DANIEL VAUGHAN: Emerging strains of COVID-19 in Europe complicate victory over virus

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced the country’s second national lockdown in an attempt to control new outbreaks of the coronavirus. Before the 9 p.m. curfews went into effect, a viral video of Paris showed traffic jams for miles as people exited the city.

While it’s unclear whether these people were fleeing the city or trying to cram everything in before the curfew went into effect, it’s yet another reminder that we’re still amid a genuinely global pandemic.

French journalists said they’d never seen anything like the exodus, starting in the middle of the afternoon no less. They estimated that nearly 706 kilometers, or about 440 miles, of traffic jams crowded the French road system. At no point in recent years had they ever seen anything close to that.

For reference, I live in Tennessee, and Interstate 40, from the Arkansas border to the North Carolina border in the Smokey Mountains, spans the length of 455 miles.

While that’s stunning by itself, the really worrying sign out of Europe is that they may have a wholly unique coronavirus strain. In a new research paper, which is waiting for peer review, scientists identified a new strain of the coronavirus accounting for large numbers of the outbreak across Europe. Financial Times reported:

The research showed that the new variant accounted for more than eight out of 10 cases in the UK, 80 percent of cases in Spain, 60 percent in Ireland and up to 40 percent in Switzerland and France.

The appearance of this new virus variant arrives as countries across Europenot just France — have reinstated heavy lockdown procedures of various kinds. And while better treatments, drugs, testing, and resources exist everywhere now due to unified response across the world, and particularly the American free-market system, fears of returning to spring-like death numbers still grips the minds of policy-makers.

Europe is far ahead in the number of cases department right now, but the United States follows it. The non-partisan COVID Tracking Project reported that this week brought new records across the country:

The United States set a new record for reported cases this week, breaking 500,000 for the first time in the pandemic as the third surge continued to build across nearly every state in the country. Twenty-five states have set a new record for cases in the last two weeks, including 17 states with record highs since last Wednesday.

And while the massive increase in testing partially explains the higher raw numbers we’re witnessing, case growth is still outpacing new testing. “Forty-seven of the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, have seen cases rise faster than reported tests since October 1,” the COVID Tracking Project reports.

As I pointed out in my last column, we’re about to hold an election in the middle of a pandemic. This election is occuring during the peak of the virus.

As of Friday, with only four days to go until the general election, the trend lines are clear. New cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all trending up. And as for new cases and hospitalizations, those trend lines are approaching a near-vertical direction, no matter how you slice or dice the data.

I get it, though; this is the third wave we’ve seen now, and we’re entering the eighth straight month in what will likely be called the “Year of the ‘Rona.” People are tired and numb from seeing high numbers from this virus. But new variants of the virus in Europe suggest we’re in for a long haul.

And it’s not just the new variants combined with the lack of a vaccine making the push for a post-COVID-19 world harder to achieve; immunity is proving to be an issue too, according to the BBC:

The Imperial College London team found the number of people testing positive for antibodies has fallen by 26% between June and September. They say immunity appears to be fading and there is a risk of catching the virus multiple times.

[Professor] Wendy Barclay said: “We can see the antibodies and we can see them declining and we know antibodies on their own are quite protective. “On the balance of evidence, I would say it would look as if immunity declines away at the same rate as antibodies decline away, and that this is an indication of waning immunity.”

The BBC went on to note that “[t]here are four other seasonal human coronaviruses, which we catch multiple times in our lives. They cause common cold symptoms and we can be reinfected every six to 12 months.”

That could mean our ultimate goal might not be defeating the virus, but seeking ways to weaken it and make it no more threatening than the common cold — or perhaps a regular flu season. The target of what post-virus life looks like keeps moving, which is why having the most adaptive free market system in human history is proving to be beyond beneficial. 

At least one thing is clear, however: whoever wins on Tuesday faces a continuing fight against the novel coronavirus.