Who Was That Masked Man?

GELFAND'S WORLD-We are suddenly at that moment that occurs right at the end of those old science fiction films when words fill the screen saying, "The End" and then are replaced with, "Or is it just the beginning?" 

You know, did we kill off every one of the giant ants, or are there other hives still out there? Are we now really immune to the Covid-19? 

On a slightly different note, can we all stop being the masked man? 

That's kind of where we are now -- can we go out to eat, go to a ball game, and finally relax? The answer is a qualified Maybe. If it weren't for something called the Delta variant, we'd probably be home free, or as close to it as we could have possibly gotten by this time in 2021. 

The immediate, pressing questions 

A particularly worrisome question is whether the vaccines we are getting will protect us against the new, deadlier, variant strains. 

Aside: One problem in writing about these questions is that we have to deal with weird terms like B.1.617.2. It turns out that B.1.617.2 is the name that was originally used for the particularly nasty version of the Covid-19 that was first found in India and is now working its way around the world. There is now a change in how the variants are reported, and you may have noticed it already: The authorities now offer an alternative naming system which uses Greek letters such as Alpha and Delta. If you would like a more thorough explanation of the source of all these terms, you can check out the Wikipedia page here.  

So what is the answer? 

As of now, the answer is that if you have had both shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, you are probably pretty safe. Notice my use of weasel words like "probably." The reasoning goes like this: The current vaccines were engineered before the Delta strain was discovered. The vaccines work very, very well against the strain that it was originally designed to combat and, in addition, have protected us against the early variants. 

But the natural course of a viral pandemic is that any time a virus is replicated in one of our cells, there is a chance that the new copy will be just a bit different from what it was before. One well understood effect of that process is that once in a while, a variant form of the virus appears that is a little better at spreading itself. 

If you don't like looking at numbers, skip this paragraph. The Covid-19 virus carries its genetic information in a strand of RNA. You can think of it as a chain of different units, each one being an adenine, cytosine,  guanine, or uracil. For the sake of brevity, scientists (and science textbooks) abbreviate them as A, U, G, and C. The Covid-19 viral genome is about thirty thousand of these, and every time it is replicated, the likelihood is that about three of the subunits are replaced erroneously. (This is a lot different than what happens in your own cell nuclei because our DNA replication system is a lot more accurate and leads to a lot fewer mutations getting through.) Then consider that in a Covid-19 infection, there are going to be millions and millions of individual viruses made in the affected cells. It makes for lots of possible variants. For the slightly more chemically oriented reader, there is a brief text on viruses and viral genomes that you can find here. 

There are two big questions that the world's governments are confronting. First, are there new variants that are worse than the original virus? The answer is clearly Yes. The second question is whether the current vaccine strategy protects the population from newer variants as well as it protects against the original virus. The original answer was Yes, in that the vaccine seems to work pretty well against strains such as Alpha. When it comes to the newer Delta version, the answer is Maybe.  Antibody tests on the serum of people who have been vaccinated don't show as much reactivity against Delta. But the upside is that on the average, we show some reactivity, and that may be enough to protect us. 

The Covid-19 virus is clearly a moving target in terms of vaccine effectiveness. For a new variant such as Delta which has been spreading at a dangerous rate, there is the additional question of whether people who refuse vaccination in this country are going to be a pool for a new wave of Delta infections as the Delta variant spreads in the United States. 

And something worse would happen should a new wave of Delta occur, because all those replicating viruses would produce even newer variants, and these ones would be built from the already more dangerous variant. People who are currently refusing vaccination for quasi-political reasons are a potential menace to the public health because they will become the human petri dishes for the development of newer, even more dangerous strains. 

So at this moment, just hours before the gates open and people start filling restaurants again -- without masks -- we are stuck in this bit of uncertainty: What happens if Delta gets a foothold here in southern California and starts to sicken and kill that pool of people who have refused (or just haven't gotten around) to getting the shots? Right now the vaccinated population is probably pretty safe, although it is important to get that second shot. 

There are several more pressing questions, not the least of which is dealing with the avalanche of misinformation and downright lies being promulgated by the anti-vaccination people. There is also the right wing attack against Dr. Fauci, which has been renewed with particular venom for some reason. We also have the question of when and how well the world will get the rest of its population vaccinated, and will the available vaccines stay effective as the virus gets better at doing its worst.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])