By Mark Alpert
My 18-year-old daughter, who’s home from college now just like everyone else in her generation, says she’s writing a diary. Years now from now, she says, she’ll want to remember what it was like to ride out the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, which has become the American epicenter of the new coronavirus. She’s an excellent writer, much better than me, so she’ll probably do a good job.
I haven’t written much about the pandemic since my last blog post, which described some of the mistakes that led to this fiasco (you can read it here). Instead I’ve focused on the novel I’m working on (15,000 words so far). I’ve pretty much confined myself to our apartment in Manhattan, going out only for long walks in our neighborhood (usually at night, when it’s easiest to stay six feet away from any passersby) and for 3 a.m. trips to the local supermarket (which is open 24 hours, fortunately). So I don’t have a lot to say about the effects of the pandemic on New York City aside from the basic facts that everyone else is reporting: the streets are mostly empty, the stores are mostly closed, and most people seem to be following the rules of social distancing.
(There are, however, some glaring exceptions. Until yesterday, construction crews continued to work at half-built skyscrapers across the city, crowding into elevators and other tight spaces. There’s nothing essential about their work; New York certainly doesn’t need any more luxury buildings right now. But the real-estate developers were worried about their profits, and the workers were worried about their paychecks. After an outcry from public-health experts, New York officials finally put a stop to non-essential construction on Friday.)
Because I’m a science journalist and an author of science thrillers, my musings on the new coronavirus have a somewhat technical flavor. One of the scariest things about Covid-19 is its variability — many infected people exhibit mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, whereas many others (including a significant number of robust people under the age of 50) become deathly ill. At first I assumed the variations were the result of the normal genetic diversity of the human species, the same diversity that makes some people susceptible to cancer and others vulnerable to Alzheimer’s or autism. But why are the symptoms of Covid-19 so much more variable than those of influenza? If you catch the flu, it’s almost never mild, and usually not deadly unless you’re quite old. The course of the disease is fairly predictable: about a week of discomfort, miserable but not life-threatening.
Then I started to think about the most significant difference between influenza and Covid-19. The flu has been infecting people for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. During flu season, most people acquire some degree of immunity to the influenza virus, either because they were vaccinated or because they caught the flu and recovered. But the virus evolves very quickly, its genome mutating randomly during the billions of reproductions that occur every time the microbe infects someone. That’s why you need a new flu vaccine every year: a few of those mutations will produce new virus strains that can evade the antibodies produced by the human body to defeat last year’s strains.
Notice, though, that natural selection is at work, and the evolution of the influenza virus has a clear direction. The flu virus will mutate in many different random ways, at many different places along its relatively short genome (about 15,000 base pairs), but the only mutations that’ll give the microbe a clear survival advantage will be the ones that’ll help it evade the antibodies. So over time we’re more likely to see carefully tailored adaptive changes to the flu virus rather than wholesale revisions of its DNA.
The new coronavirus, in contrast, has been infecting humans only since December. It’s invading a population that has no immunity to it, so it has free rein to develop into a wide variety of strains. It’s similar to a flock of birds that get blown to a remote island in the Pacific where there are no birds but lots of different food sources: seeds, nectar, insects, whatever. Because the newly arrived birds will face no competitors that are already occupying the various ecological niches, they will eventually evolve into many different species, each tailored to a particular food source. Birds with longer beaks will be more successful at drinking nectar from flowers; birds with more powerful beaks will be better at cracking nuts, etc. Natural selection will accentuate these traits over the generations, and in a relatively short amount of time (maybe only a few million years) the island will host all kinds of bird species that descended from the original flock but look very different from their ancestors.
Charles Darwin was the first to postulate this process, after he visited the Galapagos and observed the great variety of finches there. Evolutionary biologists call it adaptive radiation. My hypothesis is that the new coronavirus is also undergoing adaptive radiation as its spreads across humanity. Unlike the familiar strains of influenza, the new microbe isn’t optimally adapted to its human hosts yet, so a multitude of mutations will proliferate, and some strains of the coronavirus will be much deadlier than others. My hypothesis has the advantage of being easy to prove or disprove; researchers just have to measure the amount of genetic diversity in all the new coronavirus samples being collected right now and compare it with the genetic diversity of influenza (or, better yet, compare it with the more established coronaviruses such as the ones that cause the common cold).
And here’s another idea that might appeal to science-minded thriller writers. Cooped-up conspiracy theorists have been speculating that the new coronavirus originated in a Chinese germ-warfare laboratory. This conjecture is mostly based on the fact that there is a bioresearch lab in Wuhan — the Institute of Virology — where researchers have studied coronaviruses, and this lab is less than ten miles from the Wuhan seafood market where Chinese officials have said the disease originated. Other bioresearch labs in China have had safety problems in the past, so is it unreasonable to think that some lapse at the Wuhan lab could’ve allowed a dangerous virus to escape?
But more detailed studies of the new coronavirus have thrown cold water on this theory, or at least on the hypothesis that the microbe is a product of genetic engineering. One piece of evidence involves the molecular structure of the new coronavirus’s spike proteins, which give the germ its distinctive crown-like appearance. This spike protein enables the virus to invade human cells because it binds with a receptor on the cells’ membranes. The arrangement of six crucial amino acids in the spike protein determines how easily the virus can bind with a human cell, and although the arrangement in the new coronavirus is fairly effective for binding, it isn’t the optimal configuration. If this coronavirus was designed for germ warfare, why didn’t the researchers create the best possible version?
Furthermore, if the new coronavirus was genetically engineered, the bioweapon researchers would’ve probably started the process by making tweaks to existing coronaviruses that infect humans and/or other mammals. But when scientists compare the genome of the new virus with the DNA of similar germs, they see differences sprinkled randomly along the genetic sequence, which is the kind of change you’d expect to see in a virus that arose from pre-existing microbes by the process of natural selection. In a genetically engineered germ, the changes would be concentrated in selected areas of the genome. (Unless the bioweapon engineers were being particularly tricky and trying to hide their tracks.)
But enough about the science. Thriller writers should always focus on emotions, especially the extreme emotions triggered by extraordinary events. As I go on my nightly walks across Manhattan, I’m struck most by the emptiness of the streets. In the city that formerly never slept, the only people outside are the dog walkers and the homeless. I expected the stores to be closed, but the great majority of the windows in the apartment buildings are also dark. All the New Yorkers who own second homes upstate or in the Hamptons have escaped to their summer places. The city is eerily quiet and newly unfamiliar.
There are terrible things happening in the hospitals nearby, dozens of people dying of Covid-19 every night, but I can’t see them. (I can hear the ambulance sirens, though, screaming down Broadway.) So I’m not the best person to write about this new plague. Someone else will have to do it, someone closer to the real struggle. Or maybe someone who can better imagine what it feels like.