By now, we all know the virus is mutating, and mutating every few weeks. For those who are not aware of what a mutation is, it is a change in the genetic program embedded within the virus. However, only a few mutations have possible implications on the infectivity, ability to induce severity, response to the drug, and the response to vaccines. All of these are critical for individuals, families, and society in general. Of course, everything is intertwined and ultimately has an impact on the socioeconomic structure. We have seen the devastation of several families. When the virus went on the rampage, we saw how the economies faltered and GDP’s collapse.
Variants and their implications
We all know that the UK, EU, and the US are badly reeling under the virus. Hospital beds and ICU bed availability in many regions are critically stretched, and so are the human resources like HCW. London Mayor Sadik has already implemented a lockdown with punitive citations for overriding the lockdown. Rightly so, despite our freedom mongering and yearning for personal freedom, we ultimately land up with the hospitals.
At least three variants are known with possible implications on the infectivity, severity of the disease, resistance to drugs, and efficacy of the vaccines. N501, B126.96.36.199, D614G and A222 are mainly prevalent in the UK, South Africa, and the EU. All these variants are known to be more contagious than the wild type, that is universally prevalent. Also, a collaborative study between Duke University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sheffield University has revealed that D614G variant is associated with higher viral loads in the upper respiratory tract. As of now, we are not yet sure if there is a variant that exists in LA and other parts of the US that are reeling under the virus. At least 45 countries have so far reported the presence of these new variants as of Jan 10, 2021. The National Laboratories from individual countries are searching for the virus’s existence within their societies and implications if any.
Japanese National Institute of Infectious Disease has similarly identified a new strain after the Japanese Government realized passengers’ arrival with the variant viruses. Naturally, the imposition of a ban on incoming flights from infected countries is the first knee jerk response. Many countries have reimposed the ban on travel from those countries with the presence of this virus. While the respective Governments are working to identify the new virus variants, individuals and the administration should gear up to deal with the increased threat level.
- Individually, we all should follow the precautions stringently. Masks, social distancing, and containment strategies such as quarantine are basic. However, never presume that asymptomatic individuals are non-infectious. Research has proven without a doubt that asymptomatics are the ones who are spreading the virus. It goes beyond saying that kids harbor more viruses and remain asymptomatic. Kindergarten and schools can be the potential source of spread. While many schools have opted to go into virtual schooling, it is challenging for the daycare centers to do so. It is best to huddle into your bubble and only interact when it is essential or critical, understanding that those interactions should follow the strictest precautions mentioned above.
Vaccines are derived based on a certain genotype of the virus. If the virus changes its structure, the vaccines may have a potential dent in its efficacy. Second, vaccines, even if they are efficacious, may protect only the ones who are vaccinated. Vaccinated individuals may still harbor the virus. Thus, protection has to continue despite vaccines.
- City and Corporation Planning – Many cities, especially in South East Asia, are basking and boasting their success with COVID-19. COVID-19, as well all know, can strike back anytime. Complacency is not alone a defunct but also a counterproductive strategy. Europe and other countries undergoing a severe COVID-19 pandemic spike have realized how the spike overstretches the HCW. Doctors are overburdened, and so are the supporting staff.
Realistic modeling of the unfolding second spike is critical. R Naught, which was widely used at the pandemic initiation, has been revealed to have several flaws. It only threw our economy into shambles and society into unrequired chaos. Newer modeling that is closer to realism is the need of the time.
Second, the infrastructure that was propped up during the pandemic’s initial phase helped but was not necessarily sufficient. We need to identify a more long term viable solution to our healthcare services to deal with the virus. Using the same knee jerk response is unlikely to provide an adequate safeguard. Mere lockdowns are too insufficient and, at best knee jerk; we need more than a rational response, now that we know the pandemic better from our recent experience.
- Society – Herd Immunity
Sweden, the UK, and the US are great examples that serve as potent examples that herd immunity is not enough. It does not offer protection without collateral. The collateral is the death and devastation of an individual with a permanent compromise with residual sequelae on health. Those who survived COVID-19 are physically either compromised in functioning or occasionally rendered dependent on supplemental oxygen.
The only and ultimate panacea would be a natural selection of a haplotype (a genotype) that would be less infective, cause inconsequential disease, and still respond to drugs and vaccines. The emergence of such strains is a natural selection process. The virus will possibly realize that if it has to cohabitate like several other bugs, in a symbiotic relationship with human beings.
Shashank Heda, MD.
(For COVIDRxExchange, a global nonprofit initiative for disseminating insight and expertise in the care of COVID)