Illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 particle, showing encapsulated viral RNA surrounded by spike proteins. Bright yellow, pink, and purple represent mutations sites in the RNA.

Coronavirus Growing More Transmissible — But Not Less Dangerous

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Writing in Undark last November, science writer Wendy Orent posed a question that has occupied many scientists for months: Would SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, gradually become less deadly?

There were good reasons to consider that a possibility: Viruses evolve, and researchers have theorized that natural selection may push some to become more transmissible but also less virulent. As of last fall, Orent noted, the evidence for such a future was mixed: While there were indications that SARS-CoV-2 was indeed getting better at spreading from person to person, researchers were unsure that the virus’ trajectory pointed toward a less virulent future.

Four months later, SARS-CoV-2 does seem to be growing more transmissible — but not less dangerous. A paper in the journal Nature, published Monday, offers new evidence that a fast-spreading variant of SARS-CoV-2, called B117, may actually be more virulent than older variants. “Our analysis suggests that B117 is not only more transmissible than preexisting SARS-CoV-2 variants,” the researchers write, “but may also cause more severe illness.”

The paper examined mortality rates among more than 2.2 million people in Britain who tested positive for Covid-19 — some seemingly infected with B117, some not, and some whose status was unknown. The team’s work joins a growing body of research on B117, which was first identified in the U.K. in December. Another paper, published last week in The BMJ, a major medical journal, also found an association between B117 and heightened mortality risk. And a paper published earlier this month in the journal Science adds new evidence that B117 is more transmissible than pre-existing variants of SARS-CoV-2. The B117 variant, the authors report, “appears unmatched in its ability to outcompete other SARS-CoV-2 lineages in England.”

Already, B117 is spreading rapidly outside the U.K., including in the United States. On Monday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, projected that B117 would become the dominant form of the virus in the U.S. within the next few weeks. Already, other countries dealing with B117 and other variants — including Germany and Italy — are bracing for new waves of infections, and a variant called P.1 appears to be contributing to a Covid-19 surge in Brazil that has overwhelmed hospitals in much of the country.

The situation in the U.S. remains uncertain. Already, around 23 percent of U.S. adults, including some two-thirds of people aged 65 or older, have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine — far outpacing most other countries. And the U.S. is delivering around 2.5 million doses per day, on average. Those vaccines appear to be highly effective at preventing severe cases of Covid-19 — including cases caused by B117 and many other variants.

Still, according to CNN, the Biden administration is preparing for the possibility of a fourth wave of cases in the weeks ahead, investing resources in tools that track variants, and developing plans to rush extra vaccines to emerging hotspots.

Also in the News:

• On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Deb Haaland, previously a member of Congress representing New Mexico, as the Secretary of the Interior — the first time a Native American has held any cabinet secretary position. The Interior Department oversees the country’s vast public lands, including hundreds of national parks and wildlife refuges, natural resources such as oil and gas, and endangered species. As NPR reports, the confirmation is also symbolic, since for “much of its history, the Interior Department was used as a tool of oppression against America’s Indigenous peoples.” Haaland, who is a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, has said climate change will be a top priority for the department during her tenure. The Senate vote was largely partisan, with 45 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents voting for Haaland’s confirmation and 40 Republicans voting against it. (Six Republicans and three Democrats abstained.) But for many Americans, having a Native American in such a post was a welcome change. After Haaland was nominated, Sandia Pueblo tribal member Stephine Poston told NPR: “Indian country has shouted from the valleys, from the mountaintops, that it’s time. It’s overdue.” (NPR)

• Pharmacists at chain drugstores across the U.S. are reporting burnout, as growing expectations during the pandemic bump up against limited staff resources. While such problems are not new, the additional responsibilities brought on by Covid-19 have led many pharmacists to fear that mistakes will become inevitable. “The expectations they’re having and the resources they’re giving us just aren’t matching up,” one CVS pharmacy technician in New York state told NBC News. “We’re going to have a fatal error somewhere, because we’re doing too many things at once.” In addition to filling prescriptions, pharmacists are now being tasked with deep cleaning, Covid-19 testing, and vaccination. According to Al Carter, executive director of the nonprofit National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, mistakes can range from something small like miscounting pills to missing dangerous interactions between drugs. In statements to NBC, both Walgreens and CVS — America’s largest pharmacy chains — said they’re hiring additional staff to keep up with the new demands. But staff who spoke to NBC said they’re still feeling the pressure. (NBC News)

• A new congressional report, released this week, warns that an exodus of scientists from the federal government — approaching 5,000 jobs in key agencies during the last decade — threatens to harm the United States’ standing as a global leader in science and technology. The report accompanies a House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee hearing on “Brain Drain: Rebuilding the Federal Scientific Workforce,” which took place Wednesday. According to the report, the loss of jobs and expertise dates back to 2009 — due to issues like low pay and budget cuts — and dramatically accelerated during the Trump administration. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, more than 1,600 scientists fled or were forced out of federal positions in just two years under Trump. In interviews with Undark last year, several scientists who had left government service during Trump’s term described a White House that seemed actively hostile to their work, especially on issues relevant to climate change. “This is a long-term impact,” warned one of those sources, a plant geneticist who said she was forced out of the Department of Agriculture in 2019. (The Washington Post)

• And finally: On Sunday, a father and daughter walking along the Irish coast spotted a walrus — an animal which has not been sighted in Ireland since 2004, according to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, a nonprofit conservation organization. Walruses typically live much farther north, with large populations in Greenland and northern Russia. Previously in Ireland, walruses have been sighted in Clew Bay in County Mayo, which is in the northern part of the country. The father-daughter pair sighted the latest walrus resting on the rocky shoreline of Valentia Island, off Ireland’s southwestern coast. “This wouldn’t be the first time a rogue walrus has been found venturing further south,” Oceanworld Aquarium of County Kerry said on their Facebook page, but “this is a very, very rare occasion.” Kevin Flannery, a marine biologist and Oceanworld’s director, speculated to The Irish Independent that the walrus may have fallen asleep on an iceberg that had broken off of Greenland’s ice shelf, which then carried the large mammal southward along the Gulf Stream. Five-year-old Muireann Houlihan, who first spotted the walrus along with her father, Alan, has suggested naming the walrus Isabelle if it’s female, and Cian if it is a male. (Newsweek)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, and Jane Roberts contributed to this roundup.

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Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.