Evolution is an amazing process but when it comes to COVID-19, I wish it would slow down a bit.
The imminent arrival of the Omicron variant while the Delta variant is still rampaging through New Hampshire is not really a surprise. Thanks to evolution people have been worried about this exact scenario since the pandemic began, although “thanks” probably isn’t the right word.
Viruses mutate like crazy and if a random mutation makes it easier for the virus to spread and thrive then it will spread and thrive as long as the environment supports it – that’s how evolution works.
Unfortunately, there’s no hope that the viral world will pause the process while humanity catches up. The only solution is to change the environment. We need to reduce the number of places where viruses can exist long enough to mutate. Hence the rush to vaccinate the whole world as quickly as possible, including getting boosters to as many people as possible.
As I write this we have no evidence that the Omicron variant is in New Hampshire, but it will be. What effect that will have is unclear, since the variant is so new there isn’t good information about how it spreads and, significantly, whether it causes worse symptoms. (Note: Since I wrote this there are indications that Omicron causes less severe symptoms and may out-compete Delta, leading to hopes that it might turn COVID-19 into less of a problem. Let’s hope.)
It requires genetic sequencing of a positive COVID-19 sample to determine which variant exists. The State Public Health Laboratory in Concord does this; through last week it has sequenced almost 2,300 samples, about 100 to 130 samples per week, and about 1,800 that included variants, according to Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Jake Leon.
The lab is “working to enhance strain surveillance as increased samples for sequencing are expected over the next several weeks,” Leon wrote in an email.
UNH, Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the CDC all have labs or contract with private labs to sequence samples: “All told, more than 11,100 samples have been sequenced, including almost 5,000 variants.”
Virtually all positive cases in New Hampshire have been Delta variants for a while now.
Before we get into the depressing numbers, let’s consider one hopeful area: Treatments.
Both Pfizer’s and Merck’s treatments are pill regimens that people take for five days after a positive COVID test. Prizer and Merck are both about to release pills taken for a few days after a positive test that make it harder for the virus to replicate inside the body.
They probably won’t cure you but they look likely to turn a sometimes fatal disease into the equivalent of a bad day with the flu. This is roughly similar to treatments that helped bring AIDS under control in the U.S.
Since we’re certainly going to have to learn to live with COVID-19, that’s very good news indeed.
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