Learning from the ‘Covid dodgers’

Learning from the ‘Covid dodgers’

STEERING CLEAR — Is ‘Novid’ a thing? Have some people really gone through three-and-a-half years of Covid and still never gotten the disease through some combination of caution and luck?

And if a slice of the public really has avoided the virus — even amid the current Covid uptick that has led to slight rise in hospitalizations — can scientists learn from them?

The answer is yes and yes — with the usual Covid caveats is that a lot is still unknown. There probably are a relatively small number of people who really haven’t gotten it — although many if not most of those who think they were untouched probably had very mild or asymptomatic cases. Maybe we should call them LowVids.

And yes, scientists working on the next generation of treatments and vaccines can in fact learn from these individuals. Some recent genetic findings published in Nature have pointed them in at least one potentially fruitful direction.

Studies of blood samples showed in 2022 that about 60 percent of the U.S. public had been infected. More recent studies ran quite a bit higher, in the high 80s or into the 90s. Blood studies have limitations though — they aren’t representative of the population as a whole, and because Covid immunity — both from prior infection and vaccination — declines over time, it’s possible that someone who had Covid early on wouldn’t have signs of it in their blood one, two or three years later.

“No one knows for sure (how many remained uninfected). It could be as low as four or five percent. It could be, you know, nine or 10 percent. But it probably isn’t 15 percent,” said Eric Topol, a physician-scientist at Scripps Research and the author of the Ground Truths newsletter that has helped explain Covid to the public.

Katelyn Jetelina, in her popular Your Local Epidemiologist newsletter, recently cited some research in the U.K that suggested that on average, people get it twice a year.

But many infections are so mild that people don’t realize it’s Covid, or they are asymptomatic, meaning their bodies fought infection off so well that they never got even a teeny bit sick. At home rapid Covid tests don’t pick up every infection immediately, which is why the CDC recommends testing two or three times.

Why some people don’t get sick — even if members of their household have been diagnosed with Covid — is probably “a mixture of luck and maybe some genetics and maybe a lot about vaccination” plus in some cases some immunity from a prior infection, whether confirmed by a test or not, said Jacek Skarbinski, a physician and scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.

Research led by Jill Hollenbach at UCSF recently published in Nature examined 30,000 individuals — and found only 1,400 hadn’t fallen ill from Covid. Importantly, they identified a gene that means people are more likely to remain asymptomatic — twice as likely with one copy of the gene, a whopping eight times as likely with two copies. (People aren’t born with the gene; it’s acquired from prior exposure to a less dangerous strain of coronavirus that predates the pandemic.)

That discovery does open important new research pathways, particularly for therapeutics.

“It’s a long way to understand how this finding will lead to better therapies, prevention or treatment. But it’s important,” Topol told Nightly. “It is giving us a hint” about how to develop a treatment to block infection. And as the recent uptick of cases reminds us, “Covid is still among us,” he said, even if most people have some degree of protection right now.

Skarbinski, who was interviewed earlier this summer, before cases began to rise again this month, said there’s still a ton to tease out, including about how people behave to protect themselves, how they socialize, whether they keep up to date on vaccinations.

Remember, he said, the virus loves a good party. “Covid loves big mixings, gatherings for people from all over, from different parts of the country.” That’s how it spread before. And that’s probably part of how it’s now spreading again, even though we collectively have enough protection for now to probably ward off a lot of serious illness — to stay Low-Vid until science can someday make us NoVid.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author on Twitter at @JoanneKenen.

— IRS unable to locate millions of tax records, watchdog says: The IRS lost track of millions of sensitive individual and business tax records that should have been transferred from a closed agency facility in California and is also unable to locate thousands of records that were stored at a facility in Utah, according to a new watchdog report. As part of a review of the IRS’ mandatory storage of old tax records in microfilm backup cartridges, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration said in a report released today that it found significant deficiencies in safeguarding and accounting for millions of tax records that contain sensitive taxpayer information.

— Dems revive calls for Clarence Thomas resignation, SCOTUS ethics reforms after new ProPublica report: Democratic lawmakers revived their calls for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to resign from his position today after a new ProPublica report revealed he had taken more unreported luxury vacations funded by billionaires than was previously known. As the high court continues to see record-low public approval and a Democratic-led effort to impose ethics reforms, ProPublica reported today that wealthy benefactors have gifted Thomas at least 38 destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, multiple VIP passes to sporting events and two resort stays during his time on the court — a higher number of billionaire benefactors than was previously reported. Ethics experts, ProPublica reported, said the failure to disclose travel and sports could amount to a legal violation.

— Biden admin seeking $20B in emergency funds for Ukraine, other countries: The White House is set to ask congressional leaders for roughly $20 billion in new aid for Ukraine and other international needs today, according to two people with direct knowledge of the request. That total includes $13 billion in military aid to Ukraine, as well as billions of dollars in funding to replenish a dwindling pot of federal disaster relief, addressing the ongoing hurricane season and widespread damage caused by floods and wildfires this year.

DATE PROPOSED — Special counsel Jack Smith is seeking to put Donald Trump on trial on Jan. 2, 2024 — fewer than four months away — on charges related to his bid to subvert the 2020 election, reports POLITICO’s Kyle Cheney.

That aggressive timeline would put the weighty criminal trial first on Trump’s crowded calendar of criminal proceedings and guarantee an extensive airing of the grave allegations against him just before Republican primary voters head to the polls.

Prosecutors say the abbreviated timeline is rooted in the extraordinary public interest in seeing this case resolved.

“It is difficult to imagine a public interest stronger than the one in this case,” Assistant Special Counsel Molly Gaston wrote in a court document filed today, “in which the defendant — the former President of the United States — is charged with three criminal conspiracies intended to undermine the federal government, obstruct the certification of the 2020 presidential election, and disenfranchise voters.”

Trump’s legal team is expected to file its own proposed trial timeline next week but has already forecast a starkly different view of the case. Trump’s attorney John Lauro has predicted it could take years to review and organize evidence, well past the 2024 election in which Trump is favored to be the Republican nominee.

FAKED OUT — The 2024 campaign cycle is expected to unleash a torrent of AI-generated “deepfake” videos and images capable of deceiving voters — but the early attempts in Washington to stem the problem have already hit political snags, writes POLITICO’s Steven Overly.

Election watchdogs hope to clear one such hurdle today. The Federal Election Commission is scheduled to vote on a petition, initiated by advocacy group Public Citizen, that calls for banning political campaigns from distributing fake audio, video and images of their opponents.

Public Citizen notes that deepfakes have already appeared in ads supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, including fake photos that depict former President Donald Trump embracing Anthony Fauci. Such forgeries have alarmed election officials and advocates alike for their potential to confuse voters and skew election outcomes.

“We’re going to have very high-quality deepfakes in advance of 2024,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said. “And in the absence of some federal prohibition on the use of deepfakes, I think it’s a near certainty that political actors of all political stripes will use them.”

ASSASSINATION IN ECUADOR — Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian presidential candidate who recently pledged to root out corruption and lock up the country’s “thieves” was fatally shot at a political rally in Quito as the South American country reels from drug-related crime and violence, report the AP’s Gonzalo Solano and Regina Garcia Cano.

Villavicencio, 59, who was known for speaking up against cartels, was assassinated Wednesday, less than two weeks before a special presidential election. He was not a front-runner, but his death deepened the sense of crisis around organized crime crisis that has already claimed thousands of lives and underscored the challenge that Ecuador’s next leader will face.

Video of the rally in Quito posted on social media seemed to show Villavicencio walking out of the rally surrounded by guards. The footage then showed the candidate getting into a white pickup truck before gunshots were heard, followed by screams and commotion around the truck.

The candidate had received at least three death threats before the shooting and reported them to authorities, resulting in one detention, according to Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign adviser.

“The Ecuadorian people are crying, and Ecuador is mortally wounded,” Zuquilanda said. “Politics cannot lead to the death of any member of society.

HISTORY OF HIP HOP — What does collecting modern history look like? It’s a question that hip hop historians are asking themselves as the medium has its 50th anniversary — and as many of the people who created the genre are still around. It’s also one different people have answered different ways — some guardians of hip hop history are interested in personal collection, while others are trying to memorialize 50 years of music that’s changed the world by building a library and tributes that anyone can access, forever. For WIRED, Angela Watercutter caught up with the people who are considering hip hop’s legacy as it turns 50.

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