Any regular reader of this blog will know that I’m a serious fan of epic action movies (Marvel, Star Wars, Fast and Furious). And if I were to name this chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would choose “Winter 20-21: Rise of the Variants.” Mutants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have evolved to become better invaders, fueling increases in transmission around the world. Early data suggest that some of these variants also effectively elude antibodies and, possibly, reduce the impact of at least some vaccines. This phase in the pandemic is not unexpected: Many viruses, especially RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, change rapidly, with new mutations introduced at every round of replication and transmission, and development and refinement of vaccines will continue even as the virus evolves. But, the rise of the new variants is very troubling.
“Resilience” is commonly defined (for example, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy '96) as the capacity of an individual or system to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the midst of changing circumstances. SARS-CoV-2 has proven to be quite resilient, thwarting efforts to reduce its transmission. Are humans up to the challenge of matching this resilience with our own adaptation strategies?
First, some background on virus replication may be helpful. Viruses cannot replicate independently; they must invade a host and hijack its molecular machinery in order to make new copies. These new replicants are then transmitted outside of the host (through, for example, aerosol droplets released in breath), ready to infect another individual. The virus contains genetic material made of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which upon infection is translated into the molecules required to make new viruses. One of these molecules is an enzyme called RNA polymerase, which makes copies of the viral RNA in order to be packed into new viruses. In order to make perfect copies of the virus, the viral RNA must be copied without error. But, there is a tradeoff between how accurately and how fast the RNA is copied; and viruses seem to be optimized for speed, to make as many copies as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, the RNA polymerase for SARS-CoV-2 (as with other RNA viruses) is relatively sloppy, making many errors in each copy of the virus’ genes. Some of these errors produce viruses that are damaged, perhaps incapable of being assembled or transmitted. Other errors, however, may produce viruses that have become more efficient at transmission or replication. It is these variants that dominate the headlines.
Each incident of transmission increases the frequency of mutation; each mutation increases the probability of a variant that is more efficient at transmission and/or more capable of eluding existing antibodies; and each variant that shows resistance to detection by existing antibodies raises the possibility that newly developed and deployed vaccines will be less effective. Reducing transmission is critical to protecting the lives of our family, friends and neighbors, especially those that are vulnerable. But it is not just those lives that are at stake: Reducing transmission is critical to reducing the odds of vaccine-resistant strains of SARS-CoV-2. Even if no one experiences symptoms, the mere transmission of the virus can generate variants that, if more virulent, may undermine the immune response, and thereby put the lives of millions at risk.
We’ve learned a great deal about effective tools for reducing transmission: face coverings, physical distancing, avoiding large social gatherings, regular surveillance testing, isolation of those infected and contact tracing to identify those who have been exposed. For those of us at Kenyon who are on campus this semester, this includes avoiding unnecessary off-campus travel and compliance with quiet-period restrictions. For those members of the community studying off campus, following these public health guidelines is also essential.
But there is a larger lesson to take from this, one involving understanding the strategies that systems adopt in order to become more resilient. The resilience of SARS-CoV-2 emerges from the virus’ ability to generate enormous variation, even at the risk of failure: the fast but sloppy replication ensures at least some copies will survive and perhaps thrive even in environments that are changing. As we try to respond to the virus, this is not a strategy that is available to us. But, we have our own powerful counter-strategy: collaboration and cooperation. We must approach the battle against the pandemic not as individuals, but by working together as a system or community.
In the past 11 months, the phrase “We’re all in this together” has become tired and overused. (I should know, since I have contributed to its overuse.) But, while this statement may have been reduced to a truism, it is also an imperative. Our resilience in the face of the pandemic, our ability to maintain our integrity in the face of the environment remade by the evolving, invasive virus, depends on our ability to put the needs of the whole system — our local, national and global communities, now and in the future — ahead of our individual needs. Cooperation and collaboration are our strategic superpowers for building resilience: Working together we not only slow transmission, but undermine the virus’ own resilience mechanism.
We often point to selfishness as the biggest threat to cooperation, but I’ve come to believe that this is not the case. Cooperation depends on trust: trust that others are as committed to the larger good as you are, trust that others will support you, trust that others will not take unfair advantage of circumstances for their own gain (at the expense of the community). Trust does not require perfection, or ideal behavior at all times, but it does require accountability, empathy and understanding. In a system in which cooperation is maintained by accountability alone, trust rapidly degrades to fear and shame, which will in the end undermine cooperation. In a system with empathy and understanding but no accountability, individuals do not have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and the community will fail in its capacity to grow and strengthen. And perhaps most importantly, trust is nourished by a shared sense of respect, grace and mutual support.
But we have the ability to respond with resilient adaptation of our own: cooperation and collaboration. This strategy requires a foundation of trust, which emerges from a mix of accountability, empathy, understanding, respect, mutual support and grace. The pandemic is far from over, and our vigilance on masking, distancing and in-person social gatherings is needed more than ever. And so is trust. Can we hold each other accountable without generating shame and fear? Can we give each other grace yet still hold expectations high? This is hard work, and the stakes are high, but I am confident we (not just those of us here at Kenyon, not just our friends and neighbors, but all of us, our whole global community) will prove up to the challenge.