Surviving Covid-19
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Surviving Covid-19

What Covid Will Do Next REVEALED!

This is Absolutely True, All Leading Scientists Agree

It will continue to evolve.

No really, it will definitely keep evolving. But what does that mean in a practical sense, and why should you care about this evolution?

If you want to understand why the pandemic happened and what’s going to happen in the future, you have to start with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection — there’s no way around it. Everything that’s happened — and everything that will — is largely predictable, if you think of it in terms of evolution. This isn’t a philosophical argument, it’s down to the brass tacks of how the virus works. But evolution, while giving rise to an incredibly complicated world, isn’t very complicated itself.

The virus that causes Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, evolved over eons to be what it is at the moment, and with every new infection, new generations of the virus will continue evolving. But knowing that, we can make choices that let us beat this virus.

The Mechanics of Natural Selection

Birds need different beaks, you see.

Natural selection works like this: Each new generation of anything alive and some things that aren’t have slight differences from the last generation. That’s just how this universe works. In physics, it’s called entropy: the tendency for mistakes to crop up. Because of entropy, nothing stays the same for long, including biology. Whenever anything comes along that harms a generation, whether it’s a Canadian Beaver encountering winter, a fly encountering a fly swatter, or a virus encountering your immune system, the beavers, flies, and viruses that have changed in a way that lets them survive are the ones that will create the new generation. The unfurry beavers, slow flies, and easy-to-kill viruses simply aren’t there anymore. In the biological lingo, successful generations are selected for because of their fitness — naked beavers aren’t going to make it in Canada, so furry beavers keep making fit, furry baby beavers and you end up with a lad like this:

Fuzzy-ass Beaver

The Mechanics of Viral Natural Selection

Evolution through natural selection is also what changes viruses, including the one causing this pandemic. “Selection” for viruses, like everything else, comes through their interactions with their environment. Our environment is this lovely world you see around you. The environment of viruses is things made of cells, like our bodies. When we talk about viruses evolving through natural selection, the nature doing the selection in this case is us. Specifically the selection pressure comes from where we are, what we put in our bodies, how we behave, and how our immune system reacts. That might not seem like Nature to us so much as Tuesday, but it is Nature for our little unwelcome guests. We are the world — to them, and we drive their evolution through our actions and responses — biological, individual, and cultural.

What makes a “fit” virus is less complicated than what makes a “fit” beaver. A virus is destroyed during its reproductive act, so it only has to hold itself together long enough to get into a cell and convince the cell to make more of it. It doesn’t have any of its own energy, it uses the energy of the cell that created it for anything it has to do during its existence. It’s more akin to a wind-up toy full of genetic material than a beaver or a fly. So, the harms it faces — the selection pressure — are down to whether it can find a cell it can invade before it falls apart. Viruses that can do this make more of themselves. But not perfect versions of themselves, the new generation they make are ever so slightly different, because of those entropic genetic mistakes. The bad, “unfit” genetic mistakes vanish with the viruses that fall apart or are destroyed before they can get into a cell. The fit mutations go on, shifting every so slightly on towards better selection over time. This is how a Last Common Ancestor (LCA) virus of all coronaviruses thousands of years ago became the thousands of coronaviruses which exist now. Most coronaviruses don’t even infect humans and never will. Others could drift over to matching up with our cells at any time, as they have before — usually causing colds, but sometimes developing into something far more serious like SARS Classic (2002) and MERS (2012).

Hold that all in your head for a moment, those generations of viruses, always selecting to spread, always selecting to create another generation that tries to reproduce before it falls apart. Evolution means that Covid is going to be in a race with us, trying to jump over our vaccines, trying to get around our immune systems, finding new ways to spread, as long as any of us have a SARS-style virus in our bodies. It’s always looking to become an epidemic, not because it has a desire or a will, but because infecting as many people as possible is fit, and so selected for.

Variety is the Spice of Life, also Death

When we talk about variants, we’re talking about mutations that are being selected for by being able to spread successfully. If you’re following along carefully, you might have a nervous question by now — doesn’t this mean that the virus will select over time to be immune to our vaccines, or our immune systems in general? Doesn’t evolution make that inevitable?

Yes, yes it will. This is already the case for the flu, which you may have had more than once in your life due to losing immunity, as well needing the annual flu vaccine every year. Coping with variation and evolution is also why the flu shot is usually for a group of flu viruses projected to be on the scene that year, and why it doesn’t always work.

Adapted from a site I will link to the second I find it again.

But the good news for our current pandemic is that flu viruses mutated more faster than coronaviruses do. Coronaviruses, of which SARS-CoV-2 is an example, are the most stable of the RNA viruses, RNA being a kind of genetic code. RNA is usually quite prone to mistakes, as it is in flu viruses, but coronaviruses in particular aren’t. Coronaviruses are the slowest mutating RNA viruses. They have some primitive error checking instructions built into their genetic code, to prevent the genetic errors that lead to variation. When this horrible little germ gets transcribed in our lung cells, it’s more faithful to the original invader than flus, and vastly better than a super-unstable virus like HIV. So it will take many more genetic “tries” for Covid-19 to find a form that “fits” its way past our vaccines. This is the good news.

Except, with cases shooting up around the world and vaccines only available in a few countries, we’re giving the virus so many chances to evolve right now, which is the bad news. We’re seeing the emergence of variants all over the world that are outcompeting the old virus with mutations that change their shapes, making it easier to invade cells or easier to evade immune responses, or both. We’re seeing some of the exact same mutations pop up around the world, combined with other mutations that emerged half a world away.

The Indian “double mutant” (It actually has at least 15 mutations in its genetic code and that name is silly and misleading) has two changes on the spike it uses to enter cells — one which was in California more than six months ago, and another first seen seen in Brazil and Japan. It’s not likely that a couple viruses somehow met and swapped genetics. This is an example of convergent evolution, or unconnected generations finding the same fit adaptation. This isn’t something that just happens to viruses. Convergent evolution is why moose and bears have thick fur as well as beavers in Canada, and why moths can be just as fast as flies. The environment puts selection pressure on a generation, which in the case of Canada is cold winters, so a lot of animals are going to survive better if they have fur, whether they’re related or not. Canada selects for convergently fuzzy lads.

So much fuzziness: thanks winter + evolution!

As we put pressure on the SARS-CoV-2 viruses, it’s not surprising to see the same successful mutations arise around the world. When you see a strain that’s better at transmission, don’t be shocked when it becomes dominant. When you see one that’s better at evading the immune system, there will be more re-infections of people who got Covid-19, recovered, and thought they were done. This is all normal on this planet, even though the human cost is beyond being able to hold in your very human head.

The more people who catch the virus, the more generations get chances to evolve fit mutations, the sooner it won’t entirely be the SARS-CoV-2 we know and hate, and the sooner we’ll need different vaccines to fight an ever-so-slightly different virus.

Evolutionary change is subtle and slow. Our current vaccines don’t work like a light switch, either entirely on or entirely off. They’re more like a new pair of springy sneakers — great when they’re new, but eventually wearing down over time and getting holes. As the virus evolves, changes that are “fit” enough to evade our vaccines, they will become like old shoes: not great, but better than nothing, and they let you leave the house.

Should you get vaccines, even when they’re not a perfect fit for the prevalent virus? Yes. Are some shoes better than no shoes? Also yes.

Evolution has its limits. Beavers aren’t going to evolve internal combustion engines or solar panels for keeping warm. The tools they have are mostly fur and fat. Likewise, a coronavirus isn’t going to turn into a virus with wholly different properties to the one we’re dealing with now. It’s not going to become something that can survive soap and water, exist indefinitely outside the body, or evolve little viral jetpacks that let it target its next bare nose. These changes are to how the virus function inside your body, not how it gets in. That means the same things that we know prevent infection — masks, hand hygiene, ventilation, and physical distance, work on all variants.

This is why health departments around the world loosen restrictions when cases go down, and then end up tightening them back up when cases rise. It’s just yo-yo evolution games between viruses and our bodies. The more chances we give Covid-19 to evolve, the faster we’ll all be vulnerable again.

President Biden, presiding over the most vaccinated country in the world recently said “We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try to help the rest of the world.” For everyone’s sake, he better mean that. As rich countries vaccinate, they do take care of their own people and their own health systems, but without vaccinating more widely around the world, letting all that evolution happen means we could be right back to where we were at the beginning of the pandemic. Evolution doesn’t consider “Us” or “Them”, it doesn’t respect borders, political ideologies, economic systems, or good and bad. It just selects for whatever survives.

Evolution is not the boss of us. We have amazing abilities, and we don’t have to be as basic as evolution. We can, and have, beat it at its own game. We heal our sick, accommodate our disabled, and help each other without respect to reproduction. We do things, almost all of our things, with an eye on more than surviving and making babies. As species go, we’re lucky. We don’t have to out-evolve SARS-CoV-2, we’re humans, we can just beat the hell out of it. But that will take working together as a species, not as countries, classes, races, or whatever. That will be tough, in the coming months and years this fight against evolution will require seeing ourselves as the human race first in order to beat Covid-19.

But that also might be the upside.

Thanks to my Patrons, who make this possible. If you’d like to support this work, head over to my Patreon account.

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Quinn Norton shares ideas, designs, and ways to think about getting through the pandemic.

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Quinn Norton

Quinn Norton

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.

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