Where Are We Now? June 2020
By Ray Cunneff
June 22, 2020
On April 26, 2020, I wrote a piece that appeared on the Daily Kos and Planet POV websites, a “reality check” about the misinformation, denial and outright lies about the COVID-19 coronavirus, its origins, its spread and lethality, and its ‘purpose’ if any. (Conspiracy theories about a bioweapon were still rampant.)
Even as late as April, at least two months after America should have begun to take seriously, and make decisive preparations for, a looming global pandemic, denial was still the dominant theme among many politicians and much of the media – although minimization and fantasy were coming on strong as well.
I began the article like this:
“I don’t think the American public, and certainly not the dysfunctional and deluded Trumpist regime, has yet gotten its arms around the full extent, nature, and peril of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic with which we are dealing.
The virus is indifferent to denial or “magical thinking”. It will continue to relentlessly, lethally, search for victims until there is either a widely available and effective vaccine, or it will infect at least 60 percent of the human population and a “herd immunity” develops. Either way, it will be with us for at least another year-to-eighteen months.”
So far, so good. Most of what I wrote in April is still true, perhaps more so. The notable exception is Sweden’s experiment with their society remaining open in the hope of developing “herd immunity”. Two months later, Sweden’s death toll continues to climb alarmingly with no end in sight in comparison to its neighbors who adopted mitigation and containment strategies. Now, in mid-June 2020, we’re seeing some of our deepest anxieties of April realized – and the empirical evidence is in some ways more ominous than we feared:
“But a truly candid reality check is much darker. This is a very aggressive virus, unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. Many of our assumptions about immunity are speculative, the ability of the virus to mutate not even a part of the calculations. I hesitate to even articulate what a worst-case scenario might be.”
Well, now it may be time to consider just how bad this could get. I don’t think that anyone anticipated that the virus would attack different populations in different ways. What was at first thought to be a respiratory crisis primarily targeting the old and infirm, was gradually revealed to also attack people in their prime with blood clots, heart attacks and strokes, and to also infect children with a bewildering array of inflammatory crises.
It appears that we may have made a series of critically false assumptions in the comparison to influenza, which this “novel coronavirus” is clearly not. Yet the idea of seasonal “waves” of infection persisted, a presumed lull in the summer heat, followed by a “second wave” in the fall – just like the flu. But COVID-19 had other plans.
The “first wave”, that theoretically should have been retreating by mid-year has not subsided, having instead become a relentless tide of infections hop-scotching across the country. One noted epidemiologist compared it this weekend to a “forest fire” burning until it runs out of fuel.
States and cities that re-opened prematurely are now experiencing alarming spikes in new cases and hospitalizations, and some cities are being forced to consider closing down once again.
“While the ‘happy talk’ and the self-serving desperation to get back to “normal” may be understandable, it is both short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive to a sustainable economic recovery. The most we can hope for until the virus has run its deadly course is a new abnormal”.
It seems we weren’t prepared for the drastic changes in our lives, our jobs, and our incomes necessitated by the virus, ill-equipped to stay quarantined indefinitely. Some elements of the population have rebelled against mandatory mitigation and containment constraints, particularly masks and social distancing, although some may die regretting it.
And now in mid-June, we are just learning about an ominous new development in the coronavirus saga – it continues to mutate.
What the media has thus far failed to effectively communicate is that there are multiple strains of this novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It was one of the mysteries early in the pandemic why the virus spread so rapidly in New York and Milan, so fast it overwhelmed their health systems, while outbreaks in San Francisco and Seattle were more readily contained.
It turned out these were different variants of SARS-CoV-2, the West Coast strain that circulated earlier and was lacking a critical mutation. The Scripps Research Institute has identified the new mutation known as D614G, which is believed to make the virus much more stable and therefore much more readily transmissible.
Hyeryun Choe, PhD, senior author of the Scripps study, said, “Viruses with this mutation were much more infectious than those without the mutation in the cell culture system we used”. It is unclear whether this mutated D614G version of the novel coronavirus affects death rates or severity of symptoms among infected individuals, but it is vastly more contagious.
An analysis published in Science earlier this month found that seven new strains of COVID-19 coronavirus were circulating in California alone, a number that is almost certainly even higher given the study’s small sample size. But the larger story is that the virus continues to adapt and evolve, making the search for a vaccine, and a return to something like ‘normal’, all the more problematic.
But how bad could it actually get? The worst-case scenario is almost beyond comprehension, a “mass extinction event” in which many millions, possibly billions, die before the plague runs its course. But since that outcome is unimaginably grim, and apocalyptic visions serve no constructive purpose at this point, we’ll put that aside for now as unlikely.
Far more likely, we’ll be living with, and having to adapt to, years of coronavirus contagion, spread and death. It could be in a series of “surges”, advance here retreat there, each new strain of the virus more transmissible or lethal than the previous. The global economy cannot fully recover and staggers along at a fraction of its prior capacity. Inevitable strain on infrastructure and society disrupts the flow of goods and services. How bad the societal dislocation may get is unknowable at this point.
Multiple strains of the virus will very likely defy an effective vaccine, and rush-to-market efforts at treatments or cure may prove either ineffective or accidentally lethal. The longed-for “herd immunity” probablynever materializes, the experiment in Sweden considered a tragic failure. We face the growing realization that we could be living with some form of this virus for decades.
We might have stopped the virus in January, even February, if we had followed the vigorous national testing and tracing protocols already established for a pandemic. But without any national strategy for massive testing, there can be no effective contact tracing, and without tracing there can be no containment. And we may all get an education in evolution as the virus continues to adapt.
“More than six months into the pandemic, this is not the time for any country to take its foot off the pedal.” It’s clear that the pandemic is “far from over”.
– World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
“Oh my goodness. Where is it going to end? We’re still at the beginning of really understanding”. In only four months, the virus “has devastated the whole world. And it isn’t over yet.”
-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director – Dr. Anthony Fauci