Mysteries of a Virus

With all the debate and turmoil over COVID-19, there is one thing we all can agree on: the virus isn’t cooperating.

Worse, the virus is deliberately making things as difficult as it can. It’s not behaving in predictable ways. It has kept us off-guard throughout the entire pandemic.

I was made aware of all the virus’ tactics in a morning news email entitled “COVID is More Mysterious Than We Often Admit” by David Leonhardt from The New York Times. This news item lists the following COVID mysteries —

  • In India, where the Delta variant was first identified, cases have plunged over the past two months with no clear explanation. The same thing also seems to be happening in Great Britain.
  • In the U.S., cases started falling rapidly in early January before vaccination was widespread and without any evident changes in our COVID attitudes.
  • In March and April, the Alpha variant helped cause a sharp rise in cases in the upper Midwest and Canada. But that outbreak did not spread to the rest of North America as expected.
  • This spring, caseloads were not consistently higher in parts of the U.S. that relaxed masking and social distancing than in regions where they were kept in place.
  • Large parts of Africa and Asia have not yet experienced outbreaks as big as those in other parts of the world.

How to explain these anomalies? Michael Osterholm, who manages an infectious disease research center at the University of Minnesota, suggests humility, as in “We’ve ascribed far too much human authority over the virus.”

It’s like the virus acts on its own, despite our best actions to counter it. The Alpha variant doesn’t follow a predictable pattern. The Delta variant comes on strong, then fades away. “These surges have little to do with what humans do,” Osterholm says. “Only recently, with vaccines, have we begun to have a real impact.”

But the key to our counteractions is the second part of that statement. The virus may have the initiative, but we still have some control. Vaccination is an effective tool, and the usual countermeasures like masking, hand-washing, social distancing, and ventilation do have an impact. We may not know where the next variant is coming from, but we can reduce the risk. Proof of this has been the reduction in deaths and hospitalizations in heavily vaccinated parts of the U.S. than in less vaccinated ones.

And maybe the real key is cooperation. If we all work together, we can put this virus in its place.

At least until the next pandemic appears on our doorstep.

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