The Sky is not Falling

(Picture from here.)


I’ve been watching the news lately and it’s become incredibly clear that people either are woefully ignorant how viruses and vaccines work or are perfectly willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of people just for political points.

I don’t know which. Trying to be desperately optimistic, I will go for the former rather than the latter.

So. This is how viruses work.

First, viruses are not cells. They are not bacteria. They are not archaea. They are not eukaryotic cells—the line of cells that compose us. The evolutionary pressures that drive viruses are not the same as the other replicating organisms.

Viruses are organisms that are capable of replication given the right environment. That environment is the target host cell. It’s pretty common knowledge that a virus invades the host cell, commandeers the replication machinery of that cell, and causes it to replicate copies of the virus.

However, it’s apparent that this is where a lot of knowledge stops. What does it mean that the virus does this? Is it parasitic? How does it manage this? Viruses are under evolutionary pressures—how are parasites (if that’s what a virus is) respond to these pressures?

There is a lot of debate whether viruses are alive or not. (I talked about that some here.) I’m in the camp that viruses are not alive—though I could not give you a sufficiently rigorous definition of ”life” to defend that argument. I think that once biochemical systems are sufficiently sophisticated in a particular mechanism, they are capable of biochemical duplication. Once duplication is achieved, selection is available whether or not the chemicals are “alive.” That’s the area I would assign viruses.

This is discussed in detail in this article. To boil it down, there are two hypotheses: that viruses started out as sophisticated organisms that were whittle down to the bare essentials derived from their parasitic lifestyle. This is fairly common. Almost all parasites are selected to discard all but essential functionality. Non-essential functionality interferes with the parasitism. Tapeworms, roundworms, male anglerfish—pretty much all known parasites have pressures on them selecting for only essential functionality.

The other hypothesis is the bottom-up approach. Starting with reproducing chemicals that evolved the means by which they could leave one cell and enter another to reproduce again.

However, regardless of viral origin, they are parasites now.

There are some very interesting underlying principles within which cellular organisms operate. One particular paradigm is to preserve the underlying integrity of the organism. This means that certain biochemical properties are so important that a failure results in death of the organism. A truly strong evolutionary disincentive. Hemoglobin is highly conserved that way. Multicellular organisms have complex systems that keep internal cells toeing the line. Cells that don’t work right are told to self-destruct. If they don’t, they’re killed. If they evade that, they can kill the organism.

Viruses don’t have that problem.

Think of cod: millions of larvae sent out to grow. Most of them die. Most of them are eaten. Any mutations that kill the larvae are selected out. A few combinations might help. This process helps to winnow out weak baby cod.

Viruses follow this same paradigm but on a much larger scale.

Our example cod can’t vary too much. If they mutate a highly conserved pathway, they die. If they are too different, they can’t propagate their species. They might not die but they won’t contribute anything to the greater cod, either. Consequently, there is pressure on the cod to preserve their underlying structure. Their “codness” if you will.

Viruses don’t have either problem. If 20% of the virons produced by the cell are non-viable, so what? 80% are. If 20% of the virus particles still infect but don’t resemble the parents, so what? They’re still infective. The selection is on the components of infectivity, not the integrity of the viral genome. 80% of a billion virus particles is still huge. So is 10%– the numbers we’re talking about are so great, the virus can risk a significant percentage non-viability.

This means that the selection pressures on viruses are vastly different. They need not preserve consistency of form. They need not worry about large percentages of loss. This incentivizes the process of virus reproduction to be dirty. Risk is rewarded.

The number of virus particles produced in a given population is a direct proportion to a combination the susceptibility of individuals to the virus, how many individuals there are in the given population, and how much opportunity a shed virus has to be transmitted. Remember, every virus particle represents an attempt by viral reproduction to create a better virus. Increase the number of produced virus particles and you increase that number of those attempts. Increase the number of attempts and you increase the probability that some of those attempts will be successful.

There are two obvious areas of opportunity for COVID to change that it would find advantageous: the spike protein (which is the mechanism by which it enters the cell) and the number of virus particles product.

Oh, look. The Delta Variant has a better spike protein and more virus particles being produced. What a surprise! The Delta Variant has a slew of improvements. They’re discussed here.

Look, let’s just use some common sense. That seems to be in short supply these days but go with me here.

Masks decrease the number of virus particles being transmitted by an infected person. The Delta Variant produces more virus particles so masks are not going to be as effective. Understood. Does that mean they will not be effective? No. It’s a probability. Distance decreases the probability of virus contact. Do the changes from the Delta Variant alter that calculus? Yes. Does it reduce it to zero? No.

Masks and distance reduce opportunities for the virus. Distance reduces the effective population size—the distance acts as if the population numbers were reduced. Masks reduce the transmission of the shed virus. This is a good thing. It’s not a political statement. It’s not Red vs Blue. It makes sense. Go look at the literature. Check the CDC. Look at scientific papers in their original form. Don’t look at social media, it’s not any better than a bad game of telephone where each person has an agenda. Use your brain.

Susceptibility of the population is the final issue. The vaccines are pretty good at this but they are not perfect. Nothing is—that should not come as a surprise to anyone. But they do reduce the probability of death and hospitalization. Most of the people in hospitals are not vaccinated. Most of the people transmitting the virus are not vaccinated. Certainly, vaccinated people should wear masks—we now know (which we did not before) that the Delta Variant can be transmitted from vaccinated people. Hence, masks.

Finally, let’s look at this problem from a different perspective.

We lost ~34k people to traffic accidents in 2016. Let’s take that as a metric. We’ve lost 610k people since January, 2020, to August, 2021. Let’s take that to about 406k deaths/year for comparison’s sake.

This means, in one year, we’ve lost the equivalent of 12 traffic years.

We regulate traffic to reduce deaths and injuries. No one is declaring their freedom to drive on the left side of the road, run stop lights, and barrel through school zones at 90 miles an hour. State cops enforce these regulations all the time. We may grumble about it but no one is seriously considering going back to the bad old days of the early 20th century before there were traffic laws.

Yet, we’re fighting amongst ourselves about masks, vaccines, and distancing, as if we were in a life and death fight about liberty.

We’re not. Masks are an inconvenience at worst. You are much safer getting a vaccine than driving a car, both from side-effects and getting this terrible disease. We are fighting about going out to dinner, spending too much time with our spouses, and handling our kids at home. And, if we as a nation had gotten behind the vaccination effort like we should have in the beginning, it wouldn’t be a problem now at all.

It is rank idiocy to join this inconvenience with liberty and freedom. People have equated wearing a mask with Nazi labeling and fighting for freedom in the Revolutionary War.

Hm. Fighting British atrocities vs. having to wear a mask in a post office. Marking people as slated for extinction vs. kids wearing masks in school.

I don’t think so.

As I have pointed out before, vaccination is the best defense against a terrible disease that is killing people or destroying their lives. I have no problem with people denying themselves vaccines provided they wear masks and sequester themselves. I don’t want to sit next to them at a restaurant and get a sweet dose of COVID. I don’t want to sit next to them in a theater and inhale a virus that even while it might not kill me (since I’m vaccinated) causes me to be a vector to kill somebody else. It’s just like drivers ignoring crosswalks and stop signs: we have rules like that because otherwise people are at risk.

Much as some people like to deny it, there is such a thing as the common good. Individual freedom and liberty stop when your actions kill or maim others. This is why we have traffic laws. This is why we have laws against murder and theft.

Instead, we have a group of silly people running around in circles yelling the sky is about to fall and insuring under the worst possible circumstances that it will.




The Sky is not Falling — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for a good dose of facts and common sense about Covid and precautions. Too bad the people who need to read such information almost certainly will not.