It’s very common for coronaviruses (CoV) to mutate—they are a family of viruses that cause respiratory and intestinal illnesses in humans and animals, and range from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). News of the coronavirus COVID-19’s mutations spreading has undoubtedly caused fear, but to scientists it should be an unsurprising feature of what we all know as COVID-19. Which mutations are currently causing trouble? And how will they affect our future?
New strains of the novel coronavirus are spreading all over the world. In the US, the strains all have at least one thing in common: ‘N501Y’, which is making the virus more likely to infect our cells. There are three major new strains so far, and two of the three strains—the ones from the UK and South Africa—evolved their N501Y mutations independently. In other words, the two strains may not be directly related. One didn’t evolve into the other, and that’s worrying.
According to the Daily Beast, it’s unclear whether the new strain from Brazil also mutated N501Y on its own “but the separate appearance of even two similar strains is cause for concern.” Trevor Bedford, a professor of vaccines and infectious diseases at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tweeted that “There is substantial convergent evolution happening.” and continued that “The fact that we’ve observed three variants of concern emerge since September suggests that there are likely more to come.”
Each coronavirus contains nearly 30,000 letters of Ribonucleic acid (RNA), which are molecules that play an essential role in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes. This genetic information allows the virus to infect cells and hijack them to make new viruses. One infected cell will build new viruses, and occasionally, it makes tiny copying errors along the way—which are called mutations.
These mutations can be tracked as they are passed down through a lineage, but a group of coronaviruses that share the same set of distinctive mutations is called a variant. According to The New York Times, “If enough mutations accumulate in a lineage, the viruses may evolve clear-cut differences in how they function. These lineages come to be known as strains. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus strain known as SARS-CoV-2.”
These variants have become increasingly prevalent as the SARS-CoV-2 (let’s just call it COVID-19) has spread around the world. When a vaccine has been produced to fight one variant, and another pitches up, the worry is that the vaccine won’t be attuned to fight off both variants.
The Financial Times wrote that “During the first phase of the pandemic in the first half of 2020, Sars-Cov-2 was spreading through a previously unexposed population, so there was little Darwinian pressure on the virus to evolve mutations to evade the attention of the immune system. This has now changed.” Epidemiologists reported to the magazine that “the moment of maximum danger may come within the next few months when a larger number of people have been infected or vaccinated but many still remain unprotected. Then there would be enough community transmission to generate new variants and enough immunity to create an advantage for variants that can escape it.”
N501Y, which is what is common in two out of three of the variants currently, affects the spike protein which helps the virus grab onto and enter our cells. The Daily Beast said that “It seems N501Y makes the spike protein ‘grabbier.’ Given roughly equal exposure to the older strain of SARS-CoV-2 and one of the new strains, the new strains could be more likely to make you sick.”
The virus effectively seems to be fighting back with new mutations that could have the potential to allow its spread even faster than before. COVID-19 (or SARS-CoV-2) has mutated previously without actually producing significant new strains, however this changed in September 2020. The B.1.1.7 was found in the UK, and the B.1.351 in South Africa, then the P.1 strain in Brazil. According to The Daily Beast “There are signs that B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 are more transmissible than the baseline novel coronavirus—and might also partially resist the immunity-inducing effects of the new COVID-19 vaccines.”
In December of 2020, the B.1.1.7 reached the US, and now P.1 and B.1.351 have also been found throughout the country. Studies indicate that the vaccines in the US are less effective against new strains. In South Africa, the AstraZeneca vaccine has shown ineffectiveness against mild and moderate cases of the strain.
Scientists are learning about the mutations of COVID-19, and N501Y. Jennifer Reich, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver specialising in vaccination, told The Daily Beast that “Our best defence against any variant is to support science that can be proactive in genetically sequencing viruses.”
Everyone wants to go back to a life pre-COVID-19, but unfortunately, the longer the virus is in circulation, the more opportunity it has to mutate. Aimee Bernard, a University of Colorado immunologist also spoke to The Daily Beast and stated that “If we don’t continue to follow the necessary precautions to stop the spread of the virus and all get vaccinated, the virus will continue to do what it does best—survive, mutate, and spread to more people.”
Our part to play in it being said, governments are setting out testing facilities to increase monitoring of the variants. In the UK, ‘surge testing’ has been rolled out in neighbourhoods where the N501Y variant has been found, and everyone in those places are getting asked to get tested, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. The samples are then sent off for genomic sequencing, which in turn will help with vaccination advancements.
The US is preparing plans for updating vaccines as well if the new variants surge, but for now, we all have to sit tight, even if (physically) in separate. Science is the only way out of this, one way or another. There is evidently no way of truly knowing what life has in store for any of us, but that being said, when you understand something, you may be less afraid of it.
Last year, in the middle of a dinner with a friend, before social distancing was a thing, the conversation turned to how she was disheartened by the lack of communication in one of her relationships. “But you know, she’s a Virgo, so I had to approach it differently,” was her last note on the matter—before we moved onto how our careers were treating us.
With no booze on the table, just two educated women of colour in their twenties and thirties, the summary, though quizzical to some, didn’t make me think twice. Defining someone’s characteristics through their star sign has become a common part of our generation’s lexicon. Summing up personality traits is not just for those who have found and made space for themselves on the internet but for millennials who didn’t grow up in a time where horoscopes were a part of fringe ‘new age’ behaviour witnessed in the seventies.
Knowing your star, moon and rising signs are now as usual as someone knowing what kind of ‘body shape’ they have. In 2020, Co-Star and Instagram Live tarot readings are to millennials what knowing if you had more pear-shaped or apple-shaped hips in the noughties. The characteristics of star signs have also become politicised with common astrological traits narrowing down how one thinks and therefore, how one votes.
But now, as we are in the middle of a global pandemic, with most of us at home for what has now been months, the future of astrology is at a tipping point. For some (especially those who are ‘@ing’ their favourite astrologer online), there’s anger towards astrologists for not predicting this mayhem. For others, horoscopes have become once again something fun to read to pass the time while for others, the hope behind astrology has become a form of affirmation, in order to get through the day.
For astrologer Marissa Malik, these times of uncertainty means: “More people have been reaching out for tarot and natal chart readings alike.” And she also notes how this specific moment is interesting.
“The unprecedented nature of the pandemic combined with social isolation (and a slew of retrogrades) is putting many people in a position to do inner work that the pace of general life doesn’t usually permit. With that introspection can often come a need for external validation through astrology and tarot. That’s where I come in!”
That’s perhaps why 22-year-old Master’s student in London, Rachana, who’s an avid horoscope reader, is checking in on her horoscope more than ever: “It helps me understand my emotions, patterns and also helps me to process and accept events and experiences,” she told Screen Shot. “During this period especially I feel like [my horoscope] has helped me to remain calm and accept my reality. It’s not that it really provides me with definite predictions but it helps me to go deeper and understand myself as a person,” added Rachana.
Similarly, entrepreneur and Strategically Winging It podcast host Sonya Barlow feels that “horoscopes have become a bigger deal in these last few weeks, especially during COVID-19 as it’s helped align life, love and spirituality.” Her routine has even changed as “I wake up and my sister, who has learned tarot, will explain the [daily] horoscope to me and our mum.”
Interestingly enough, when I asked my Instagram followers on their experience with astrology, the response felt universes away. Many replied to the tune of ‘What’s the point?’ and ‘What’s going to change so much while I’m at home?’.
To that, we could argue, what was the point of it anyway, even before the coronavirus crisis? The hype that then translated into the horoscope pages being the most read work for publications such as Refinery29 and Dazed. Furthermore, in 2019, top astrology apps in the US were worth $40 million, a 65 per cent rise from 2018. The astrology zeitgeist boom in recent years shaped how we see each other.
Is the business of astrology dying during the global pandemic simply because it didn’t predict this? Are most of us at home thinking ‘what’s the point in it now’? I’m not sure. Just like faith and spirituality, in the end, it comes down to how much you believe in it and what it is doing for you. What we are witnessing, however, is the astrological trend among millennials slowly diverting. There’s now a more clear divide between people who depend on astrology and believe strongly in it and those who take it for what it is for them at a specific time.
Now, the real question is: What’s next for astrology among those in their 20s and 30s? Like everything else right now, who knows? Maybe it’s up in the stars.