The big, global news over the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. should have come as a surprise to no one.
SARS-CoV-2 spun off a new, even-more infectious variant – this one named Omicron – sparking what has now come to be the customary hysteria.
“New virus variant emerges in southern Africa, stokes worldwide fears,” the Boston Globe emailed its readers almost immediately.
The discovery “sent a chill through much of the world Friday as nations raced to halt air travel, markets plunged and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown,” the newspaper reported in the attached link.
Having said that, it added that the “medical experts, including the World Health Organization, warned against any overreaction before the variant that originated in southern Africa was better understood.”
In fact, if South African doctors are to be believed, there are signs here of a milder variant, not a more severe one.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association and was the first to start the search for a new variant after observing patients with strange symptoms in her practice, told The Telegraph that these were “so mild from those I had treated before.”
The patients “were mostly healthy men who turned up ‘feeling so tired’. About half of them were unvaccinated,” the British daily said.
“Dr. Coetzee, who was briefing other African medical associations on Saturday, made clear her patients were all healthy and she was worried the new variant could still hit older people – with co-morbidities such as diabetes or heart disease – much harder,” it added.
Inevitability of death
But everything hits old people harder, and especially those with diabetes, heart disease, obesity or other chronic illnesses. The WHO has reported that during U.S. flu seasons from 1993 to 1997:
- People over 65 were hospitalized three times more often than younger adults;
- Of that population of old people, 80 percent already suffered from one chronic disease and 50 percent suffered from two.
- Five percent of those over 65 hospitalized with flu died in the hospital, 20 to 30 percent died within one year; and 33 percent were more disabled after discharge than before with about half of those never recovering.
Over the most recent five-year period ending in 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates the flu killed about 151,000 people in the U.S., or about three times as many Americans as died in combat in the 20 years the U.S. spent mired in Vietnam (to use one of those whacky apples-and-oranges comparisons favored by the mainstream media.)
Nearly all of those who died in Vietnam were young. Most of those who died of influenza were old.
A peer-reviewed study published on the JAMA Network in 2003 reported that among U.S. flu deaths from the 1990-91 season through the 1998-99 season “90 percent of influenza-(associated)…deaths occurred among persons aged 65 years or older.”
At a societal level (or what an ecologist would call the population level), it’s not good to judge the threat of a virus by what it does to old people, because old people are destined to die soon anyway.
This might sound cavalier, but as one now in the 65-plus group, I can say it. I have no desire to die and still often act a foolish teenager while engaged in certain sports, but I can now see death out there on the horizon.
It happens to all of us, but it is worst when it happens to young people often still supporting families or looking to make something of life on this planet.
And if SARS-CoV-2 has spawned a variant that is kinder to them it is a good and not necessarily unexpected turn of events. Some of the world’s top virologists writing in Nature this summer predicted this could be a possibility.
- “The first – and most worrisome -scenario is that we will not gain rapid control of this pandemic and thus will face a future with ongoing manifestations of severe disease combined with high levels of infection that, in turn, could foster further evolution of the virus. Vaccinations and previous infection could achieve long-term herd immunity, but we will need a very broad application of vaccines worldwide combined with comprehensive disease surveillance by accurate and readily available diagnostic assays or devices.
- “A second and more likely scenario is the transition to an epidemic seasonal disease such as influenza. Effective therapies that prevent progression of COVID-19 disease (for example, monoclonal antibodies that reduce hospitalization and death by 70–85 percent) may bring the burden of SARS-CoV-2 infection to levels that are equivalent or even lower than influenza. However, we should remember that the annual mortality burden of influenza, in non-pandemic years, is estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths, with up to 650,000 all-cause deaths globally, comprising around 2 percent of all annual respiratory deaths (two thirds among people who are 65 years and older). This is an extremely important health burden and equates to a relatively ‘optimistic’ view of the future of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- “A third scenario is the transition to an endemic disease similar to other human coronavirus infections that have a much lower disease impact than influenza or SARS-CoV-2. There is, however, limited data on the global burden of disease by common human coronaviruses and as noted above, it is not possible to predict with confidence whether further adaptations of SARS-CoV-2 to humans will increase or decrease its intrinsic virulence.”
The third scenario there is the best to hope for and it is not unreasonable to believe it could happen. SARS-CoV-2 could evolve into another virus causing the “common cold” as did HCoV-229E, HCoV-HKU1, HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-OC43 before it.
But the scientists from the U.S., Switzerland and Australia admitted they cannot predict the future.
“At a first glance, SARS-CoV-2 seemingly has a capacity to evolve that outstrips that seen in the other human coronaviruses,” they wrote. “We do not know whether this reflects a lack of comparable data for the other viruses that have entered the human population long ago, a recent zoonotic origin that has resulted in a strong selection pressure for adaptation to transmission and/or immune evasion in the human host.
“Indeed, recent studies have shown that seasonal coronaviruses (such as HCoV-229E) have also experienced antigenic evolution in recent decades. The overall uncertainty of these parameters makes it difficult to accurately predict the future post-pandemic equilibrium between SARS-CoV-2 and the human population.”
Still, the evolutionary odds favor scenarios two or three over the long run because those scenarios present the best opportunities for the virus to flourish.
It’s hard for it to spread if the people it infects immediately up and die. It is much easier if they are healthy enough to wander around among their peers to aid the virus in finding new hosts.
Influenza has flourished in the U.S. in this way for years in part due to a culture that glorified people coming to work sick.
“There’s an American ethic to tough it out, rise to the occasion and ignore your minor woes,” Cheryl Koopman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University told Reuters way back in 2007. “It sounds really wimpy to say you’re not going to come to work just because you have a cold.”
The news agency was then reporting a story about how “‘presenteeism,’ or going to work when sick, is a persistent problem at more than half of U.S. workplaces and costs U.S. business a whopping $180 billion a year.”
With many working from home during the pandemic, who knows what the presenteeism costs of Covid-19 might be, but with pressure growing for people to return to offices with the virus still running rampant, presenteeism could become a problem going forward.
Whether a milder form of Covid-19 would make this problem better or worse is, however, hard to say. Some bosses like to have employees in the office no matter what because there is no telling what they might be up to while working from home.
Historical footnote: This is the 13th SARS-CoV-2 variant to be officially named, and thus should have been labeled Nu, the 13th letter in the Greek alphabet. But the WHO said it skipped “nu” because it sounds like “new,” which brought it to Xi. China is, however, ruled by a leader named Xi Jinping and clearly the WHO didn’t want China taking offense. The organization’s official statement on the subject said its “best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.'”