Richard Epstein’s “coronavirus evolving to weaker virulence” reduced death toll argument is remarkably awful

Isaac Chotiner buried Epstein in this interview, but he understandably didn’t delve into the conditions necessary for Epstein’s “evolving to weaker virulence will reduce the near-term death toll” argument to be true.  I did.  It’s bad.  Really bad.  Laughably bad.. if you can laugh at something that might be playing a part in getting people killed.

TL;DR He thinks worldwide COVID-19 cases will cap out well under 1 million for this wave, and one of the reasons is that the virus will evolve to be less virulent.  Unlike The Andromeda Strain, whose ending pissed me off when I read it in junior high, a virus doesn’t mutate the same way everywhere all at once.  There’s one mutation event at a time in one host (person) at a time, and the mutated virus starts reproducing and spreading through the population  like what’s seen here.  The hypothetical mutated weak virus can only have a big impact reducing total deaths if it can quickly propagate to a scale big enough to significantly impede the original virus (by granting immunity from the real thing, presumably).  If the original coronavirus only manages to infect under 1 million people worldwide in this wave, how in the hell is the hypothetical mutated weak coronavirus supposed to spread to a high enough percentage of the population -and even faster- to effectively vaccinate them from the real thing, even with a supposed transmission advantage?***  Even if it spread to 10 million worldwide over the same time frame (which would be impressive since there’s no evidence that it even exists right now….), that’s a ridiculously small percentage of the potentially infectable in hot zones.  It would barely matter at all until COVID/weak virus saturation got much higher, which only happens at MUCH higher case counts.

That line of argumentation is utterly and completely absurd alongside a well-under-1 million worldwide cases projection.


***The average onset of symptoms is ~5 days from infection and the serial interval (time from symptoms in one person to symptoms in a person they infected) is also only around 5 days, meaning there’s a lot of transmission going on before people even show any symptoms.  Furthermore, based on this timeline, which AFAIK is still roughly correct

coronavirus_mediantimeline_infographic-1584612208650

there’s another week on average to transmit the virus before the “strong virus” carriers are taken out of commission, meaning Epstein’s theory only gives a “transmission advantage” for the hypothetical weak virus more than 10 days after infection on average.  And, oh yeah, 75-85% of “strong” infections never wind up in the hospital at all, so by Epstein’s theory, they’ll transmit at the same rate.  There simply hasn’t been/isn’t now much room for a big transmission advantage for the weak virus under his assumptions.  And to reiterate, no evidence that it actually even exists right now.