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SARS-CoV-2: A tricky little virus

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Published in The Beacon 24-Sep-21

The views expressed here are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of any organization with which I am associated.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, is a tricky little virus because it has a number of particularly unfortunate facets. For a start, the virus, and especially the delta variant, is very infectious in the pre-symptomatic period. This means that infected individuals can circulate and spread the virus without even knowing it. Many people never show symptoms at all but can still infect others.

The second unfortunate facet is that SARS-CoV-2 appears to have significant evolutionary potential. This basically means that the virus evolves readily thus putting virus variants in direct competition with each other such that the fittest variants survive and flourish. For instance, a virus variant that is more infectious and/or is better able to invade cells and reproduce will have a better chance of prospering. This is basically a re-statement of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection (survival of the fittest). One of the implications of this is that even if a given country manages to eradicate a particular virus completely, if the virus is allowed to prosper in other regions of the globe, then in a globalized world, this has inevitable implications for every other country. We saw a step change in infectiousness from the alpha to the delta variant.

Another step change would increase significantly the threat that this virus poses to humanity. So far, more than 6 million lives have been lost. How, high do we want this to go?

The third unfortunate facet of this virus is that it may be able to prosper in animal reservoirs. Facile crossing from animal to human (zoonosis) and humans to animals (reverse zoonosis) magnifies the evolutionary potential many times.

It should be clear that we collectively and urgently need to minimize transmission everywhere around the globe. The mantra ‘no one is safe unless everyone is safe’ is very apt!

COVID-19 has once again provided us with a striking example of the need for the globe to work collaboratively for the collective good of humanity. Much the same can be said of climate change. Again, no one is safe unless everyone is safe!

To stomp this virus out we need to use the tools we are fortunate to have available to stop transmission and slow viral evolution. In other words, the world needs for the entire world to be vaccinated. We also cannot afford vaccine nationalism. The vaccine needs to be made available to all countries, no matter what it takes or the cost.

If we do the right thing, then we can rid ourselves of COVID-19 as we did with smallpox and many other infectious diseases.

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