This is the way the pandemic ends

This is the way the pandemic ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.*

The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, is sweeping the globe like wildfire killing hundreds of thousands in its wake. But its months are numbered. In a year or so, it will become part of the suite of viruses that regularly infect us –it will become endemic.

image: bbc

It will be demoted to a common coronavirus, one of the seven known human coronaviruses. Four are part of the regular group that cause one-third of common colds.

But this virus will be remembered as being distinct from its older brother, SARS-CoV which caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003. This new coronavirus is sneaky.

The older coronavirus was conspicuously clumsy. Infected people became infectious after they became sick. They were flagged with the disease before they passed it on. Infected people with serious problems breathing and a fever showed up at hospitals where the disease was largely contained. Epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong says:

“Most patients with SARS were not that contagious until maybe a week after symptoms appeared (Scientific American, June, 2020).”

When sick people are not contagious, they can be quarantined before spreading the disease. Containment of SARS worked so well that only 8,098 cases were reported globally with 774 deaths, mostly in Toronto and Hong Kong.

SARS-CoV’s evil younger brother, this one that causes COVID-19, uses stealth. Infected people spread the disease before they show symptoms. You can be asymptomatic and feeling fine, all the while shedding the deadly virus. No warning signal until after the damage is done.

Hospitals are particularly vulnerable. When I went to the emergency section of the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops to get stitched up, I was intercepted at the entrance and asked if I had any of the COVID-19 symptoms. I didn’t but I could have been infected and spreading the virus. They took a chance on treating me, for which I’m thankful.

Political leaders can play a part, or not. Trump twiddles as the pandemic wildfires rage across the land of the free. Beachgoers merrily flock together in Florida and California. As protesters defend their constitutional rights to carry guns and not to wear masks, the novel coronavirus revels in the merriment.

While SARS-CoV-2 enjoys its killer notoriety now, soon it will be just another garden-variety nuisance.

The most famous example of a virus’s fall from infamy is the Spanish flu pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus from 1918 to 1919. In over two years and three waves of assault, the pandemic infected 500 million and killed nearly 100 million.

Health officials didn’t have the control measures we have today, simple measures like school closures and physical isolation. It ended only when enough people survived the pandemic with immunity.

Governments have demonstrated their worth during the pandemic, or not. Canada is doing a good job but our neighbours to the south, not so much.

Sarah Cobey, epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, says: “The question of how the pandemic plays out is at least 50 percent social and political.”

The other 50 percent comes from science in the development of a vaccine. Only then will CoV-2 be completely vanquished.

Until, vigilance is the adage. CoV-2 will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

* My apologies to T. S. Eliot, author of the poem “The Hollow Men” (1925).

Lyme disease takes flight

In addition the usual suspects, now birds have been found to carry Lyme disease. Don Trethewey, retired Kamloops biologist, alerted me to the latest risk as reported in Entomology Today.

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Blood samples of birds studied in California revealed that some species carried the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Alarmingly, they were common birds found in suburban environments such as American robins, dark-eyed juncos and golden-crowned sparrows. Some of the ticks on the birds were also infected.

“Lyme disease was known to be carried by white-footed mice, wood rats, western gray squirrels, and other small mammals, but fewer studies have looked at the role of birds as reservoirs,” says the journal.

Birds are so effective as carriers that the bacterium wasn’t even regional. Instead, it was a bacterium that causes a Lyme-like disease in central and southern Europe.

“The fact that we found this particular bacterium for the first time in birds in California is notable because of the ease with which birds can distribute spirochetes to different regions.”

We like to think of the ticks as the culprits in Lyme disease, but not all ticks carry the bacterium. Of the ticks taken from the birds in the California study, only 25 per cent were infected. It’s a complex chain. Uninfected ticks bite hosts that carry the bacterium and they become infected. In turn, the ticks bite other birds or mammals and the chain of infection grows.

Not all species of ticks carry the bacterium, either because they are resistant or they have not been exposed. In North America, it’s the black-legged ticks in the west and the similarly named black-legged deer tick in the east.

In the U.S., there are approximately 300,000 cases each year with the large majority occurring in the east.

In Canada, it’s hard to say. Green party Leader Elizabeth May hopes to change that with her bill passed in the Parliament last June. It calls on the government to develop a Lyme disease strategy including a national program to track rates of infections, develop guidelines for preventing infections, and diagnose and treat them when they occur.

While May’s proposal gained all-party support, one group suggested that she was politicizing a general fear of Lyme disease.

The Association of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Canada was concerned that the bill plays on a general fear of Lyme Disease.  Many suffer from chronic symptoms that haven’t been properly diagnosed.

The lack of tracking and diagnosis leads to further anguish because sufferers are not taken seriously. Some organizations say the existence of chronic Lyme disease is based on pseudo-science, while others claim it is a real and debilitating condition.

No wonder there’s confusion. The bite from an infected tick can cause a bull’s-eye rash to appear – – or not. Within a few weeks, a myriad of hellish symptoms appear such as pain in muscles, joints, tendons; heart palpitations and dizziness. Acute neurological problems may emerge: facial palsy with the loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face, meningitis with severe headaches, neck stiffness, and sensitivity to light, memory loss, sleep disturbances, and mood changes.

Now a spooked Canadians have one more thing to worry about as they watch their favourite birds of spring arrive.