In the past few days, there was a study released, that hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, but claims that a mutation of COVID-19 created a new strain that seems to be more contagious and, possibly, more deadly. This mutation first appeared in Europe in February and quickly spread throughout the world. The study was conducted by a team of experts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico with collaboration from scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.
Experts in viral evolution aren’t convinced what the study claims is true because it’s normal behavior for viruses to mutate and just because a mutated version of virus is more common doesn’t mean that it’s changed how the virus functions. According to these experts, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 hasn’t split into distinct versions, like the seasonal flu does. These experts feel that the mutation that occurred, and became more dominate, might be an example of genetic drift. This is when a neutral mutation becomes more common just by chance. However, the experts do agree that natural selection supports viruses that have beneficial mutations, which enable it to spread more widely. This is why experts against the study feel that it didn’t provide enough evidence as to which one of these has happened, which means further examination of the data is needed.
While the scientific community continues to hash out what is going on with the virus, the White House has announced that as a result of the progress that has been made in bringing the pandemic under control in the United States, in the next couple of weeks the Coronavirus Task Force will be wound down. According to Vice President Pence, it will most likely coincide with the end of the month. When this happens, the management of the pandemic will shift to t he federal agencies that were created to coordinate such efforts. Per the announcement, this would allow the White House to focus on restarting the economy and they would consult with medical experts on a more informal basis.
What’s concerning is that this announcement came after new estimates predict that the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States could double by early August. Since we’re already above 70,000 deaths, many health experts find this worrisome. The decision to disband the Task Force has led to many questions about whether the administration will be sufficiently organized to handle on its own the complex decision-making that is required and whether or not it’ll give scientists and public health experts a say in policy making. Officials did say that medical experts, such as Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, would still be counseling the president and available to answer questions from reporters. When asked why he felt now was the time to phase out the Task Force, Trump responded, “Because we can’t keep our country closed for the next five years.”
There’s no question that there has been tension between the health and economic experts on the Task Force. The health experts have been for implementing stay-at-home and social-distancing orders that have averted even higher death tolls, but, obviously, these measures have come at a huge cost to the economy. As the economy has increasingly suffered, this has led economic advisers to having an increasing role in the discussion of what should be done. Many political experts feel that at this point Trump is listening more the economic experts in regards to reopening the country despite public health experts repeatedly warning that if the country reopens too soon there will be a significant rise in the number of cases and deaths.
To see the impact of what reopening has, all we have to do is look at India. India has had success at stopping the spread of COVID-19 due to their strict lockdown that was put into place. Up through the middle of April, they only had 50,000 cases, which given their population is 1.3 billion people is fairly low, and the daily death rate was a few dozen deaths. However, the government started to relax the rules and people started going about their normal routines and are visiting with one another. Now, the daily death rate is more than 100. The reason the government started to reduce the restrictions was the economic impact was becoming increasingly burdensome. One thing for certain is the more people interact, the number of cases will continue to rise.