Will more virulent COVID-19 come from hamsters, deer, mink?

It was a death sentence for thousands of hamsters.

A worker at Little Boss Pet Shop in Hong Kong fell with COVID-19. The tests revealed that the hamsters were also infected. Government workers in hazmat suits raided the store and the culling began in January.

A chilling theory is that COVID-19 was transmitted to hamsters, incubated in them for several generations, then returned to humans and spread among them – possibly explaining the genesis of new variants, Dr George said Rutherford, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. at the University of San Francisco.

“The molecular epidemiology of this virus is much more complicated than I realize,” he said. “Why this is the case, and what role co-evolution with other species plays, is a huge open question.”

As planet Earth enters its third pandemic year, and “stealth omicron” – yet another new variant – comprises nearly a quarter of new cases, one key thing experts have learned about the coronavirus is how this little strand of 30 kilobases of RNA can surprise them.

“Most viruses are much more stable, and we would have predicted this virus to be more stable,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, professor and chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine.

But mutating is exactly what viruses do. “There’s a lot of pressure pushing this virus to mutate,” Maldonado said. “The world has been fully responsive. When you get so many different people infected over time, you’re going to see more opportunities.

As science continues to probe the mysteries of the ever-adapting virus itself, its practitioners pause to celebrate astonishing progress on multiple fronts, while contemplating lessons learned and expressing deep frustration, even anger. , in the face of the missteps and inequalities they say the pandemic has exposed and worsened.

“What we learned that we didn’t fully appreciate, but should have known: our ongoing scientific research enterprise is a massive truth-based system ready to be steered in the right direction,” said the Dr. David D. Lo, Distinguished Professor. of Biomedical Sciences at UC Riverside and Director of the Center for Health Disparities Research. Namely: Scientists isolated and fully sequenced the virus in just a few weeks. They created custom synthetic vaccines within months. A well-oiled drug development and clinical trial system was ready to conduct clinical trials on hundreds of thousands of people, and the biotech manufacturing industry sprang to life to produce billions of doses.

“What we learned should have been entirely predictable: the existing anti-science, anti-authority fringe was ready to take the existing petty anti-vaccine movement and weaponize social media and fringe cable news to shake things up. ‘in a huge way that was guaranteed to cost lives, probably millions around the world,’ he said. “Governments, as usual, disregard decades of warnings and preparation, relying on the usual overly cautious playbook with their heads in the sand resulting in poor messaging, the inability to act in a timely and effective manner and everyone’s confusion. ”

COVID-19 will surely not be the last pandemic. It is therefore essential that we learn all we can about the vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19 so that we can be better prepared for future outbreaks, Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a recent statement.

To that end, the “Existing Viruses, New Emerging Threats and Pandemics Preparedness and Response Act” emerged from a Senate committee on March 15, seeking to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the epidemic and identify “lessons learned”. on preparedness, response and nation recovery. It would also examine disparities in infection and death rates among people of color, the elderly and other vulnerable groups, and the impact of these discrepancies on the response.

The bill, by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, aims to address inequities in the pandemic response.

“Good governance makes a big difference,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley, via email. “Individualistic societies like ours don’t do well in pandemics.” The most successful, he said, are generally societies that trust their governments and each other.

Swartzberg has learned a lot over the past year, he said, including that an RNA genome of around 30 kilobases can have enormous plasticity and that the theoretical number of variants it can produce is almost incalculable. He learned that vaccines work and are very safe, but “still, a lot of people seem to have an infinite capacity for not understanding this. … Our prejudices can kill us.

He learned that many mistakenly view COVID-19 as an acute disease and ignore the very big problem of long COVID, just as many mistakenly view it as a winter virus even though we have had outbreaks for two consecutive summers, a he declared. And he wonders why so many people think we’re done with variants.

As the masks come off and life returns to something resembling normal, Swartzberg urges caution. “When you remove societal and individual precautions,” he said, “hurry slowly.”

“Follow the science” was a mantra for the first year of the pandemic, said Andrew Noymer, UC Irvine. After the second year, we have “la carte science”, he says.

“Do you want a mask? There are tons of studies saying we should mask. Don’t want a mask? UCSF has an expert who will tell you that masks have not been proven,” he said. “Do you want to have your children vaccinated? The American Academy of Pediatrics says yes, get your kids vaccinated, it’s FDA cleared, safe and effective. However, the Florida State Surgeon General will not only tell you that your children do not need to be vaccinated, but that they should not be vaccinated unless he has an underlying condition.

“What we have is divergence, not convergence, over the past 12 months.”

Before scientific opinion coalesces around a consensus, there is vitriolic debate, Noymer said. The idea that doctors should wash their hands after performing autopsies, but before giving birth, was once hotly debated, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the vitriol today.

But people are tired of aggressively planning their lives around the pandemic. They are eager to regain some semblance of normality. They know which precautions reduce the risk of serious illness and death, and they want to continue. Public policy is never about preventing all deaths — if so, tobacco and alcohol would be illegal rather than regulated, he said — but rather about finding an acceptable balance.

“The result is going to be, maybe not 500,000 COVID deaths a year, but maybe 250,000 a year for the next few years,” Noymer said.

“The contours of the future are a bit more mysterious. We are in a period of great uncertainty. We already have data showing that each wave is not necessarily milder than the last. Omicron has killed more people than delta. Made. That means I can’t tell you that I’m optimistic the waves will dissipate. There will be another wave. Hopefully the next wave will be the smoothest yet. But there is nothing scientifically that says that will be the case.

A year ago, vaccines were about to be widely available and we were buoyed by optimism. “I’m more pessimistic at the start of third year than I was in second year, on the small condition that acquired immunity may be a long and painful way out.”

The coronavirus has been found in dogs, cats, tigers, lions, gorillas, minks, hamsters and white-tailed deer. Inter-species spillover “could lead to the creation of a reservoir that could favor the emergence of new variants that could impact humans,” said a recent article by researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

But billions of people have yet to be vaccinated or infected, and new variants may also incubate there. Worldwide, only 57% of people have been vaccinated, according to OurWorldInData. It is as low as 11% in Afghanistan and less than 5% in some Central African countries.

“Variants are going to have to be more transmissible, find a way to escape the immunity that we’ve developed,” Stanford’s Maldonado said. “Vaccination is still key at this stage.”

Vaccination rates are much higher in the United States – nearly three-quarters – and Maldonado believes data from vaccine trials for younger children will be available soon. America is approaching population — or herd — immunity in many parts of the country, but we know it will decline over time, she said. Hopefully spring and summer will continue the downward trend in case numbers and hopefully COVID-19 will become background noise, like other cold viruses. People prone to serious illnesses and people who have not responded to vaccines should exercise caution.

“If there’s one thing the past few years have taught us all, it’s to have great humility when it comes to determining the next steps this virus will take,” said Dr Elizabeth Hudson. , regional infectious disease chief for the nearly 5 million people. Kaiser Permanente Southern California member, via email.

“It is important not to underestimate exactly how far we have come in terms of knowledge about COVID-19 and all the treatment options we currently have. We learned how to counter this virus by attacking it at different times in its replication cycle and learned how to use monoclonal antibodies to help both protect and treat COVID-19. More importantly, we’ve learned that it’s our COVID vaccines that have done the heavy lifting to ensure we’re all protected and really reduce the risk of being hospitalized or dying.

Over the next year, medical professionals can expect to learn a lot more about the long COVID and develop real treatment options, she said. But the predictions are premature.

“The nature of viruses is that they replicate quickly, which can lead to mutations,” Hudson said. “These mutations can be helpful or harmful to the virus, in terms of its ability to infect people. With so many people around the world… who are still unvaccinated/incompletely vaccinated, as well as the sudden large number of refugees moving into Europe, it is possible that a new variant may arise. As with all things COVID, time will tell.

The number of cases is increasing rapidly in Europe, often a precursor to the increase in cases at home. “The next deadly pandemic,” Riverside’s Lo said, “is still waiting around the corner.”