April 27, 2022

To Mask or Not to Mask, That is the Question?

 As a biomedical scientist, who also blogs, I get many questions from people around me concerning getting vaccinated for COVID19 and now more often about masks. Which mask? Do I need to mask? Where do I need to mask? Do they work? Should I just let myself get COVID19 to gain natural immunity? Is that better than vaccinated immunity? 

As far as immunity goes, I have two doses of Pfizer and two doses of Moderna now. Yes, I have the second booster just a few weeks ago, and yes I wear a mask and an N95 one at that when I am in crowded indoor spaces. I will be wearing an N95 mask in airports and on aircraft and in convention centers. 

Most importantly, I made the decision to wear an N95 mask because of my own skill and knowledge set as a career scientist and inventor with over 25 years of lab time under my belt. I understand DNA and RNA, how to put RNA into cells (like the RNA vaccines do), and how RNA is used as a template to make protein and all that stuff. That is what I do for a living. I have even designed a genetic test panel that we use to DNA-sequence kids with very rare inherited retinal conditions to determine the changes in their DNA that cause their medical condition.

Let me be clear that I fully understand that currently there are no laws that force me to wear a mask at all here in Michigan, Oakland County (my work), and Macomb County (my residence). I choose to wear an N95, and so far I am one of the 45% or so of people in the United States who have not been infected with COVID19. This last point is the reason I wear an N95. 

Most of us know many people who have both survived or died from COVID19. I also know many vaccinated persons who just had the "COVID19 cold", and they certainly fell into the "survived" category because they were vaccinated. However, I also know more persons around me who "just had a bad cold", but about a month later strange problems and long-covid symptoms have cropped up in their lives. Things like headaches, insomnia, foggy brain, constant exhaustion, and transient spells of extremely high blood pressure that leave them unable to walk without assistance for an hour. All of this explains two of my personal decisions for my own health:

1) I chose to get vaccinated to get immunity. 

While COVID19 infection and even repeated infections will spark your immune system into action, they are infections and real COVID19 virus still forms in your body and kills and disrupts several cell types of many different organs in the body including lungs, intestinal tract, sinus neurons (smell), and even our brains. I get a better immunity from the vaccines and avoid the dangers of the virus. Its a no brainer for me. I am over 50 and qualified for the 2nd booster, which I have now.

2) I chose to wear an N95 because I do not want a "COVID Cold".

An actual COVID19 infection, even if we have some immunity already, brings to me some risk of developing a new long-term medical condition. As a male who has entered his 60s during this pandemic and who makes a living using his brain to investigate human biology, disease, and design potential new therapeutics, I really need an "unfoggy brain". There are computer scientists, engineers, and medical scientists who have had to take leave from their careers because of neurological symptoms left to them by COVID19. I do not wish to risk being in that situation, even if the risk is tiny. Being told you have a very tiny risk becomes moot if you are one of those who end up in the very tiny "unlucky" group with neurological problems.

So, when will I stop wearing my N95 mask in some higher-risk situations? 

When the high risk goes away. I will base that on my risk of getting exposed to the latest strain of COVID19 going around. Currently, that is still a very significant risk. It is currently a higher risk than we have of getting the flu in most years. Once all the unvaccinated people around my part of Michigan eventually get COVID19 and some immunity, the extent of active COVID19 in the community will get low enough that I will consider taking off the N95. 

With warmer weather, I am going to favor eating outside at restaurants, and attending outdoor events and festivals. I will still pop my N95 on when I go into Starbucks to pick up my coffee, and I will watch the data available for Michigan from testing. Unfortunately, the extent of active COVID19 is harder to judge now as many states have stopped a lot of their testing efforts. However, there is good data from watching current hospital ER and admission data. 

I am simply going to err on side of caution so I avoid COVID19 itself if possible. That is good for my health and it also reduces the risk of a family member getting an infection transmitted through me. Just because a very conservative judge decided to block a Federal CDC mandate to require masking on airplanes does not change the science of the situation. A good mask, N95 is best, serves to stop the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID19 and many more that have plagued humans over time. COVID19 will mindlessly, robotically, continue to spread in the very automated ways that all viruses spread and if you do not have an N95 in a crowded venue then you choose a higher risk of infection. So be it. COVID19 cares not about anyone's politics. In general, illnesses and diseases do what they do regardless. 

So it's my choice for my health, based on how my science brain thinks, to wear an N95 mask. If you choose to be riskier then I wish you good luck. I really hope for the best for everyone, but you will be rolling a pair of dice that are different than my pair of dice. Your dice will have more than one side with one dot and your chances of rolling "snake eyes" will simply be greater than mine. 

Good Luck to us all. 

March 28, 2022

Confused on What to Do Next if Exposed to Someone Who has COVID19? This Calculator Provides Specific Advice.

Have you been in close contact with persons who have tested positive for COVID19? 

Not sure what actions you should take at home or work in this situation? 

Do you wear a mask at home, or should you get a test yourself? 

All the answers depend on time and if you are vaccinated or if you had COVID19 yourself in the last few months. Simply click your answers into this online calculator and it quickly helps you figure out the best medical advice on what to do next. 


CDC COVID Exposure and Response Calculator


January 13, 2022

Omicron Variant versus Delta Variant: Lessons on What to Expect From Coronavirus Adaptations

My previous blog post described how Coronavirus strains adapt and benefit from their naturally high error rate when they copy their own RNA as more virus particles are produced in an infected cell. (Click to read that posting here.) If these changes cause a particular strain to spread easier among us humans then these new strains quickly take over the infection race. There is no evil plot, just the random events of statistics and bad luck for us as variants like Omicron spread faster. Delta is still around, but Omicron gets to new unvaccinated persons first, and eventually, more of those requiring admissions to our hospitals will have Omicron and not Delta. That said, both Delta and Omicron are killing people inside our hospital ICUs. Why exactly does Omicron spread faster than Delta?

November 28, 2021

Trojan Horses, Pandora's Box, and Gambling with the Variants of COVID19.

(Updated for Omicron variant, November 28, 2021)

Who are the gamblers? Our leaders at many levels, including those managing our workplaces, towns, cities, counties, and states, continue to underestimate the potential outcomes of COVID variant emergence. What many molecular biologists (scientists who work with DNA and RNA) and mathematicians understand is that the very nature of viral replication makes viruses into ever-changing evolution machines. The strain of COVID19 now running rampant through our network of unvaccinated neighbors is far more infective than the ones we dealt with in early 2020. This is the how and why.

November 20, 2021

Does the COVID19 Vaccine Booster Work? Judge for yourself with your own eyes.

In my main work as a biomedical research scientist at Oakland University (Oakland.edu) I study mechanisms of how genes are turned on and off in the retina and what causes some diseases to threaten vision in people from infants to adults. I also design the biotechnology production of human proteins in bacteria to make potential future therapeutics (drugs) to repair damaged blood vessels in the retina. Fundamentally, I am first and foremost a biochemist and have been fortunate to have gained experience in most specialities of biochemistry including metabolism, cell physiology, human physiology, DNA, RNA, Proteins, carbohydrates, hormones, cytokines, and some infectious diseases. Even a little past work with aspects of viruses, including HIV. You can do many things over 25-plus years in the lab. When the pandemic shut down non-covid research for some months into summer 2020, statewide, I pivoted, with the help of a few students to start evaluating a mobile fingertip blood test for antibodies to the COVID19 spike protein, from a US company called Epigentek. (Note I do not work for Epigentek, nor own any stock in the company.) As we found that this particular brand of the test was reliable (no false positives) and very specific to detect only antibodies to the COVID19 spike protein, we have used it to get a snapshot of when antibodies are detectable in our community after COVID19 infections (in 2020) and after COVID19 vaccinations in 2021. So, what about vaccination? I knew that even in my own case, before vaccination we cannot detect any antibodies in our blood. What about after vaccination? After 

6 months? After a booster shot? Here are my own tests to share with you to show you why I am quite happy with my vaccinations and my booster shot.


October 8, 2021

Like Old Jedi, Good Antibodies just Fade Away........

Above is our test of my blood's Covid 19 antibodies (IgG class) at 3 months after my 2nd dose of Pfizer vaccine. Marked with the black dot. The red line to the right is a control line.
Below is my test done today, now about 5.7 months after full vacvination. 
As you can see the relative concentration of my antibodies to the spike protein of Covid 19 is still easy to detect but is about half of what I had at 3 months. 

Now even if my antibodies fade away completely, I will likely have resident immune system clonal cells that are ready to detect and respond more quickly to a Covid 19 infection than I would have prior to being vaccinated. However, in time, the number of those cells will also decrease. 

So we should expect that a yearly vaccine shot to Covid19 will be routine medicine just as the flu shot is too. Generally, our human immune system does not remain primed for more than 6 months against corona-type viruses, which is the class of virus that Covid 19 belongs to. Many coronaviruses are actually cold viruses and we already know that it's possible to get a full-blown cold more than once from the same coronavirus strain within a single winter because coronaviruses trigger a shorter lasting immunity.

The viral RNA polymerase that makes copies of the Covid 19 RNA within infected cells has an error rate of 1/10,000, and the genome of Covid19 is about 30,000 bases long. Thus each new virus made in one of our infected cells has an average of 3 mutations. That is three bases different from the virus that infected the cell. That means that almost all 3,000 to 5,000 copies made in one infected airway cell are all mutated, changed, different from the original infecting virus. That is how viruses change, adapt, and evolve. Most of the mutations will not make much difference, some will make the virus less efficient, but some can make the virus replicate faster and also bind faster and stronger to our airway cells. 

That is why variants like Delta occur and the virus will have opportunities to become even worst if we have large regions of mostly unvaccinated persons. Mutations have changed the Delta variant's spike protein and just one changed link in that protein makes it bind to and infect cells faster than the virus at the start of the pandemic.

As a molecular biologist with expertise in gene expression, genetic diseases, and RNA and DNA polymerases, I am concerned.

I will get my Covid-19 booster as soon as I am eligible. 

Ken Mitton

PS. I got my flu shot last week and have done so every year for over 15 years. I have not had the flu in that time.