The one last scare, from America’s perspective, is the Delta variant. If we can remain stable or improving once Delta takes over, then barring another even more infectious variant, we’ve won. If and where we can’t do that, it’s not over.
That’s the question. How much Delta is out there already, how much worse is it, and will that be enough to undo our work? If it is, how long until further vaccinations can turn things around again?
Before I look into that, let’s run the numbers.
Prediction from last week: Positivity rate of 1.8% (down 0.2%), deaths fall by 9%.
Results: Positivity rate of 1.9% (up 0.1%), deaths fall by 20%.
Prediction: Positivity rate of 1.8% (down 0.1%), deaths fall by 9%.
I think the deaths drop likely reflects variance in reporting, so while it is definitely good news I do not want to predict a further large drop from a number that is likely to be somewhat artificially low. For positivity rate, we seem to have shifted to a regime of rapidly declining numbers of tests, especially in areas with declining infection rates. Thus, it’s quite possible that the positive test rate will stop reflecting the state of the pandemic. I still expect the number to keep dropping a bit, but it wouldn’t be that surprising if it stabilized around 2% from here on in with improvements reflected mainly elsewhere.
|May 6-May 12||826||1069||1392||855||4142|
|May 13-May 19||592||1194||1277||811||3874|
|May 20-May 26||615||948||1279||631||3473|
|May 27-June 2||527||838||1170||456||2991|
|June 3-June 9||720||817||915||431||2883|
|Jun 10-Jun 16||368||611||961||314||2254|
It seems like we can safely say that last week’s measured death count was too high and should have been more in the 2500-2700 range, and we remain roughly on the previous pace of decline from May. This week’s number is likely slightly lower than its true value, with some deaths shifted from this week into last week versus when they would usually be measured. Note that the raw total was even lower, as I added back some deaths in California when they reported negative numbers on multiple days, which I cancelled back up to zero.
|Apr 29-May 5||52,984||78,778||85,641||68,299||285,702|
|May 6-May 12||46,045||59,945||70,740||46,782||223,512|
|May 13-May 19||39,601||45,030||63,529||34,309||182,469|
|May 20-May 26||33,890||34,694||48,973||24,849||142,406|
|May 27-June 2||31,172||20,044||33,293||14,660||99,169|
|Jun 3-Jun 9||25,987||18,267||32,545||11,540||88,339|
|Jun 10-Jun 16||23,700||14,472||25,752||8,177||72,101|
[Chart note: Given our current situation, while they provide good perspective on where we’ve been, the full charts are not that enlightening anymore and are growing unreadable for all the right reasons. Unless people think it’s a bad idea, I’m thinking the charts should be narrowed to only show movement after some reasonable time. Maybe start on 1 April 2021?]
These are very good numbers. We see declines across the board. It’s not back on the old pace, but given the lifting of restrictions and the rise of Delta, that should be expected, and we still made more progress than last week by a large amount.
They reflect declining numbers of tests rather than a big decline in positive test percentage, but at some point… that makes sense at equilibrium because you don’t need as many tests? There’s an argument that a 2% or so positivity rate is reasonable, in the sense that it means that a marginal additional test would have a much lower chance than that of detecting an infection that was likely asymptomatic, so it’s not clear more testing would be worth the trouble.
It also likely means we are doing substantially less ‘surveillance testing’ where we check people without any reason to think they are positive, either out of an abundance of caution or to give them entry into events or travel. And we’re doing less testing in the places that are winning, versus the areas that are still struggling. Thus, we are taking the least likely to be positive tests out of the pool, which should raise the positive test rate. If we’re stable on that front, we’re making great progress.
Compared to what I expected, this continues to be good news. First doses do not appear to be declining much, which is impressive given how many of those eager to be vaccinated have already had their shots, and much of the remaining population is under 12.
If we can sustain this pace indefinitely, with an additional 1% vaccinated every week, we will be home free soon in most places, regardless of how bad Delta is. The effects compound increasingly quickly over time.
Delta is rapidly taking over. How worried should we be?
The 94% number for one dose of Pfizer is almost certainly higher than the real value due to random error, but the other numbers are very consistently saying that the vaccinations are at least as effective against Delta as they were against Alpha. The symptomatic disease numbers are more worrisome, but remain what I’d consider acceptable, especially for mRNA.
I don’t agree with every individual point, but this thread is mostly the reasonable bear case that Delta is sufficiently bad that we should be worried restrictions may come back and the pandemic might not be over in America.
As I noted last week, statements like ‘watch the Delta percentage in your region’ have the implication it’s going to be less than 99% for all that long, unless there’s another variant we don’t know about that’s even worse – at this point seeing a larger Delta percentage, conditional on knowing the growth rate of cases, is good news. Last week the report was that we were at 6% Delta cases overall, so there was still uncertainty at what level of cases we could stabilize against it.
The consensus seems to roughly be that Delta is twice as infectious as the pre-London strain. This thread, for example, puts its likely R0 at around 7, versus 3.3 for the original strain, an ~50-60% increase over the currently dominant London strain. There are places in the country where that may be enough to cancel out the current vaccination rate, despite vaccinations ‘overperforming’ their headline numbers due to previous infections and the existence of young children.
Where are we right now in terms of Delta? Here’s the best data point I could find. Delta is the light green area in the first graph.
English strain peaked here around 70% of the pool and is now down around 45%. That implies that the average strain is more infectious than the English strain already. Which makes sense, if you assume the ‘Other’ group includes strains similar to P1 or Delta that have now crowded out the others, and that both P1 and Delta are more dangerous than the English strain. The major legacy pre-Alpha strains are gone so it stands to reason similar minor ones were also wiped out.
This leaves us with a current mix of roughly (these are all approximations):
15% Other (that I will treat as P1)
How much more infectious will this pool be when it’s 100% Delta? Let’s accept the thread above estimates for now and assign points as follows:
Total current infectiousness of pool as of collection of these sequences: 30%*1.5 + 45%*1.4 + 25%*2.2 = 1.63 = 63% more infectiousness than pre-Alpha values
Future infectiousness of pool = 2.2
Final outcome (assuming Delta is worst variant) = 2.2 / 1.63 = 35% additional infectiousness
On April 1, what was the pool like? At that point, we can put it at something like
3% Other small things similar to P1
39% Other similar to old baseline (1.0 infectiousness)
Total infectiousness of April 1 pool of sequences = 25% more infectious than baseline from mid-2020.
Total increase in infectiousness since April 1 pool = 1.63/1.25 = 30% additional infectiousness.
Thus, if we ‘believe the hype’ here, we have to survive another 35% increase, after a previous 63% total increase, the majority of which has happened since April 1.
Currently we are vaccinating about 1% of people each week. Given we are already 50%+ vaccinated if you discount children, and what vaccines we are using, that’s something like a 2% improvement each week. If we can keep that up as a share of the remaining population, that will be cumulative.
Right now, we are cutting cases in half every 3 weeks or so, which is about 4 cycles, so I’d estimate R0 at 0.84. Increasing that by 35% puts us at 1.14. That’s presumably high, because sequencing is delayed and thus the current Delta share is higher than in the above calculation. I don’t consider 35% a strict upper bound, but my mean estimate is more like 30%, and every little bit helps.
Thus, it looks clear to me that most places in America are going to make it given the additional vaccinations that will take place, but some places with low vaccination rates will fall short.
Alas, that does mean that it might be a while before the final restrictions can be lifted, and life returns 100% fully back to normal. We will be stuck in a kind of hybrid limbo, mostly involving performative mask wearing and other such annoyances. But that’s actually pretty close to fully normal, in terms of practical consequences for adults. For the kids, things could stay rough for a while, because people are really stupid about such things. I hope we can get the vaccines approved for the Under 12 crowd soon.
Please Stop Asking Me About That Guy
That guy’s name is Bret Weinstein. If you already weren’t asking me about that guy, you can and probably should skip this section.
Enough people keep asking me about him, and there’s been enough discussion in which the things he’s claiming have been taken seriously, that I need write this section anyway, for the explicit purpose of Please Stop Asking Me About That Guy.
Bret has made a huge number of overlapping extraordinary claims, with an extraordinary degree of both confidence and magnitude. It seems like most of the time that I get asked about ‘hey there’s this theory that sounds plausible what do you think?’ the source of that theory is exactly Bret Weinstein. He’s become the go-to almost monopolistic guy for presenting these things in a way that seems superficially plausible, which of course means he’s here for all of it.
It’s a variety of different theories about how everyone’s covering up The Truth Which Is Out There (if you think that link is unfair, his core claims include UFOs, a broad based conspiracy to censor and cover up The Truth, and many monsters of the week, so I dunno what to tell you). Some of his claims such as the lab leak are plausibly correct, but are stated with absurd levels of confidence. Others, stated with similarly absurd confidence, are… less plausible. This includes claims I do not think it would be responsible for me to repeat, such as so-called his “Crime of the Century.” Then he cries censorship and further conspiracy when he gets (entirely predictably and entirely according to clear established policies) censored on platforms like YouTube and Facebook.
Look. I totally get it. After everything that’s happened, in the words of one commenter, if it’s a choice between the people who claimed masks didn’t work handing verdicts out from on high or ‘those three guys on that podcast’ and the podcast guys seem to have models containing gears, why wouldn’t you go with the podcast guys? At this point, Fox Mulder would have the world’s most popular podcast and be a regular on Joe Rogan, he wouldn’t have Scully as a co-host, and damn if he still wouldn’t be making a lot of good points. Seriously, it makes total sense.
Except that one can decline to take either side’s word for it, and think about the proposed gears, including the other gears and claims coming from the same sources, derive your guess as to what algorithms both are using to decide what to claim, and decide that neither of these options is going to be much of a source.
I can’t even at this point. I finally unfollowed him when I noticed that every time I saw his tweets my mood got worse in anticipation, yet I wasn’t learning anything useful except how to answer people asking about his claims. I have wasted far too much of my life trying to parse ludicrous stuff buried in hours-long videos and figure out how to deal with all the questions people ask about such things, or to convince people that he’s spouting obvious nonsense when he’s clearly spouting obvious nonsense, and I will neither be paid for that time nor will I be getting any of that time back.
That does not mean that all of Bret’s claims are implausible or wrong. Some aren’t. It simply means that the whole thing is exhausting and exasperating, many of the claims being made are obvious nonsense, and the whole exercise of engaging has for me been entirely unfruitful. One is not obligated to explain exactly why any given thing is Wrong on the Internet, and my life is ending one minute at a time.
It definitely does not mean I agree with the decision by some platforms to censor his claims. While I do think many of his censored claims are wrong, it would be a better world if such claims were not censored.
If you want to engage with Bret’s claims after getting the information above, and feel that is a good use of your time, by all means engage with his claims and build up your own physical model of the world and what is happening. The right number of people doing that isn’t zero. The set of such people simply is not going to include me.
If you still want to ask me about that guy, my cheerful price for further time spent on ‘investigating, writing about and/or discussing claims by Bret Weinstein or his podcast guests’ is $500/hour, which also is my generic cheerful price for non-commercial intellectual work. If you’re paying, I’ll check it out. Otherwise, Please Stop Asking Me About That Guy.
In Other News
Perspective thread on Covid from Sam Bankman-Fried, EA billionaire founder of crypto exchange FTX. Includes this bit of excellent practical advice:
And this slice of post-vaccination life, while waiting an extra day for a flight due to his negative Covid test having his SSN and his middle initial but not his full middle name on it:
California lifts restrictions on workers as of today. Will the masks actually come off?
Things are slow, but my experience so far is that nothing has changed. As usual, children get the shaft. Public transit (in particular, my ride to/from the city) continues to be much less pleasant in ways that make no physical sense. That’s the way it goes.
NFL isn’t forcing its players to get vaccinated, but it’s also not not forcing them to get vaccinated (WaPo). They’re going to make unvaccianted life quite inconvenient.
Mastercard pledges 1.3 billion to buy vaccines for 50 million Africans. In response, America calls it ‘significant step,’ indicating we indeed remain funding constrained, then makes smaller pledge:
Another person does math on smaller and delayed doses, and reaches the same conclusion that actual calculations always do, that they would save many lives.
Zeynep thread about how vaccinating the vulnerable changes things, you should know this already.
Front runner in NYC mayor’s race Eric Adams comes out in favor of multi-hundred person virtual classrooms, since in-person learning is unnecessary. Prediction markets and polls did not budge. He’s more likely to win than ever. Nothing matters.
Dominic Cummings wants to know the probability China will take over Taiwan in the next five years, because private conversations suggest 50%+, and asks what he should read. A relevant Metaculus market is here, but the right answer is of course a prediction market with actual money involved. I’ve asked Polymarket to throw up a market, hopefully we’ll have something soon, but it’s always tough getting interest in markets that don’t resolve for years.
This week in how we all actually die news, two apt observations:
This matches my recent experiences. Among smart people who have looked seriously at the problem and are acting in good faith, I see broad near-universal agreement that this is a huge problem, with the main differences being between the ‘this is a huge problem but we can probably figure something out that holds onto the majority of the future’s value, and it’s unlikely that we all die’ camp and the ‘this is a huge problem and we are all very doomed with no apparent way out, we’re all very likely going to die’ camp, with a small not-that-reassuring third camp of ‘our civilization is sufficiently inadequate that the tech won’t get that far, so we’re all going to die but not from this’ and perhaps a fourth even less reassuring camp of ‘we are all going to die but have you considered that humanity dying out is good actually?’
For what it’s worth, I am in the second camp, and think the probability of doom is currently high, partly for the reason explained in this thread: Not only do we have to do a hard thing, we have to do the hard thing correctly on the first try, or there won’t be a second try.
Here’s some survey results asking workers in the field for how likely we are to be doomed, and how often we are doomed due to ‘we didn’t get it to do what we intended and thus were doomed’ versus ‘we did get it to do what we intended and we were doomed anyway.’ There’s a wide range of probabilities.
The thing that all the camps have in common is that no one has great ideas as to what to do about this. If I had great ideas that I could implement, I’d be working on pivoting to working on them, and there are people eager to help me with that if I did find great ideas, but I don’t have any so far, hence I’m not doing that.
One reason to be very concerned is that when we look at our failures in Covid, including especially our inability to not do obviously terrible Gain of Function research, we see the exact kind of failure modes that are likely to get us all killed (Eliezer Yudkowsky), as the local incentives push people towards highly unsafe actions for such mundane reasons as getting a paper published. Thus, one way to work on the problem could be to do so indirectly, by changing such incentives and cultures more generally, and providing proof-of-concept examples of how such things can be done. For example, by getting Gain of Function research banned, and noting what it took to do that so we can do it again.
This dive into the weeds gives an up-to-date picture of what is generally considered the most central and scary challenge. Our best current AI techniques are radically opaque, current interpretability work is making very very little progress relative to the size of the challenge, and things like deception and mesa-optimizers are hopeless to address if you can’t understand your AGI’s internal cognition at all. Work on interpretability is urgently needed and is one of the things one could usefully do.
Anthropic was founded recently by former members of OpenAI for that explicit purpose of interpretability work, and we need as much such work as possible. The fear is that any such organization often does what OpenAI did, and turns mostly into an engine for creating more AI capabilities while giving us one more player to worry about in terms of avoiding a race situation where everyone builds their AI as fast as possible without time for safety work lest someone else do the same and get there first, and thus making the problem doubly worse.
Here are some other ideas, not related to MIRI, if you’d like to look through more of the field. Whatever the solution, it’s likely going to require understanding the AIs a lot better than we currently understand the AIs we have now.
Supporting organizations such as MIRI in the hopes that such work will figure out something worth doing, or doing one’s own study of the problems involved, or helping more people understand the situation, all seems net useful, by all means do that, but none of it constitutes the kind of plan we would like. Figuring out a good plan, if you are capable of it, would be immensely valuable, and there is a lot of support standing by to help with a good plan if one is found. Working on the problem directly, even without starting with a plan, also seems worthwhile.