Amid concerns about new, vaccine-resistant variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the U.S. and Alaska, and with the disease it causes ravaging India, it’s easy to overlook the fact that humans appear to be winning the war against the worst pandemic in more than 100 years.
And nature appears to be doing its part the old-fashioned way through evolution, according to a study from researchers at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
After looking at 2,531 variants of the virus – “484 of which were unique” – collected between March and April 22 of last year, scientists there reported, finding most of the variants growing weaker instead of more deadly.
“Our findings demonstrate that the continued evolution of SARS-CoV-2 leads to less virulence,” their study published at JAMA Networks Open on Monday said. “Given that our study period was during the initial weeks of the pandemic, it is unlikely that differences in survival were due to differences in patient care protocols, limitations of supplies or equipment, ICU (intensive care unit) bed space availability, or the use of antiviral medications.”
JAMA is the journal of the American Medical Association.
The Cleveland Clinic was among the first hospitals in the U.S. to start screening patients for SARS-CoV-2 in 2020. As the pandemic has spread and grown – as of this writing more than 152 million are reported to have been infected and nearly 3.2 million have died – there has been a heavy focus on identifying new, more contagious variants with a special focus on those that might prove more deadly.
Less attention has focused on weaker variants, though evolutionary history points toward a weakening virus becoming endemic as was the case with the Spanish flu that infected an estimated third of the global population in 1919 and 1919, and is believed to have killed 20 million to 50 million.
When the journal Nature polled more than 100 epidemiologists, virologists and infectious disease experts back in February, just shy of 90 percent thought the virus here to stay.
“Eradicating this virus right now from the world is a lot like trying to plan the construction of a stepping-stone pathway to the Moon. It’s unrealistic,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota told the journal.
But the scientists were mixed on whether SARS-CoV-2 goes the way of four coronaviruses that now lumped among the pathogens that cause the common cold, or remains a sometimes serious disease like the flu, or can be nearly eradicated by vaccination, as was measles.
The measles vaccine is one of modern medicines’ great success stories. Without it, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated the disease would kill about 2.7 million people per year.
COVID-19 killed about 1.85 million around the globe in 2020, but very few of those deaths came before March. Globally, deaths peaked near the end of January of this year, fell until mid-March and then began another rise.
Alaska has been particularly lucky throughout the pandemic. The state death rate of 46 per 100,000 people is near a sixth that of New York state, and the third-lowest in the country, according to the Worldometer tracker.
Among U.S. states, Washington state has done a good job of controlling the spread of the virus -the state’s rate of infection is about half that of California – but Washington has a case fatality rate near 3 percent.