The delta variant of the coronavirus is tearing through Alaska and the US right now, driving up infection numbers primarily in unvaccinated people. But a fair number of vaccinated individuals are affected, too, leading many to wonder: Will the next variant be even worse?
I wasn’t reassured when virologists started naming variants of the (SARS-CoV-2) coronavirus with letters of the Greek alphabet. There are 24 of them, after all, which suggests plenty of room for growth.
But so far, only the delta variant has become a household term. The three other “variants of concern” hardly get a mention, nor do the many past and present “variants of interest.” That’s because not every mutation of the virus makes it more virulent. Sometimes the opposite occurs.
“It’s important to remember that these mutations are happening all the time,” said Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, staff physician for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. “And sometimes they’re less advantageous for the virus. And sometimes they are more advantageous in terms of increasing transmissibility, which is what we’re seeing with the delta variant.”
Coronaviruses are remarkable for being very fast replicators, but that speed comes at the expense of accuracy, you might say. The RNA in a coronavirus is a single-stranded molecule, unlike the classic double-stranded helix of DNA that most of us have heard about in pop culture.
Dr. Coleman Cutchins, clinical pharmacist for the state, likens the speedy replication of a coronavirus to passing a note.
“So this is how I explain it in layman’s terms,” said Cutchins. “Basically, anytime a virus replicates and creates a new virus, it’s sort of like if you had a letter, and then you’re gonna handwrite it again on another piece of paper. So like with some viruses, it’s like a scanner, so you get like a perfect copy. But with these coronaviruses, it’s kind of like, if you handed a letter to a printer, and told them to transcribe it over, and it doesn’t have a good spell checker. And isn’t this accurate, because it kind of transcribes it from one to the other really fast.”
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer agrees. She says that the single-stranded coronavirus is a “messy” replicator, and could evolve into a more benign form. But she warned that the global scale of the pandemic was creating an opportunity for more worrisome variants too. In 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, the world had under 2 billion people. Now the population is almost four times larger.
“So just the number of people that we have in the world exposed to this virus right now is part of the reason why we are seeing just this virus continue to change because it’s having so many options to replicate, versus if it was not widespread,” said Zink. “Or if we didn’t have as many people in the world. So all of those things play a factor in how many mutations we may see.”
One of the biggest factors in our favor now, versus 1918, is the existence of the messenger RNA vaccines, which help our immune systems make it more difficult for coronaviruses to do what they’re already bad at.
And lastly, there’s this other way to interfere with viruses.
“And so, you know, it really kind of depends on the setting and the individuals and everybody needs to make that decision based on their risk profiles,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, head of Alaska’s Section of Epidemiology. “But you know, for me, I’m definitely masking up again, when I go inside, you know, grocery stores, and you know, other public indoor settings.”
Masks likely helped stem recent surges in Juneau and Sitka — both highly-vaccinated communities — and played a huge role in protecting people prior to the vaccine. And they will again, regardless of how many variants this particular pandemic produces.