Newscasters and British government briefings are sounding increasingly sure that the new Covid strain is more contagious than earlier versions. And it may turn out to be, but not all scientists are ready to jump on the bandwagon–especially when it’s steered by a government that outsources navigation to companies with expertise in collecting overdue parking fines.
An article in Science magazine says that getting definitive answers could take months. What we have right now are possibilities and probabilities.
What’s known so far
A couple of things are known at this point. One is that the new variant is out-spreading the old ones. That could be because it spreads more effectively but it could also be because it got lucky: It found a cooperative human host, who introduced it to another cooperative host, who introduced it to a few thousand of his or her closest friends, who and so-forth’d, and before anyone had time to roast the brussels sprouts for Christmas the new strain was all over southeastern England.
Virology professor Mark Harris, of Leeds University, said. “Unfortunately, the new variant has also become a political football. It is being blamed by this Government for the rapid spread of the virus in London and the South-East – this is a smokescreen to distract from the failure to put these areas into Tier 3 after the national lockdown. . . . The potential . . . [for this virus to spread through] communal activities is enormous and the rapid increase in cases of the new variant are a direct consequence. We need to learn from the lessons of the past year and recognise that by delaying and failing to act decisively our efforts to control the pandemic are less effective, and ultimately lives are at risk.”
The other thing that’s known is that some of the changes in the new variant are worrying. Like all viruses, Covid evolves, but it’s been known for evolving fairly slowly, making one or two changes a month. Then along comes this new strain carrying seventeen mutations, and at least from where we stand they seem to have popped up all at once.
Not only do the number of changes worry the scientists, so do their locations. Eight of them are on the spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to break into the human apartment, raid the refrigerator, move the furniture, play loud music, and then raise a family. The changes look like they could make it easier for the virus to break in, but that needs to be confirmed.
Or to use that famous American (I think) saying, the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and she’s off in the wings, having a good sulk. She hasn’t even bothered to warm up yet.
There’s speculation that the variant may be able to infect children, but that’s not clear yet. What we have at this point are hints, with no solid evidence. On the other hand, if you want to scare yourself shitless, this is good material.
A theory on how the variant came to be holds that it could have evolved within a single patient who had a long infection, but at this point it’s just a guess.
As for where it was born, it didn’t necessarily originate in Britain. Britain’s one of a very few countries that sequences a lot of its viral samples. That translates to it being one of the countries most likely to spot a new variant, but it’s been found in other countries. One patient in the Netherlands had it in early December, and it’s been found in Denmark, Australia, and Italy. Belgium recorded four cases early in December. By the time I post this, it will probably have been spotted waiting for the train from Berne to, um, wherever trains from Berne go to. Let’s say Rome. All roads lead to Rome. Surely that includes railroads.
Finding a few (as opposed to many) cases in other countries may (or may not) be evidence that it doesn’t spread as rapidly as advertised. On the other hand, it may simply be evidence of what we (by which, of course, I mean I) already said, that Britain is ahead of most countries on identifying variants.
Data’s a wonderful thing. Interpreting it is a bitch.
A similar variant seems to have evolved separately in South Africa. That gives some support to the possibility that the mutations give the virus a transmission advantage–or so I’ve read, although unfortunately the article didn’t explain why.
So what does it all mean, bartender?
I am emphatically not arguing that the new variant doesn’t spread more quickly or that any conspiracies are being built to claim that it does. (Was that a simple double negative or an implied triple one?) All I’m saying is that commonly held belief seems to have jumped ahead of the science. We have some numbers on infection rates and we have a spike protein with a fashionable new haircut. They’re worrying, especially in combination. But we don’t have the lab work to confirm the conclusions people are drawing.
I could wish the government and the scientists who appear at its briefings would say this, but I expect they think we need clarity. And since the government, at least, hasn’t been clear on anything else I can see why they might want to sink their teeth into this and shake it until it’s in shreds.
And if apparent certainty moves the government to react more decisively to the virus’s spread, that can only be a good thing. It’s a shock to find myself agreeing with anything this government does–I’ll try not to make a habit of it–but if we’re looking at even the possibility of a more aggressively spreading variant, I don’t want them sitting around saying, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.”
Call that one wrong and people die.
People die anyway. But I think we’d all like as few of them as possible, thanks.
What about vaccines?
So far, the virus hasn’t moved itself outside the reach of vaccines, but BioNTech says that if that happens it could tweak its vaccine within six weeks and catch up with a new strain.
And irrelevantly but importantly . . .
Researchers in Australia have documented Covid immunity eight months after an infection. No one knows yet how long immunity lasts, but the documented time keeps getting longer.
And even more irrelevantly, do you know what Britons did during the last lockdown?
Given the data we have–
You remember I said (more or less) that it’s all about how you interpret your data? Well, the data we have is about food and drink, and it says we can forget all those pre-pandemic trends toward plant-based eating and healthy whatevering. Britain spent an extra £2.5 billion buying beer, wine, hard liquor (in case you think the other kinds are soft), and meat. And also tobacco–both cigarettes and roll-your-owns.
At the top of the list was lager, but Corona beer didn’t do badly either, from which we can infer, deduce, or at least allege that the virus hasn’t affected the famously skewed British sense of humor.
Some of the expenditure can be explained by people not being able to buy drinks at the pub or duty-free wine and tobacco on trips abroad, so they may or may not have consumed more of all those things but just bought it in different places. We don’t want to jump to conclusions–at least not when they’re not any fun (she said, reveling in another double negative).
On the other side of the scales, people spent less money on prefab meals. They were suddenly rich in time, so they cooked more. They bought less bottled water and chewing gum. They spent less on cosmetics, hairstyling products, toothbrushes, and deodorants.
I fed all of that through the invisible data interpreter that I keep on the other end of my couch and it tells me that we’ve become a nation of hard-drinking, bad-smelling cooks.
And finally, things you didn’t know you need to know
A gene that some small number of people inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may double or even quadruple their risk of serious Covid complications. The genetic risk, though, is much smaller than the risk that comes from social factors like poverty and poor access to health care, to name just two.
On the other hand, another bit of Neanderthal DNA may be protective. It just depends on which particular Neanderthal ancestors you might have had, and what particular bits of genetic material they left you.
Assuming, of course, that had any Neanderthal ancestors. Most Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans do and walk around sporting some small amount of Neanderthal DNA. Anyone whose ancestors came from other places has none.
Make of that what you will.
And finally, translator Peter Prowse has contributed a video to the worlds’ effort to stamp out the virus. He tells us to stop using those explosive consonants (called plosives–P, T, K, and their troublemaking friends) and replace them with softer ones.
He’s well worth a listen.