On this episode of Social Distance, James Hamblin and Katherine Wells talk to staff writer Ed Yong about why he isn’t alarmed by recent news stories suggesting that a new strain of the coronavirus is on the loose.
Listen to the episode here:
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Katherine Wells: Ed, I read something yesterday in the L.A. Times about a new mutant coronavirus strain that is even worse than the original.
Ed Yong: This story was based on a new paper which claims to have identified a more transmissible form of the virus, which, thanks to one specific mutation, seems to spread more efficiently than the original virus that emerged in Wuhan. Much panic and fear ensued about this idea that this pandemic, which was already bad enough, is just getting worse.
People have this understanding of viruses as things that continually change and evolve, so there is a risk that the virus that we’re dealing with now might become worse. These are legitimate concerns and things that scientists want to be watchful for. But I don’t think there is any strong evidence that any of that has come to pass or of what this particular study and the rather inflammatory news reports based on it have claimed, which is that there is a more transmissible form or strain of the coronavirus. I don’t think there’s strong evidence that that actually exists or even that there are multiple strains at all. Most of the virologists I’ve spoken to would agree that there is basically just one virus that the world is dealing with.
As it spread from person to person, it changed. It developed mutations, small errors, typos in its genes. This is what viruses do normally as they spread and they move from one person to another. As the epidemic progressed, the entire population of this new virus accumulated more and more mutations. If you think of a family tree of the virus, what you get is lots of different branches and twigs appearing. These are different viral lineages that each have their own set of mutations.
Wells: So the genetic code that you find in a person in Los Angeles today will be slightly different from the genetic code of coronavirus that you find in a person in Wuhan in December, and will be different from the one you might find a year from now in Russia. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fundamentally different thing.
Yong: Correct. You could say that those viruses all belong to different lineages, but one of the problems is that when a lot of reporters write about this, they equate lineages with different strains. And that’s not how most virologists would think about it.
Wells: What does strain mean?
Yong: When we talk about strains, we’re implying not just that there is a genetic difference, but that those differences are meaningful in some way, so that you have a group of viruses that not only are genetically different from others, but also differ in important traits like their ability to cause disease or their ability to spread to new people. We’re not just talking about differences which cumulate naturally as viruses move through the world, but about meaningful, significant differences.
One way of thinking about it might be to compare strains to dog breeds. A corgi is clearly different from a Great Dane in significant, meaningful ways. But a black-haired corgi is not that different from a brown-haired corgi.
Wells: So we have viruses with different genetic codes, but not new strains that are meaningfully different from a medical perspective?
Yong: Correct. We have a new mutation that does seem to have become more dominant in Europe and parts of the U.S. But the question then becomes, does the mutation actually mean anything? Does it define a new strain of this virus? I and the others I’ve talked to would argue that there’s not sufficient evidence to say that it does. In the early stages of a pandemic, you can get totally random events that mean that certain groups of viruses with certain genetic mutations become very common while others die out.
For example, if someone had the virus with this specific mutation in the early stages of the pandemic and traveled from China to Italy and kicked off a bunch of transmission there, that mutation would become very common in Europe, which we then know seeded New York and other parts of America. It could just be that the virus happened to be in the right person rather than that this specific mutation of the virus was in any way special.
We now have a situation where you have two equally plausible explanations for the patterns we’re seeing. One is that the viruses with this mutation are better at spreading. The other is that the viruses with this mutation got lucky and just happened to have been spread well by their hosts. Crucially, the evidence that has been put forward in this new study can’t tell the difference between those two outcomes.
Wells: So the thing I’m taking away here is, I don’t need to think about this.
Yong: I think that’s right. When stories like this come out, they cause a lot of fear. This pandemic is already a situation where there’s so much fear in the air. We end up worrying people unnecessarily based on not enough evidence. This isn’t the thing that we really need to be worrying about right now.
What we need to think about right now are the same kinds of basic public-health measures that we’ve talked about on this podcast before. We need widespread testing. We need to be able to find infected people, isolate them, trace their contacts. We need clear federal leadership. We need social-distancing measures to allow those things to ramp up and to work effectively in situations when the pandemic is raging out of control. That’s it. Whether or not there is a slightly more transmissible form of the virus or not, it doesn’t actually change that basic calculus of what we as a society need to do and focus on.
James Hamblin: So it sounds like part of the problem is that people are craving these constant updates, because not every new piece of evidence is really changing the game. That’s not how science works generally, but especially not right now when you have tiny studies of viral RNA.
Yong: Yes. To be clear, this is a decent study. I think it’s made some overblown claims, but the fundamentals are sound and the team is really good. Normally all these issues that we’ve talked about would come out in the peer-review process and they would be dealt with slowly over time, and then we would arrive at a clearer picture. Now you go from a preliminary report being put online, and it’s suddenly all over the news within a few days.
Launching those uncritical reports into a world where people are desperately scrambling for more information, because we’re really anxious and uncertain and we just want to find out more, leads us into this very bad mode of information seeking, because it makes us vulnerable to claims that overhype developments that are actually quite incremental. It makes the scientific process seem like it’s jerky and full of contradictions, which it kind of is, but not in a bad way and in a way that does resolve itself over time. We’re just not giving it that time.
Hamblin: In the movies, a mutation means that the virus has evolved, and we thought we had it figured out. So even if technically the virus is evolving, and this lineage is technically considered dominant, those things can be reported accurately and still be extremely misleading.
Yong: I agree. I think there are difficult choices we need to be making about what exactly to report. If your goal is actually to foster a deeper and better public understanding of what is happening right now, this drip feed of small updates with every new study doesn’t really get us there. We all want answers right now, and there are many questions that are still very perplexing. Like, as you’ve written about, why some people get sicker than others, or why New York has been hit so badly while some other cities might largely escape.
Those kinds of differences are very unsettling and curious. But it’s very easy and understandable to think that it’s something to do with the virus. It almost helps us make sense of all that uncertainty if it’s something to do with the virus. These questions that we want answers to are probably better explained by things like underlying health inequalities and social inequities. They might be to do with a failure of political action, the failure of leaders to do the right things at the right time, to instill the right control measures. And it could well be just down to really dumb, bad luck.
Those things are much harder to grapple with. The idea that we’re just the victims of bad happenstance or bad political leadership is much less satisfying than the idea that we’re actually facing this super powerful enemy that keeps mutating and getting worse over time. Despite all of the fear, that’s actually a more palatable narrative. But I just don’t think that it’s actually the right one.