As 2022 progresses, the world is buzzing with questions about how it will address Covid-19 over the coming months. The virus is still very much with us, and we know a lot more about it than when it first burst onto the world stage in early 2020. However, it continues to create intense problems for all nations as they attempt to move forward. What might the future hold? The indications are that we have finished with the sprint towards the vaccine and now enter the marathon towards resolution.
Covid-19: the political landscape
The UK has taken the stance that life must now continue as normal, and that the covid crisis has passed. This may be at least partly due to the political problems that are currently engulfing Boris Johnson, forcing him to appease his right wing.
This has added to his unpopularity amongst the public, with accusations of political manipulation and recklessness engulfing him. Bear in mind that over 1,800 people a week are currently dying from covid, and that currently, these figures are showing no sign of reducing.
However, other governments that have taken a more cautious approach are also under censure by sections of their populace. It is easy to think that one’s own nation is isolated in its problems, but what to do about covid for the foreseeable future is an issue that is dividing populations in many nations worldwide. And this can give rise to misinformation and swift political U-turns.
For example in England, Nadhim Zahawi, the secretary of state for education, appeared to comment that schools still insisting on pupils wearing masks would be disciplined by his ministry, but then hastily withdrew from that position.
All we can currently be sure of is that we will continue to experience uncertain and anxious periods as the situation unfolds.
So, if the political scene is ‘twitchy’, can we look to medical and epidemiological experts for clarification? The answer is yes, but to understand their advice, it is first necessary to have a have a basic understanding of evolution. This is part of the secondary school biology syllabus in most nations, but a quick revision may be helpful.
The epidemiological landscape
The way that organic species on earth continue to thrive is via a mutation process called survival of the fittest, which applies equally to human beings and to viruses. Viruses mutate more quickly due to the niche in which they exist, infecting and rapidly reproducing in a host. The driver for mutation is changes in the niche in which the species lives. Those individuals who survive to multiply most prolifically are more ‘fit for niche’; they leave more descendants behind to carry their genes into a subsequent generation.
If a niche changes, organism must adapt, or reduce in numbers and eventually die out. For a virus, the road to fitness is the ability to multiply by infecting as many organisms as possible. SARS-Cov and MERS, which developed prior to SARS-Cov2 (what we now call Covid-19), both had far higher fatality rates, which reduced their chances for spreading. If a large proportion of people sicken and die quickly after contracting an illness, they don’t have the same chances to go out and spread it around the population. In this sense, then, Covid-19 is a much ‘fitter’ virus.
If people survive to develop antibodies to a virus and recover from it, or if they attain these antibodies by being vaccinated against it, the virus must then mutate to a different version that can avoid those antibodies and re-infect the host. This is what Covid-19 has been doing since early 2020, and why scientists will have to continue to further develop vaccines and treatments. Epidemiology cannot stand still, because the virus will not.
Responses to a new virus can be compared to a military campaign in which each side continually attempts to outflank the other. It may seem incredible that human beings can be outflanked by a simple, tiny organism like a virus. But this very simplicity and minuteness means that it can invade our bodies through the air we breathe, multiply and then pass to a new host through the air we exhale.
Listening to the experts
World Health Organization Covid-19 expert Maria Van Kerkove has explored the current evolution of covid in this article and in conversation with journalist Sophie Raworth on BBC Sunday 23 January 2022.
Van Kerkove points out that the nations of the world are currently at different stages in terms of levels of infection and vaccination, meaning that new variants are continually being created. This is particularly the case in nations where the population remains largely unvaccinated as they are relentlessly infected with each new variant in turn; covid is a global problem and must be treated with global solutions.
She warns that while we can bet on future variants being more infectious (because that adds fitness), we cannot be 100 percent sure that they will continue to be less severe. Epidemiologists will, for the next few years, be continually adjusting vaccines in a race to outflank the virus. Because Covid-19 is a very new and completely different virus to the familiar winter flu (influenza) it cannot as yet be so easily predicted, so those developing the vaccine will have to work extremely hard to keep up with its twists and turns over the next few years.
It is inevitable that evolutionary pressures on Covid-19 will cause it to continually mutate towards vaccine escape. This means that if we fail to use health protection measures like distancing and masking during times when the scientists cannot keep up, then the virus gets what Van Kerkove refers to as ‘a free ride’.
For this reason, Van Kerkove concludes that the UK has reduced its mitigations far too quickly. She commented that mask wearing in crowded indoor spaces, social distancing and working at home where possible and isolating when sick are the most sensible additional measures for the foreseeable future; a balanced and moderate approach.
The covid road ahead
One of the problems we have clearly not yet solved in the UK is the level of denial that the government exhibits towards the Covid-19 problem. This is something that’s been particularly problematic with regard to education administration, an issue I have covered in several previous Yorkshire Bylines articles.
Another acute problem is the reluctance to vaccinate children, with the result that cases of the current variant are most prevalent in schoolchildren, with infection levels peaking and troughing in response to school holidays.
My own grandsons have had Covid-19 twice. The younger one is currently recovering from the Omicron variant, along with 15 of his classmates. This level of absence is decimating schools, but the government seem both unaware and unconcerned.
The removal of masking and distancing – combined with the very limited outdoor activity in schools – only serves to make this worse, as Omicron fades and the inevitable new variant waits in the wings to take over and infect children all over again.
So, what to do? Clearly full lockdown is not possible in human societies over a period of years. But mitigation measures are, and if sensibly applied will not only reduce individual infections but prevent public health services being overwhelmed – which of course leads to the consequence of full lockdown.
The most pressing problem is extracting a nation’s politics from its response to the science; an issue I have previously explored. Sadly, it is clear that for the UK, that time has not yet come. All individuals can do in such a situation is keep their vaccinations up to date, and wear a high protection FFP2 mask (mandated or otherwise).
Populations have lived through plague many times in human history, and we will do so again. Here in the UK, we can hope that we may soon have a responsible government, more focused on public welfare than their own rights to power, who will oversee our passage through these difficult times more effectively.