The COVID Virus - Like the 1918 Influenza, Is It Here To Stay?

The majority of us are well aware that when late fall and early winter arrives, so too does the increase in respiratory illnesses and the seasonal flu. Most of the seasonal cases of flu tend to kill the youngest and oldest in society, mostly because of a weak immune system or other co-morbid illnesses that exist. But the flu of 1918 attacked both men and women in their 20s and 30s.

Minnesota newspaper from 1918 Spanish flu outbreak

According to historian John M. Barry who wrote a book on the 1918 pandemic, "...8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus." Researchers have suggested that the strain of influenza that struck the world during this pandemic may have infected 1 billion people, which was half of the earth's population at that time. Of those infected, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people may have lost their lives, but not to the first virus of 1918, but two more waves that swept the earth which may have been more deadly than the original virus.

Much like what we are experiencing now with COVID-19, the 1918 virus mutated into variants, a fact that was discovered by a team of researchers led by Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer of the Robert Koch Institute. This group found six human lungs preserved in a lab in Germany and Austria dating back to 1918 and 1919. The researchers determined that three of those lungs — two from young soldiers who had died in Berlin, and one from a young woman who had died in Munich — contained the 1918 influenza virus.

But the form of the flu virus found in their lungs had several genetic differences from a variant of the virus that infected the young woman who died in Munich, presumably in a later wave of the pandemic. And they diverged even more from two genomes of the virus from Alaska and New York that dated from the second wave of the pandemic in late 1918, according to a new study published to the preprint database bioRxiv and which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Makeshift hospitals treating those in the 1918 outbreak

Their findings suggest that the virus mutated to become more effective between the first and later waves, by evolving to better overcome cellular defenses against infection, Calvignac-Spencer said.

So here's the interesting fact, the virus responsible for the 1918 influenza pandemic still circulates today. But it was much deadlier a century ago, mainly because humans today are descended from people who survived the infection more than a hundred years ago and so they've inherited some form of genetic immunity, Calvignac-Spencer said.

Jeffrey Taubenberger, an American virologist, recently told the Washington Post, “All those pandemics that have happened since [1918] — 1957, 1968, 2009 — all those pandemics are derivatives of the 1918 flu. The flu viruses that people get this year, or last year, are all still directly related to the 1918 ancestor.” The reality is that viruses that cause pandemics do not come to a neat end, rather continue in some form for generations as humans pass on a developed genetic immunity.

Given this, the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) behavior and its "variants" should not come as a surprise. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is the very nature of viruses to adapt and mutate to survive. Although the "delta variant" is currently in the news, several variants of COVID have been identified and warrant monitoring.

According to the Mayo Clinic and the CDC, these variants are:

  • Delta (B.1.617.2). This variant is now the most common COVID-19 variant in the U.S. It spreads more easily than other variants. Research has shown that it spreads easily in indoor sports settings and households. This variant also might reduce the effectiveness of some monoclonal antibody treatments and the antibodies generated by a COVID-19 vaccine. Delta was originally identified in India in December of 2020.

  • Alpha. (B.1.1.7). This COVID-19 variant appears to spread more easily, with about a 50% increase in transmission compared to previous circulating variants. This variant also might have an increased risk of hospitalization and death. Alpha was identified in December 2020 in the United Kingdom.

  • Gamma (P.1). This variant reduces the effectiveness of some monoclonal antibody medications and the antibodies generated by a previous COVID-19 infection or a COVID-19 vaccine. Gamma was initially identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January 2021.

  • Beta (B.1.351). This variant appears to spread more easily, with about a 50% increase in transmission compared to previous circulating variants. It also reduces the effectiveness of some monoclonal antibody medications and the antibodies generated by a previous COVID-19 infection or COVID-19 vaccine. Beta was initially detected in South Africa in December 2020.

How Mutations Occur

While the idea of a virus mutating might sound scary, it’s actually quite normal. Viruses mutate constantly. This is especially true of viruses that contain RNA as their genetic material, such as coronaviruses and influenza viruses.

All viruses are made up of a bundle of genetic material (either DNA or RNA) that’s covered by a protective coating of proteins. Once a virus gets into your body – usually through your mouth or nose – it latches onto one of your cells. The virus’s DNA or RNA then enters your cell, where it can make copies of itself that go off and infect other cells. If the virus can copy itself and hijack enough of your cells without being wiped out by your immune system, that’s how you get sick.

A virus constantly mutates in order to survive

Now and then, an error occurs during the virus’s copying process. That’s a mutation. Most of the time, mutations are so small that they don’t significantly affect how the virus works or make the virus weaker. Occasionally, a mutation helps the virus copy itself or get into our cells more easily. These mutations accumulate over time, and that’s how we get new variants of a virus strain.

To simplify terms like strains, variants, and mutations when it comes to viruses, think of it this way, viruses with mutations become variants and if that variant displays a different physical property than the original virus, it becomes a new strain.

Are the Vaccines Effective?

While research suggests that COVID-19 vaccines are slightly less effective against the variants, the vaccines still appear to protect against severe COVID-19 infections. Here are some examples:

  • In the United Kingdom, early research is suggesting that after being fully vaccinated, the Pfizer vaccine is 88% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant. It also shows that the vaccine is 93% effective at preventing a symptomatic response to the COVID-19 alpha variant.

  • Similar research from Canada seems to suggest that after one dose of the Moderna vaccine, it is 72% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant and 96% effective at preventing a severe infection caused by the delta variant.

  • The Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be 85% effective at preventing severe infection from the COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant. This information is from Johnson & Johnson.

As it stands, the CDC and FDA are stating that those who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster, but that may change as the manufacturers of the vaccine continue to conduct research and test possible booster doses.

The COVID vaccine

But the bottom line is, we may need to learn to live with COVID-19 and its variants for decades to come as we have with other viruses. We cannot continue to respond to COVID by shutting down our society and economy, otherwise, our quality of life will diminish. Yes, COVID is a threat, but we face threats every day - some we can control and some we cannot.

Let's consider these facts, more than 38,000 people die every year in automobile crashes on U.S. roadways, and worldwide, 1.3 million people perish. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year annually in the United States, and worldwide, tobacco use causes more than 7 million deaths per year. Excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year and worldwide, more than 3 million deaths occur. So far, according to the World Health Organization, COVID has been implicated in nearly 6.9 million deaths worldwide - less than tobacco kills annually. This doesn't mean that we should ignore this virus, but consider the risk from COVID in the context of all the other risks we face on a daily basis and accept the fact that we may need to live with this as we do the seasonal flu.

In Next Week's Blog:

Attorney Connelly looks at the 2022 COLA for Social Security recipients and why the increase may be a sizeable one.

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