Looking on the bright side, it’s more evidence that natural selection works


The SARS-COV-2 virus is certainly benefiting from the power of natural selection. It’s spreading rapidly through a vulnerable population, that is us, and we’ve been half-assing our response, which simultaneously allows it to proliferate in large numbers and yet also favors variants that can overcome what barriers we do put up. What that means is that new strains will continue to pop up and take a run at our immune systems, and some of them will do better than the original strain. On an abstract, very academic level, it’s kind of cool. On a human level, it’s a disaster that threatens to get worse.

Right now, we get to deal with the Delta variant. It seems to have arisen in the giant petri dish we call India, but now it’s everywhere.

The B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant originally discovered in India last December has now become one the most — if not the most — worrisome strain of the coronavirus circulating globally. Recent research suggests it may the most transmissible variant yet and has fueled numerous waves of the pandemic around the world. B.1.617.2 has already spread to at least 62 countries, including the U.S., and undoubtedly contributed to the massive wave of cases that has inundated India in recent months. It also appears to have become the dominant strain infecting unvaccinated people in the U.K., and may be more likely to infect people who are only partially vaccinated than other strains. Below is what we know about B.1.617.2 — also known as the Delta variant.

How is B.1.617.2 different from other variants, and why may it be more dangerous?
The Delta variant has multiple mutations that appear to give it an advantage over other strains. The most important apparent advantage is that the mutations may make the strain more transmissible, which would also make it the most dangerous variant yet. One study indicated B.1.617.2 may be up to 50 percent more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 (U.K./Alpha) variant. Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London and one of the chief pandemic advisers to the U.K. government, said on June 4 that the “best estimate at the moment” is that Delta is 60 percent more transmissible than Alpha, which is itself more transmissible than the original strain of the coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 — and that is why scientists believe it became a dominant variant globally.

Ah, yes, the terrible beauty of evolution. It works a little too well sometimes, and it’s the fast-breeding, large population size species that benefit most. I suppose a disease that’s going to hit anti-vaxxers hardest could be seen as a brutal Darwinian benefit, except remember that all those unvaccinated people are an easy reservoir for further experimentation by the virus.

A variant with higher transmissibility is a huge danger to people without immunity either from vaccination or prior infection, even if the variant is no more deadly than previous versions of the virus. Residents of countries like Taiwan or Vietnam that had almost completely kept out the pandemic, and countries like India and Nepal that had fared relatively well until recently, have fairly little immunity, and are largely unvaccinated. A more transmissible variant can burn through such an immunologically naïve population very fast.

Increased transmissibility is an exponential threat. If a virus that could previously infect three people on average can now infect four, it looks like a small increase. Yet if you start with just two infected people in both scenarios, just 10 iterations later, the former will have caused about 40,000 cases while the latter will be more than 524,000, a nearly 13-fold difference.

This is going to have further human costs. The Delta variant has tragically cropped up in Finland now. This is a global pandemic — you may think you’ve got it under control in your neighborhood, you may be getting cocky and think it’s time to party, but it’s not over yet, and the disease kills human beings.

THE OUTBREAK of the Indian coronavirus variant in Kanta-Häme Central Hospital in Hämeenlinna, Southern Finland, has resulted in nearly 100 infections and, directly or indirectly, 17 deaths.

Sally Leskinen, the chief medical officer at Kanta-Häme Hospital District, revealed yesterday in a news conference that the chain of infection started early last month with a patient who had contracted the transmissible variant from a close contact who had travelled outside Europe.

Further infections were detected in two hospital wards on 12 May, prompting the hospital to begin widespread screening of patients and staff.

“The virus had spread from the first patient through asymptomatic staff members,” said Leskinen.

A total of 57 patients and 42 staff members have been infected in the cluster, with 17 of the patients dying after being infected. Of the infected patients, 41 had received the first dose and two both doses of a coronavirus vaccine. While the infection is estimated to had a direct link to three-quarters of the deaths, it was not ruled as the primary cause of death for the remaining one-quarter due to a serious underlying illness.

One of the deceased patients had been vaccinated twice and 11 once, whereas five of them had yet to receive the first vaccine dose. The ages of the deceased ranged from 60 to 100, with the mean being 80.

Remember, people are fragile. We’ve got a disease that exploits that fragility and is expanding its power. Don’t think it’s done yet.

Comments

  1. kome says

    I suppose a disease that’s going to hit anti-vaxxers hardest could be seen as a brutal Darwinian benefit

    Part of me has a cynical take along these lines, too, but then I’m faced with the ugly reminder that at least a substantial portion of people who are yet unvaccinated are so at no fault of their own. There are many poorer parts of the world that are not being provided with a sufficient supply of vaccines, thanks in part to fuckers like Bill Gates actively trying to keep vaccines from being distributed to poorer countries. And here in the US, there are some people who are worried about the financial costs of getting the vaccine despite being told that it’s free. People here have learned that healthcare is not free here under any circumstances (thanks capitalism! you’re doing a bang-up job). Hell, there are reports of insurance companies billing people for the vaccine anyway, because of course they are. Some people here are skipping out on getting the vaccine because they’ve been trained not to trust the US healthcare system, which serves only to make the healthcare situation in the country all that much worse.

    A disease that’s going to hit the unvaccinated the hardest, when there is no good goddamn reason for so many people to be unvaccinated by this point, is just another in a long line of examples of how corporate greed and unchecked unhinged conspiracy theorizing is going to destroy civilization. It would be nice if there was a variant that somehow only affected the anti-vaxxers and other willfully ignorant people and left the rest of the world alone. That would be a surefire sign of intelligent design, though.

  2. James Fehlinger says

    Ah, yes, the terrible beauty of evolution. . .
    I suppose a disease that’s going to hit anti-vaxxers hardest
    could be seen as a brutal Darwinian benefit. . .

    Inevitably reminds me of the catchphrase “Think of it as
    evolution in action” from the 1982 SF novel Oath of Fealty
    by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

  3. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “I suppose a disease that’s going to hit anti-vaxxers hardest could be seen as a brutal Darwinian benefit, except remember that all those unvaccinated people are an easy reservoir for further experimentation by the virus.”

    Which is yet another reason to feed MAGAts into wood-chippers, as if we needed any more reasons.

  4. Allison says

    Until all of us are safe, everywhere in the world, none of us are safe.

    That’s true of all infectious diseases.

    That’s the rationale for making vaccination a worldwide effort, which is how we eliminated smallpox. It’s how we were on the way to eliminating polio, at least until the CIA infiltrated the vaccination programs, with the result that now people in the parts of the world that need vaccination most are convinced that vaccination program itself is a CIA plot to conquer and enslave them.

    (tl;dr: imperialism ruins everything.)

    Until all of us are safe, none of us are safe.

  5. Allison says

    BTW, even being vaccinated doesn’t mean you are safe. They’re seeing a certain number of vaccinated people coming down with it. 95% effective isn’t 100%. Vaccinated is “safeer”, not “safe.”

    The point of vaccination is that, if enough people are vaccinated, each infected person will on the average infect less than one additional person, and the epidemic will eventually peter out. That’s what “herd immunity” actually means.

    Again, unless we are all safe, none of us are safe.

  6. raven says

    … except remember that all those unvaccinated people are an easy reservoir for further experimentation by the virus.

    All those unvaccinated people will get the Covid-19 virus sooner or later. They will be vaccinated the hard way while risking death and permanent disability.

    CNN May 27, 2021: “The risk for unvaccinated people is, in fact, about the same as it was in the middle of the January surge, Wen said, citing an analysis from the Washington Post.” The pandemic in the USA has split in two. It’s almost over with for the unvaccinated.
    It is still going at full speed among the unvaccinated, almost all of whom are antivaxxers.

    There are 22,000 hospitalized patients right now, 10% of them will die, and 99% of them are unvaccinated. This is 400 unnecessary deaths a day in the USA.

    Over 99% Hospitalized 2021 COVID Patients Unvaccinated
    By Carolyn Crist

    May 13, 2021 — A new study found that more than 99% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 during the first four months of 2021 weren’t fully vaccinated.

  7. raven says

    @5
    Yeah, breakthrough infections are something that happens.
    The antivaxxers are keeping this pandemic going.
    It could be over now in the USA but instead we are seeing a long tail.

    And they are putting everyone else at risk; young children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, the immunosuppressed and immunocompromised, very old people with low functioning immune systems, and even…the vaccinated population.

    COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Infections Reported to CDC …https://www.cdc.gov › mmwr › volumes
    May 28, 2021 — A total of 10,262 SARS-CoV-2 vaccine breakthrough infections had been reported from 46 U.S. states and territories as of April 30, 2021. Among …

    and

    2% of Oregon’s COVID-19 infections are ‘breakthrough cases …https://www.oregonlive.com › news › 2021/06 › 98-of-…

    4 days ago — Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has defined a “breakthrough case” as someone who tests positive after 14 or more days have …

  8. raven says

    “The virus had spread from the first patient through asymptomatic staff members,” said Leskinen.

    WTH!!!
    We are seeing the same pattern here in the USA.
    Quite a few health care workers even in long term care homes…aren’t getting vaccinated.
    With predictable results.

    How 18 vaccinated residents caught COVID-19 in a KY …https://www.kentucky.com › news › article250862594

    Apr 22, 2021 — In this Kentucky nursing home, more than 90% of the 83 residents had received … An unvaccinated health care worker brought COVID-19 into an Eastern … infected 26 residents, 20 staff and killed three people, including one …

    One health care worker infected 26 others, three of whom died.

  9. lumipuna says

    Oddly enough, Finnish health authorities and media aren’t freaking out much over the delta variant. I gather that two separate regional clusters were established here during May, and they continue spreading in general population. Hospital spread has been pretty much stamped out now, but it’s probably too late to delay the establishment of delta in Finland any further. Nationally cases are fairly low, but that won’t stop delta from circulating and out-competing other variants and taking over the virus pool over summer, while the population is still less than halfway vaccinated and people are relaxing their behavior.

  10. garnetstar says

    This is working out like a mathematical equation: without intervention, or enough intervention, the progression and results are following an inevitable path and will lead to an inevitable, already-determined end.

    Best argument I’ve heard yet for human take-over and domination of the natural world. All the great downsides of that given, but this is at least one case in which intervention and control by humans would accomplish something good. Or, if the inevitable is left to happen, perhaps the iron vise-grip of the human species on every other will be lessened? Although, not enough dying-off of the human species seems likely, to accomplish that silver lining.

    All these US employers who are moaning that they’ve got so many job openings and not enough workers: I know they want to blame that on lazy workers who live on “big” unemployment, but has it never once occurred to anyone that one cause of the shortage may be that > 600,000 people have died? And many more disabled? That’s what pandemics do, you know. After the Black Death in Europe, there were so few peasants left alive that feudal lords had to improve their working conditions just to get enough workers to get the crops in. I suppose we cannot hope for that.

  11. whheydt says

    And if all the other stuff wasn’t enough, so far as I can tell, one driver behind switching to the Greek alphabet to name variants was that the Indian government threw six kinds of fit every time someone referenced the “Indian variant”, even though it appears to have originated there.

  12. says

    @whheydt 13
    It’s reasonable to want to avoid a major way for bigots to attack.
    “Brief History of Syphilis”
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956094/
    “From the very beginning, syphilis has been a stigmatized, disgraceful disease; each country whose population was affected by the infection blamed the neighboring (and sometimes enemy) countries for the outbreak. So, the inhabitants of today’s Italy, Germany and United Kingdom named syphilis ‘the French disease’, the French named it ‘the Neapolitan disease’, the Russians assigned the name of ‘Polish disease’, the Polish called it ‘the German disease’, The Danish, the Portuguese and the inhabitants of Northern Africa named it ‘the Spanish/Castilian disease’ and the Turks coined the term ‘Christian disease’. Moreover, in Northern India, the Muslims blamed the Hindu for the outbreak of the affliction. However, the Hindu blamed the Muslims and in the end everyone blamed the Europeans [4-6].”

    While it does not have the intent of “China virus”, naming a terrible thing after a nation still has the same utility to bigots.

  13. garnetstar says

    @13, yeah, that’s always been a problem. In the past, instead of naming vicious new viruses after the countries they were first found in, they had to diplomatically switch to nearby rivers (as in, the Ebola river) or to other named land features. And, in one case, the “No-Name” virus.

    So, the Greek alphabet seems to be the new euphemism, although, it’s only 26 letters, or fewer, isn’t it? We’ll need a different alphabet very soon, especially if we keep letting the virus mutate and encroaching on the natural world at the current rate.

  14. llewelly says

    garnetstar:

    All these US employers who are moaning that they’ve got so many job openings and not enough workers: I know they want to blame that on lazy workers who live on “big” unemployment, but has it never once occurred to anyone that one cause of the shortage may be that > 600,000 people have died? And many more disabled?

    decades of zombie apocalypse movies have convinced capitalists that catastrophic plague will magically transform people who need rest, shelter, and food, into animated corpses that will work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365.25 days a year.

  15. raven says

    …but has it never once occurred to anyone that one cause of the shortage may be that > 600,000 people have died? And many more disabled? That’s what pandemics do, you know.

    Good point.
    The number of disabled isn’t too well known and it isn’t that clear how long the aftereffects of Covid-19 virus will last.
    The estimates have been converging on about 10% of the cases being long haulers, which for the USA would be 6 million people.
    One person I know lost parts of both lower limbs. She isn’t ever going to recover from the Covid-19 virus.
    Another was infected in March, 2020. She is still sick but has been getting better. It’s been over a year now.

  16. says

    @#11, garnetstar:

    I recall reading that some official statistical analyst has been looking at the numbers from the US, and the infection and mortality statistics for Covid-19 deaths among working people skew very heavily towards fast food workers. (Like “fast food workers were 20% more likely to have been infected than the average worker” heavily.) (And the proposed explanations are so absolutely predictable that it’s almost insulting to read them. “Fast food line chefs typically work in unventilated or poorly-ventilated spaces” whoa really? This is news to anybody?) So yes, absolutely, the big unemployment surge is because a lot of the people who would normally fill those jobs are sick or dead.

  17. blf says

    @16, Yeah could work — I walk into the local boulangerie for a baguette and some croissants, am greeted by the friendly staff, who then dismember me. Saves money not only on pay, but also flour, butter, more butter (croissants are made with an amazing amount of butter!), etc., and butter. Not quite sure how the shop’s owner, leaseholder, the farmers, etc., make their money — or where they buy baguettes, etc. — but that’s a minor detail future hordes of zombie economists will snarl about and write unconvincing papers on.

  18. unclefrogy says

    @11
    those employers who are having a hard time getting enough people to fill the needed positions could try like maybe hire pay rates. even given the effects of the pandemic on the available workers more money might be an incentive for many. That I think is the crux of the problem it is always the same with jobs in this not quite free market capitalists system. “We need to import workers because we can not find enough to do the work” never is it the pay is too low to hire anyone but the desperate and the impoverished immigrant.
    it really is it cost too much to pay a fair wage.
    as for the pandemic. We are no where near finished, with the attitude of enough and the ineptitude of enough we can still be facing a real apocalyptic catastrophe instead of just another great pandemic one of many in our history.

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