Why Patterns In Covid-19 Variation Might Resemble Seasonal Flu

We’ve learned that some variants of SARS-CoV-2 are more transmissible. Equally troubling is the possibility that future variants — or ones currently circulating off our radar — will in some way compromise our natural immune response, complicating our ability to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients with the antibodies of those who recovered from the disease. In my previous story for this series, I discussed how the evolution of human coronaviruses more broadly gives us insight into what we might expect from SARS-CoV-2. The same is true of influenza viruses.

Waves of influenza, like cold-causing coronaviruses, don’t come and go at random. They’re seasonal, recurring in patterns we can anticipate and plan interventions around after tracking them for many years. This we know. Why, though, do the dominant strains of influenza vary from one year to the next? Is there a linear evolutionary pathway to be traced from one strain to another, just as we’re attempting to do with SARS-CoV-2?

study published in 2017, coauthored by some of the same researchers behind the preprint on coronavirus evolution I analyzed previously, proposes a theory of influenza evolution that might just apply to Covid-19, too. According to this theory, the viruses that cause both diseases evolve across multiple scales — in individuals, between individuals, and around the globe.

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Originally published on Forbes (January 21, 2021)

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