Fighting Mutants

Coups, mutant viruses, Antivaxxers and driving forty thousand miles

Welcome to this week’s Hat Tip.

In this issue

  1. The Big News: Myanmar Coup

  2. Considering: Fighting Mutants

  3. Curious: Lauren Boebert’s 40k miles

  4. Curiouser: Antivaxxer Sabotage

  5. Coming soon: how it feels when a violent mob wants to kill you

The Big News: Myanmar Coup

The military in Myanmar has done what the Myanmar military does, and taken over the country. Again.

Myanmar, or Burma, was a military dictatorship after a coup in 1962. Democracy protesters in 1988, including Aung San Suu Kyi, forced elections in 1990. But the military ignored the elections, placed her under house arrest and just carried on ruling. Aung San Suu Kyi became a global icon for democracy and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Burma was sanctioned heavily.

In 2008, Myanmar slowly began to democratise and eventually, in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s leader. But the military still pretty much did its own thing, including presiding over the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. Aung San Suu Kyi defended the genocide, and became almost a symbol of fallen grace, a person once deeply respected but now reviled.

After Aung San Suu Kyi’s party did even better in the last elections, the military arrested her and other party leaders, blocked the Parliament from being sworn in, seized the TV stations, shut down Facebook. The USA is moving to reimpose economic sanctions, though UN action was blocked by China.

Meanwhile, in the Trumpist forums and QAnon, there were a lot of very jealous Americans talking excitedly about the coup and wishing, hoping or expecting that the US military would do the same.

Considering: Fighting Mutants

The coronavirus is mutating. This isn’t a surprise. Viruses mutate, especially RNA viruses like Sars-CoV-2. In fact, some researchers expected the virus seemed to mutate faster than it has been. But suddenly, everyone’s talking about mutants.

The “British Variant”

The B.1.1.7 Variant grabbed the headlines first. First found in Britain, it spreads faster than the ‘original’ virus, and has become the dominant variant of the virus in the UK, Ireland and Israel, as well as rising in the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere.

Until recently, it was believed that the B.1.1.7 Variant didn’t cause more serious disease than old-school Covid, though there’s now some initial (if weak) evidence that it does have a little higher mortality.

What makes the British Variant more infectious? One major contributor seems to be a mutation called N501Y. The name N501Y means that at a particular point in the virus’s spike protein (the spiky bit on the outside of the virus that it uses to invade cells), one amino acid has been changed. Instead of an asparagine (an N), the mutant has a tyrosine (a Y). This change seems to make it stickier to the ACE2 receptor it uses as its way into cells.

Now ‘more infectious’ is REALLY BAD. The UK saw a higher death rate this winter than in their terrible first wave. Israel hasn’t been able to control the virus with the same lockdown measures that worked in September, as B.1.1.7 became dominant. The coronavirus was very infectious anyway, remember. Increasing its infectivity causes sharper, faster spikes and demands stricter lockdown measures.

The big question was whether the existing vaccines would still protect against the British Variant. All the evidence, including in-vitro tests of antibodies and real-world data coming from Israel, says that the British Variant isn’t an immune escape variant. Vaccines should be completely effective against it.

E484K

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for South African and Brazilian variants of concern, which share a particular mutation known as E484K—instead of an E, a glutamic acid, it has a K, a lysine at position 484.

The E484K change does seem to give the coronavirus a certain level of protection from antibodies that attack the old-school virus. At the moment, research suggests that the existing vaccines should still help combat the South African variant.

Pfizer, for example, used antibodies from people who’d had Pfizer’s vaccine and tried them against engineered versions of the coronavirus designed to match the SA variant:

“the neutralization GMT of the serum panel against the virus with three mutations from the SA variant (E484K+N501Y+D614G) was slightly lower than the neutralization GMTs against the N501Y virus or the virus with three mutations from the UK variant (Δ69/70+N501Y+D614G). However, the magnitude of the differences in neutralization GMTs against any of the mutant viruses in this study was small…”

Small enough, they conclude, that the vaccine will still work against the mutants. Other studies were more cautious, suggesting that vaccines should still work but that naturally infected people who also have low antibodies could possibly be reinfected.

Because the real human immune system is much more complicated than antibodies in test tubes, we won’t know for sure until there is research available from vaccination programmes.

The interesting thing here is that South African and Brazilian variants don’t only have the E484K mutation; they both also have the N501Y mutation that is found in the British variant. These mutations have both evolved independently, together, in two different instances in the wild.

A few days ago, the UK’s genetic surveillance of the coronavirus discovered cases of the B.1.1.7 variant that now also had the E484K mutation. Two clusters were found in different parts of England, and a cluster in Wales. It’s not clear yet if this mutation gives the virus a leg up over plain B.1.1.7. If it does, then it will start to appear more and more in surveillance in the next few weeks.

Is this scary?

Obviously, if the coronavirus never mutated we’d all be safer. But that was never particularly realistic.

The twin appearance of E484K and N501Y mutations, in different viral lineages all around the world (Brazil, South Africa, Britain), suggests that the virus is evolving in a particular direction. Ultimately, that could be good news. It means that vaccines can be tweaked consistently and potentially be used worldwide. If the optimal evolutionary path for the virus is narrow, maybe we can follow it down the path and keep it in check.

The bottom line here isn’t that the current variants are good. They’re bad. But current vaccines work against the B.1.1.7 variant. Current vaccines look like they’ll work to a high degree against the South African variant, which gives hope for all of these E484K+N501Y variants appearing in different countries. Vaccine makers are already designing booster shots that will target the mutants, too.

So don’t panic. Things are much better now than they were in the summer.

Curious: Lauren Boebert’s 40k miles

QAnon-friendly Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert claimed $22,259 in mileage expenses for her election campaign. Given that the rules only allow a maximum claim of 57.5 cents a mile, she would have had to drive 38,712 miles on campaign business, most of which had to be after April. This seems… unlikely. The Denver Post has more.

Curiouser: Antivaxxer Sabotage

Israeli antivaxxers are booking appointments for vaccines and then not showing up in an attempt to block out the slots from others and waste the delicate vaccines. They’re making these plans openly in anti-vaccine Facebook groups. Israeli clinics did actually waste some vaccine doses this week due to no-shows, though I suspect that these were mostly ‘genuine’ people who missed their appointments.

Coming soon: how it feels when a violent mob wants to kill you

Tomorrow, I’ll publish the Hat Tip’s first subscribers-only article that will talk about the Capitol riot, PTSD and the time I was attacked and almost lynched by a violent mob while the police tried and failed to hold them back. If you want to read it and other subscriber-exclusive pieces, subscribe now!

Thanks for reading. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.