We know less that we pretend

by reestheskin on 27/05/2021

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Jonathan Flint · Testing Woes · LRB 6 May 2021

Terrific article from Jonathan Flint in the LRB. He is an English psychiatrist and geneticist (mouse models of behaviour) based in UCLA, but like many, has put his hand to other domains (beyond depression). He writes about Covid-19:

Perhaps the real problem is hubris. There have been so many things we thought we knew but didn’t. How many people reassured us Covid-19 would be just like flu? Or insisted that the only viable tests were naso-pharyngeal swabs, preferably administered by a trained clinician? Is that really the only way? After all, if Covid-19 is only detectable by sticking a piece of plastic practically into your brain, how can it be so infectious? We still don’t understand the dynamics of virus transmission. We still don’t know why around 80 per cent of transmissions are caused by just 10 per cent of cases, or why 2 per cent of individuals carry 90 per cent of the virus. If you live with someone diagnosed with Covid-19, the chances are that you won’t be infected (60 to 90 per cent of cohabitees don’t contract the virus). Yet in the right setting, a crowded bar for example, one person can infect scores of others. What makes a superspreader? How do we detect them? And what can we learn from the relatively low death rates in African countries, despite their meagre testing and limited access to hospitals?

That we are still scrambling to answer these questions is deeply worrying, not just because it shows we aren’t ready for the next pandemic. The virus has revealed the depth of our ignorance when it comes to the biology of genomes. I’ve written too many grant applications where I’ve stated confidently that we will be able to determine the function of a gene with a DNA sequence much bigger than that of Sars-CoV-2. If we can’t even work out how Sars-CoV-2 works, what chance do we have with the mammalian genome? Let’s hope none of my grant reviewers reads this.

Medicine is always messier that people want to imagine. It is a hotchpotch of kludges. For those who aspire to absolute clarity, it should be a relief that we manage effective action based on such a paucity of insight. Cheap body-hacks sometimes work. But the worry remains.