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Fun With Numbers: COVID Will Win, Unless…

December 2nd, 2021 by dk

The latest coronavirus variant reminds us that we’re losing the race to adapt. This strain might not prove to be resistant to our vaccines. It may not be as virulent as the delta variant. It may not be the deadliest version of COVID-19. But a future variant will be all three, gravely endangering humanity, unless something changes soon.

As long as the virus finds humans as hospitable hosts, it will mutate and multiply in the direction that allows it to continue. Natural selection will favor versions of the virus that inhabits humans because genetic adaptation through mutation is its only survival strategy. If we continue battling on the same basis, the odds against us are daunting.

The SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) genome is a single strand of RNA. The coronavirus inhabits healthy human cells and hijacks the cell’s mechanisms to reproduce. The virus multiplies its genetic material with a viral “copy machine” called a polymerase. One virus-infected cell can produce hundreds to thousands of viruses. One infectious human hosts somewhere between a billion and a trillion copies of the virus.

Without precautions, one person can lead to a thousand people getting infected in a month, a million in two months, and the entire human population in less than four months. We’re looking at more than a quintillion (a billion billion) copies. Each copy offers the possibility of a mutation that makes it deadlier for humans.

Meanwhile, humans have a genetic code that is infinitely more complex than a single RNA strand. We reproduce at a much slower rate, to say the least. Approximately 140 million human babies were born on the planet in the past year. Combining these factors, the virus can adapt in a week what will take humanity at least several centuries.

If we’re in a genetic adaptation footrace with the virus and all its variants, we’re going to lose. But that has been true for millennia. Humanity rose to the top of the heap with an entirely different survival strategy. We don’t alter our genetic code. We change our behavior with shared intent and collective action. We cooperate.

Put another way, if our goal is to preserve individuals’ lives and habits, we’re doomed. The numbers above show that’s a virtual certainty. But if our goal is saving our species (which will requires multiple adaptations on the part of individuals), we got this! Herd immunity uses numbers to our advantage. If the virus can’t replicate, it will disappear or find a non-human host that does us no harm.

We simply cannot succeed individually. We gain advantage only collectively. Our collective success will last longer than the individual changes required.

I wondered how long a single SARS-CoV-2 strand can survive inside a human body. Every answer (14-37 days) I found referred to its collective presence, but never one single infected cell. We’re thinking about the virus collectively and humanity individually. We have to flip that script.

It’s genes versus memes, math versus meaning, the parts versus the whole. Which side we put ourselves on will determine the outcome.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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