News of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and other senior lawmakers in Washington being diagnosed with COVID-19 not long after the annual Gridiron dinner, gave me a feeling of déjà vu. Around this time last year, as eager as I was for public health measures to ease, I had a sinking feeling that many of them were being lifted too soon. And then, just as things were starting to feel more normal, we had the delta outbreak.
I get a similar knot in my stomach today.
With majorities of populations in many countries now vaccinated, governments in many parts of the world are rolling back public health restrictions and cutting their funding for many Covid public health measures.
It’s hard not to fear a repeat of last year in face of a flurry of reports of recombinant viral strains: that is, new mutations of COVID-19 that combine the characteristics of multiple previous strains.
China’s CDC warned recently that the emergence of recombinant strains represents a gray rhino: obvious, visible, and charging at us. Chinese officials use the term I coined to flag serious issues that they intend to address instead of ignore. In this case, we might say we are facing a crash –the zoological term for a group of rhinos- of recombinant strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the pandemic.
“It is difficult to predict which viral species SARS-CoV-2 will recombine with, and on which genes future recombination will occur. This kind of uncertainty is doomed to increase the likelihood of generating a novel recombinant virus with unknown risk to humans,” researchers Liang Wang and George F. Gao wrote in their report posted March 21.
In other words, we don’t know how these new strains will evolve but we had better be prepared for the possibility that they could create a new version that is more lethal, more contagious, and more likely to overcome our immune defenses than past variants.
These types of combinations are common among coronaviruses. A truly smart virus would evolve to be more contagious and less lethal, as the strain that caused the 1918 Great Flu did. But there’s no guarantee that the virus will evolve in a clever way.
The New York Times has published a useful visualization of the ways that the virus could evolve. It notes that vaccines target 201 amino acids that enable the virus to compromise human cells. Each of those can mutate in 19 different ways. Not all mutations increase the virus’ ability to attack human cells, but around 2,000 can.
Also on March 21, a team of researchers from the US and UK released a preprint of a paper on the sequencing of recombinant viruses containing mutations from both delta and omicron variants -the first evidence for the hybrid spike protein in the US.
This new variant, popularly known as deltacron (much to the chagrin of epidemiologists) involves two different combinations (XD and XF) that evolved from delta and omicron BA.1
XD has been identified in France, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US. XF has only been detected in the UK (so far), while XE has appeared in the UK, South Africa, and Thailand. By the time you read this, no doubt, the new variants will be emerging elsewhere.
The World Health Organization has warned about the new recombinant variant XE, the result of omicron variants BA.1 and BA.2 combining and adding three new mutations that were not present in omicron.
And that’s not all. Virologists are keeping an eye on XM (Netherlands and Germany) and XN (UK) variants; XJ in Finland and likely Thailand; XP, XQ and XR in the UK, XS. There may be 80 or more recombinant strains already.
Scientists also believe that the new variants may be able to spread to even more species than the reports so far of bats, dogs, cats, mink, and deer.
At the same time, omicron itself is continuing to mutate. China sequenced a new sub-strain of omicron, labeled BA.1.1. on April 4 in Suzhou, near Shanghai.
These are just the new strains that have been sequenced –not the ones we can’t see. Not all countries have the capacity to sequence viral genomes. A quarter of the countries in the world were not tracking mutations at all by early 2021. At roughly $120 per sample in labs that already have capacity to sequence them, the world’s poorest countries, many of which don’t even have the lab capacity in the first place, do not have the resources to do so.
Even countries with resources to sequence viruses may hesitate to deploy them, recalling that, as South Africa discovered the hard way with omicron, no good deed goes unpunished. The country sounded an important warning when it discovered the highly infectious variant and promptly found itself subject to travel bans.
But scientists and public health officials need to know how the virus is changing in order to be able to develop the most effective vaccines.
So far, experts have not yet identified any of the variants as being “of concern.” Whether they rise to that level or not depends on us.
We are all so ready to be done with COVID-19 already that it’s tempting to move on. As humans, we’re susceptible to the optimism bias, which makes us more likely to embrace information that we want to hear.
Don’t get me wrong: I am as eager as everyone else for the pandemic to be over. But it’s too soon to pull back. We need to be smarter than the coronavirus which after more than two years probably shouldn’t be referred to as “novel” anymore.
The longer it is out there mutating, the more potential there is for the virus to become even nastier. While vaccines and widespread behavior changes help to protect us, the virus continues to find ways to elude them. That’s why it’s still important to continue and expand vaccinations and to keep taking public health precautions.
Instead of discontinuing free testing and vaccine administration to people of limited means, as Congress intends, the United States should continue those sensible measures. Wealthy countries need to fund and get more vaccines to developing countries and in some cases provide healthcare personnel to help with the massive logistics of administering them. All countries need to continue, and in some cases to expand, testing and genetic sequencing. And when public health measures that are sensible and achievable, like keeping people with active infections from infecting planeloads of others, we need to keep them in place a while longer no matter how much we want to give them up.
This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
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