Reading Between The Strains with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed | Crooked Media
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February 17, 2022
What A Day
Reading Between The Strains with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed

In This Episode

  • On Wednesday, federal officials announced upcoming guidance changes, which reflects yet another new stage of the pandemic. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, epidemiologist and host of Crooked Media’s “America Dissected,” joins us to discuss what these new policies might look like and answers other questions about the future of COVID.
  • And in headlines: Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva took first place in the women’s short program, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly ousted three members of the city’s school board, and President Joe Biden ordered the National Archives to hand over the Trump administration’s White House visitor logs to the January 6th committee.


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Gideon Resnick: It’s Thursday, February 17th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And I’m Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, and this is What A Day, the best podcast to request if you are receiving an MRI and they give you headphones.


Gideon Resnick: Yes, we hope that your body and bones are 100% perfect, but if you do find yourself in an MRI machine with audio capabilities, choose WAD.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But I’ll tell you what the smooth jazz of magnets clonking together, it’s just as good. It’s your call. On today’s show, we’ll update you on the federal hate crimes trial against Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. Plus, San Francisco ousted three school board members in a landslide recall.


Gideon Resnick: But first yesterday, we heard once again from federal officials about upcoming guidance changes, reflecting yet another new stage of this pandemic that we are in. Here is CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky:


[clip of Dr. Rochelle Walensky] We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals. We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen. If and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly, and it will be based on the data and the science.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so last week on the show, we talked a little bit about some of these changes that are happening state by state as the Omicron wave of cases subsides across the country, but as the host of Crooked Media’s America Dissected, Abdul, and an epidemiologist and a person who thinks about these things and talks about these things a lot, this is once again a great moment to throw some questions your way. So here goes nothing. We just heard about that potential new CDC guidance, as a lot of states and businesses have gone ahead and changed their own already. So what makes the most sense here for them to do? And what do you actually expect them to do?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, the truth of the matter is, is that Director Walensky is responding to this really odd moment in the pandemic where it’s almost an every-person-for-themselves situation, because you’ve got multiple different levels of government telling you that different things are required. And here’s the unfortunate situation, is that people are mistaking requirements for recommendations. And I think what Director Walensky is doing is reiterating the recommendations, the things that you should do to keep yourself healthy and safe, even in the context of a dropping number of Omicron cases. The other point here that’s really important to remember is that we are in a situation where yes, cases are dropping, but we don’t want to be in a situation later on down the road where we’ve forgotten that this pandemic has a way of rearing its ugly head again. And so she’s speaking to this situation and trying to explain why it is that the federal government may be a little bit less in a hurry to drop their recommendations, like we’re seeing states do.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And when we were talking earlier, you were talking about this kind of on again- off again messaging with mass and how that can sort of scramble people’s brains a little bit, be a little bit problematic. Can you walk me through that a bit more?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. The thing about it is that science, by its nature, it changes. We’re in a very different point in this pandemic than we were two months ago, than we were, frankly, two years ago. And so the science and the science-based recommendations change. The problem, though, is that we’re conditioned to think about science as a body of knowledge. I mean, that’s literally how most of us learned about it. It was in a book. And so every time the recommendations change, it shakes confidence that people have in public health officials. And so in this moment right now, I do think it’s really important that officials, they hedge their bet a bit to say, Look, we’re in a particular situation right now where it’s safer not to wear masks in public. That being said, we could very well find ourselves in a situation with another variant where masks need to go back on. And I think the hedging here is really important because what people are experiencing now isn’t just on again-off again, it’s this one says on in this on and this one says off. And so it’s just, I think it’s important that official start speaking from the same hymn book, and at the same time, recognize that whatever guidance that you make today has to hedge for what may change tomorrow, lest you continue to confuse people and undercut belief in science and science-based communication.


Gideon Resnick: Right. And I do want to talk about the ‘tomorrow’ of this briefly and what the future of COVID might look like. So our current understanding of its origin is that it likely jumped at one point from animals to humans, but now there is concern about effectively the opposite happening. Can you unpack that a little bit more?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But Gideon, we just got to today. Yeah, let’s talk about, let’s talk about that a little bit. So what we think happened with COVID is that this virus was likely bumping around in bats, and at some point there was communication from a bat to a human being. And that’s called spillover. And it has, as we all well know, has been bumping around in human beings now for coming up on two years. What’s interesting is what happens next. We know where we’re headed into a point right now where there’s less COVID. It’s plausible that a new variant emerges in humans, but it’s also plausible that a new variant emerges in animals because there’s been what we call ‘spill-back’, meaning it’s moved from humans into other species. We’ve seen it now in mink, we’ve seen it in cats and dogs, and we’ve seen it in deer. And all of that begs the question what might viral evolution do in those animals? And if it were to come back out of those animals in a new mutated form, what might be the implications for humans? And so as much as I’d like to tell you it is over, and I certainly do, I feel quite bullish about where we are in the pandemic, it’s our job as scientist to look around the corner and this is the worry that we have potentially around the corner. But for right now, look like, I said, let’s enjoy today, given what we’ve just come through.


Gideon Resnick: I do want to talk about today more, but I’m fixated on the future. We do not want to “spill back better” in the future—thank everybody for indulging me in that. To talk about the presence of COVID in deer, there’s been a lot of reporting about that recently. Does that kind of sync up with what you were just saying in terms of spill-back? Is there anything that’s different that’s there? What have we learned about that, particularly?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, Gideon look, we can’t even Build Back Better at this point, so spilling back better would be even worse.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s exactly the scenario that worries a lot of scientists about the observation that COVID is so widespread in deer, because deer are plentiful, particularly in my neck of the woods here in Michigan, and they come into contact with humans, particularly during hunting season. And so it’s a setup for a scenario where there is some spill-back that could be potentially risky. And just to give you an example of a disease that folks know rather well, obviously people aren’t dropping dead of the bubonic plague anymore, because that used to be zoonotic, meaning it was hosted in animals, in rats, back in a time when rats were a lot harder to control. Today, people still do get the plague and they get it from prairie dogs out west. And so you can see the scenario where you have this thing hosted in a wild animal where it could potentially make the jump back into a human and cause illness. But like I said, that is a scenario whose likelihood we don’t really understand. You’ve got really great scientific minds working on it, trying to understand what the potential and the possibility is, and to protect us from all of it. For right now, let’s hope that 2022 is is the real Hot Vax Summer we’re all getting ready for.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that is a great segue into talking about vaccines in the future. So instead of chasing booster after booster, there is a possibility of a kind of vaccine that could treat, you know, potentially numerous variants of COVID at once. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And if that is a likelier path ahead of us?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, the vaccines that we have right now are based on incredible science. But there’s also—as anybody who’s listen to my podcast knows—there’s also some unwanted incentives around the manufacturers of those vaccines, considering the fact that they make more money the more vaccines that they sell. The ideal scenario isn’t that we’re chasing a new variant with a new vaccine every single time a new variant emerges. The ideal scenario is that we’re getting ahead. And there are a couple of research projects that are focused on trying to build out a pan-coronavirus vaccine, a “one and done.” One that’s particularly interesting and has some real potential is being researched at the Walter Reed National Medical Center through the army, that uses a nanoparticle where you can hook, in effect, 24 different epitopes or immunological signals that could emerge from the evolution of this particular virus and show our body 24 different versions at the same time. That gets us a lot closer to that idea of a pan coronavirus vaccine. So there’s still a lot of research into that, considering the fact that the potential for a new variant is always there and we really do want to get ahead of it rather than trying to play catch up.


Gideon Resnick: And if you get two doses of that, you’re exposed to 48 different iterations, I assume.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, it would be the 24 twice, right, just like we have the mRNA twice. But you know the idea of showing your body the same vaccine twice is that—have you ever gotten a new iPhone and you have to show it your face, but you have to show your face from a whole bunch of different angles?


Gideon Resnick: Yes.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It’s the same face, right? Just different angles. So the idea here is that a vaccine booster is like re-upping the different angles that you’re showing your body of the virus, and therefore it makes it more efficient at recognizing it when it sees it and defeating it if in fact you are infected.


Gideon Resnick: Right. Allowing your body to meet an old friend that once gave it a very hard day.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: But will give it a better day in the future. You think about all this stuff in a really interesting way. So what are you personally thinking through in this current moment of the pandemic? What’s been on your mind?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, I do what I do because I’ve always been really interested in not just pathology itself, the illness, but in the ways that we as a society digest and engage with those illnesses. And, you know, we’re at a point right now where we are on our last straw as a society. And you see it everywhere, whether it’s, you know, people flipping out on airplanes or at baristas at coffee shops. The worry that I have is that we don’t know that this is over. We feel pretty good about it. And certainly there’s been a lot of pressure on public officials to, in effect, declare this over, but I worry about what happens if you know we do see another variant, if we’re able to mount the kind of response that we’re going to need to beat it. This virus has already taken 900,000 lives. And look, I want this to be over just like everyone else. I’m sick and tired of talking about COVID. I’m sick and tired of being stuck in my house, particularly in the middle of winter here in Michigan. Sick and tired of worrying about whether or not my four-year old is going to get vaccinated or, worse, get sick. I want this to be able. And at the same time, I don’t control the timeline. None of us control the timeline. The virus unfortunately controls the timeline. And I think we have a responsibility to stay vigilant even as we start going back to our lives. And yes, I think this is the time that we need to start going back to our lives as they were. This is a moment where the risk of COVID is low. BUT there’s always what comes potentially around the corner and we just have to be ready. And I worry about our reserves as a society about being ready.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, well, thank you for helping us try to stay ready. Always great to be able to bounce questions off of you. We really appreciate it. More on all of that very soon, the pandemic, unfortunately. Maybe at some point we won’t be talking about that here, but that is the latest for now. We’re going to be back right after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wednesday marked the second day of the federal hate crimes trial against Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan. Yesterday, prosecutors called FBI analyst Amy Vaughn to the stand. She presented dozens of racist texts and social media posts allegedly sent by the three men before the February 2020 shooting, many of which included racial slurs and other degrading remarks about Black people. In one text message, Travis McMichael wrote that he loved his job because quote, “zero n-words work with him.”


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: In another text message about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, William Bryan called Black people a quote, “monkey parade.” Bryan also called a Black man his daughter was dating in 2020, the n-word, just days before murdering Arbery. Prosecutors are using these texts to prove that all three men committed hate crimes and targeted Arbery because he was Black. And they could succeed, given another one of Travis messages where he said, quote, “We used to walk around committing hate crimes all day.”—disgusting.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, these are outrageous. Embattled Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva took first place in the women’s short program on Tuesday, drawing the ire of sports commentators and athletes alike. The 15-year old skating prodigy has been embroiled in controversy in recent days after she was cleared to compete in the games despite having tested positive for trimetazidine just months before. The heart drug is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency because of its ability to increase one’s endurance. New reporting shows that Valieva also tested positive for two other heart drugs in December that are not banned, that’s Hypoxen and L-carnitine. An International Olympic Committee official told reporters on Tuesday that the skater may have accidentally ingested trimetazidine, a medication prescribed to her grandpa—who among us has not given into the allure of grandfather’s forbidden, tasteless candies every now and again? But Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said that such a combination of drugs was unusual and seems to be quote, “aimed at increasing endurance, reducing fatigue, and promoting greater efficiency in using oxygen.” Valieva is still set to compete in the women’s free skate tonight, where she is highly favored to win. If she does make the podium, the medal ceremony will be postponed due to the ongoing investigation into her case.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce and I have Hypoxen L-carnitine, which is also my order at Chipotle.


Gideon Resnick: Right, exactly. Branded, trademark.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: On Tuesday, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly ousted three members of the city’s school board in a recall. People were motivated to vote them out because they were frustrated over the board’s failure to reopen schools last year due to the pandemic. While other districts opened, created hybrid, in-person, and other remote classrooms, San Francisco stayed remote for nearly all students. Meanwhile, voters complained that the board was too focused on moves aimed at advancing racial equity for students, like changing admissions systems and school names. Although that’s a good sentiment, critics across the political spectrum said it was ill-advised during the pandemic because parents wanted the board members to prioritize getting their kids back in school. Democratic Mayor London Breed endorsed the recall effort and during a press conference yesterday, she said this:


[clip of Mayor London Breed] Education and the system around education has to be at the forefront of everything that we do. When we think about this pandemic and the challenges, the learning loss, the mental health challenges, that is, has to be our focus.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Breed will be in charge of appointing three new board members to fill the vacancies.


Gideon Resnick: I always say this whenever we talk about school stuff during the pandemic, I would not want to be involved. It is terribly, terribly difficult. Wow.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I feel like if you’re a school board member right now, you just got to get back to the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic.


Gideon Resnick: Right. Right. Yeah. What a mess. President Biden ordered the National Archives to hand over the Trump administration’s White House visitor logs to the January 6th select committee—those logs are like a guestbook at the world’s most cursed Airbnb. They show who is entering and exiting the White House in the months and days leading up to the insurrection. Former President Trump claimed the logs were subject to executive privilege—that is a term he is sure means something but doesn’t know exactly what. But in a letter to the archives on Tuesday, White House counsel Dana Remus said that Biden rejected that claim, writing quote, “Preserving the confidentiality of this type of record generally is not necessary to protect long-term institutional interests of the Executive Branch.” After receiving Biden’s order to release the logs, the archives sent a letter to Trump yesterday informing him that they will be handed over in early March. As we went to record, torn up pieces of that letter, we’re almost definitely in the process of clogging Trump’s toilet. I have to say, I just noticed that we wrote, released the logs and then also talked about clogging the toilet, and I would be remiss if I didn’t draw that connection for the audience. You’re welcome.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What I worry that White House counsel Dana Remus missed is how important this is to protecting the short-term personal interests of the former representative of the executive branch.


Gideon Resnick: Right, exactly. And that is how we need to build policy and our lives, is about protecting that. No questions about it. And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, avoid grandfather’s forbidden candies, and tell your friends to listen.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And if you’re into reading, and not just guest books that cursed Airbnbs like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Abdul El-Sayed.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And thank your MRI technologist!


Gideon Resnick: Yeah.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Also known as DJ.


Gideon Resnick: Right. Catch him on the right day, you’ll hear some good tunes.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That bleeped out 90s hip hop.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.