represent dusty legacy code, including during the Y2K crisis 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, New Jersey residents are complaining about delays on their unemployment claims. The state recently experienced a 1,600% increase in claims volume in a single week, said labor commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo.
Typically in March, a third of Venmo transactions mention basketball in some way, a reflection of people paying into March Madness bracket pools. Friends, family members, and colleagues try to win big by predicting the outcome of every game in the championship tournament for US college basketball.
That tournament was canceled this year, and a Quartz analysis of Venmo transaction messages shows a corresponding change in emoji use. In March 2017, the basketball emoji—🏀—showed up at a rate of about 4,900 for every 100,000 messages. In March 2020, the 🏀 was used about 120 times per 100,000 payments.
Meanwhile, ❤️ was the most-used emoji in Quartz’s sample of transactions from March 2020. ❤️ usage increased 226% from March 2017. 🍕and 🍻each saw a drop—goodbye bars and restaurants—and 🎉is also down. But 😷 usage grew by 2000%.
- The latest 🌏 figures: 1,970,225 confirmed cases, 469,926 classified as “recovered.”
- Masked man: A police sting targeted an NYC pharmacist allegedly hoarding masks.
- Keys to the Magic Kingdom: Bob Iger is effectively running Disney again.
- Start-downs: New business applications in the US are down more than 40%.
- Wolf in sheepskin slippers: Wall Street internships may go virtual.
- Coolcoolcool: East Africa is getting locusts now.
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