Darwin posed the Theory of Evolution in his book ‘On the Evolution of Species’ in 1859. His obsequious studying of minor changes in birds of the island of Galapagos, later termed ‘Darwin’s finches’ depict the process of evolution. It was clear to Darwin that minor, heritable variations in the offspring may confer a survival advantage, thus facilitating ‘natural selection’.
These concepts have since been further refined over the years, but the essence remains the same. The development of new variants of COVID-19 can therefore be understood by a very cursory understanding of Darwinism too, and its implications are very clear.
Viruses are extremely hard to understand. Whether they are living or dead is still a topic of heated debate. However, what is clear is that they make an effort to reproduce. All viruses have some genetic material with the help of which it can code copies of itself, for which it often hijacks the host’s machinery. It is essential to understand that this process of copying genetic material is not perfect, and that is how minor variations tend to appear in the offspring. In COVID-19, too, the development of variants results from mistakes in the copying of genetic material. This helps us answer a few fundamental questions.
Firstly, why are we only seeing these new variants right now?
The answer to this question can be understood if one were to consider what processes would accelerate the development of variants. The development of more transmissible or deadlier variants is incumbent on chance, for mistakes in the copying of genetic material are stochastic. As the number of people infected increases exponentially, the chances of developing a new, more dangerous variant increase similarly. A critical observation about these variants is how effortlessly they tend to dominate their competition, as they offer a much better reproductive advantage. This is the essence of natural selection, and this makes the virus a genuine cause of concern.
Secondly, how do these new variants differ from the old ones?
In the case of COVID-19, the spike protein is responsible for transmissibility and is often the target for antibodies. The spike protein binds with the ACE2-receptor in the lungs and enters the cells it needs to infect. The new variants, therefore, can be more dangerous in two ways. Either it can change the structure of the spike protein to bind more strongly to the ACE2-receptor, or it can induce changes in the region of the spike protein, which is a target for antibodies. It is suggested that the new ‘delta plus’ variant does both.
We must realize that if COVID is allowed to spread, there may be more variants that might develop, and vaccination and proper social distancing must be maintained. The new strains are still susceptible to vaccines, but not to the same extent as previous strains; therefore, even those who are vaccinated are at risk. Doctors strongly advise vaccination even for those who have been previously infected with COVID, as the vaccine does a much better job against these new strains compared to the antibodies that have developed through natural infection.
A rational person should therefore be able to see that while the development of new variants of a virus is an entirely natural process, it can undo months of hard work by the scientists and can plunge the world into a state of perpetual lockdown once more. Due to the lack of prompt vaccination, apathy among the populace, vaccine hesitancy, and other socio-political factors, the battle against the virus is being stretched to a long-term basis.
It is imperative that all of humanity works together to overcome this challenge and the devastation it is causing.
Written by Aditij Dhamija for MTTN
Edited by Anushka Das for MTTN
Featured Image by bosslogic
Artwork by Duha art