Public health recommendations to limit the spread of Covid-19 are social distancing, avoiding crowds, reducing exposure to closed spaces with recirculation, hand washing, and wearing masks. These are all good. However, often absent in recommendations is an important variable that bears upon the importance of these measures. The variable is the frequency of current infections within a community where a community is defined as an interacting network of people. Frequency can vary from 0 to 100. If frequency is 0, public health measures are unnecessary; if 100, and a newcomer, rigorous adherence to public health directives is essential. But the usual frequency is somewhere between 0 and 100. The closer the frequency to 0, the less risk to catch the virus. The higher the frequency, the greater the risk.
During March, April, and May in Florida, Arizona, California, and most other states except the Northeast, during the period of lockdowns and suspension of school attendance, the need for adherence to public health measures to avoid the virus was less than today. For example, In Sonoma County, located 50 miles north of San Francisco, the number of verified cases during April was about 150, give or take a few. Today, the number is approximately 2,100, give or take a few. Based on cases, the risk for catching the virus is roughly 14 times greater today than during April. Even if the April number was underestimated due to lack of testing and the number was two or three times larger, the current risk is still 4.5 to 7 times greater. Similar or greater increases of risk are evident throughout California and throughout the US apart from the North East. This is not a time to be sanguine about the virus.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong with its 7.4 million population reported about 100 Covid-19 infections calling forth the full resources of the government through redoubled contact tracing and mandatory isolation of affected persons. But unlike the US, Hong Kong has a functioning economy. People ride the buses, eat at restaurants, shop at stores, and may travel to Europe.
The not-so-secret hope of many US citizens is that Covid-19 is just a variant of the flu, the weak will die off a little earlier –sad, but such is life –and that herd immunity will abate infection. Americans will be stronger, not weaker for the experience, not like the namby-pamby Europeans or Asians.
What is grossly underestimated is the number of US citizens that may die. The current number of US confirmed cases is roughly 3,700,000 or about 1 percent of the population. Double that number, triple it, or quadruple it, and still 90 to 95 percent of the US population is unafflicted. Covid-19 has a long way to run.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Eventually over time, viral infections that affect populations dissipate. Susceptible persons die, populations are reduced, and the virus finds fewer hosts. Gender and genetic differences play a role. Males’ death from Covid-19 are roughly twice those of females’. Persons with Type A blood are more susceptible than those with type O blood, and genetic variations in T-cell mobilization are critical to warding off the virus.
Concurrently, the virus mutates. Since its identification in late December, Covid-19 has at least four widespread variants. The D614G variant out-competes the original strain and is now the most common form. The variant is more efficient at cellular replication, increases viral load, and enhances viral transmission.
However, over a long enough time, viral mutations usually become less lethal. More lethal strains find fewer hosts as hosts die, so a selective advantage accrues to less lethal strains. Less lethal strains permit hosts to live and spread the virus. But less lethal strains may still reduce the quality of life as suggested by follow-up studies of Covid-19 survivors.
Research from multiple sources finds that antibodies to Covid-19 dissipate after a few months. Vaccines produced by traditional methods may confer only short-term immunity, much like current flu vaccines with their hit-and-miss history. However, new research suggests a novel method to confer long-term immunity through memory T-cell recognition of Covid-19 variants. Proteomics is an under-researched area in bioscience that holds great promise. Technologies, such as high pressure containment from 10 to 20,000 atmospheres to cause protein disassembly are available, but not widely employed. Successful, vaccine development with long-lasting benefits may hinge upon use of such methods and memory T-cell sensitization by protein fragments.
Ultimately, Covid-19 may advance methods, technology, and research in biology and medicine with broad application to chronic and acute diseases that range from the common cold to cancer. It’s an ill wind that blows no good. Covid-19 eventually will be history, and through this stormy and uncertain time, humanity will be moved to find new tools, methods, and approaches to health and well-being. A healthier and hopeful future awaits.
*Leland van den Daele, PhD, ABPP is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. He trained at the American Institute for Psychoanalysis (AIP) in New York City and has taught at University of Illinois, Rutgers University, Columbia University, and California School of Professional Psychology. Leland is a clinical psychologist with interests in culture, character, and social cohesion.