Understanding the Evolving Threat of COVID-19

Two writers for The Atlantic take stock of where we’re at in the pandemic and what we can learn from COVID-19 variants as we look forward.

More than a year into this pandemic, there is still so much uncertainty about the coronavirus. Even with vaccines, scientific evidence around the efficacy of masking and physical distancing, there is still so much we don’t understand about COVID-19 and the variants that have swept through the population since last year.

Taking stock of this moment means taking a look at what we do know about how the virus has mutated, and then a conversation about how we can live amid a pandemic for the long term, and how, despite the initial daunting feeling of that reality, it might actually get easier with time.

Listen: The Atlantic’s Katherine Wu and Sarah Zhang on what we know about the coronavirus and how that might help us continue to live through a pandemic. 


Katherine Wu is a staff writer at The Atlantic where she covers science. Her recent piece, “The Coronavirus Could Get Worse” delves into what we can learn about the future of the pandemic by looking how the virus has been mutating since last year. “Since Day One this virus … has been mutating. That’s what viruses do. That’s what all things do when given the opportunity … [Delta] is the product of a virus that has made a playground out of the world,” explains Wu. 

Even though there are more breakthrough infections among the fully vaccinated, vaccinations help control the virus’ evolution, Wu says.

“Since Day One this virus … has been mutating. That’s what viruses do. That’s what all things do when given the opportunity … [Delta] is the product of a virus that has made a playground out of the world.” –Katherine Wu, The Atlantic

“Vaccines were not developed to eliminate positive tests,” Wu says, adding that “we don’t really know the potential evolutionary space this virus could occupy.” That means good news and bad news, Wu says. “The virus is going to eventually hit a roadblock,” says Wu, who notes that there is some concern about a mutation that evades immunity. 

Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She’s recently been writing about how to live through a seemingly never ending pandemic and what another school year means for students, teachers and parents. “It could be that this coronavirus in the long term … could be more like a fifth coronavirus that causes the common cold … A worse scenario is that this virus becomes one that is more severe, more like the flu … But flu is manageable,” says Zhang.

On the bright side, she says, “COVID has kind of given us a roadmap of how to kind of get rid of [other diseases] …There may be some strains of flu that have gone extinct over this past year because there was so little transmission.” In discussing the significant population still refusing to be get the vaccine, Zhang says she thinks “there’s a lot of emotion on both sides of this because people are genuinely afraid for their health … I understand where people are coming from, but I wish people would dial it down.” 

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