Wahkiakum case load steady; understanding virus mutation
July 9, 2020
As of Tuesday, the number of confirmed cases in Wahkiakum stands at five, with 235 tests conducted so far. There have been 18 positive cases in Pacific County, and 228 in Cowlitz County, 150 of which remain active. Across the river, there are now 44 positive cases in Columbia County and 54 in Clatsop County.
Chris Bischoff, the Director of Wahkiakum Health and Human Services spoke about covid-19 as a mutating virus and his concerns about what that could possibly mean for us.
First, he explained the difference between adaptation and mutation.
“If it’s 65 degrees outside and you put a coat on because you are cold, that’s not adaptation, that’s comfort,” Bischoff said. However, if it’s 30 degrees, and you put a coat on, that’s adaptation. You won’t survive without that coat, especially if you are going to be outside any length of time.”
In this case, it’s a true adaptation, but it’s one that was intended, and chosen.
“We as humans recognize our own existence, and try to increase our survival,” he said. “Or in the case of covid-19, we try to save ourselves and those around us, and thus we put a mask on."
Adaptation also happens for animals and insects in much the same way, but there are also many organisms that adapt, without taking part in the decision making process, according to Bischoff.
“They aren’t trying to do anything,” he said. “It is considered an adaptation because it helps them survive better, not because they chose to do it.”
Mutation is a little different.
“We know that about 2,000 years ago, generally, people used to be shorter,” Bischoff said. “That’s not an adaptation, it doesn’t give you extra survival abilities, it’s just a mutation.”
Mutations are random, and they typically happen when organisms are producing offspring, he noted.
What determines how mutations happen?
“Time and population,” Bischoff said. “The reason it has taken us 4,000 years to get taller is because we don’t reproduce a lot. The average has gone from one generation every 15 years to one generation every 20 years. That is really very slow.”
But there are other populations like covid-19 where it isn’t about time, it’s about population size. The bigger that population size is, the more rapidly mutations happen over a shorter period of time.
“What we’ve seen is that viruses usually tend to replicate in huge numbers inside of organisms,” Bischoff said. “A typical human might have 100,000 or 100,000,000 viruses inside them. So if you are heavily infected with covid-19, you might have 100,000,000 copies of that running around in you. That’s a lot of opportunity for random mutations to occur.”
“If you watch enough sci-fi, you always imagine mutations as going in some super positive or super negative direction,” he added, “but many mutations do nothing.”
Some viruses use DNA, which is what humans use to pass on our genes to our offspring, Bischoff said, and other viruses use RNA, which is used for cellular processes. DNA is more stable than RNA, and therefore mutations happen less often with DNA than with RNA.
“So not only do you have to factor in time and population, you have to factor in that covid-19 is an RNA virus, has a very large population, and has been with us now for five months,” Bischoff said. “So what concerns me is that the longer we keep a large population of covid-19, the more mutations that occur.”
If there is pressure on a population, and the virus is starting to be eradicated because we reach herd immunity or we get a vaccine, then it becomes a sort of pressure on covid-19 to change in order to survive this, according to Bischoff.
Covid-19 in and of itself has no intentions, but when there are pressures on it, there is mutation occurring.
“One of the things that we’ve seen, that have been lab confirmed, is after the virus came to the US, and was first seen in New York, it mutated at some point in there, and that specific mutation is notable, because it became easier to spread that disease at that point,” Bischoff said. “The version that we started spreading in NY and out from there, was easier to spread than the original one was. It didn’t make people more sick, it was just easier to spread.”
He noted that Texas recently announced that they have seen a separate variation that has done the same thing again.
Another mutation in other places made it less likely to spread, and so it ended, he also pointed out.
“The World Health Organization is tracking this, but epidemiologically, we can just look at numbers and see that something is different in the US variance than in the China variance,” Bischoff said. “There are cultural issues that go into that, but there was also something different about the virus, in how well it was spreading and how fatal it was in the US. We continue to see that.”
Why don’t we just let this thing go, he asked. Take off your masks, go back to work, everybody is on their own, if you survive, you survive?
“The problem is that we don’t necessarily arrive at herd immunity that way, because of random mutations. If we start heading toward herd immunity, there becomes a pressure on it to mutate in a way that gets it past that herd immunity. It behooves covid-19 to have mutations that allow me to catch it again,” Bischoff said.
“That’s the danger of the idea of just letting it go, it’s the danger of the huge spike we’re having, the fact that as a planet we are not getting this under control,” Bischoff continued. “The more population we have for the longer period of time, the more likely this thing continues to mutate, however it wants to. There is currently no pressure on covid-19. Nobody is holding it off very well. It is free to mutate in whatever direction it wants. What happens is unclear.”
“If we look at the Spanish Flu, the first wave we knew was less virulent, was smaller, and less fatal, What happened was that a strain of that came out, a mutation that was more virulent, and significantly more fatal. And also moved that fatality range into a younger middle aged range,” Bischoff said. “That is an example of giving something time to mutate.”