Saturday, 19 December 2020

Malevolent Designer News - A New, More Infectious, Covid-19 Variant

Covent Garden, Central London

Credit: Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Coronavirus live news: Boris Johnson to hold press conference at 4pm amid fears over new virus strain; Swiss approve Pfizer vaccine | World news | The Guardian

Believers in the intelligent [sic] design hoax, who also believe the putative creator is one and the same as the Christian, allegedly omni-benevolent, god of the Bible (a belief held despite the OT version clearly being based on a violent, genocidal and irascible despot resembling a Bronze Age tribal war-lord) will be thrilled to know it has modified its SARS-CoV-2 virus to make it more infectious - just as we were beginning to roll out the vaccines medical science has provided to protect ourselves from it!

Fortunately, this new variant, which is spreading rapidly in southeast and southern England doesn't appear to make people any more sick than the original version and nor is there any evidence that it is better able to resist the antibodies the vaccines produce.

So, it looks like creationism's putative designer is just making sure as many people a possible get sick and die before humans win the arms race and relegate its nasty little invention to the same status as its smallpox virus and hopefully, soon, its poliomyelitis virus.

But creationists need to be cautious before they hail this as a victory for their favourite malevolent sadist because it might not be quite what it seems. The fact that a new variant seems to be behind the local increase in cases in part of England does not necessarily mean it has made it more infectious. In other words, a clear cause and effect has not been established by this simple correlation alone. Indeed, if this putative designer had been true to form, it would also have made it more deadly and it doesn't seem to have done that this time, unless it missed a trick.

New Covid-19 cases UK (20 December 2020). The dip before the current rise was probably the result of a month-long partial lockdown during November.

There are a number of other possible causes of this apparent increase, for example, a chance mutation could be riding on the back of a change in the local environment in terms of people being less cautious in their behaviour, especially as we came out of a month-long lockdown just when people want to be doing Xmas shopping and meeting with work-colleagues at Christmas parties. However, it does appear to be increasing faster than the original strain, so a change in infectivity seems to be the most likely answer.

As Viruses evolve, they tend to become less deadly but to infect more quickly. The last thing a parasitic virus genome needs is for its host to die too quickly before it has had a chance to infect others, so getting in quickly but causing few if any symptoms is a good way for a virus to spread, since its victims don't even know they are ill when they are shedding virus particles into the environment and infecting others. This doesn't mean this particular new strain is less deadly, of course and the evidence is that there is no significant change in its morbidity.

The evidence that this could be a move by creationism's putative designer to circumvent the new vaccines is scant indeed. The mRNA vaccines produce antibodies to the entire spike proteins that the virus uses to prise open the cells lining our respiratory system, not just to one small part of it, so a mutation of one or two different amino acids in the protein is unlikely to stop the antibodies working. Mutations elsewhere in the viral genome can't have any effect on how the mRNA vaccines work, although they could affect the speed at which the virus produces copies of itself once in the cells of its victim. Even if a mutation did render the antibodies useless, it is simple to tweak the mRNA-based vaccines to incorporate the mutated viral mRNA and produce antibodies to the new spike proteins.

But don't take my word for it. In this open access article in the highly-respected British Medical Journal (BMJ), Jacqui Wise deals with many of these points:

What do we know about this new SARS-CoV-2 variant?

It’s been snappily named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020) and is defined by a set of 17 changes or mutations. One of the most significant is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.

How was the variant detected?

It was picked up by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which undertakes random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples around the UK. The consortium is a partnership of the UK’s four public health agencies, as well as the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

Since being set up in April 2020 the consortium has sequenced 140 000 virus genomes from people infected with covid-19. It uses the data to track outbreaks, identify variant viruses, and publish a weekly report (

How common is it?

As of 13 December, 1108 cases with this variant had been identified in the UK in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be much higher. These cases were predominantly in the south east of England, but there have been recent reports from further afield, including Wales and Scotland.

Nick Loman, professor of microbial genomics and bioinformation at the University of Birmingham, told a briefing by the Science Media Centre on 15 December that the variant was first spotted in late September and now accounts for 20% of viruses sequenced in Norfolk, 10% in Essex, and 3% in Suffolk. “There are no data to suggest it had been imported from abroad, so it is likely to have evolved in the UK,” he said.

Does this variant spread more quickly?

Matt Hancock told the House of Commons on 14 December that initial analysis showed that the new variant “may be associated” with the recent rise in cases in southeast England. However, this is not the same as saying that it is causing the rise.

Loman explained, “This variant is strongly associated with where we are seeing increasing rates of covid-19. It’s a correlation, but we can’t say it is causation. But there is striking growth in this variant, which is why we are worried, and it needs urgent follow-up and investigation.”

Is mutation to be expected?

SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, and mutations arise naturally as the virus replicates. Many thousands of mutations have already arisen, but only a very small minority are likely to be important and to change the virus in an appreciable way. COG-UK says that there are currently around 4000 mutations in the spike protein.

Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK, told the Science Media Centre briefing, “Mutations are expected and are a natural part of evolution. Many thousands of mutations have already arisen, and the vast majority have no effect on the virus but can be useful as a barcode to monitor outbreaks.”

Is the new variant more dangerous?

We don’t know yet. Mutations that make viruses more infectious don’t necessarily make them more dangerous. A number of variants have already been detected in the UK. For example, the D614G variant is believed to have increased the ability of the virus to be transmitted and is now the most common type circulating in the UK, although it doesn’t seem to result in more severe disease.

Public Health England’s laboratory at Porton Down is currently working to find any evidence that the new variant increases or decreases the severity of disease. Susan Hopkins, joint medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, said, “There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected.”

Will the vaccine still work?

The new variant has mutations to the spike protein that the three leading vaccines are targeting. However, vaccines produce antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that a single change would make the vaccine less effective.

Over time, as more mutations occur, the vaccine may need to be altered. This happens with seasonal flu, which mutates every year, and the vaccine is adjusted accordingly. The SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t mutate as quickly as the flu virus, and the vaccines that have so far proved effective in trials are types that can easily be tweaked if necessary.

Peacock said, “With this variant there is no evidence that it will evade the vaccination or a human immune response. But if there is an instance of vaccine failure or reinfection then that case should be treated as high priority for genetic sequencing.”

So, in all probability, what we are witnessing is the natural evolution of the SARs-CoV-2 virus and the operation of chance and random drift. Intelligent [sic] design proponents are of course forbidden by dogma from attributing this change to evolution by natural selection because, in their view, nothing happens unless their favourite deity so wills it and makes it happen. They have no option, therefore, but to attribute this new variant to the deliberate design of a malevolent, genocidal, sadistic monster, timed to coincide with the roll-out of several vaccines provided by medical science to counter its nasty little design and its plan to make as many people as possible sick and die before we get it under control.

If it were real, I wonder what it would think of those who present it in such an appalling light and who nevertheless continue to promote it as a loving god and a perfect role model and source of morals for their unfortunate children to follow. What self-respecting god would want its followers presenting it in that repugnant light? In fact, perhaps more to the point, what self-respecting god would have these people advocating for it?

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