The Morning Jolt

U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

A pedestrian wearing a mask walks down the sidewalk in New York, N.Y., July 1, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate about immigration, legal and illegal.

Bad News, People: The Mutated Version of the Virus Is More Contagious

This study in the medical journal Cell offers a conclusion that would explain a lot about the recent surge in cases in the southern and western United States.

A SARS-CoV-2 variant carrying the Spike protein amino acid change D614G has become the most prevalent form in the global pandemic. Dynamic tracking of variant frequencies revealed a recurrent pattern of G614 increase at multiple geographic levels: national, regional and municipal. The shift occurred even in local epidemics where the original D614 form was well established prior to the introduction of the G614 variant. The consistency of this pattern was highly statistically significant, suggesting that the G614 variant may have a fitness advantage… In infected individuals G614 is associated with lower RT-PCR cycle thresholds, suggestive of higher upper respiratory tract viral loads, although not with increased disease severity. 

The short version of this is that SARS-CoV-2 has mutated to become more contagious, but thankfully not deadlier. That said . . . it’s deadly and menacing enough as is.

Did I say more contagious? How about, “ten times more contagious”?

The spike protein for SARS-CoV-2 has two parts that don’t always hold together well. In the version of the virus that arose in China, Choe said, the outer part — which the virus needs to attach to a human receptor — frequently broke off. Equipped with this faulty lock pick, the virus had a harder time invading host cells.

“I think this mutation happened to compensate,” Choe said.

Studying both versions of the gene using a proxy virus in a petri dish of human cells, Choe and her colleagues found that viruses with the G variant had more spike proteins, and the outer parts of those proteins were less likely to break off. This made the virus approximately 10 times more infectious in the lab experiment.

From the beginning, the Chinese government has offered statistics that depicted the virus virtually disappearing in that country at the beginning of March. There are a lot of reasons to doubt the veracity of the numbers coming from Beijing, but if the original virus was at one level of contagiousness, and the virus mutated to become way more contagious after it had spread to other countries . . . maybe China did have a much easier time getting it under control in the spring. Their challenge was akin trying to tackle the average NFL running back, and our challenge is akin to trying to contain Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl.

Or maybe China is destined to get a taste of this new more contagious version. According to a new study on the CDC’s website, in mid-March a woman returned to China’s Heilongjiang Province from the United States. Note that according to China’s official statistics, by this point the outbreak was largely under control in that country. The woman used her apartment building’s elevator . . . and spread the virus to other building residents, even though they never encountered each other in person. Within a month, this cluster of new cases in China had grown to 71 people.

Studies of populations in Italy and Louisiana pointed to significant numbers of people who were asymptomatic and infectious. We’ve got a lot of people walking around who have it, don’t know it, and who are shedding viruses. Hopefully most of these people are wearing masks, but we can be certain some aren’t.

In fact, if the virus floats in the air indoors for hours, as growing numbers of medical researchers contend, we are up a certain creek without a paddle. There are just so many indoor locations where people gather — supermarkets, pharmacies, nursing homes, lobbies of apartment buildings, hospitals, essential industry factories, meatpacking plants, and any other business with open doors. Some museums have reopened. And as the weather cools, people will spend more time indoors.

If the virus spreads easier indoors, we would want to get people outside as much as possible, where wind and air currents will disperse the virus and make infection less likely. Naturally, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is keeping Chicago’s pools and shoreline closed during a heatwave. Los Angeles County kept the beaches closed for Fourth of July weekend, as did several beaches in the San Francisco Bay area. Centennial Park in Atlanta is closed. At some point soon, these mayors will lament, “We’ve kept everyone indoors. Why is the virus still spreading?”

Yes, the daily death count in the United States is down, from more than a thousand a day to “only” a couple hundred per day, which is very good news. But this virus can hurt you in serious ways, even if it doesn’t kill you. It is not hard to find not-so-old patients who say they experienced lasting effects of fatigue and reduced lung capacity, recurring headaches and dizziness, and other lingering problems and symptoms. Because it’s a new virus, we don’t know what the long-term effects of it are.

Sure, some people will catch the virus, be asymptomatic, and suffer no ill effects or extremely minor ones. Some people make full recoveries, even with conditions such as asthma and high blood pressure. No one is sure why some people’s systems beat the virus and return to normal and others have lasting problems; my guess is it has something to do with genetics. A good example of the oddities around this virus is that “people with Type A blood were 45 percent more likely to develop severe COVID-19 requiring oxygen supplementation or a ventilator than people with other blood types, and those with Type O blood were 35 percent less likely.”

But because you can’t tell whether your immune system will kick the virus’s butt or the fight will go the other way, you should probably try to avoid catching it. The world is better with you in it, and with full lung capacity.

This leads us to a really difficult question: How do we keep society and the economy reopened — never mind reopening it further with schools or athletic events — with a virus that is really contagious? The current version of SARS-CoV-2 floating around may be so contagious that contact tracing may not work anymore; the virus spreads quicker than the contacts can be identified and warned.

Meanwhile, our elected leaders continue to point fingers and insist the severity of the pandemic is the fault of the opposing party. This is like fighting over who’s to blame for Pearl Harbor when we’re losing the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Guys, the fight is still going on, does anybody want to focus on the here and now?

I Thought the Point Was to Get as Much Money out into the Economy as Quickly as Possible

A point about all of these companies that received loans from the Treasury Department’s Paycheck Protection Program, such as the studio of sculptor Jeff Koons; 583 financial firms; Kanye West’s clothing-and-sneaker brand Yeezy; the Americans for Tax Reform Foundation; 30 Girl Scout chapters across the country; West Virginia governor Jim Justice’s family companies; restaurant chains such as TGI Fridays and P. F. Chang’s China Bistro; St. Elmo’s Steak House in Indianapolis; Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, the law firm headed by antitrust litigator David Boies; Newsmax Media Inc., the media company run by Trump donor Christopher Ruddy; and others . . .

  • They all employ people, don’t they?
  • They couldn’t operate normally during the pandemic lockdowns, could they?
  • All of them experienced some disruption of their normal income because of the pandemic, no?
  • They all avoided layoffs by taking the loans, didn’t they?
  • Have they paid the money back? (That information hasn’t been released by the Treasury Department yet, and objections about insufficient transparency about the use of public funds are fair.)

The objection to many seems to be, “Many of these institutions are headed by people who are famous and fabulously wealthy!” Yes, but only a handful of businesses could stay open with no customers, clients, or income for two months or more. Steakhouses, celebrity sneaker brands, financial firms, law firms — the situation for all of them is the same if no money is coming in. Those businesses may have significant assets like real estate, but they may not have major cash reserves. Steakhouses can’t pay idled waiters in beef.

The aim of this program was to minimize the damage to the economy and minimize layoffs. If it did that — and if the money is getting paid back, as promised — what’s the complaint?

ADDENDUM: Our old friend Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies calls our attention to Jerry Kammer’s new book, Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash That Elected Trump. Krikorian tells me Losing Control is neither wonky or an angry screed:

It’s really more a political biography of the 1986 immigration law and how the betrayal of law’s grand bargain of amnesty in exchange for enforcement laid the groundwork for Trump,” Krikorian says, characterizing the book, published by Krikorian’s Center for Immigration Studies, as “a non-red-meat, liberal-friendly argument.

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