For Insight On New Covid-19 Variants, Look To Natural History Of Coronaviruses

I’ve long been a believer in taking lessons from nature, not the laboratory, to understand biology, ecology, and human disease. That’s particularly true of natural infections.

When I first learned that Covid-19 was caused by a coronavirus, I hit the books and went back to its natural history. The most recent episodes, SARS and MERS, came and went after being successfully contained. But as I looked deeper into coronaviruses in general, I realized their tendency wasn’t to come and go. Quite the contrary, if you look at the human coronaviruses that cause a third of the seasonal colds we catch like clockwork, the same strains come back again and again—suggesting that coronaviruses, like influenza, might be capable of slipping past immunity acquired from previous infections and returning year after year.

The possibility that SARS-CoV-2, like these cold-causing coronaviruses, would come back to haunt us concerned me deeply, especially when it didn’t figure into early discussions about how to control the Covid-19 pandemic. Some even went so far as to argue that the only way out was through—allowing nature to take its course, even if it meant losing millions of lives in the process, in hopes that population immunity would develop and safeguard those who survived. Those who advanced this argument failed to recognize that such an outcome goes against the very nature of coronaviruses. If decades of research tell us that it is typical for one strain to come back, why would this one be any different?

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Originally published on Forbes (January 21, 2021)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.