Lessons from a lesser variant


Do you remember Mu?

It was a concerning variant with several troubling mutations that spread rapidly in Colombia in early 2021, fueling a wave of new cases. Today, Mu is all but gone, but he can still offer lessons to researchers that could help them understand the future of the pandemic.

“If we want to try to understand what makes variants like Omicron and Delta successful, there’s not much we can learn by studying them in isolation,” said my colleague Emily Anthes. “You also have to study the variants they beat to understand what they were doing that Mu and Iota weren’t.”

New research has shown that Mu reproduces no faster than early variants like Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma, but is more resistant to antibodies than any known variant outside of Omicron. Even so, Delta easily overtook Mu, along with several other immune-evasive variants including Beta, Gamma, and Lambda, because it was so transmissible.

“Some variants spread really well, and some may spread well but are much better at evading antibodies and our immune system defenses,” Emily said. “And at least for the first year or two of the pandemic, the transmissibility really won out.”

This may already be changing. While vaccinations and multiple waves of infection have changed the immune landscape, a highly immune variant should now have more of an advantage, the scientists said, which likely partly explains Omicron’s success.

Looking back at previous variants also gives insight into what worked – and didn’t work – to contain them.

Take Gamma: It was first identified in Brazil in late 2020 and later detected in the United States, despite a long travel ban to the United States for most people from Brazil. Tracking the variant offers evidence that America’s travel bans weren’t particularly effective.

Lesser variants also reveal our blind spots. By analyzing the genomic sequences of Mu samples collected around the world, the researchers reconstructed the spread of the variant and found that it had been circulating for months before being detected.

“It’s a reminder that comprehensive real-time monitoring is going to give us the best warning system for which variants pose a threat,” Emily said. Even countries that have had commendable tracking systems, such as Britain, are beginning to relax and discontinue aspects of their programs, she said. “There is a real concern that we are not doing enough.”

Beijing residents are nervous after authorities announced new measures to contain the capital’s small but growing outbreak.

Keith Bradsher, the Times’ Beijing bureau chief, recently sent photos from his district as unease over new restrictions grows. Authorities locked down entire apartment complexes as soon as cases were detected.

They also tested around 22 million people three times in five days. To do this, they set up free test sites every several blocks, like this one.

“Workers locked down a low-rise apartment complex across from my house one morning after three cases were found,” Keith wrote. “They blocked the entrance with a steel barrier.”

At the first signs of a potential epidemic in late April, residents quickly emptied supermarket shelves. But with government help, grocery stores have fully restocked and stockpiling by residents has slowed.

The month-long lockdown in Shanghai has left many starving residents at home. Beijing residents fear they will be next. Some buy additional refrigerators. Two are on the back of this motorcycle delivery cart.

Many neighborhoods prohibit foreigners. They set up tables at the entrance to their alleys to accept deliveries. Residents take turns standing guard, refusing entry to anyone who does not live there.

Residents like Yang Hui, 37, a sales manager in Beijing, are bracing for the possibility of an indefinite lockdown. Last week, she ordered several boxes of instant noodles and kitty litter after a positive case was detected near her home. The reopening of schools, which were closed before a public holiday, has also been postponed for at least a week.

“It’s hard to plan anything in advance,” said Yang, who is now struggling to arrange childcare for her two children. “I’m so sick of Covid and the so-called zero-Covid strategy.”

Recently I had my annual checkup, and all the nursing assistant did was ask me how I was and the tears started streaming down my face. I was confused because I had no idea where this reaction came from. But he knew. He asked several questions: How is your sleep? What do you do in a day? (I’m 67, retired and widowed, with a busy family near me.) Still emotional and tears flowing, he kindly told me how hard the virus has been on seniors because of isolation.

He said whether I knew it or not, I was probably depressed, and his concern for my well-being was all it took to open the floodgates. He prescribed me a low dose antidepressant and asked me to make sure my kids make time to visit or at least call and chat. He also wanted me to get out of the house more (mask) and do some of my pre-Covid activities. Honestly, I hadn’t realized that I had isolated myself so much and blocked out so many of my feelings. I’m happy to say that after a month and a half, I feel better and am doing a bit more inside and outside my home. So I tell my fellow seniors, having a stiff upper lip and rolling with the punches is fine, but we have to realize that we are social animals and need each other too.

— Margaret Siemers, a small town in Pennsylvania

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