by Natalie Couch
Many Harvey Mudd students know Prof. Bush from frosh biology (Biology 52), where he enthusiastically uses different diseases to explain biological concepts. The Muddraker talked to Prof. Bush to get his take on the state of the pandemic, the college’s COVID-19 policies, and more.
Q: What do you think the long-term behavior of the coronavirus pandemic will be?
A: There’s uncertainty about that. I think one important fact that we know is that the mutation rate of SARS-CoV-2 is lower than that of influenza, at least influenza A. That’s encouraging. With influenza, we have to get yearly shots because influenza evolves quickly enough to evade the immune system on a year-to-year or every couple of years basis. So, the lower mutation rate of coronaviruses suggests that maybe in the long run SARS-CoV-2 won’t be evolving as quickly as influenza does.
There’s also some uncertainty about whether [SARS-CoV-2] will stay in the human population, but it seems likely that it’s going to become endemic, meaning that it’s going to be with us for the long term.
Now, the mutation rate is lower. But the thing is, right around the time of a pandemic, when so many people are being infected, there are a lot of opportunities for mutations to arise. It’s also true that when the virus first arrived in the human population, there were lots of opportunities for it to mutate. Upon arrival, a virus has many avenues that it could go down that might be productive evolutionarily. And so it seems to be discovering things. There are many mutations in the Delta variant. Clearly, the Delta variant is much better at being a coronavirus in the human population than the original strain was. Right now, we’re seeing a sort of first [wave of] evolution at the beginning, with lots of variants arising. But in the longer run, it will not evolve that fast.
I haven’t gotten enough into the literature to know for sure. I still want to learn more before I can definitively state an opinion, but my quick take is that [COVID-19] may continue to be bad for a while, but in the longer run, it won’t be as bad.
The people who are suffering most right now are the people who are not vaccinated. Eventually, either most people will have been vaccinated or will have gotten [COVID-19]. That’s going to make a difference too.
Q: But COVID-19 will still exist?
A: Probably. It just seems unlikely that we could get rid of SARS-CoV-2 completely. There are other coronaviruses that circulate in humans, endemically, and they quite possibly began this way. There are a few cold viruses that are coronaviruses. They may have started in a pandemic, a hundred years or more ago, and we just didn’t really notice because it was a while ago. At that time, people wouldn’t have known. There would have been no way to distinguish that from a flu. I’m not sure that there’d be any way to distinguish it if we didn’t have molecular methods.
Q: That actually relates to my next question. There were about 100 years between this pandemic and the last big one in 1918. Do you think there will be another 100 years before the next one?
A: I don’t know. We’d be lucky if that’s the case. It’s hard to say. I think that gives you a sense of the rough frequency, but of course, it’s probabilistic. And so we could be unlucky and it happens in 20 years. Hopefully, we learned something, so we can handle it a little bit better.
Q: And what do you think about Harvey Mudd’s COVID policies?
A: My take is that Mudd is a pretty safe environment. Universal vaccination, universal mask wearing, and weekly testing for students seems to be a very effective combination. So far, it’s been going pretty good. The number of cases is not large. I have a nine-year-old daughter who is not vaccinated, so of course I’m concerned about her, but I’m much more worried about her getting it in school than I am about her getting it from me.
Q: Last year, the pandemic got a lot worse in the winter. Do you think that will happen again this year?
A: I’m not sure — this is really a question for an epidemiologist. I think that behavior matters a lot in these things. I have read about the Delta outbreaks in India and in Britain. One of the characteristics of the Delta outbreak there was it came down very quickly after it peaked. And I think that’s the result of people changing their behavior rapidly.
It doesn’t seem to be working that way in our country, or certainly not in Los Angeles County. I think the response in California has been pretty good, and it’s never gotten nearly as bad here as it did in many other places. LA County seemed to have been on top of things relatively early and probably prevented worse things from happening by reinstating the mask mandate somewhat early. So I think they’ve done a pretty good job. Nevertheless, it’s a little disappointing that even though we’re on the downside of the peak and it’s getting better, it’s not really getting better all that fast. So it could very well go up again. It’s hard to know, because there are different factors to consider — including how behavior changes as things get better, where people then readjust and start doing more risky things again.
I’m hoping that, at least for the spring semester, we can have even more normal lives. For the college, it makes a big difference that we have students and in-person classes. I think that’s a victory. There are certain aspects of normal life that would be nice to have again, like going to the dining hall. I’m hoping that in spring we can at least move towards more normal things, such as having in-person [biology faculty] meetings which we’re not having right now.
Q: Last question: how do you think COVID has changed how we view communicable diseases?
A: Before COVID, in Asia, there was a cultural convention of wearing masks during flu season. That was a common thing, and it’d be nice if wearing masks became a more standard or acceptable thing to do during the winter, in cold and flu season. If that became more common, it would probably help us at Harvey Mudd. People get sick a lot here, because they don’t sleep enough. Traditionally, the Harvey Mudd community has lots of colds and things going through. We should get more sleep. But wearing masks wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
Masks are a small price to pay. I’m doing a seminar class where it’s students and me talking a lot with each other. Of course, it’s sometimes hard to understand people with a mask on, but much better than being on Zoom. So, I’m happy. Even with the masks on, I’m happy.