I got Pfizered up two week ago, so hopefully no dying of Covid in my near future. With the percentage of vaccinated growing — in the rich parts of the world, at least — we’re approaching a new phase in the pandemic. So, let’s have a look at what Covid might look like when on its tenth birthday: Covid 2030 — okay, technically, that would be Covid 2029, but screw it.
I’m not a virologist, nor a medical professional of any kind. I’m a software developer/writer. So, that means I have been trained in scientific thinking / I have a lot of imagination. Don’t look at this post as either medical advice, or some kind of truth. It’s a speculation on what might be coming, from a guy with dubious credentials.
As an example of why you should not trust me: I made some predictions about the economic recovery after Covid. I got some things right, and some things wrong. I thought the US would be hardest hit by the post-Covid depression, but I appear to have been wrong. The US government did more for debt relief than I thought, there’s a new president who quickly got his shit together, and I didn’t factor in that the US hogged all the vaccines so they were first out of the gate to economic recovery. Given the metrics we use, the US economy now seems to be on fire.
So, why write this at all? Because it’s on my mind, and because the outcome isn’t so much the point, the reasoning behind it is. Because that reasoning might be useful to sharpen your own outlook on life.
Over the past one-and-a-half year, we’ve seen Covid take the world by storm and surge through places like Brazil and India. With a concerted effort we’ve also managed to produce a number of vaccines. With technology that wasn’t even available five years ago. However, the virus is mutating; the beast is rolling its muscles against its chains, as it were.
What will that mean a few years down the line? We’re vaccinating like crazy, but there is no certainty that that will eradicate Covid. There’s four scenarios I see happening, ranging from positive to negative. Since I’m a positive person, let’s start from the best-case and work our way down.
Now that rich countries have used their privilege to serve themselves enough vaccines, we’re turning our attention to the rest of the world. Luckily, the US have a new president who is less of an asshole than his predecessor. Trump would probably have used vaccines to strong-arm poor countries. Biden is more willing to give vaccines without an immediate quid-pro-quo. Although, this is in fact not just kindness, there is very valid medical and political reasons to do what he’s doing. China and Russia were already on the vaccine-sharing side of the road, for example. And the EU… well, we’ve been playing catch-up with the selfish crowd from the start.
Still, the rich countries are not lining up to vaccinate the whole world. We already messed up a year ago — in my opinion — by allowing these government-funded vaccines to be patented. I hate patents in general, and in this case they might kill us all (see the darker scenarios below).
If we do manage to vaccinate enough people world-wide, that could eradicate the virus. I do feel that this is an unlikely scenario at this point. We’ve only managed to eradicate one disease by vaccines: small pox. But small pox is a different virus than Covid. Small pox was more deadly and disfiguring to people than Covid, meaning people were very willing to get vaccinated. On top of this, it is easier to track outbreaks. Small pox is always symptomatic. Covid can stay under the radar much more easily, because it can be asymptomatic or resemble a cold. Finally: small pox was a human-only disease. Covid lives not just in us, but also in our animals. Even if we vaccinate enough people, there is a good chance the virus will return through ferrets, bats, or even cats.
Covid: the new cold
Perhaps we will be able to eradicate Covid, but I wouldn’t bet on it. But the Covid we see now might not be the Covid we see in ten years. Covid is the same type of virus as the common cold. Covid might evolve into a new strain of that.
As I said, I’m no virologist. I only know the basics of how our immune system works, but I do know that once your body has fought of a disease, it remembers. So, vaccines might not eradicate Covid, they might reduce the danger enough that it becomes like the cold, once our bodies have seen enough variations. At least for young people.
In the Netherlands, health officials already offer older citizens and those with lung problems flu vaccines yearly. Perhaps Covid vaccines will end up on that menu as well.
That said, Covid might be like a common cold, but it is not a actual common cold. It has similarities, but it binds to cells using the so-called ACE2 receptor, making it very distinct. Covid currently kills around 1 a 100 people. Say we get that down. Do we really want a common cold going around that kills 1 in 10.000 young people at random? Or even 1 in 100.000? Even if it isn’t deadly, what if it cripples one in ten-thousand people for life with long Covid? Or floods our hospital with patients every year?
If Covid sticks around, and it remains deadly or crippling, what do we do? The answer might be booster shots. We don’t know how long the current vaccines will remain effective. Predictions range from months to years. Already you should get a tetanus vaccine every ten years, while a Hepatitis A confers decades of protection if you get two shots.
Since the body gains immunity by recognizing viruses it has seen before, it becomes harder to recognize viruses that have mutated. Covid is an RNA virus, meaning it mutates more rapidly than a DNA virus like, for instance, smallpox. So, if Covid mutates enough, it could start to evade our previously built-up immunity (both natural immunity and vaccine immunity).
We’ve already seen different mutations of Covid re-infect people in both Brasil and India. Worse, the new delta and now delta plus mutations are more contagious than previous ones. The original that escaped China and wreaked havoc was possibly already a more virulent mutation than the real original. The alpha variant found in the UK was more contagious than that, and the new delta variant is worse again. Where one person with the original only infected 3 others on average, for the new delta strains this is up to 5. That may not sound like much, but it’ is in fact scary much. After 10 rounds of unhindered infections (roughly two months), the original strain would infect roughly 60.000, where the delta strain will infect 9.7 million.
So it might well be that in ten years, we all — by ‘all’ I mean sane people and not anti-vaxxers — have to get a booster shot every couple of years. There are worse things, I think, such as ending up on a ventilator, or in the ground.
The final, most scary scenario is that the virus mutates quicker than we can vaccinate against it. This could lead to repeated outbreaks in different spots around the world. In this scenario, by the time you’ve stamped out an outbreak in one place with a new vaccine, a new mutation pops up elsewhere.
If the mutations increase the contagiousness of the virus and boost the deadliness as well, that would be a disaster. Covid is related to MERS, and MERS has a fatality rate of up to 35%. That’s thirty times more deadly than COVID, so let’s pray Covid doesn’t go the MERS route. If mutations lead to a variant that is as contagious as the measles and as deadly as MERS, we’re talking about a Captain Trips event.
The chances of this scenario increase when rich countries hog all the vaccines. So, it is in nobody’s interest to do so. Which also makes the patent system so incredibly stupid. Yes, some people make lots of money, and can possibly buy safety from outbreaks, but the rest of us are screwed. This clearly shows why patents serve the rich few, and only the rich few.
The Covid pandemic doesn’t seem to be at its end, as much as it is slowly coming under control. Maybe. Ten years from now might see us regularly shooting up. That is not like it was before, but neither is it the end of the world.
Unless you happen to be one of the poor who can’t afford those vaccines. But how large or small that group of people is, that is a choice we get to make together.
And maybe not a choice we should leave in the hands of the ultra-rich who have most to gain by fucking over the rest of us.