The pandemic has not ended. It is evolving, with big implications. Here are six.
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” —The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
What began as an airborne pandemic driven by a single virus has become a viral cloud roiling around the globe thanks to public policies that have allowed unfettered transmission.
As a consequence the pandemic now represents different threats in different regions for different classes of people at different times. The wealthy elite attending Davos may be protected by tests and clean air machines, but the rest of us face contrasting realities.
Some virologists have argued that people shouldn’t be concerned by these evolutionary doings, and that the messy world of Omicron subvariants is better left to the experts.
But that’s a patronizing attitude. The pandemic affects us all, demanding citizens make decisions individually and together. So the point is not to be complacent or alarmed, but curious and attentive. We have entered an epoch of biological volatility and the risks this entails demand constant vigilance.
Here are six observations on viral evolution and how it may shape our lives in this, the fourth year of the pandemic.
1. One virus has become many.
We no longer face one viral foe or a single variant such as Delta. Omicron has produced four lineages of genetically diverse descendants morphing into an ever-growing swarm of 700 subvariants referenced by a confusing jungle of numbers and letters. What was once a single violin has become a complex and expanding orchestra with no discernable conductor. Even virologists now have trouble keeping track of where the variants are coming from, and what their different mutations mean.
Our actions, or inactions, are driving this evolution. Current policies allow unimpeded transmission. And in that context, vaccines and anti-viral treatments, despite their obvious life preserving benefits, have created conditions under which the virus is evolving rapidly.
Some variants have become immune evasive. Others have become more transmissible or adept at binding to human cells. Many mutations have rendered antibody treatments totally ineffective. A study showing the descendants of BA.2 and BA.5 have become more pathogenic. There is no shortage of new variation thanks to a high mutation rate, and variants continue to beget new descendants in an ever-expanding viral family tree.