On Wednesday I updated my biological physics lecture notes, for a course I am teaching. I added a few new sentences to my notes, including:
“We are watching the evolution of the spike protein [of SARS-CoV-2] very carefully as vaccines use this protein, and so if a new variant arises with a heavily mutated spike protein, vaccines may then be much less effective against it, than they are for current variants.”*
The topic of the lecture is on evolution, including a long-standing (i.e., written pre-pandemic) section on the rapid evolution of viruses and bacteria. That was Wednesday, yesterday (Friday) the World Health Organisation announced the naming of a new variant of concern: Omicron. A variant with a heavily mutated spike protein, which makes scientists worried that vaccines may be much less effective against. Something that was mentioned in today’s press conference with Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Valance.
On the one hand, then Surrey students are certainly getting taught topical, relevant material. On the other hand, it is pretty terrifying to be teaching scientific understanding as it changes in pretty much real time. I should say that, the above sentences in my lecture notes are just a summary of the scientific consensus, nothing original to me. And sadly for me, other parts of the lecture notes that mention the Alpha and Delta variants, are now a little out of date.
Other than this example of the real world intruding into my lectures, teaching has I think gone pretty well this semester. The relaxing of restrictions has made it a lot easier, and a lot of students seem to really appreciate this relaxing. I am doing a lot of teaching to second years and they are a pleasure to teach. Both students and staff have, I think, renewed appreciation of the benefits of face-to-face one-to-one learning. But COVID-19 has not gone away, it is evolving, just many scientists have said it would, and just as I am teaching students to appreciate.
One of the puzzling things with this entire pandemic is that the world collectively forgot that viruses mutate and that every new mutation of this one seems to take them by surprise. What would be interesting to know is if the vaccines developed for this one may have contributed to the rapid mutations that this one seems to be doing.
The Spanish Flu was mild in the first year and didn’t kill a whole bunch of people and then it mutated into a more leathal version in the 2nd year when it killed millions. That was in the time before vaccines and such. After that it just sort of faded away as a pandemic and life went on.