Covid-19: Mutations (Mar 8)

Life is not easy when you’re a coronavirus. If you can even call it a life.

You’re tiny. Too small to see in a microscope. Rock bottom on the food chain. You can’t move, and you’re delicious. Rich in protein, plus tasty fat and sugar. Happily snarfed up by bacteria or dust mites. Easily killed by UV, or just about anything else.

You only have one trick: sneak into the right vertebrate’s cells, and you’ll reproduce like crazy. But even that’s just temporary. In days or weeks, their immune system will learn how to stomp you. Eventually, the entire species will be resistant. The only way to survive long-term is to mutate, and change enough to infect again. Or better, jump to a new species and start over with fresh victims.

We are already seeing that with Covid-19. New versions keep popping up. Some reinfect people who survived earlier versions. Some are jumping to minks, cats, other species.

This is yet another reason why it’s a whole lot better to nip contagious diseases before they become pandemics. Fewer infected people means fewer mutations, and lower risk that the disease recurs for decades. SARS and MERS both were caught in time. Now SARS is gone forever. MERS is gone if you don’t hang out with camels.

It’s way too late for Covid-19 to ever be contained. The question is, what happens next?

For the short term, vaccinations are starting to kick in. They will help slow down the spread. Life will probably be close to normal this summer.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 will keep making new mutants. Most likely, there will be reinfections and outbreaks for years or decades. It’s established too deeply, now.

The only good news is that co-evolution is likely to happen. A virus spreads faster when their carrier is out and about, not deathly ill. If they kill the host, they also die. That means mutations and natural selection gradually make a disease less serious (but faster-spreading).

Warts are the ideal end point, from the viral point of view. Common colds are almost as good: infect everyone, rarely deadly. There already are four coronavirus strains like that (229E, NL63, OC43 and HKU1). Covid will eventually settle down to be the fifth.

Sadly, the process of becoming less deadly takes years, and it’s not 100% reliable. Folks probably will need an annual Covid booster to go along with the flu shot, at least for a while. Face masks may be a long-term reality.

In 2009, the US launched the PREDICT program. It set up a global network of labs and researchers to act as an early-warning system for pandemics. It cost about $20 million a year. Funding for that and other international health programs was cut in mid-2019. That was a 5 or 6 trillion dollar mistake just for the USA.

In this century, there have been 3 serious Coronavirus outbreaks: an average of one every 7 years. Fatality rates of 34% (MERS), 10% (SARS) and about 1% (Covid). Toss in Zika and a couple of Ebolas, and it’s one outbreak every four years. That’s not even counting influenza and other random diseases.

Humans are a densely packed and mobile species. Pandemics are nature’s way to fix that sort of overpopulation.

We probably should do more stuff like PREDICT, not less. Along with the sickness, dying and inconvenience, pandemics are very expensive.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director

Author: Dennis Kolva

Programming Director for Turtle Creek Software. Design & planning of accounting and estimating software.