by Amy Jones
Friday, 14
May 2021

The focus on Covid variants is becoming an obsession

There are too many pessimistic warnings about the potential for catastrophe
by Amy Jones
Leave it to the experts…

It is tempting to feel sorry for SAGE, given the criticism they receive from all sides. This week, the fuss is over a meeting they called regarding the B.1.617.2 variant of the coronavirus (among other matters).

Normally such a meeting would be unremarkable. After all, SAGE exists to advise the Government on unfolding developments. It is entirely routine and proper for them to meet when a new variant arises. But against the backdrop of loosening restrictions and plans to drop compulsory face coverings in schools from the 17th May, the meeting was taken by some as a sign that this progress might be halted or reversed.

Doubtless, had SAGE not met, they’d have been accused of ignoring the situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But the interest came from the latest obsession in the Covid story: variants. The fact is that variants are inevitable. For as long as SARS-CoV-2 exists, there will always be mutations, and as long as there are mutations, there will be new variants. Short of eradicating Covid from the globe — the likelihood of which Chris Whitty has described as “close to zero” — there is the potential for some of these variants to spread.

The question then, is how do we respond? Like Kent variant (B.1.1.7), the emergence of its cousin, B.1.617.2, is subject of dramatic headlines. There are comment pieces and vox pops declaring that their existence justifies ongoing restrictions and indefinite border closures. When will this end? As I say, there will always be a new variant around the corner.

What has gained comparatively little attention is the fact that neither variant has shown evidence of having a complete vaccine escape mutation. Vaccines continue to offer strong protection against serious illness and death. In this country, nearly 70% of people over the age of 18 have had received at least one jab, and 35% have had two. Hospitalisations and deaths have plummeted.

At the end of an achingly long year — during which rates of depression have doubled, we need to question if this constant fixation on new variants is helpful or productive. Of course, the public should be kept informed, but many of the discussions around variants consist of pessimistic warnings about the endless potential for catastrophe, interspersed with impenetrable technical detail. Do most people really need to know about the finer points of an E484K mutation on vaccine efficacy?

Perhaps this is a rare example of where more information is not always a good thing — public interest would be better served by returning analysis of Covid variants back to the lab.

Amy Jones is an anonymous doctor working in the NHS, who has a background in Philosophy & Bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter at @skepticalzebra

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  • The Salk Institute, 30 April:
    ‘…a major new study shows that the virus spike proteins (which behave very differently than those safely encoded by vaccines) also play a key role in the disease itself…researchers created a “pseudovirus” that was surrounded by SARS-CoV-2 classic crown of spike proteins, but did not contain any actual virus. Exposure to this pseudovirus resulted in damage to the lungs and arteries of an animal model—proving that the spike protein alone was enough to cause disease. Tissue samples showed inflammation in endothelial cells lining the pulmonary artery walls.’
    Matt Hancock talked this week of ‘the emergence of a mutant strain that makes vaccinated people severely ill’ but, if Salk is correct, it may not be a mutant strain causing the illness but the mRNA vaccines themselves.

  • Never mind SAGE, I would like to see a report from a body of reputable scientists on the efficacy of mask wearing and lockdown strategy.
    My guess is that they make as close to zero difference as makes no difference, but I am prepared to be proven wrong.

    I have no words to describe Johnson. I have tried all the ones I know and I am still not even close (I thought of ‘blond man speak with ten forked tongues’ the other day, but although I was momentarily pleased with myself it still doesn’t adequately describe him, and, in any case, I may have entirely misjudged him). Does he want to lock us down, or does he not? Will he/won’t he? But it’s like asking whether a cat wants to kill a mouse it is playing with. Who the hell knows? The cat, that’s who, and it’s not telling. You just have to wait and see.

  • True – they have been a disgrace for years but if there is ever talk of holding them to any kind of account they just scream CENSORSHIP! All are as bad as each other.
    The BBC / Sky etc are have been little better.

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