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Weekend reading: Far out

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What caught my eye this week.

With hundreds of investing blogs having published thousands of articles over the past decade, there’s a lot of repetition around.

(Indeed I’m getting déjà vu. Didn’t I say much the same the other week?)

Anyway, you have to admire a post that finds a new spin – such as combining astrophysics and economic upheaval, as Klement on Investing did this week.

Especially when it brings – ahem – gems such as this:

The chaos of the universe is needed to create new structures. And islands of order like a star and its planetary system eventually disintegrate into chaos out of which new structures are created.

A wonderful symbol for this order out of chaos is the fact that on Neptune, the atmosphere is so volatile and chaotic and the pressure is high enough, that scientists suspect it sometimes rains diamonds on it.

Wow. I wonder if Elon Musk is short Tiffany, the upmarket jewelry store?

Let there be… light entertainment in the interlude

Klement’s argument is that the confusion and misery of Covid-19 will similarly produce much of value in time.

But it seems a stretch to compare diamond showers on faraway worlds with people working in their pants and not shaving for a week, or with Starbucks staff serving coffee from behind a 2″-thick plexiglass screen.1

When it comes to our investing beat, the disruption is mostly just more oddness, which is at least on-brand with the times we’re living in.

CNBC veteran Jim Cramer, for example, is using his airtime to lambast the antics of the lockdown day-trading generations’ Pied Piper – the Internet entrepreneur Dave Portnoy.

There’s probably 50 years separating the demographics of their target audiences, but I’m sure they’re united in enjoying the spat.

Who knows what happens next. We seem to have run into an air pocket – in the markets, in the global Covid-19 narrative, and in the economy – where everything is neither getting better or worse, at least for a moment.

Normality returning? Or maybe we should hold on to our hats (and our diversifying safer assets…)

From Monevator

Opened your first trading account during lockdown? Here’s how to make money in shares – Monevator

From the archive-ator: How slow growth affects your investment goals – Monevator


Note: Some links are Google search results – in PC/desktop view you can click to read the piece without being a paid subscriber. Try privacy/incognito mode to avoid cookies. Consider subscribing if you read them a lot!2

UK economy shrinks by a record 20.4% in April due to lockdown – BBC

Britain will see the ‘worst’ economic contraction among developed nations, says OECD – Sky News

US Fed sees zero rates to 2022; recommits to bond buying – Bloomberg via MSN Money

Bankrupt Hertz seeks permission to raise $1 billion in ‘preposterous’ new stock sale – Forbes

UK dividends down £12bn so far, a 16% drop compared to 2019 – ThisIsMoney

Unilever to ditch Anglo-Dutch dual structure in favour of a single base in London – ThisIsMoney

[Click to enlarge the mania]

A graphic illustration of the explosion in trading I wrote about last week – Jon Krinsky via Josh Brown

Products and services

Hardy any mortgages available now for buyers in England with a 10% or smaller deposit – Guardian

Rare Kew Gardens 50p keeps growing in value; worth 2,733% more than a decade ago – ThisIsMoney

Home insurance premiums jump in cost; one in ten households consider cancelling – Which?

Sign-up to Freetrade via my link and we can both get a free share worth £3 to £200 – Freetrade

Homes with a garden are the new must-have for buyers – ThisIsMoney

US fund fees have been cut in half over the past 20 years – The Evidence-based Investor

Properties for sale with a lake or moat [Gallery]Guardian

Comment and opinion

The ETF industry’s Tower of Babel – ETF.com

Backtests versus real-life in the markets – A Wealth of Common Sense

My bad – Humble Dollar

Will you be bothered to pay £50 a month for the gym when they reopen? – Guardian

The stock market almost always seems disconnected from the economy – Bloomberg via Yahoo Finance

US fund managers failed to beat the market in the chaos of early 2020 – Institutional Investors

Wade Pfau: The annuity puzzle – Forbes

Bonds and the invisible thief of inflation – Factor Research

Larry Swedroe: [US] public pensions 98% certain to underperform benchmarks over ten years [Passive maths; also I don’t think you can be ‘98% certain’ but then I’m just a humble aggregator… 😉 ]The Evidence-Based Investor

Naughty corner: Active antics

The stock market as entertainment in the Covid-19 era – Net Interest

Investment in oil supply has collapsed. It may not roar back – The Economist

TINA + MMT = MAMU – Ed Yardeni

How to measure dividend growth and the factors that support it – UK Value Investor

A walk on the wild side – Simple Living in Somerset

Active investing ability declines markedly in those aged over-70 – Market Watch

Investment grade corporate bonds right now: the worst risk/reward in history? – Charlie Bilello

Covid-19, politics, and Brexit

London still the worst-hit UK region for excess deaths from Covid-19 – John Burn-Murdoch via Twitter

Deaths involving Covid-19 by local area and socioeconomic deprivation: March to May – ONS

New daily infections fall by half in a week, implies data from the symptom tracking app – Symptom Study

Coronavirus came to the UK at least 1,300 times, mostly from Europe; just 0.1% from China – BBC

Why it will be hard to introduce local lockdowns in the UK – Wired

Coronavirus bubbles: The great housemate sex dilemma – BBC

Growing calls for 2-metre social distancing rule to be halved to support the economy – BBC

America is giving up on the pandemic – The Atlantic

Could a vaccine be developed for Covid-19 in record time? [Experts discuss]New York Times

There’s a lot of confusion around about asymptomatic coronavirus cases – Stat News

How the pandemic might reshape the world’s cities – The Atlantic

Boris Johnson’s team is broken by the virus and losing faith – Bloomberg

Kindle book bargains

The Anti-Procrastination Mindset by Harry Heijligers – £0.99 on Kindle

The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything by Bobby Duffy – £1.99 on Kindle

How To Day Trade For A Living by Andrew Aziz [Wealth warning!] – £0.99 on Kindle

The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Maths Genius and One of the Greatest Scams in Financial History by David Enrich – £1.99 on Kindle

Off our beat

The Museum of Office Life, and other stories from the future [Funny, video]YouTube

Underworked but exhausted? That’s not burnout, that’s ‘boreout’ – Guardian

$1 billion to save the ocean [YouTube]The Economist

How to feel better when you don’t know what’s wrong – Raptitude

The depth of privilege – Of Dollars and Data

And finally…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities

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  1. Who is making all these screens? There’s a Covid-19 winner for sure. []
  2. Note some articles can only be accessed through the search results if you’re using PC/desktop view (from mobile/tablet view they bring up the firewall/subscription page). To circumvent, switch your mobile browser to use the desktop view. On Chrome for Android: press the menu button followed by “Request Desktop Site”. []
{ 56 comments… add one }
  • 1 Matthew June 12, 2020, 7:38 pm

    Regarding chaos of the universe, I think it’s the whole reason for a big bang to happen at all, since there is more entropy after the big bang than before, so that is motivation for it to happen. Split 0 into +1 and -1 and project the antimatter backwards through time

    Regarding the 20% drop in the economy, that is good, we kept 80% of our economy despite such a shutdown, pretty good going considering the circumstance

  • 2 Vanguardfan June 12, 2020, 7:39 pm

    Thanks for the links. I’m finding the continuating evidence of reduction in infection cautiously encouraging. The one thing I’m not sure of is the whole ‘R is around 1’ thing. I have to say I don’t have a clear understanding of where the estimated R numbers come from, how much they are based on actual infection data and how much on other proxy measures of connectedness etc. So I can’t really evaluate their significance.

    I did say, way back when, that I thought we’d come out of lockdown after 8-12 weeks, that we would be ok-ish over the summer, but that the real test could be the autumn/winter. Fingers crossed. And that could be the time when we also find out what the impact on joblessness is going to be like.

  • 3 An Admirer June 12, 2020, 8:16 pm

    Normality? Like interest rates > 3% or yields which aren’t a race to the bottom?

    Things never really turned around after ’08 and this is more of the same. Governments hooked on zero lending costs, 12+ years later it’s more of the same. Companies happy to ride that waves and pay near zero divs. Hold onto your hats for a year or two of negative real returns followed by wait… yet more free money… for how long, forever? This is the real uncharted territory here.

    Bad times to be an investor. Good times to be in debt methinks. Yields keep driving zero and investors are lapping it up, even want more. What happens when no-one wants to buy gilts anymore? Why should they? Because legally institutions/pensions have to? Hmm.. even if so, there’s a conflict of interest surely?

  • 4 Gentlemans Family Finances June 12, 2020, 8:18 pm

    Twas the best of times…. often springs to mind these days.
    Makes you wonder a bit about privilege.

  • 5 Fremantle June 13, 2020, 12:21 am

    …it was the blurst of times…

    Thanks again for the links this week

  • 6 Snowman June 13, 2020, 8:11 am

    The National Audit Office report from yesterday ‘Readying the NHS and adult social care in England for COVID-19’ is downloadable from here


    ‘Between 17 March and 15 April, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes, compared to around 35,000 over this period in 2019. It is not known how many had COVID-19 at the point of discharge. On 17 March, NHSE&I advised hospitals to discharge urgently all patients medically fit to leave in order to increase capacity to support those with acute healthcare needs. Due to government policy at the time, not all patients were tested for COVID-19 before discharge, with priority given to patients with respiratory illness or flu-like symptoms. On 15 April, the Department confirmed a new policy of testing all those being discharged from hospitals into care homes, which was followed by instructions to that effect from NHSE&I on 16 April’

  • 7 Snowman June 13, 2020, 8:45 am

    Love the topics of order and chaos.

    My favourite investing book of all time is Benoit Mandelbrot’s ‘The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin and Reward’

    Certainly changed the way I think about stock markets. You don’t lazily claim stock market are efficient after reading that. But you also realise that markets are complex adaptive systems that are pretty much impossible to predict.

    And one of my favourite science books is ‘Chaos’ by James Gleick, a wonderfully told tale of how the science of chaos developed.

  • 8 TheIFA June 13, 2020, 10:10 am

    Talking of market efficiency, I think it depends on your perspective. If you employ the brightest brains, have huge datasets, have an in-depth knowledge of the markets you are trading etc, I’ve no doubt for these people/firms the markets aren’t efficient, and I’ve seen first-hand evidence of this. However, exploiting these inefficiencies gets more and more difficult, and a lot of the strategies the eggheads employ are limited by scale. Unfortunately for the rest of us mere mortals (and I include fund managers in this), their actions mean that the markets by the time we “get hold of them” are broadly efficient.

    I enjoyed Mandlebrot and I recall Taleb saying it had influenced his thinking. Need to read it again.

  • 9 xxd09 June 13, 2020, 10:12 am

    Is it a sign of old age or investing maturity -to stop looking for “needles in the haystack“-because those valuable “needles “are there if you could only have a foolproof method of finding them !
    And buy the haystack via a World Equities Index Tracker?


  • 10 James Greig June 13, 2020, 10:23 am

    Here’s my (fairly Captain Obvious) concrete finding from this week’s engagements with clients: any recently re-opened company that has been dragging its heels on digital transformation is now scrabbling to modernise their service offering. They don’t have a choice any more. Which means there must be thousands of SMEs about to engage third-parties for assistance, and hopefully unlock new growth potential — maybe not this year granted, but next year…

  • 11 159F June 13, 2020, 10:58 am

    This week I’ve been struck (anecdotally) by more than just a few holding onto a bit of cash for the short term at least. Unsure if this is a wider trend indicating general sentiment. Readiness to pounce during the next downhill run etc .

    Question is though – is it really just the choice asset of cowardly losers. (Cue holding one’s hand up to forehead depicting a capital letter “L”). One wonders if an arsenal of liquidity isn’t so stupid right now what with the current spike in trigger happy home working Wild West inefficiency insanity unpredictability and volatility. What % of cash in a portfolio actually makes sense at the moment.

  • 12 FI Warrior June 13, 2020, 11:30 am

    @159F, similar to my thoughts, nervously holding waaay too much in cash and wondering while figuring out the next step which currencies are safest at this point, to try diversify the eggs within that basket. Uncomfortable times.

  • 13 Jonathan June 13, 2020, 11:42 am

    @159F, the important corollary of your observation about people holding more cash is that it would be the wrong strategy for the government to try to stimulate economic recovery by consumer-led action (e.g. VAT cut). The extra money in their pockets would largely go straight into savings accounts.

  • 14 The Rhino June 13, 2020, 1:19 pm

    @TI – On the kindle book bargains, are they just cheap books you’ve spotted or have you also read them, i.e. is there a sort of implied recommendation?

  • 15 The Investor June 13, 2020, 1:57 pm

    @The Rhino — Relevant and cheap. Not a recommendation. The quote at the bottom is almost always a book I’ve read and recommended.

  • 16 Jim June 13, 2020, 2:29 pm

    The sitting on too much cash at present just reminds me of more money more problems. Has anyone here reduced their anxiety about investment decisions as they’ve accumulated more? I know I was a lot more blase’ when i had less

  • 17 Al Cam June 13, 2020, 2:30 pm

    Re footnote #1 – might be worth taking a look at Oadby Plastics

  • 18 Sparschwein June 13, 2020, 3:49 pm

    Re cash – I’m in the same boat. In part because I hold some cash instead of bonds (not the same I know, should have bought longs USTs a couple years ago, horse bolted).
    In part because I cautiously bought back into the drop in March and I’m still underweight stocks.
    One area of concern is, what will happen when govt support runs out, bankruptcies roll in, deferred rent & mortgage payments come due. Arguably this is all obvious and should be priced in. The other concern (and this tips the balance for me) is the likelihood of a second wave and repeated disruptions after. We are fed plenty of stories about a “weakening” virus, magical immunity, wonder drugs etc. and the average Robin-Hoodie may buy into this, but I follow the actual science. No one can predict the course of the pandemic with certainty, this is all about a judgement of probabilities.

  • 19 B0b June 14, 2020, 10:15 am

    @Jonathan. You could be right. Didn’t the Japanese government try something like that in the 90. Exactly as you’re said, the money went straight into savings.

  • 20 ZXSpectrum48k June 14, 2020, 11:19 am

    Higher savings rates is exactly what the data is showing at a global level. People are paying down debt, saving more, consuming less. It’s a standard derisking process that you see in every recession/downturn. Deleveraging. Disposable income has actually risen in many cases but that additional money is not being used for consumption.

    At a corporate level, larger corps are aggressively using lower yields to raise further debt. That money isn’t really being used for capex or growth but to fortify balances sheets, stem cashflow disruptions and do equity buybacks. SME’s and micro enterprises, by comparison, are struggling to raise or rollover debt. That’s what the public wanted post 2008, so they can’t complain about it now.

    This is why monetary policy, at least in terms of rate cuts, somewhat lacks efficacy. It’s notable that the equity market turnaround wasn’t driven by rate cuts to the ZLB but by the Fed providing credit-based backstop programmes that eliminated tail risk.

    Hence why government stimulus is the only real way to get the economy going. You need that public sector demand to keep the velocity of money up, while private sector demand recovers.

  • 21 FI Warrior June 14, 2020, 12:06 pm

    This summary is a caustic but realistic analysis of why and how the stock markets and real economy have decoupled, leading to a disconnection between ever-rising share prices but businesses on life support. It’s very worrying for the future of shares, prosperity and peace in our time:


  • 22 Jonathan June 14, 2020, 12:23 pm

    Thanks @ZX, your posts here are always so informative. Just one succinct sentence suddenly makes clear what whole articles by others find difficult to put into words: “You need that public sector demand to keep the velocity of money up, while private sector demand recovers”.

    What Sunak needs is to find public projects that can quickly create demand for materials, services, jobs. Not easy given the obvious answer of infrastructure tends to have a long lag before getting much money moving around.

  • 23 Matthew June 14, 2020, 1:55 pm

    You could have a government imposed negative rate on all savings and current accounts to get people spending, without dragging gilt rates down too much, something compelling like say -5% per year, it’d be difficult for people to hide cash under the mattress with electronic payments and direct debits, you could even potentially ban physical cash withdrawals to enforce it, as well as mandatory inflation via minimum prices for goods

  • 24 David June 14, 2020, 2:02 pm

    @ Jonathan… Akin to FDRs new deal.

  • 25 Kraggash June 14, 2020, 6:42 pm

    Re: the article: “Active investing ability declines markedly in those aged over-70”
    The main thrust is that your skills in selecting investments diminishes after 70, but you think you are just as good as always, if not better. The recommendation is to go into index trackers.

    Queue lots of comments along the lines of “I am 77, and can still invest as well as I ever could” and “my Amazon and Google holdings are still performing well: why should I go for a tracker”.

    Methinks they didn’t read/understand the article…

  • 26 Pinkney June 14, 2020, 9:37 pm

    I hope that the govt sees an opportunity to invest in the future with projects based on the green economy. With tidal, solar, hydrogen, batteries and wind we could make game changing advancement to the energy footprint of the country. Cheap and plentiful energy could help the energy poor and environment plus lots of new industries. Going shopping and buying more tat from China is not in my opinion the answer. Time for those old industries to go up in carbon loaded smoke and train up people in the low carbon future

  • 27 ermine June 15, 2020, 12:05 am

    > a government imposed negative rate on all savings and current accounts to get people spending, without dragging gilt rates down too much, something compelling like say -5% per year, it’d be difficult for people to hide cash under the mattress with electronic payments and direct debits,

    Gold. Foreign shares/VWRL. BTL housing. I already do the first two because I don’t trust the £ to hold value

    That idea was so much easier in the days of capital controls, but that was before Thatcher. Anyway, one of the few things Britain does well is making money and international finance. It’s not gonna fly.

    Besides, we already have a perfectly serviceable “government imposed negative rate on all savings and current accounts”. It’s called inflation.

  • 28 Matthew June 15, 2020, 6:03 am

    @ermine – indeed for those like us willing to try such measures, but we were always savers anyway, I was thinking about spooking the average person into playing the consumption game a little more to tackle deflation (IF it actually matters in real terms anyway! – it might not). Average joe might get spooked by nominal numbers, and give up (thats what we really need as opposed to trying to save more for expensive annuities)

    Besides, the options you describe, even for us, would imply an upshift in risk taking, which itself should promote inflation

    We could also raise wages to tackle deflation but at the cost of businesses – one of the tools in the box, or helecoptor money, again an option. Perhaps all these things are best done in moderation to test the waters, perhaps in combination

  • 29 Tony Edgecombe June 15, 2020, 9:05 am

    If we want to increase consumption then the obvious way to do that is to reduce consumption taxes like VAT or stamp duty.

    Environmental projects are appealing but they won’t sweep up the large swathes of young unskilled and semi-skilled who seem most affected right now. I’d like to see a big increase in social care. It’s been under funded for a long time which has had a negative impact on the NHS. That isn’t traditional Tory policy though so who knows?

  • 30 Pinkney June 15, 2020, 9:39 am

    @tony. Yes I agree social care would be a good area in fact all those areas in which you need people services, such as health, education, care etc would be areas I would tackle. Our education is poor in OECD terms we obviously need more doctors, nurses and care people and the infrastructure for schools and health need huge amounts of money so infrastructure would be another opportunity for young workers. This is an opportunity for serious change and a way to galvanise the young. The material consumer led economy has serious issues let’s try something else

  • 31 ZXSpectrum48k June 15, 2020, 1:52 pm

    Since nobody has mentioned it: another paper implying that some SARS-COV-2 strains are more infectious (but not necessarily more lethal)
    and the preprint itself

    Basically, the D614G mutation seems 4x as infectious and seems to be becoming more dominant “In February, no sequences deposited to the GenBank database showed the D614G mutation. But by March, it appeared in 1 out of 4 samples. In May, it appeared in 70 percent of samples”.

  • 32 Sparschwein June 16, 2020, 1:58 am

    This is an interesting new paper. The general idea makes sense and is in line with a previous one

    The Scripps paper’s conclusions about the mechanism of increased D614G infectivity are more debatable; eg.
    – it’s all just done in cell culture. A very common test system, very useful but ultimately not quite “in vivo”
    – they rely on protein quantification by Westen blot and that’s a notoriously error-prone method (although widely used unfortunately)
    – they should really show an S1-S2 interaction assay to support their conclusion

  • 33 Sparschwein June 16, 2020, 2:04 am

    correction: *Western* blot

  • 34 Snowman June 16, 2020, 10:45 am

    Deaths registered weekly in England and Wales, provisional: week ending 5 June 2020 (released today by ONS)


    ‘The number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending 5 June 2020 (Week 23) was 10,709; this was 885 higher than Week 22 and 7.3% (732 deaths) higher than the five-year average; this increase is likely due to the Late May Bank Holiday, which occurred in Week 22’

    There were 1,588 covid-19 deaths registered in week 23.

    Interestingly they say

    ‘The number of deaths involving COVID-19 continued to decrease across all English regions with the number of deaths in London falling below the five-year average …..’

  • 35 Snowman June 16, 2020, 11:00 am

    The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication have a good tool that works off the ONS data, including the ONS local authority data.

    You can use it to compare deaths in England and Wales (covid-19 and all cause) by date of occurrence, as well as date of registration. Looking at occurrence death data helps with bank holiday distortions.

    Also you can use it to get figures for deaths (covid-19 and all cause) occurring and registered at local authority level.

    For obvious reasons it’s not yet updated for week 23.


  • 36 Sparschwein June 17, 2020, 5:32 pm

    Carl Bergstrom on the dexamethasone story, in his usual brilliant style:
    “Suppose you’re in the hospital on oxygen for COVID. You are offered dexamethasone. All else equal, there is about a 4% chance it will make a difference in your outcome.
    Would I take it? Sure. It is a miracle drug? No.”

  • 37 Snowman June 18, 2020, 8:09 am

    Vitamin D was brought up on monevator over 2 months ago by Grumpy Old Paul. My mum has been taking a vitamin D3 supplement since February and she’s making sure to get outdoors into the sun (without burning of course).

    So interesting to see the Government (via NICE) has now ordered a review into whether vitamin D can help fight covid-19. How on earth have they waited until now to do this? How many BAME and other lives could have been saved if vitamin D supplementation had been advised months ago?

    The obsession with pharmaceutical drugs that have little or no or even adverse affects on covid-19 and failing to do any investigation of the obvious and cheap solution of vitamin D leaves me shaking my head.

    Clearly vitamin D deficiency associates massively with poor covid-19 outcomes, and that’s after you factor out age, sex and even comorbidities (10x multiple of risk). That doesn’t mean that vitamin D supplementation will work (vitamin D status could be a marker after all) but this old article on vitamin D explains the logic as to why there is an excellent chance of it working.


  • 38 xxd09 June 18, 2020, 9:24 am

    We just got out of Argentina on 13th March-lucky
    I have a GP daughter-put us both(74 year olds) on Vit D immediately
    Wearing sun block while abroad negates usual Vit D production
    We are still alive!

  • 39 The Investor June 18, 2020, 4:34 pm

    Article highlighting that fears over public transport (including by extension the London Underground) may be overblown:

    A recent study in Paris found that none of 150 identified coronavirus infection clusters from early May to early June originated on the city’s transit systems. A similar study in Austria found that not one of 355 case clusters in April and May was traceable to riding transit. Though these systems, like their American counterparts, were carrying fewer riders at a lower density than before the pandemic, the results suggest a far less sinister role for transit than the MIT report described.


  • 40 Grumpy Old Paul June 18, 2020, 6:08 pm

    @The Investor,
    That’s interesting and surprising. I’d assumed that mass transit was a major factor in the large outbreaks in London and New York. I also have a personal interest in so far as I’m a non-driver and normally rely on overland trains when visiting friends and family. I did some quick research on cluster sources and came up with a couple of pieces of research which tended to support the atlantic article. See below:

    There was, however, a caveat in the first article stating ‘Only one transportation cluster — three cases on a bus — appears in the database, but that doesn’t mean the virus doesn’t spread on buses or trains. “Transport outbreaks are very difficult to identify,” says Yuguo Li, an engineer at the University of Hong Kong who studies infectious disease transmission.’

    The distribution of infections and fatalities from COVID-19 between and within countries becomes still more puzzling. I wonder whether AI and neural networks can or has been used to infer an explanation

  • 41 Sparschwein June 18, 2020, 8:45 pm

    There are some reasons for vitamin D supplements unrelated to infectious diseases; eg my father’s cardiologist recommended it years ago.

    As for Covid-19, we don’t know if vitamin D supplements do anything (unless someone has seen a proper study?) and it will be interesting to see the results from this govt review.

    This pre-Covid metaanalysis suggests that vitamin D supplements were somewhat beneficial against acute respiratory tract infections. It’s important to look at the data. Vitamin D doesn’t really “protect” but it reduces the odds of catching an infection by ~12% (Fig 2).

    Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are pretty much the only supplements I’d take, while the vast majority of the stuff that’s being touted is useless at best, and possibly harmful.

    All Trump supporters should drink bleach of course, because their great leader said so!

  • 42 Vanguardfan June 18, 2020, 9:08 pm

    And in fact, NHS guidance already recommends vitamin D supplement for dark skinned people year round and for others in the winter. https://www.nhs.uk/news/food-and-diet/the-new-guidelines-on-vitamin-d-what-you-need-to-know/
    My levels were tested some years ago and were extremely low, so I try to remember to take a supplement (and have been quite diligent for the last few months! But like everything in relation to COVID-19 , it’s not a panacea. That unpublished paper quoted by Malcolm mcKendrick was pretty poor quality evidence, unadjusted correlation with symptoms, what you would need would be a randomised controlled trial.

    Large scale antibody testing is now underway in health care settings. I’m hearing lots more anecdotal reports of HCW who have been PCR positive and coming back antibody negative (and some who thought they had probably had it but not tested, also negative). I don’t know enough about immunology to properly interpret this, other than it would have been more reassuring if they were all coming back positive for antibodies…

  • 43 Vanguardfan June 18, 2020, 9:24 pm

    Certainly seems to rule out those ‘game-changing’ antibody passports that were talked up a lifetime ago in April. Gone the same way as the contact tracing app and designed-from-scratch ventilators…
    It’s looking like a long hard road back to ‘normality’.

  • 44 The Investor June 18, 2020, 10:22 pm

    @Vanguardfan — It is all very weird. As you know, I intuited early (or guessed if you prefer 😉 ) that the UK outbreak was far more widespread than was being officially talked about. Mostly I inferred this on the obviously widely distributed nature of those early infections, at a time when the UK testing was a shambles and very low capacity, as well as a few other things such as the myriad social mixing I was seeing all around me, especially of the elderly where I live. It seemed clear a big wave was already upon us.

    The big wave hypothesis was indeed correct (as many others including the officials inferred of course for all sorts of reasons…however I do still think I was a couple of weeks ahead in terms of numbers versus consensus.)

    However (as you also know) we then got the antibody results in and while they were higher than people would have expected in, say late March early April, they didn’t back up my theory of 40-50%+ infection rates in places like London. Same with New York.

    So at that point I decided my intuition was either out of gas or was always just a lucky fluke, and retired to more of a watching role.

    Things have just got more confusing though, really. We are not seeing antibodies where we should (e.g. Sweden, your anecdotal here). We are not seeing spread where we ‘should’ (e.g. Georgia in the US). Lots of strands of early ventured theories (e.g. hotter/sunnier weather) might support the general die-off in infection rates, except it does seem to be spreading now in some warm countries, especially in Brazil. There was no mass outbreak after those mask-less Ohio anti-lockdown protests a few weeks ago. And so on. If the thing was fitting the ‘it’s really infectious, you have to stay 2m apart always’ vanilla narrative, there would be.

    As @Snowman has kept suggesting, a probable explanation for this apparent randomness could well be some kind of immunological response that does not produce antibodies (what that chap called ‘dark matter’ the other day, which was unfairly ridiculed IMHO. He is just saying “something is affecting the statistics that we can’t identify”.)

    Arguments that there’s a simple solution to all this do not persuade me. Of course if a country gets lucky and identifies a few early incomers (e.g. Australia) then it can see a good result. And it does seem mostly that no lockdown = a worse result (Brazil, Belarus, arguably Russia). But there’s surely a lot more going on.

    I agree the passports (which I never bought into) don’t seem very likely. But equally one could say that if people have had proven infections and they don’t produce antibodies (or even didn’t get sick) then we also shouldn’t have had most of the population in a bunker for two months — and shouldn’t again.

    I’d like to see more studies done of set populations throughout the lifecycle of an infection wave. E.g. As I said the other week, they should be antibody testing those Premier League footballers as well as PCR testing them, though there’s possibly not enough positives coming through now. They should have continually tested at least one complete hospital staff list from day one — that data would be super-valuable now.

    The thing is weird. Hindsight bias looms larges. On that note I finally saw my dentist for a long postponed follow-up treatment and she said it was very interesting seeing how things unfolded given how I’d been ‘going on’ in early March that their large practice would probably need to close soon. She had gotten my theories of the time with both barrels, and it was not the view of the practice at the time that they’d be forced to close, so it stuck with her.

    Given everyone and their dog now claims to have seen all this coming since January, it was a candid reminder they didn’t (and yes, I’m sure I have hindsight bias, too). E.g. a couple of friends on a mass virus email discussion list I’m still appended to were going on about how all leaders were incompetent etc, whereas they had been following the WHO news since January and it was “obvious” what would happen.

    I held my tongue for about 30 seconds before bashing off a reply pointing out that in fact they’d bought plane tickets in late February for a mutual friends’ wedding at the start of June so, no, they didn’t see what would happen.

    Anyway I digress. The thing is odd. I continue to watch and ponder.

    Hope you’re keeping well out there in the hinterlands. 🙂

  • 45 Vanguardfan June 18, 2020, 10:32 pm

    On transport, this FT article provides contrary evidence from a temple outbreak – higher transmission among those who travelled by public transport.

    I would expect packed urban transit systems to have been important during the first surge. I don’t think any of the sources referred to so far are inconsistent with that, you can’t compare the situation during the first surge to the current situation with awarenesss of social distancing, lower passenger numbers and masks.

  • 46 xxd09 June 18, 2020, 11:49 pm

    My daughter is on the frontline as a GP
    This virus is not behaving in a typical viral manner
    A lot of anomalies re it’s effects on people ,in test results etc etc
    I think we have some way to go before we get a handle on it
    Probably only will well after the infection has passed
    This means our politicians are going to have to make difficult decisions which may have consequences for which they will be held accountable
    Watching these “peacetime “ generals squirm under the pressure of having to make a real decision is tough on all of us-first time for most of them!
    No wonder we have a Boris and a Trump etc who are brave enough/naive enough to put their heads above the parapet and are prepared take the consequences of their actions
    People prefer that behaviour in the current circumstances (its what we all have to do in our own lives) rather than the usual-threw money about, create a committee and generally cover yourself what ever the consequences to other people

  • 47 The Investor June 19, 2020, 7:39 am

    More unfortunate data on the antibody from — a small study found Covid-19 antibodies start fade within two to three months in many asymptomatic cases:

    Coronavirus antibodies may last only two to three months after a person becomes infected with Covid-19, according to a new study published Thursday in Nature Medicine.

    Researchers examined 37 asymptomatic people, those who never developed symptoms, in the Wanzhou District of China. They compared their antibody response to that of 37 people with symptoms. The researchers found people without symptoms had a weaker antibody response than those with symptoms.

    Within eight weeks, 81% of the asymptomatic people saw a reduction in neutralizing antibodies, compared with 62% of symptomatic patients. Additionally, antibodies fell to undetectable levels in 40% of asymptomatic people, compared with 12.9% of symptomatic people, according to the study’s findings.


    Paper published in Nature:


  • 48 Snowman June 19, 2020, 8:28 am


    Thanks for that antibody study. I’ll be having a look at that.

    I’m not sure why you describe the results as ‘unfortunate’. What you seem to be saying is that those who have tested positive for the antigen but who have been able to tackle the virus most easily (the asymptomatic) have more ‘fading’ of antibody levels than groups who are symptomatic. From an evolutionary perspective it doesn’t make sense to me that the immune systems of the asymptomatic would put those people in the position of being subject to a much greater risk of problematic reinfection than those whose immune systems have had more difficulty tackling the virus. To use a previous metaphor the asymptomatic might need to put less guards at the door to repel a future attack, but should all other things being equal be able to deal with a subsequent attack.

    And the study won’t include those who have never tested positive for the antigen but have encountered the virus and fought it off. Will there be significant numbers in that group who essentially form part of community immunity (or not)?

    Re the seasonal affect TI you might be interested in this video which attempts to explain Brazil and the tropics and addresses concerns about what may happen in India in the coming months. A lot of it is associational evidence not causal evidence, but it does indicate there are potential explanations for the (possibly nuanced) seasonal affects of covid-19, bearing in mind coronaviruses are usually seasonal.


  • 49 The Investor June 19, 2020, 9:13 am

    @Snowman — Cheers for thoughts. Neck deep in it today, but just to briefly reply I say it’s “unfortunate” because the opposite — say a 12- to 18-month long antibody response window — would surely offer a higher chance of clearing the virus from populations, pre-vaccine. Even if there are evolutionary reasons for weak/fading antibody levels, it won’t help with that in a modern world with populations that don’t want the old/sick to die of/with Covid-19, as evidenced by the last few months of lockdowns.

    I understand what you’re saying — if the weak/fading antibody responses correlate with an individual’s strong ability to shrug off the virus, then what’s the problem? 🙂 (Indeed I referenced this point of view a few posts previously).

    But I think it’s hard to argue a world where antibody levels after Covid-19 fades fast in at least some cases is *better* than one where it persists for a long period, all else being equal, hence “unfortunate”.

  • 50 Sparschwein June 19, 2020, 8:58 pm

    The new Nature Medicine paper shows that >80% of asymptomatic infections result in detectable SARS-Cov-2 antibodies. Also, >50% of “asymptomatics” (people who did not feel ill, subjectively) show abnormal lung CTs. Both points agree with the smaller cruise ship study in the Lancet last week.
    We have known for a while that nearly all symptomatic patients make antibodies.
    So the serology results are conclusive and there is no room for moving the goalposts once again:
    Only small-ish fractions of the population have been infected so far in most regions, except perhaps for the hardest-hit eg Bergamo or NY.

    Anyway, if people read one thing about Covid-19 this weekend, then this:
    Notably, one of the authors is of Dunning-Kruger fame.

  • 51 Vanguardfan June 19, 2020, 9:32 pm

    @sparschswein do you have a link to that Nature Medicine study? I can’t tell what the numeric proportions are from my anecdotes but there are certainly people who had symptoms (‘mild’) who have not converted. I hope we see some published results from the NHS antibody tests, as the sample would be pretty big and would include quite a lot of PCR trusted people.
    I agree with your final conclusion re likely infection prevalence. We shouldn’t be trying to invent explanations to fit our hunches. And I think people are underestimating the effectiveness of social distancing behaviours, whether voluntary or mandated, in slowing transmission. The infection has declined because we have changed our behaviour, not because it has stopped finding susceptible people.

  • 52 Sparschwein June 20, 2020, 12:55 am

    @Vanguardfan – I mean the paper that @TI has linked to in a previous post
    And this is the Lancet paper

    Yes it’s really the most straightforward explanation that social distancing has just worked as expected. There was a long-ish article in the FT with data series week by week, it showed that people started changing their behaviour in early March, weeks before the official lockdown.
    And the warmer weather may have helped because most transmission seems to happen in confined indoor spaces?

  • 53 vanguardfan June 20, 2020, 9:56 am

    Thanks for that. The Nature sample is quite small, but interesting. Notably 40% of the ‘asymptomatics’ became seronegative within 8 weeks of discharge. Since we’re now three months from our peak infection rate, quite a few of the HWC may have become seronegative. Of course, the million dollar question is what happens when they next meet the virus.

    Yes, I’ve always felt we would muddle through the summer without major surges – and of course remember we are still legally forbidden from social gatherings indoors. The change to cool damp weather and possibly lifting of indoor gathering restrictions are both likely to be significant challenges.

    All roads back to ‘normality’ or at least a semi-functioning society lead through the nexus of track, trace and isolate – until we know where infections are occurring in real time we will never be able to target distancing measures adequately. Unfortunately since pillar 2 (privatised) testing still seems unable to even identify how many individuals have tested positive, let alone where they live and work, we are very far from being able to abandon population level distancing. I cannot understand the government’s wilful reluctance to focus on the local information and feedback loops that are necessary for controlling the epidemic.

  • 54 Snowman June 20, 2020, 10:26 am


    Thanks for the explanation of why you thought the study result was unfortunate, I see where you are coming from now.

    As you realise I was looking at it on the basis that further evidence that a significant number of those who had had the virus had no detectable antibody response, would mean the serology tests understated the true percentage of people in the potential immunity pool. And that would be would be a good thing for community immunity hopes. But as I say I see where you are coming from.

    The study shows that 81.1% of the asymptomatic had detectable IgG antibodies in the acute phase. But that IgG antibodies waned and only 40% of the asymptomatic had detectable IgG antibodies in the convalescent phase (the diagram in figure 3e of the paper shows the results very clearly). It would be interesting to know if that 40% might reduce further after the covalescent phase.

    IgG antibodies are the long term antibodies that remain in the blood after an infection has passed.

    Is that where you get your quote Sparschwein that ‘The new Nature Medicine paper shows that >80% of asymptomatic infections result in detectable SARS-Cov-2 antibodies.’ based on the detectable antibodies in the acute phase?

    If so, given that most serology studies will be done in individuals where most are past the acute phase, then that does mean there are a significant group of asymptomatic people who would have tested positive (or have tested positive) for the antigen but who don’t have a detectable antibody response. Add in those who would never test positive for the antibody but have encountered the virus then that further increases the potential ‘immunity pool’. And further research urgently needed and all that.

    So I don’t understand the comment ‘So the serology results are conclusive’ based on the results of that paper.

    Interestingly the latest (week 25) English regional serology (antibody) prevalence levels seem to show reduced sero-prevalence in all areas apart from the North-East (see fig 29). They have explanations for this such as changes in locations of sampling, but it does look odd to me.


  • 55 Snowman June 20, 2020, 12:10 pm

    Another mistake! Should have said 60% of the asymptomatic had detectable IgG antibodies in the convalescent phase (not 40%)

  • 56 Sparschwein June 20, 2020, 3:44 pm

    @Snowman – good point about the observed decline in Ab levels. I don’t think it changes the serology results because of timing. The Nature Medicine study re-tested for IgG “8 weeks after they were discharged from the hospital” (they were quarantined). Hence 2-3 months after infection one might miss ~40% of asymptomatic positives; but the pandemic only started in Europe in Feb so there was not enough time for a significant decline.

    As always, one would want to see >1 study showing the same thing, and these results fit with the Lancet cruise ship study (8/8 asymptomatic IgG-positive) and Aguzzi’s Switzerland study, that I rate very highly, also found 4/4 asymptomatic IgG-positive.

    > “Add in those who would never test positive for the antibody but have encountered the virus”
    Exactly these people are *included* in the Lancet and Nature Medicine studies, and the data shows this group is <20% of all infected.

    Now the asymptomatic sample numbers are still rather small and we'd like bigger studies.
    But it's pretty strong, direct evidence from 3 independent papers.

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