When vaccines against COVID-19 were rolling out in December 2020, we thought we had seen the light at the end of a long dark tunnel.
But then, came the delta variant followed by the omicron variant.
And there will be other variants of concerns (VOC) which would take up most of the Greek alphabets, for sure.
So, will we ever come out of this COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes and no. Let me explain.
For any virus, its mission is to infect as many hosts as possible to maintain its existence. The death of the host means the end of the virus in that host. By infecting more hosts, the survival of the virus is ensured. Therefore, the virus needs to constantly evolve and adapt. To do so, virus increases its transmissibility — to infect more hosts — and at the same time, reduces the severity of the disease it causes. A very sick or dead host cannot spread the virus, but a host with mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, can spread the virus to many more hosts.
That’s what we expect of the COVID-19 virus.
However, there is a second part in the equation — the host.
The Australians did a natural experiment to control runaway explosion of their rabbit population — thanks to their innocent introduction as games for hunting sport — into a new continent with no natural predators. These rabbits did what rabbits do best — reproduced. To reduce the exploding rabbit population, the Australians used a virus (myxoma virus) as a “biological weapon.”
In the first few years, with over 90% mortality rate, the rabbit population was decimated. The virus was working great. But in subsequent years, the virus lost its bang. The mortality rate was much lower, and the rabbit population rebounded.
Australian scientists studied both the virus and the rabbit in the lab. The virus was found to be “attenuated” — less virulent. But the shock was that the rabbits became “resistant” to the virus — not just by their immunity to the virus, but bona fide resistant. Some of the rabbits experimented on were raised from “wild-caught” parents. Apparently, the virus was a driving force to select the rabbits harboring resistance genes.
Of course, we don’t expect a gene pool of humans resistant to COVID-19 to pop up anytime soon, as our generation time is much longer than these bunnies.
But vaccination does increase the proportion of “resistant host” — herd immunity — to force the virus into submission.
Break-through infections do occur, however, current data shows that almost all severe cases by the delta and the omicron variants were unvaccinated. Vaccines teach our body to make specific antibodies and our immune cells to fight the virus. Think of antibodies as surface to air missiles —the more you have, the better the protection.
On the other hand, your immune cells — cytotoxic T cells — as your troops fighting a house-to-house urban warfare weed out the virus hiding inside, which takes time. Immunologists call this “cell-mediated immunity (CMI)." Despite your antibodies waning, you still have your CMI. Therefore, if you are infected, you can eliminate the virus faster if you are vaccinated.
It is sad to see so many Americans are not taking the vaccine. This “vaccine hesitancy” will be a topic for many research projects later, for sure. It is partly due to toxic misinformation, and partly to plain politics.
The Chinese authoritarian government can lock down an entire metropolitan — a policy of “zero-tolerance” — until there were no more cases. The results were impressive, but rumors circulate in social media that some people died of starvation inside their own homes, because they were not allowed to go out to get food. In a democratic country such as ours, we need to protect the vulnerable but balancing out the needs of others, and to maintain a functional society.
If, and when, this COVID-19 pandemic fizzles out, instead of calling it “post-pandemic,” it will be just an “inter-pandemic” period.
Therefore, we need to be prepared.
We need our universities and colleges to train more professionals and scientists in infectious diseases to combat future pandemics. New training and research programs should be installed and funded.
We need to set up a statutory body to oversee and to prepare for future pandemics. This body should include experts from our universities and colleges. Not just infectious diseases specialists, clinicians and nurses, but also sociologists, psychologists, economists, etc. Therefore, any actionable decisions will be made based on inputs from multiple perspectives. In addition, inclusion of legislators from both sides of the aisle will ensure this body is non-partisan. By building up consensus and trust, hopefully, our Commonwealth will be in a better position when facing the next pandemic.
With more than 825,940 deaths due to COVID-19 (as of Jan. 7), it has surpassed the 675,446 deaths due to the 1918-19 Swine Flu pandemic. The final tally for our economic loss is still pending, but without doubt, it will be astronomical. Investment in the above-mentioned areas seems to be minuscule in comparison.
Alexander Lai, Ph.D. is an associate professor of biology, School of STEM, Kentucky State University. He is a virologist and his research interests include emerging viruses, virus evolution and vaccine development. He can be emailed at Alexander.Lai@kysu.edu