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Monday, April 15, 2024

Is It Possible to Beat a Virus That Moves Faster Than Science?

Thank you to everyone who wrote in last month to confirm that, indeed, only journalists care what happens to Twitter. As Elon Musk’s bizarre dance between buying the company and trash-talking it into oblivion continues, it’s a healthy reminder for us not to get too obsessed—though now that he may be getting access to the complete fire hose of Twitter users’ data, you might worry about what he’s going to do with it. Here’s the update.

We Do Know How to Beat a Pandemic—Some of Us, Anyway

It’s Pride month in the US, and so it makes me proud, as the first queer editor-in-chief of WIRED, to present Maryn McKenna’s new story on an event that made plain the resilience of the LGBTQ community: the Covid-19 outbreak last July in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

You might remember it (if you remember anything from a year ago in pandemic time) as the moment you learned the phrase “breakthrough infection.” Tens of thousands of people, mostly gay men, flooded the streets and filled the nightclubs over the July 4 weekend, and although most were vaccinated, Covid ripped through the town, ultimately infecting some 1,100 people.

At the time, the outbreak seemed like a cautionary tale, and there were subtle echoes of the stigmatization of gay men in the wake of HIV/AIDS. But as Maryn’s reporting shows, it’s now clear this was actually a success story. The Provincetown wave could have led to hundreds of thousands of additional cases. Instead it fizzled. Though Delta ravaged the US that summer, genetic analysis showed that almost none of the infections were descended from Provincetown. Officials were able to track and contain the outbreak thanks to two things: Massachusetts’ unusually good public health and medical research infrastructure, and the gay community’s hard-learned habits of being transparent about infectious disease. As a specialist at the Centers for Disease Control told Maryn, “It was amazing. Other CDC folks will tell you: It was unlike any other group they’ve dealt with in terms of getting information.”

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Here’s the thing, though: As hopeful a story as Provincetown is, if anything it merely underlines how hard it is to control Covid without those unusual circumstances. Indeed, as we’ve been reporting, the US’s ability to track and ward off future waves of the virus is diminishing, not improving, as funding shrinks and testing data becomes patchier. In the ongoing evolutionary war between humans and SARS-CoV-2, the virus is winning, at least in the sense that it has begun to evolve much faster than we can keep up. We’ve pretty much embraced living with it and accepted that we’ll keep on catching it. It’s true that the disease hasn’t been getting more deadly with successive subvariants of Omicron, but there’s still no guarantee that trend will continue. As our strategies for living with this disease evolve alongside the virus, what public health measures, if any, do you want to see stay in place? What lessons do you worry the US, and the world, aren't learning? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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