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David Cowles

Feb 15, 2024

“[COVID-19] was the first virus to figure out in a major way how to escape immunity…”

Thoughts While Shaving does not normally get involved in anything so mundane as a ‘current event’ but a recent article by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times (11/21/23), which I quote liberally below, just raised so many flags, both red and checkered, that... 

The COVID-19 virus that departed Wuhan late in 2019 is now virtually extinct - but hold the bubbly: before exiting stage right, ‘Virus Zero’ mutated…and mutated…and mutated. These ‘better adapted variants’, more than our lockdowns and vaccines, put Virus Zero out of business. 

Unfortunately, this mutation process has continued in a way that should alarm us all:

“[COVID-19] was the first virus to figure out in a major way how to escape immunity,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Frightening as this is, it puts a spotlight on something that applies to process in general…so ‘general’ that it’s rarely noticed: “Dr. Lemieux and many other Omicron experts suspect that the variant gained its new mutations while infecting a single person with a weak immune system.”

Apparently, the virus released from Wuhan found a single immune-compromised host and mutated: “Now it has become Omicron, destroyer of world”. It’s straight out of the Bhagavad Gita …or Marvel Comics. In fact, it goes beyond even Stan Lee…it goes straight to the structure of Universe itself. 

In theology, this is called the Scandal of Particularity: assuming God is incarnate, why just once, and if just once, why in the person of a first-century carpenter from the Galilee? Of course, the answer is just as simple and as obvious as it is unsatisfying: “Why not?”

We fantasize that things move in a straight line, but of course, we know they don’t. So we imagine they radiate outward according to some stable function: f(x) = x², for example. But things are much, much crazier than we imagine. To bastardize the language of calculus, the first derivative of any event is 1 (identity): it is identical with itself; it is its own slope, its own rate of change. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, there is nothing outside the event that can determine or even measure the event itself. 

But the second derivative is undefined: call it 0 or ∞ or ø. Our event occupies a range (t₁ - t₂) with a defined trajectory; beyond that range, we have no information. We are forced to treat our event as a quantum whole; we know nothing of the event beyond the event itself.

Yet our event is objectively immortal. It is no longer subject to modification, but it projects itself forward into the multiplicity (M) from which novel events emerge. But there is no function that can connect our event with the events that follow it. A virus infected a person, and a planet was brought to a standstill; a butterfly flapped its wings, and a tornado ravaged Chicago. This is the world we live in. 

Mr. Zimmer: “In the two years since its emergence, Omicron has proved to be not only staggeringly infectious, but an evolutionary marvel, challenging many assumptions virologists had before the pandemic. It has given rise to an impressive number of descendants, which have become far more adept at evading immunity and finding new victims.”

We know that viruses can ‘learn’, but are they now ‘learning to learn’? Is Omicron ‘AI’… in a dot? As Omicron continues to mutate, sometimes two Omicron viruses wind up in the same cell. Just as kids used to swap baseball cards (back in the Pleistocene), viruses now swap genes. 

The result: new hybrid viruses with converging genetic histories. One of these hybrids is called XBB. It easily infects people, even those who had already been infected with Alpha, Delta, or Omicron. As a result, XBB became dominant in the United States in early 2023. But now even XBB is ebbing as a menagerie of even more evasive variants has evolved.

Marc Johnson, a virologist at the University of Missouri, summed up the situation perfectly: “Right now we’re in a period of chaos.” But take a memo to Marc: “The ‘period of chaos’ you reference is actually the lifespan of the universe.” 

Hello, JN1 - this mutated form has become the most resistant version of coronavirus yet. It appears to be growing quickly in France and may soon spread to other countries. Where are we headed? Are there any limits to the ingenuity of this virus? Is it just stumbling on favorable adaptations…or is it really ‘learning to learn’?

Even if we ultimately find a way to defeat this pathogen, do we need to be concerned that new viruses will emerge with similar ‘immunity evading intelligence’? That may depend on your choice of an origin story. If the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of a one-off species crossover, then the risk of a repetition anytime soon is probably small, but if it was the by-product of bioengineering, we should all be afraid, very, very afraid.  


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