Wednesday, February 01, 2023

A Multi-Headed Hydra

Andrew Nikiforuk writes that we now face an army of COVID viruses:

What began as an airborne pandemic driven by a single virus has become a viral cloud roiling around the globe thanks to public policies that have allowed unfettered transmission.

As a consequence the pandemic now represents different threats in different regions for different classes of people at different times. The wealthy elite attending Davos may be protected by tests and clean air machines, but the rest of us face contrasting realities.

Consider how the virus has evolved:

We no longer face one viral foe or a single variant such as Delta. Omicron has produced four lineages of genetically diverse descendants morphing into an ever-growing swarm of 700 subvariants referenced by a confusing jungle of numbers and letters. What was once a single violin has become a complex and expanding orchestra with no discernable conductor. Even virologists now have trouble keeping track of where the variants are coming from, and what their different mutations mean.

And it's what we do -- or don't do -- that drives the evolution of the virus:

Our actions, or inactions, are driving this evolution. Current policies allow unimpeded transmission. And in that context, vaccines and anti-viral treatments, despite their obvious life preserving benefits, have created conditions under which the virus is evolving rapidly.

Some variants have become immune evasive. Others have become more transmissible or adept at binding to human cells. Many mutations have rendered antibody treatments totally ineffective. A study showing the descendants of BA.2 and BA.5 have become more pathogenic. There is no shortage of new variation thanks to a high mutation rate, and variants continue to beget new descendants in an ever-expanding viral family tree.

By naming the latest subvariant XBB. 1.5 “Kraken” after a legendary squid-like sea monster, the Canadian evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory has done the world a small favour. People tend to pay attention to things we name and that name served as a reminder that this new viral swarm is mutating at an accelerating pace. One star has become a viral nebula.

Now we're caught on the horns of a dilemma:

Welcome to our current pandemic paradox. About two-thirds of the world have been vaccinated. These vaccines can prevent death and disease, but not infection. They reduce the risk of long COVID, but only provide partial protection against it. The effectiveness of many vaccines are now waning in many jurisdictions against more immune-evasive variants.

At the same time people’s vaccine hesitancy has sharply increased, despite research that shows bivalent boosters save lives.

So the many subvariant descendants of SARS-CoV-2 have no trouble finding human hosts. As they replicate, they mutate and behave as Darwin would have predicted. Evolutionary pressure on the virus selects variants that can escape drugs or vaccine-prompted immunity in addition to immunity elicited by prior infections.

The pandemic no longer resembles an elegant graph composed of peaks, valleys and occasional lulls in infection, death and disability. The new viral swarm, as evolutionary biologist Gregory has cogently explained in interviews, is producing not one or two waves but a sustained succession of waves, including four last year in Canada and five in the U.K.  

In other words the pandemic has gone from an acute emergency (sudden death and clogged hospitals) to an ongoing chronic reality (chronic disease and clogged hospitals plus waves of excess deaths).

Gregory asks: What are the consequences of a rising sea of infections as opposed to tsunamis? And answers: “Sustained pressure on health-care systems with no major lulls anymore. In fact, the lows over the past Omicron year exceed the peak during Delta.”

Result: Canada experienced its worst death and hospitalization rate for the virus in 2022.

So, no, COVID hasn't gone back into its cave. It's evolved into a multi-headed hydra.

Image: Atlas Wiki Fandom


Lulymay said...

I still wear my mask when I need to leave my house and I don't give a darn what others think about that. I also only leave the house every 2 weeks (unless something comes up like a doctor/dentist appointment, but use that to do other shopping "chores").

We are couple in our 80's and the other half does have some health issues, so are both really careful. So far, this has worked in our favour and we will continue this routine. It also means that my X-3 SUV (yes Mound, I like to drive one of those too because as a "shorty" I feel safer) and find I only need to fill up once every 3-4 months, so I don't feel I am a serious contributor to the issue of climate change.

Northern PoV said...

My wife and I are still masking indoors while in public places and still not infected. I think it's both the masks and the 5 shots we've had.

Re: " These vaccines can prevent death and disease, but not infection."

I think they have prevented some infections, if not all, but obviously they are better at mitigating the illness that they are at outright prevention.

So, they are mislabeled as 'vaccines' and I propose a brand new moniker: 'vacette'!

Owen Gray said...

Lots of vaccinations have to be renewed, PoV. This most certainly is true with COVID.

jrkrideau said...

I wear a mask when in public places and I'm up to 5 shots. From the relatively reliable research I have been reading the vaccinations both reduce the incidence of the disease and, in general, reduce its severity. Our various gutless or incompetent and sometimes outright crazy (Hi Danielle) provincial politicians seem to have abdicated any responsibility for public health. Mind you, this seems to be a world-wide phenomenon.

The anti-vax grifters who are encouraging vaccine resistance seem to be gaining ground, capitalizing on anything that will build up their prestige and bank accounts. That US football player with the heart attack almost died because of the vaccine though apparently no-one actually knew if he was vaccinated!

This type of behaviour seems normal in any pandemic. I cannot track down the book but CBC back IIRC in 2020 interviewed a history prof from one of the BC universities whose book on the Spanish Flu pandemic could have been a blueprint for the craziness in this one.

For Eastern Ontarians apparently there was enough vaccine resistance in an early 1900's smallpox epidemic in Kingston that the provincial government threatened to quarantine the entire city. Strangely enough, a major leader of the anti-vaxer was a pharmacist who was marketing an alternative treatment.

The Beaverton had an excellent story about someone who died from the vaccine : Stabbed man who got hit by 3 cars then thrown off a bridge probably died from the vaccine

jrkrideau said...

@ PoV
No vaccine is 100% effective. Your annual flu vaccine varies from year to year but off the top of my head 60-70% effective is considered a real success. Smallpox and measles vaccines have very high rates of effectiveness but still not 100%

With the SARS high mutation rate, similar to the annual flu's rates, we are to some extent going to learn to deal with it on a long term basis. It would help if Dougie and colleagues did something as well. Maybe even spending some of that SARS money the Federal Gov't gave the provinces to fight Covid.