By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
More bad news for the world came recently when virologists revealed that the omicron (B.1.1.529) variant of the coronavirus had now evolved into more than 30 mutations in its outer spike proteins. These outer spike proteins are the main targets of natural human immune responses and vaccines.
The large number of mutations marks a huge change from the original coronavirus that first emerged in late 2019. However, it is still too soon to know what effect these mutations have on vaccine effectiveness or the degree of human sickness and death that could come from the omicron variant. The only good news is there is no known virus mutation that can evade standard health precautions such as physical distancing, face masks, hand sanitizer and frequent handwashing.
How Bacteria and Viruses Evolve
All parasitic microorganisms tend to mutate continually, and the mutation rates of viruses or bacteria often vary considerably. In contrast to viruses, bacteria are “alive” because they can replicate by themselves, which fortunately enables them to often be effectively treated with antibiotics.
By contrast, viruses are technically not “alive” or “dead.” Viruses such as the coronavirus function in a “zombie-like” state, which enables them to invade human lungs and remain difficult for your immune system to identify and destroy.
Viruses require fluid-filled host cells, such as those cells found within human hosts, in order to replicate. At present, viral infections are mostly treated with antiviral medications, which may not always work well.
How prolifically a microbe replicates and/or mutates – in addition to how virulent it is for certain demographics of the human population – are important considerations in medical management. Good medical management of virus infections is also intertwined with public health infection prevention and vaccination strategies.
Common examples of mutations include:
- The family of RNA viruses that mutate at a relatively high rate, causing influenza and necessitating that people get a flu shot every year
- The tetanus bacteria that mutates at a relatively low rate, necessitating a tetanus shot every 10 years
- The varicella-zoster (chickenpox) virus, which also mutates but infrequently
Pox viruses, unfortunately, can remain dormant in nerve tissue for your entire life, but make a reappearance later in life. The chickenpox virus, for instance, can reactivate itself to cause shingles (herpes zoster).
Other Coronavirus Variants Have Fizzled Out, But the Omicron Variant Has Not
Over the past two years, the World Health Organization has identified over 20 coronavirus variants. Fortunately, most of these variants fizzled out – such as the lambda variant first documented last December in Peru and the mu variant detected a month later in Colombia.
Within hours of the omicron variant being designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO), public anxiety escalated worldwide. WHO’s announcement prompted the governments of dozens of countries to impose new travel bans due to fear of possible transmission by persons who were already vaccinated against COVID-19, not just the unvaccinated.
The immune response prompted by vaccination is generally broader than the response produced by a natural infection. In other words, vaccinated people may still be protected from severe disease, but can probably still transmit an infection, unfortunately.
The Resistance to Federal Vaccination Mandates
While most federal employees and healthcare workers are complying with government mandates, many people are filing lawsuits against mandatory vaccinations. Some of these lawsuits are claiming an overreach of power by the federal government or seeking exemptions from mandatory vaccinations on religious grounds.
One main argument against federal vaccine mandates is that if the executive branch (or even the judicial branch) is allowed to overstep its intended authority through passing laws for mandatory vaccinations, it would usurp the power originally intended only for the legislative branch of the government. As a result, two of the three U.S. Constitutional branches would be controlled by one entity.
Additionally, many people feel that their civil liberties will face considerable risk when any level of government is allowed to promote a potentially hidden agenda by proclaiming indefinite states of emergency. With this line of thinking, the coronavirus could be used as a tool for future control over the U.S. population.
Another main argument against mandates by persons claiming religious exemption is the fact that some original vaccines were developed and tested on fetal cell lines, which were originally based on aborted fetal cells and grown in laboratories later on. What is not generally known to the public is that fetal cell lines have also been used to develop many over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as Tylenol, Benadryl and Claritin.
Preventing Community Spread Is the Best Way to Stop the Omicron Variant and Other Variants
Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is currently not showing any signs of ending – much less slowing down – soon.
Although it is too soon to know for sure, many virologists predict that even without the omicron variant, there would probably be another winter infection cycle with these “new normal” waves probably continuing to primarily be spread by and infect, sicken, or kill the unvaccinated.
Preventing community spread will stop the development of new variants in their tracks because mutations only occur inside of living cells. In addition to vaccination, the hope that new variants of COVID-19 will fizzle out can be greatly assisted by these healthcare precautions:
- Social distancing of at least six feet
- Obeying local stay-at-home (station-in-place) orders and curfews
- Avoiding crowds
- Regularly washing the hands with soap and water (preferred) or hand sanitizer
- Regularly disinfecting all “high-touch” surfaces, such as telephones and keyboards
- Avoiding using your hands to touch your face (especially your eyes, nose and mouth)
- Avoiding close contact with sick people
- Self-quarantining for a minimum of two weeks if you are sick yourself or might have been exposed to COVID-19
- Resisting the urge to over-purchase and hoard items such as toilet paper to leave some for others
- Wearing a face mask and disposable gloves where required and also when appropriate
- Avoiding the use of public pens at stores when signing
- Remaining aware that carriers of COVID-19 can be asymptomatic but can still infect other people