Updated: Jan 15, 2021
By Thomas Neuburger
On the Covid virus front, two recent news items, both from MIT Technology Review, are worth noting. The first offers some (preliminary) good news:
Covid-19 immunity likely lasts for years
A new study shows immune cells primed to fight the coronavirus should persist for a long time after someone is vaccinated or recovers from infection.
Covid-19 patients who recovered from the disease still have robust immunity from the coronavirus eight months after infection, according to a new study. The result is an encouraging sign that the authors interpret to mean immunity to the virus probably lasts for many years, and it should alleviate fears that the covid-19 vaccine would require repeated booster shots to protect against the disease and finally get the pandemic under control. [...]
The study, published January 6 in Science, contrasts with earlier findings that suggested covid-19 immunity could be short-lived, putting millions who’ve already recovered at risk of reinfection. That predicament wouldn’t have been a total surprise, since infection by other coronaviruses generates antibodies that fade fairly quickly. But the new study suggests reinfection should only be a problem for a very small percentage of people who’ve developed immunity—whether through an initial infection or by vaccination.
Not every recovered patient acquired this long-lived immunity, but this is still excellent and welcome information.
The second news item is less good. It looks like the "UK virus variant" of the virus has already come to the U.S., with troubling consequences:
We may have only weeks to act before a variant coronavirus dominates the US
A strain of covid-19 that appears to spread faster is colliding with the campaign to vaccinate Americans.
The US may face a rapidly closing window to bring a suspected extra-contagious variant of covid-19 under control.
If the variant strain, first spotted in the United Kingdom, is as infectious as some suspect, it could dominate US case numbers by March, send covid-19 deaths to unprecedented levels, and collide with the rollout of vaccines, research suggests.
British scientists fear that the new strain, which they say is 50% to 74% more transmissible (meaning the average case generates even more follow-on infections), has put wings on the feet of the pandemic in the UK, where covid-19 case numbers have risen swiftly.
A little-appreciated fact of coronavirus disease transmission is that, so far, as few as "1-10% of infected individuals [cause] 80% of secondary infections."
In other words, for the virus strain most of us have been exposed to, most of secondary infections have come from contact with very few infected individuals. We've been calling these people "superspreaders" in the popular press — President Trump was apparently one of them — but the focus should not be on them, but on the rest of the infected population, the 80% or more, who apparently tend not to infect that many others themselves. Many infect no one.
With the new strain, however, this is about to change. Many more people will become "superspreaders," or at least be rendered much more contagious that they would otherwise have been.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the variant (B.1.1.7) reached Colorado in December.
There is, perhaps, a ray of hope: "There is still scientific uncertainty as to whether the variant is truly more transmissible or whether it’s been fueled mostly by superspreading events including holiday gatherings in Europe." [emphasis added]
Followed by a ray of caution: "However, if more countries, including the US, see the same pattern as the UK, the case for easier spread will look indisputable."
Be extra careful out there.