So, a science question

We’re all aware that smallpox went one way in the Colombian exchange, syphilis the other (no, don’t tell me it didn’t). Populations entirely unused or exposed to either died in their droves.

We also know that populations free of measles (say, Faroes) die in their drifts when it finally arrives.

So, colds and ‘flus. Making the distinction between the two. Clearly these have been around a long time. But then so also have human populations been very split for a very long time. So, did the European cold kill lots of Americans? The European ‘flu? The American versions lots of Europeans?

A case wouldn’t have survived the length of the early voyages and getting variolation to do so for smallpox required significant planning. But at some point the American pop would have been exposed to these common European diseases and vice versa. What then happened?

My assumption is that two different effects happened. One, that old diseases are, as these things go, less virulent. But also, old diseases in one population can hit a population that’s never been exposed to a close variant and so has much less immunity. What actually happens then depends upon the size of the two effects. Is a cold so lightweight that not much, or is it so different from the separately evolved one over 13,000 years that a lot happens?

Anyone know?

46 thoughts on “So, a science question”

  1. I suspect the Americans were exposed to European colds and flu at about the same time they got exposed to smallpox and measles. The impact of the latter would tend to mask the impact of the former.

  2. Anyone know?

    No I don’t. Though it’s worth pointing out that 70% of smallpox sufferers survived. Sunetra Gupta (of Great Barrington) argues that rapid modern population movements are good for us and bad for diseases, though her reasoning is a bit too complex for me to remember. Speed to herd immunity comes into it somewhere.

  3. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    What you are seeing now with the rona is exactly the same phenomenon, only globally simultaneous.

    There are at least 3 things going on:
    A new virus going through a population kills many of those susceptible to death early, and the population hazard for death among those who survive falls as the susceptible are killed.
    Most of the descendants of those initially exposed (we keep forgetting that people enter and leave the population all the time) are exposed early in life and usually suffer less death as a result (talking about respiratories here).
    Mutations of the virus that result in lower fatality are generally adaptive for the virus.

    You don’t need a case of a cold to survive 2-3 months on a ship, you need the virus to survive, which it can do by jumping from one host to another slowly, without causing a mass outbreak that might alarm the ship’s doctor, or the runny-nosed sailors.

    The virus might also be able to remain dormant in some individuals (we know this is the case for many nonrespiratory viruses), be transmitted to the ship’s rats or cats, etc. What is for sure is the sailor who steps off the ship in the new world with a runny nose to be greeted by the injuns does not have to be, and almost certainly will not be, the same sailor who stepped on the ship in Plymouth or Porto with a runny nose.

    Things like polio and smallpox that are transmitted by different routes behave very differently.

  4. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    philip, there are multiple differences between rona and pox, the most pertinent being that the pox vax screwed the lid down very hard on transmission, sufficiently hard that it took a mere 200 years to eliminate the disease by vaccination in a global population much smaller than we have today. Vaccinated people were very unlikely to (1) get it and (2) subsequently transmit it.

    The rona vaxes seem to give people a very limited window, somewhere between 1-3 and 1-9 months, during which they are less likely to be infected (and hence transmit). This (plus the animal reservoir in mink, deer, bats, who knows what else) creates insurmountable failure conditions for a population vaccination strategy, let alone the insane, unspoken pursuit of zero-covid.

  5. Injuns will have seen lots of deaths with unfamiliar symptoms: there surely was no way for them to record the symptoms carefully enough for later researchers to distinguish the diseases that might have caused them. Hell, the identity of many “plagues” in Old World history are still unclear.

    Double hell, was the “Russian flu” of the late 19th century caused by a coronavirus rather than an influenza virus? Nobody knows.

    Treble hell, our own Envy of the World can’t distinguish dying with Covid from dying from Covid. A leading London hospital couldn’t decide whether my FIL died from “old age” (the Consultant) or MRSA (the Registrar). Cause of Death can be pretty obscure in frail codgers. Normally all the State really wants to know is (i) did someone bump him off, and (ii) did he die of a notifiable infectious disease?

    Though I suppose you could argue that the State really doesn’t want to know cause of death if he was bumped off by the incompetence of its “health professionals”.

  6. Dunno either. But there has been a fuss over what is claimed to have been the introduction of smallpox by the beastly Brits to the Abos when Sydney town was founded.

    Of course sceptics like myself argue that it could have been coincidence, as smallpox would have been being continually introduced by the Macassar men looking for trepang, pearls and tortoise shells. It’s also been argued that this might have been chicken pox, to which the Abos would not have been accustomed.

    If was introduced by the Brits though, it’d have to have been deliberate, since it would have spread through all those unaffected in the convict transports. And I understand there are no records of this.

  7. BiNK(GP) “This (plus the animal reservoir in mink, deer, bats, who knows what else)”

    Felines, rats, mice, possibly dogs, definitely foxes. But the first three already ensure a vast reservoir in our most densely populated areas that’s impossible to eradicate. And have been proven to host a reservoir that’s still infectuous to humans..

  8. This relates to the question of whether viruses are seasonal:
    Generalising but humans in the North West Europe tend to mix with colleagues at an office party the last week before Christmas, then friends a few days before, then relatives from one side of the family, and then relatives from the other.
    If we swapped the order of those things round, would winter viruses cause less harm in Jan/Feb?
    My guess is yes, but would need to compare with an alternative culture that does it the other way.

    In other words, humans are seasonal in their mixing behaviours, viruses not really.

    There’s another related assertion – viruses evolve to become less deadly and more transmissible. Less sure about this one. As BiNK says in his first point, those most likely to die are out of the way when later iterations come along, so they appear less harmful.

    Diabetes vulnerability – higher in South Asians so much so the Public Healths have changed the definition of obesity for them – the racists. But it could be that a good portion of vulnerable whiteys are already out of the gene pool, as their grandparents ramped up sugar intake in the 19th C, when the browner countries are doing it now.

  9. “Diabetes vulnerability”: I was warmly congratulated on the fall in my HbA1c the other day. I did wonder: it couldn’t be the result of the Pfizer jab, could it? Or even catching Covid (if I did but was asymptomatic)?

    I notice a sense of growing alarm at the heart diseases the vaccines (or the Corvid, or both) seem to be causing. Is there any chance that they are reducing some other problem?

  10. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    Grikath,

    Very recently there was a failed CCP psyop aimed at getting the west to kill all its cats and dogs – some “social media” stories about people having their pets killed when being quarantined in China.

  11. I have a question (which might of course be very stupid indeed) for anybody with the specific knowledge: once we have individually gained immunity from a virus, can that immunity be inherited?

  12. Depends what you mean by inherited. In one sense, no. That you’ve had measles doesn’t stop your kid getting measles. That you’re in an environment where measles is common might mean they get it early and light tho’. On other other hand, if your genes make you highly susceptible to dying of measles you’ll not have a kid that has to worry about it. There are some who purport that the disappearance of plague/black death in Europe is more to do with the susceptibility having died out than anything else. So inheritance of immunity, yes, but not really by having had, if you see what I mean. Your genes might make you immune and those are inherited, but the having had the virus won’t change your genes and thus inheritance.

  13. Got it; thanks.

    Sonthe standard, received line about Native Americans having no defence against the white man’s disease etc, not quite like that.

  14. Ironman
    The naturally immune will survive, the natural victims won’t. In that sense immunity is heritable.
    Mother’s milk contains antibodies, so that helps too. (I wonder when will wet nurses come back into fashion.) Babies born by caesarian are now routinely doused in a swab from a vaginal sweep.
    Not sure if that answers your question. But I suggest “acquired” immunity is only passed on by mothers not fathers.

  15. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    The question of heritable immunity led me down a garden path to C. elegans, which brings back a dim and distant memory of early biochemistry lectures. Can anyone help me with a science question?

    Is there any (obviously small and insignificant but might be a favoured lab model species) multicellular organism of which any normal and functional individual always has the exact same number of cells? A sexually reproducing organism, for BiG bonus points.

    Grikath? dearieme? Ottokring?

  16. @Big

    As I’m sure you know this is eutely, of which C. elegans is one of the most frequently claimed examples, and there are some pages around claiming to list other eutelic species. Tardigrades, rotifers and the like. Dunno how convincing all these claims are since exact cell counts seem lacking. And C. elegans turns out not be as clear-cut as is often claimed.

    https://web.stanford.edu/~ashishg/robert-williamson-eutelic.html

    Would 4 cells for Tetrabaena socialis do you? No sexual reproduction prize. Not sure where you draw the line between a colony of algae and a full-blown multicellular organism. In fact there’s a whole (paraphyletic) genus of volocine green algae, Eudorina, whose colonies are always certain powers of 2. Paper below claims some of the morphological features of T. socialis indicate the four cells are sufficiently integrated to count as one individual. Aside from when it’s reproducing, the fourness seems to be stuck to very resolutely, so this might be the simplest example of your thing.

    https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0081641

  17. In C.Elegans it’s only the male, really.
    And like MBE noted, there’s plenty of small stuff that’s nearly eutelic. All the possible species are a) (semi)microscopic b) built up out of relatively few cells c) extremely specialised.

    It’s really a matter of numbers: The fewer cells, the more impact the loss of a single cell has on functionality and survival. It’s a bit of a race to the bottom, really. And I can’t help but notice that by far most organisms, including all that developed more complexity, prefer to retain the ability to fill in any holes by being a lot less strict.

    If I remember correctly some rotifer species are/were used for cell-tracing/lineage research to try and figure out which bits of DNA told the cells what to do when, since they’re next to eutelic and very easy to breed and manipulate. Not quite bacteria, but close enough when it comes to running through a few generations.
    Haven’t done that personally though. I was torturing Xenopus and zebrafish embryo’s way back when.

  18. On the whole disease/immunity front, something has me puzzled..

    The WHO has officially declared omicron as a Proper Worry and pushes everyone towards extreme caution and “appropriate measures” to prevent spreading the new variant.

    check…

    That same WHO urges in their last statement to not do the Bloody Obvious First Thing To Prevent Spreading The Bug, and that is blocking (unnecessary) air traffic originating from Ground Zero for this variant so that it stays there until we can figure out some details about it.

    What. The. Fvck?!!

    And where did we stash the Lions, Mustelids, and Fire Ants?

  19. Isn’t the argument that punishment for identifying a variant means people won’t report them so it’s overall it’s better to not block travel.
    Why the panic over this one when based on the naming there’s been 10 other named variants that didn’t get much of a mention and especially as the doctor who identified it described symptoms as ‘unusual, but mild’
    The best situation is surely a more infectious but less deadly strain which out competes the more dangerous variants

  20. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    The WHO is all over the place on messaging. It’s like a random statement generator which comes up with about 50% (common) sense and 50% far-out batshit insane. Even the individuals, like Navarro and the warlord are inconsistent.

    In any case this variant has been known for at least 6 months and will be sufficiently globally seeded to make locking it up as futile as locking up covid in its entirety. There should be no global travel restrictions at all at this point. Even test before travel is probably a net loss. The genie is out of the bottle.

  21. “In any case this variant has been known for at least 6 month”

    WHO stares first identified case was 9th November which seems a bit recent given the sort of organisational inertia you’d expect and given they have had to isolate it and identify all the mutations to the point of being able to document and circulate notices

  22. @BiNK(GP) Ah… Now that makes sense… And is a message they obviously don’t want to get out:
    “We can’t do bugger all about the spread because it’s too late” is a bit .. embarassing..

    The reason quoted on the news here is that “varying travel restrictions would be confusing to travellers.”
    Which is…… well… yeah…

  23. But they’re frothing at the mouth about more travel restrictions here in Oz.

    I suppose they’re having too much fun to admit that perpetual and varying lockdowns are just pointless and ineffective.

  24. @Grikath

    The no closing borders policy is a bit of rum one. Back when all of this was first kicking off, the twats at WHO were cheering on lockdowns and border closures inside China, but opposing international travel bans. There was some discussion that this was driven by Chinese concerns about impacting their trade relations with the rest of the world. The correct answer is to require anyone who has been to Southern African within the past month to quarantine and to take lots of tests.

    Can we prevent it spreading? Given how far and wide it has spread, no. However, a lockdown of travel from infected areas would allow us an extra couple of weeks to prep – more boosters, look at whether it is more serious symptoms/mortality rate = shelter vulnerable, etc. The WHO seem to be pathetically bad at proper policy suggestions. If the idiots had endorsed full scale travel bans early on internationally in the way that the Chinese did internally, we could have avoided this.

  25. The correct answer is to require anyone who has been to Southern African within the past month to quarantine and to take lots of tests.

    There have been infected coming in from Egypt and Nigeria. This genie has been out of the bottle too long.

  26. The WHO seem to be pathetically bad at proper policy suggestions. If the idiots had endorsed full scale travel bans early on internationally in the way that the Chinese did internally, we could have avoided this.

    Maybe. If the CCP had been open, upfront and honest about it when the virus escaped from the lab.

    There’s a suggestion going around that it was deliberately hushed up so as to not impact on the prestige the CCP would gain by hosting the 2019 Military World Games, in Wuhan, in October of 2019. Hopefully one day we might even learn the truth.

    We know that Taiwan tried to alert the WHO in December 2019, and were told to go fuck themselves. By the time the rest of us knew anything about it, it had probably already been circulating for at least 3 or 4 months.

  27. BiW,

    While I lean towards the lab escape theory, I think you give the CCP far too much credit. Firstly if this escaped, it was not a weaponised pathogen, it was a gain of function experiment – meant to create a human infecting virus that could then be tested for weaknesses. If it leaked the odds are that the lab probably had no idea that something had happened – a couple of people would have a viral infection. Hence why would the CCP know? By the time they’d sequenced the virus in January, it is possible that the CCP realised it was a lab leak, but the early spread in 2019 was probably under the radar for the CCP.

    If you look at the actions of the CCP, they refused to admit the seriousness of the problem early in January – when various party congresses were being held. If the CCP had known of this since October, you’d think they might have been more on the ball and done more to slow the spread of the virus.

    @PJF, which is why outright prevention is impossible. But slowing can be helpful if we use the time wisely.

  28. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    The WHO 2019 pandemic influenza guidelines are actually quite sensible, no travel bans, no masks, no lockdowns, no quarantine of contacts, etc. If only they had been implemented. I believe Germany’s pandemic plan for up to 750,000 projected deaths (we are now just over 1/10 of that even using the inflated government definition of a covid death) was pretty much keep calm and carry on.

    There is obviously a mixture of prevailing sense, good policy, headless chickenry, woke terror, errant nonsense, and Chinese capture going on. No one currently owns all of the soul of that organization.

  29. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    We will never know for sure, but the circumstantial evidence certainly points pretty strongly to a leak. I think there is enough, if you could find an unbiased and unbought court, for a civil claim to prevail, but not a criminal one.

  30. Just on viruses evolving, it is my understanding that in evolutionary terms any virus will evolve to the extent it can to improve its fitness. Although that typically means increased infectivity (to infect more hosts) and reduced lethality that ain’t necessarily so, especially the lethality part, at least in the shortish term. The reduced lethality is normally in the context that a dead host is more or less useless to a virus except to the extent that it spreads new virus particles in its death; but a virus that rapidly kills hosts both tends to not get spread as much and has fewer hosts to use for reproduction.

    However circumstances matter, and probably in todays world with extensive medical interventions, the reduced lethality is less certain but still the most likely course that will be followed. As for transmission there’s another constraint, if the transmission is extremely high such that basically everyone gets it rather rapidly, then the supply of new susceptible hosts can get to be in very short supply after a very short period. That is a moderating influence.

    So it is mostly true that viruses evolve to increase infectivity and reduce effect on the host – ideally for the virus it would become endemic and mild enough so as not to have the host evolve more vigorous protection. This is generalising though and under some circumstances and in the shortish term, this isn’t necessarily always true.

    That’s the “hand waving appeal to evolutionary theory without invoking excessive jargon” explanation as given to me anyway. Obviously YMMV.

  31. “This is generalising though and under some circumstances and in the shortish term, this isn’t necessarily always true.”

    This is the eternal mantra of a biologist.. 😉

    And yes. Generally viruses, and in fact every pathogen, will tend to evolve towards higher virulence and lower impact on the host as the host population develops (partial) immunity.
    Basically a properly host-adapted virus will dive in under the radar, gets a couple of reproduction cycles in, and gets the offspring expulsed from the host asap before the host immune system ramps up to eradicate the Evil Intruder.

    Given that “well-behaved” viruses are much more likely to propagate, they will tend to crowd out their nastier nephews.
    There’s some lovely math with the associated models that describe the probabilities. And we’ve already seen it happen with Delta, which has become the predominant variety in a very short time.
    I’ve a feeling that Omicron will be an iteration further up/down the line.

    Give the WuFlu another couple of iterations and it’ll be the New Common Cold. Unless one of the varieties picks up an extra nasty habit, but the chances on that are pretty slim.
    Not impossible. But not very likely.

  32. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    “However circumstances matter, and probably in todays world with extensive medical interventions, the reduced lethality is less certain but still the most likely course that will be followed.”

    You can imagine a scenario where increased symptoms but not to the point of death is adaptive. Take Germany, where we have more ICU beds per capita than anywhere else (and the threshold for admission to ICU is correspondingly low) it is quite easy to get admitted to ICU with covid (the hospitals like it because they get to charge a lot more money for ICU than other wards, but that is another story). A virus that meets that threshold where you get admitted and it thereby gains access to many other potential hosts at times when their defenses are down, is well-adapted to the environmental pressure we apply to it. As would be a virus that can evade the PCR or antigen tests we have put in place to detect it.

    Ultimately, we love these evolutionary just-so stories, but proving them, or even coming up with a robust way to falsify them, is much harder than telling them.

    Grikath, I get the feeling you are a more contemporary lab exile than me. What do you make of the latest conspiracy theory that omicron is vastly, as in ~100 years, too far mutated to have plausibly evolved in the available spacetime, thus must be engineered? Even that now even the “conspirators” want to downgrade it to a cold so have taken the opportunity to release a harmless but easily transmissible version?

    I guess one could compare the sequences, and see if the evil genuises have taken care to include a plausible ratio of silent to missense mutations?

  33. @Grikath,

    Delta supplanted Alpha because it was, as you say, much better at propagating itself, but is it really an example of “crowd[ing] out their nastier nephews”? If anything, it seems to be nastier – this was certainly the view inside PHE once they’d got enough data to compare outcomes (one of their studies of hospitalisations got published as https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(21)00475-8/fulltext). No idea whether other public health agencies reached the opposite conclusion but was the expert consensus here.

    I’m not an expert at the evo stuff but it does seem that within-host selection matters too (the idea of a virus hanging around a long time in someone with a weak immune system is one theory proposed for the weirdness of Omicron) and some added nastiness can result:

    Short-sighted evolution and the virulence of pathogenic microorganisms
    B R Levin 1, J J Bull
    PMID: 8156275 DOI: 10.1016/0966-842x(94)90538-x
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8156275/

    For some microorganisms, virulence may be an inadvertent consequence of mutation and selection in the parasite population, occurring within a host during the course of an infection. This type of virulence is short-sighted, in that it engenders no advantage to the pathogen beyond the afflicted host. Bacterial meningitis, poliomyelitis and AIDS are three candidates for this model of the evolution of virulence.

  34. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    Hmm. The unadjusted HR shows no effect at all, they get an effect by “adjusting” for multiple overlapping things, but an eyeball of the background characteristics does not really show any difference between alpha and delta infectees.

    They do have a (just) significant unadjusted HR for hospitalization, but I don’t trust that metric over such a broad time and geography, as you know the threshold for hospitalization versus “go home and take paracetamol and call if it doesn’t get better” is dependent on too many factors, esp. how busy you are this week.

    If you have to look that hard for something and find it only at the margin, it’s negligible. Delta is not slaughtering the first-born any more than alpha.

  35. @big

    Yeah, wasn’t thought to be clearly worse or worse by a large margin. But “if anything, worse”. My point was just that Grikath seemed to be using it (unless I misinterpreted) as a classic example of a milder form outcompeting a nastier one, and I wondered if that was the consensus on Delta vs Alpha in Clogland since it definitely wasn’t over here.

    You raised an interesting point about intensive care admission criteria being different dependent on the local availability. There are good reasons these kinds of studies often look at hospital/intensive care admissions rather than deaths – not just that healthcare resource constraints are a big policy driver, but the simple statistical reason that more events gives tighter confidence intervals and a much earlier statistical signal. But the comparison gets muddied by different treatment protocols and success rates, and like you say, admission criteria can be changed by demand/supply factors. You’d expect more “just in case” admissions in times/places where there’s more spare capacity available, for example.

    For inter-strain comparisons I’m not sure viable it is to control for all these things properly, and like you I get suspicious when the data has been subject to that much adjustment anyway. (Say what you like about economists, but one nice thing about a lot of econometric papers is how open they are about researcher degrees of freedom – quite common to see main tables of results showing the effect of switching between half a dozen plausible sets of controls, and often checking whether the same effects show up in alternative data sets.) Anyway, I’ll stick to my guns that the UK experience didn’t seem very suggestive of Delta being meeker and milder than Alpha – from memory a Scottish study gave similar results to the English one.

  36. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    Such trivial differences should not be determining public policy in real time. (I’m not saying they are, given this was some audit published in The Jaundiced, but you get my drift).

    If delta puts slightly more people in ICU than the wild type or alpha that would even confirm the evolutionary hypothesis, given that hospitalising a higher proportion of hosts may, in fact, be the optimal strategy for a virus confronted with lockdown, social distancing, mask, travel ban, home office, school closure, buyeverythingfromamazon, forcedvaccines, and all the other soul-destroying shit. But it is still an evolutionary just-so story, fun, plausible, totally unfalsifiable, but still probably right.

    If the baseline, demogs, priors look similar on eyeball, you really need to explain how you are adjusting, especially if “age, Clopper deprivation index, Pearson’s ejmcation, tranny Cox proportional diversity hazard and minimal disadvantaged county council adjusted Kaplan-Meier rank” are all among your stratification factors, because those are fundamentally humungously confounded. Otherwise I’m not going to take doubling an HR from “nowt to see” to “still not very much to see” very seriously, because the FDA don’t take it very seriously (unless you are selling a covid vaccine or this week’s Cancer Moonshot).

  37. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    By the way, MBE, top of my lifetime bucket list, so something I will probably never achieve, is to get a paper in the Christmas Edition BMJ. The one that fools Tim every year with 100% reliability (though I think he, and even parts of the serious print media, have caught on by now). There are a bunch of NDAs (plus the fact that it is mostly boring stuff) in the way of me doing this with any of the serious data I work with. It would be a pleasure to do one with you if you ever have numbers/ideas.

  38. @big

    Although the biggest (arguably? certainly the line you’d get from e.g. Graham Medley) driver of UK policy response has been healthcare resource constraints, I’m not aware that the consensus within UK public health bodies that Delta was similar-to-somewhat-nastier than Alpha had a substantive effect on policy, particularly not a real-time one, compared to if they’d merely found the two were similar. Obviously a bunch of analyses got run in real time as the variant was emerging – Colindale wouldn’t have been doing their job if they hadn’t at least checked – but I think the only direct consequence was that healthcare demand modelling got a bit more pessimistic, in terms of what caseload was felt sustainable.

    But the medium to long-term demand modelling has not had a great track record, and any upwards adjustment to hospitalisation risk from these studies would have been only a minor factor in that. (I can tell you there’s also a lot of short-term forecasting going on, which is being used for local planning, and is being done using quite a different modelling toolkit. But there’s not been much openness either about those models or their forecasts, whereas the stuff that’s gone before SAGE has been more open – including to ridicule. Obviously calibrating short-term forecasts is easier, and my understanding is these results have proved much more useable. Since they’re not run through SAGE they’re only affecting local responses and not the national policy picture.)

    If Colindale had found the relative risk of hospitalisation from Delta vs Alpha was an eyeball-obviously, or especially eyeball-poppingly, Bad Thing, that might have led to more policy stops getting pulled out more quickly. Alternatively, had it transpired to be substantially milder so the implied sustainable case-load improved, I think it’s likely Freedom Day would have happened a bit earlier than it ended up being postponed to. There was some political and (not without vituperative dissent from the suppress-suppress-suppress brigade) expert willingness to accept a strategy involving a summer/autumn exit wave to avoid clashing with the usual winter demand, which implicitly meant increasing population immunity by letting more of a wave pass through, particularly the young. Given the volume of counterblast from those scientists who were not on board with it and from the opposition in parliament, that was a call whose political risks lay heavily on the down-side. Yet that strategy did get taken up once it was believed the risks of an overwhelmed NHS were small enough, and for that reason I’m reasonably confident it would have been pursued earlier if PHE’s analysis of the May hospital data had been substantially more bullish on Delta (e.g. “it’s about 30% less bad as Alpha”, plucking a number from thin air, might just have been enough to prevent some of the final postponements of Freedom Day). So while this was evidence that fed into decision-making processes, I don’t think it had especially undue weight or that the not-enormous hazard ratio led to a panic reaction. Casting my mind back to when the first information about Delta was being gleaned, there were a lot of voices making claims like “its much-increased transmissibility is good news, because the way viruses evolve means it’s surely far less harmful!” which would have been an interesting counterfactual – suggesting a much more liberal optimal strategy for dealing with the pandemic. Sadly the evidence seems to have come down quite firmly against them which is the danger of making a firm prediction from a just-so story!

    On the subject of non-falsifiable fables … I know your take had some whimsy in in spirit, but bearing in mind Delta’s features apparently evolved in India, where demographics skew young and even those who needed hospital were often unable to access care, the hospitalisation rate must have been tiny there. Doesn’t seem the most likely place for a virus to evolve a strategy based on nosocomial transmission? (Though I don’t know how well Indian hospitals segregate covid and non-covid patients, something Western hospitals are quite literally “hot” on. So admittedly different selection pressures would apply for those who did end up in hospital there. And the absolute numbers of Indians in hospital would still have been high enough for there to be plenty of chances…)

    Re BMJ, I also have a paucity of interesting/releasable data. But my favourite Xmas piece is probably the longitudinal cohort study of teaspoons: https://www.bmj.com/content/331/7531/1498 … so clearly there are alternative options for generating data! I imagine that one went down well because of its “life of a researcher” angle. For humorous effect, perhaps you could find a good case of Simpson’s paradox or similar? No specific ideas I’m afraid.

  39. BiNK(GP)

    Grikath, I get the feeling you are a more contemporary lab exile than me. What do you make of the latest conspiracy theory that omicron is vastly, as in ~100 years, too far mutated to have plausibly evolved in the available spacetime, thus must be engineered? Even that now even the “conspirators” want to downgrade it to a cold so have taken the opportunity to release a harmless but easily transmissible version?

    I guess one could compare the sequences, and see if the evil genuises have taken care to include a plausible ratio of silent to missense mutations?

    At the risk of performing Necromancy….

    About as much substance as bovine excrement wrapped in aerogel. Thinly spread excrement at that…

    As-is, given the sheer spread and circumstances, and the base mutation rate of coronaviruses as documented…
    A century is too short.. Natural evolution compared to “norm” is about several centuries/month.
    Omicron is actually rather late…

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