In the final, darkest days of the deadliest year in U.S. history, the world received ominous news of a mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Scientists in the U.K. had identified a form of the virus that was spreading rapidly throughout the nation. Then, on January 4, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown that began almost immediately and will last until at least the middle of February. “It’s been both frustrating and alarming to see the speed with which the new variant is spreading,” he said in an address, noting that “our scientists have confirmed this new variant is between 50 and 70 percent more transmissible” than previous strains.
Those figures, based on an early estimate by British government scientists in late December, made for terrifying push alerts and headlines. Though this strain of the virus (officially called “B.1.1.7”) quickly became known as “the U.K. variant,” it has already been found in 45 countries, suggesting that the opportunity to contain it with travel restrictions has passed. On January 8, Australia locked down Brisbane, a city of 2.3 million people, after discovering a single case.
Each day, B.1.1.7 is being found in more people in more places, including all around the United States. Experts have raised dire warnings that a 70 percent more transmissible form of the virus would overwhelm already severely stretched medical systems. Daily deaths have already tripled in recent months, and the virus is killing more than 3,000 Americans every day. From a purely mathematical perspective, considering exponential growth, a significantly more transmissible strain could theoretically lead to tens of thousands of daily deaths, with hospital beds lining sidewalks and filling parking lots.
To make matters worse, the warnings from Britain were followed by headlines about yet another variant, B.1.351, in South Africa. Then another concerning variant was identified in Brazil. News reports speculated that these strains may resist vaccines. Some experts cautioned that the mutations could render current treatments less effective. Scott Gottlieb, the former director of the FDA, said last week: “The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that it may obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs.” On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci echoed that concern, calling the variant “disturbing.”
These new variants demand to be taken seriously. Skyrocketing case counts in the U.K. suggest a potential to do enormous damage, and the identification of B.1.1.7 in so many countries is noteworthy. Still, we don’t yet know whether either variant will become as dominant worldwide as they have in their respective countries. They might spread widely and cause tremendous harm. They might also do neither.
The sheer scale and capacity of this virus are challenging many things we thought we knew, but the basic laws governing its evolution are not among them. All viruses are constantly evolving and changing, just as human populations are. When a virus is spreading as widely and rapidly as SARS-CoV-2, spinning through trillions of generations each minute, adaptation is inevitable. The transmissibility of the virus will change. The severity of the disease it causes will change. Its ability to evade our immune system will change. It very well may evolve to circumvent our current vaccines. [Continue reading…]