One of the more interesting phenomena to watch this respiratory illness season (we historically call it ‘flu’ season) is what will happen now that COVID-19 is essentially endemic across the country. Because of the various reinforcing memetic cascades, COVID-19 is somehow treated in the human overmind as a unique illness, instead of the potentially severe, but usually mild respiratory infection it actually is.
And to be fair — COVID is, like all illnesses, somewhat unique. Just HOW unique it is could be characterized in a number of ways, of course. One could look at RNA differentials, which family the virus occupies (obviously a coronavirus, etc.) And all of this typology will make some virologist’s (or group of virologists’) careers. All the more reason, in status-driven social structures to declare COVID as unique. That’s what happens in the science-naming wars.
But here’s a different thought on how to characterize COVID’s actual uniqueness. Why not look at how unique the human immune system’s response is to the virus? Certainly the percentage of cases where we actually see COVID-19-specific antibodies might not be a bad measure. Once we understand the idea of an immune system stack — T-cells, B-cells, cross-reactive coronavirus immunity, and super-mucosal response — and others I likely don’t know about — then the COVID part that actually matters is that antibody response, since they are unique to the virus.
But the other responses are NOT unique to the virus. They’re what happens when any respiratory virus shows up on the scene. And here’s where what appears to be somewhat unique to COVID actually matters.
COVID is, without question, highly infectious, and contagious. We’ve seen this with regards to cruise ships, prisons, and night clubs. Someone who is a super-spreader shows up, and with the right combo of ventilation, humidity, and such, that sucker goes everywhere quickly. One week on a cruise ship, and everyone, essentially, is infected.
But what happens next is interesting. Not everyone may develop COVID antibodies by catching COVID first. But COVID, precisely because it is so contagious and infectious, will trigger that other range of non-specific immunities first, before the other viruses have a chance to party.
What that means is that the other respiratory viruses that show up will be Johnny-Come-Latelies to the respiratory infection wars happening in your system. COVID may indeed be worse in larger context, because of its affection for the immunosuppressed, and trigger other symptoms. None of that is off the table. But the activated immune systems, with their other nonspecific mechanisms, will tear up any influenza virus that shows up. COVID will effectively replace (at least for this year) most influenza viruses in your respiratory virome.
I already went ahead this year and got my flu shot. I still think if you have low reactivity to vaccines, you probably should go get stuck. But knowing that COVID is loose may, in this crazy, upside-down world of viruses, prevent you from catching another respiratory infection. Especially if you’ve displayed symptoms and tested positive.
Stay tuned. It’s going to get interesting.