Who's Afraid of COVID Variants? (everyone)
After a refreshing week off, we’re back into the fray.
Something that is nearly constantly astounding to me is the speed with which the news moves these days. I made notes about what seemed to be the most important story in the world before I took a week off for Christmas and it has simply slid out of the news cycle and into oblivion.
This doesn’t mean the information is important, it’s just that the news as a whole has a low threshold for focus. Frightening things are big news and they stop being big news either when there are no additional pieces of information to report or when they cease to be frightening.
This is a good moment to recognize what was a very big deal only 10 days ago and how it seems to have slipped into the background.
Disney Shorts: Tomorrow We Diet
Here is the short version for those who do not have the time to read everything:
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is constantly evolving
It is possible that it can evolve in such a way that it can spread among people who have already recovered from COVID. That is to say that the antibodies your body generates to fight the virus will not work against this new mutation. This means it is also possible that the current COVID vaccines will not protect against this new strain. This phenomena is known as antigenic drift.
There are some variants of COVID that are becoming more common in certain regions like the UK and South Africa. We don’t yet know if they are common b/c they can re-infect or if it is mainly an accident of transmission patterns.
And now, the details.
In the last two weeks a number of European countries has instituted a travel ban for flights coming from the UK. When I say “a number” I mean “most”. This is where we were as of a week ago.
The reason for this travel ban is due to the discovery of a specific variant of COVID that is prevalent enough in the UK to raise some epidemiological eyebrows.
The worry is that the virus is going to mutate to a point where there is a version of the virus that will not respond to the antibodies produced by an infection from the earlier virus (that’s the definition of antigenic drift). If this happened, we would need to update the COVID vaccines for the new version of the virus. It’s possible that this could end up being similar to the flu in which we can’t really eradicate it, we just end up chasing the latest version around with a vaccine and trying to keep cases as low as possible.
If you want to know about COVID genetic variants, there is no one better than Trevor Bedford. Trevor is a scientist who has been on the front line of trying to understand and track the genetic mutations of this virus. He lays out the case for concern in a pretty comprehensive manner here.
In essence, there are three variants that he identifies as prominent enough to register some concern (if you’re deep enough into this stuff, they are N439K, N501Y, and S477N). If you have the energy and inclination to follow these strains, you can use the NextStrain genetic variant tool to track ALL THE VIRUS.
Trevor’s main recommendation is that we spend more time and energy identifying which strains are showing up and where.
This isn’t a terrible idea. We need to know if and when a COVID variant escapes the antibody protection that vaccines provide. Honestly, I think this should be our largest priority after getting people vaccinated.
Based on the complete disappearance of this story over the last week or so, I can only assume that we’ve collectively decided that this isn’t a big deal. Maybe we found evidence that these mutations do not represent an antigenic drift or maybe it’s not something we can track in real time so there’s no point in talking about it. I have been trying to avoid all news for a week and that makes me feel terribly behind on everything. But for whatever reason, this story had drifted into the past and no one is talking about it ten days after it happened.
That could be good news or it could mean that everyone has a short attention span. I’m honestly unsure at this point. This is the point at which I would highly recommend following a topic matter expert like Trevor Bedford. He’s still talking about this, though he’s moved on to asking if the recent surges in the US are related to these variants (they are not).
He’s also beating the drum about the importance of prioritizing genetic sequencing for COVID cases in the US. We don’t have much evidence that these new strains are resistant to vaccines or antibodies, but this is a question we need to start asking and a possibility we need to watch out for. An increase in sequencing would help us answer some of these questions.
Disney Shorts: Tomorrow We Diet
I must confess that I’ve taken the holidays in a bad way when it comes to food. I’ve gained a good amount of weight. So I’ll just go ahead and publicly shame myself with this short in which a middle aged Goofy has a set of frank conversations with his reflection about his weight. Upon accepting his weakness, Goofy goes through a series of experiments to tame his appetite which leads to hallucinations about food.
This is a reasonably cute piece, but also a sad morality tale about self-restraint and (if we want to really over-think it) a short about the importance of friendships and social reinforcement in those moments of life where we need to change our ways.
I also want to note that, while I’ve still got about 300 more Disney shorts that can be viewed, my plan is to slide over to Looney Tunes for a while in 2021. It may be fun to compare and contrast the animation styles and revisit some of the best Looney Tunes shorts in the first half-century of cinema.