Buried in today’s political news was a new COVID-19 study from Texas that found that the virus is becoming more contagious, and possibly increasingly able to circumvent control measures such as masks, hand-washing, and social distancing.
It’s really depressing news, though not really unexpected. What the researchers found was that 99.9 percent of recent cases in Houston appear to come from a previously uncommon strain of the virus—one that produces greater numbers of virus particles in their noses, mouths, and lungs. That means that when they breath, talk, shout, cough or sneeze, they expel more virus particles, increasing the chance that someone nearby will receive an infectious dose.
The paper is posted on MedRxiv, an online site where scientists can post preliminary results while awaiting official publication. And while that means it isn’t peer reviewed, this doesn’t appear to be the type of research that can be easily messed up—especially if we don’t really care whether it’s 99.9 percent of new cases or 99 percent, or even 90 percent.
News reports are saying that the virus has “found” a way to circumvent our controls. That’s anthropomorphic nonsense. What’s happened is microbial evolution 101.
We’ve long known that one of the easiest way to create antibiotic resistant bacteria is to hit the bacteria with halfhearted control measures (partial doses of antibiotics). It’s not that the bacteria somehow get smarter. Rather, we kill of those that are susceptible to the partial measures, leaving the field to those that are more resistant. Pretty soon they are the only ones left, and presto, the bacteria have evolved resistance.
It’s probably the same here.
Our control measures have never been consistently applied. They are at best halfhearted and erratic. In most states, half the population doesn’t wear masks when they are supposed to, a problem exacerbated by the lack of consistent top-down governmental leadership.
That inconsistency, however, means that this finding may not be quite as bad “bad news” as it initially sounds. It does not say that masks and social distancing are no longer effective. It says that halfhearted mask-wearing and inconsistent social distancing may be increasingly ineffective. I.e., super-spreader events may become more common, meaning that the best protection remains what it currently is: keep away from such events, and don’t associate closely with people who consistently risk them.
Not that this will completely work. Viruses evolve. Rapidly. This will be a continuing war. The good news is that viruses tend to evolve not only to become more contagious, but also less virulent. I posted more about that in a post called “How to Make COVID 19 Evolve to Become Less Virulent,” if you want to reread it.
In the interim, feel free to share this post. And mask-up, try to do as many meetings as you can outdoors, keep your distance, and keep yourself and your loved ones as safe as you can.