The pandemic is over, if you want it (Explainer)

Note: This explainer is a companion to these instagram posts. We — Satsuko VanAntwerp & Pamela Rounis — noticed that some people we know are skeptical of the Covid-19 vaccine and some are opposed to taking it once available. With the support of Dr. Andrew Cameron (microbial geneticist, coronavirus researcher, and faculty member at the University of Regina), Pam and I developed this write up and the accompanying ig posts. Our hope is to help cut through the noise and misinformation regarding the coronavirus vaccines and to help us navigate this strange time.

[1] What viruses want: to spread + to cause harm.

A virus is a replicator. It has one job: to make as many copies of itself as possible. Unfortunately for us (the host), the virus hijacks our tissues and forces our cells to become virus factories. Viruses mutate as they spread among people, allowing them to evolve and get better at two things each time:

  1. Become more contagious and better at spreading to other humans.
  2. Become more deadly, causing more harm to the human host. The virus doesn’t care if it trashes its human slave. For example, if coughing and sneezing helps the virus spread, it will evolve to do so, allowing it to kill even more people.
The virus doesn’t care about anything — it just wants to spread.

[2] Time is of the essence. Because, mutating.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has been in circulation — mutating and evolving — for roughly one year now. New variants that are better at spreading have already been reported in the UK and South Africa. An earlier variant made its way around the world to become the most common cause of infection only 3 months after(!) it emerged in January 2020.

Scientists estimate we have about 1–2 more years of the virus mutating and evolving before it gets more complicated to contain the virus. The more it spreads, the shorter the window. What that means is:

  • Developing effective vaccines for new variants of the virus can become more challenging. While developing vaccines in 9 months has been an incredibly coordinated effort and huge accomplishment, 9 months is a long time to wait while the virus circulates. Distributing the vaccine also takes a long time. We will fail if we have to play catchup to a growing number of variants.
  • Containing outbreaks can be more challenging. Ongoing and more severe lockdowns may be required in order to halt the spread, reduce sickness, reduce lung damage, and protect people from dying.

While current vaccines still work, they may be slightly less effective against new variants. New vaccines would require millions of more people to be vaccinated to reach population level (herd) immunity. On top of that, the more the virus spread, the more variants we’ll have. Developing and distributing effective vaccines will become harder and harder as the virus evolves. The consequences: more outbreaks and lockdowns. Please, no.

Viruses can get stronger and more dangerous the longer they’re in circulation.

[3] The virus wins if it’s able to keep infecting ppl.

As mentioned, the virus exists only to infect more people. Each time it does this, it mutates and 1) gets better at spreading, or 2) has the potential to cause harm. As it spreads, it will always find people it can hurt.

The virus still wins if the human host doesn’t show any sickness but unsuspectingly passes on the virus to others (ie. an asymptomatic spreader). That’s because the virus has the chance to a) keep mutating and potentially get stronger and b) find another host it can harm.

Thus, the first priority is to stop the virus from killing and harming more people by stopping it from infecting more people.

Then, the second priority is to stop the virus from getting stronger by stopping it from mutating. Mutations continue like clockwork as it spreads, even if the host is asymptomatic.

The virus still wins if it’s host doesn’t show any symptoms — because as it spreads and mutates, it will always find someone to harm.

[4] Herd immunity ends the pandemic.

Herd immunity means that so few people can contract and pass on the virus that it has nowhere to go and just dies alone. Boy, bye.

Herd immunity is achieved when enough people have protective antibodies to fight the virus off. When the virus is blocked by antibodies, it can’t take hold in a new host’s body. Even if the virus gets lucky and is able to attach to an immune host, it can’t replicate well enough to achieve a high viral load (the thing that makes it contagious) to spread to others.

When the virus is blocked by antibodies, it can’t take hold in a new host’s body or spread to others.

[5] We currently require 70–80% herd immunity.

The % of the human population required to achieve herd immunity depends on how contagious the virus is.

Right now, for Covid-19, we require 70–80% of the human population to be vaccinated in order to have antibodies to fight off the virus and stop the pandemic through herd immunity.

Immunity means: even if a person is exposed to the virus, it can’t take hold in that person (preventing harm) and that person can’t spread the virus to others (preventing mutation and stronger variants). Herd immunity happens when all the people who come in contact with an infected person are immune. Thus, more susceptible people are protected because they don’t have contact with infected people. Without susceptible hosts, the pandemic just falls flat on its face. The end.

Another reason we don’t want it to keep spreading and mutating is that as the virus gets more contagious, we require a higher % immunity coverage.

Natural selection pushes the virus to become better at spreading, but then we need more people in the population to have antibodies that block infection. Our communities will always have vulnerable members who can’t produce enough protective antibodies to fight off the virus, for example due to being immunocompromised or due to advanced age. Herd immunity protects everyone.

[6] Natural antibodies aren’t enough. Because, reinfection.

If you get the virus, your body makes antibodies to beat it. Great! Except, the body is efficient. Our body naturally stops making anti-coronavirus antibodies after it beats the virus.

Our body is busy! It is keeping us alive and constantly fighting all the other pathogens (ie. disease-causing microorganisms) that we inhale throughout the day. It’s a lot of effort for your body to keep creating antibodies against every pathogen it has ever encountered, so our body stops making SARS-CoV-2 antibodies after it beats the infection so it can redirect energy elsewhere.

That’s why people who have already had Covid can get Covid again.

For example, what we know from four other types of coronavirus (ie. viruses that are in the same family as Covid-19) that cause common colds in humans, is that: these viruses can reinfect within a year after first infection. This rapid reinfection is likely because of the decline in antibody levels plus the high number of variants that keep evolving in the “common cold” viruses.

When our body stops making antibodies, it’s possible to be reinfected by the same virus.

[7] Vaccines help our bodies create more antibodies for longer.

With the Covid-19 vaccine: we get the first shot and our body creates the antibodies to kill the virus. Then our body stops making the antibodies, just like getting infected naturally.

Then, (and this is important) we get the booster shot a few weeks later. This booster shot tricks the body into thinking: shit, this virus is still around — I better keep making the antibodies! So your body creates more antibodies for much longer.

On top of that, the relative safety of a vaccine means a booster shot is much safer than taking your chances by getting infected by the virus naturally. A risky second infection — or a safe second vaccine dose — triggers stronger antibody protection.

That’s why herd immunity via the vaccine is so effective. A vaccine is much safer than a viral infection and vaccine immunity will be longer lasting.

The antibodies our body creates from a vaccine regimen are longer lasting and much safer than a viral infection.

[8] Vaccinating the entire globe is hard because of logistics, hoarding and human behaviour.

Figuring out how to coordinate transportation and administer both inoculations (the first one and the booster) for all of Canada (especially in more rural parts of Canada) — let alone for the entire planet’s population — is one heck of a logistical challenge. Other factors that complicate distribution include:

  • Cold Chain: Some vaccines have strict requirements to maintain a precise cold temperature (ie. the “cold chain”) throughout transportation and storage. Moderna and BioNTech vaccines must be kept at extremely low temperatures, eg. -20°C and -70°C storage temperatures respectively.
  • Booster shot: The booster shot is key in reaching long term herd immunity. The antibodies our bodies create from getting two doses of vaccine will be longer lasting than those from being infected by Covid-19 naturally. However, people are forgetful and life can get in the way. Supporting people to make sure they come for their booster shot is its own challenge.
  • Hoarding: Canada has bought enough doses to inoculate (with booster) Canada’s entire population 5 times. That’s because, when vaccine contracts were being signed, it wasn’t clear which ones would work or become available first. And, other rich countries (US, EU countries) signed similar contracts and are also hoarding vaccine doses.
  • Global distribution: To reach herd immunity and kill off this virus, we eventually need the entire global population to be vaccinated. We need to have a plan to get the vaccine distributed to all parts of the world where humans live. This includes historically over-exploited countries with less infrastructure.

This virus doesn’t care who is rich or poor, it just wants to keep mutating and getting stronger by finding another human to infect. To beat it, we’ll have to think like a global community and help each other.

[9] Summary — key takeaways.

Thanks for reading! Here are the key things we hope you take away:

  • We are trying to stop the virus from spreading to more people — yes, because it can kill people and cause harm — but also importantly, because it evolves to get stronger (either more contagious or causing more harm) as it spreads to more people.
  • Vaccine antibody production (with booster) is superior to antibody production from natural infection because vaccines trick the body into producing antibodies for much longer and it is much safer than being infected by Covid-19.
  • We need herd immunity asap because the longer the virus circulates and mutates it kills more people and it becomes harder to control. Harder to control means: needing new vaccines, needing a higher % to reach herd immunity because it’s more contagious, needing ongoing lockdowns to prevent death and spread, etc. Scientists predict we have 1–2 more years of the virus circulating before we lose this opportunity to control the virus and stop the pandemic.
  • It doesn’t count if only rich people or rich countries get the vaccine. Herd immunity means the virus doesn’t have susceptible people it can infect. We better start thinking like one human race.

Covid kills. Vaccines save lives, millions of them. Vaccines are the safest and most effective medicine ever discovered.

[10] Next Steps: What you can do.

  • Get vaccinated once you are able to (this literally saves lives)
  • Talk with and listen to your friends and family members who don’t currently want to be vaccinated. Aim to understand their underlying reasons — have an honest, respectful and authentic discussion.
  • If you found this content helpful, share it and the companion ig post.
  • Keep your eye out for our other Covid-19 explainer about vaccine safety (coming soon).

All information shared in this post comes from Dr. Andrew Cameron (microbial geneticist, corona virus researcher, and faculty member at the University of Regina) via interviews with Satsuko VanAntwerp. All information in this post has been fact-checked and approved by Dr. Cameron prior to posting. Content strategy and design by Pamela Rounis.

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User Researcher & Strategist • building human-centred AI / half Japanese half Dutch / MBA / into: explainable ai, tech ethics, behaviour Δ. hybridity.xyz

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Satsuko VanAntwerp

Satsuko VanAntwerp

User Researcher & Strategist • building human-centred AI / half Japanese half Dutch / MBA / into: explainable ai, tech ethics, behaviour Δ. hybridity.xyz

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