Monday, September 26, 2022
Sept. 26, 2022

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Flam: Luck a factor in COVID transmission


There’s a trend for experts who’ve yet to test positive for COVID to explain their disease virginity on social media, detailing all the steps they’ve taken to evade the increasingly pervasive virus. COVID virginity is becoming more special now that it describes a shrinking minority. The lucky few, like weight-loss gurus, are only too happy to share their secrets to success.

Some sound quite reasonable, such as virologist Angela Rasmussen, who tweeted that despite resuming travel to scientific conferences, she’s remained uninfected by wearing high quality masks when warranted, skipping the hotel gym, eating outdoors and walking instead of cabbing if possible.

Others are more extreme, such as the expert who tweeted that, among other measures, he sealed his N95 tightly on his face for the entire trip from the U.S. to Australia. He never removed it even to take a sip of water.

But one piece of advice almost no one is giving? Be lucky.

Pediatrician Neil Stone says that there’s no “secret” for staying COVID-19 free because there’s just too much luck involved.

He has a point. And indeed, oncologist and epidemiologist Vinay Prasad of the University of California-San Francisco told me he “did everything wrong” and still hasn’t had COVID. He’s like those people who stay skinny while eating all kinds of junk food.

As for me, I have some data that can, to an extent, quantify and explain my own good luck in avoiding COVID so far.

I’m participating in a study on immunity which allowed me to learn that my blood still carries loads of antibodies induced by my vaccine and December booster shot, and no signs of any prior infection.

Not everyone’s antibodies wane at the same rate, and in some people, the antibodies don’t wane much at all. (At some point it should become routine to collect this information to help people decide whether to get additional booster shots.)

My high level of vaccine antibodies probably explains my success more than my behavior. I make some effort to avoid COVID, but have been far from perfect. And I’ve been potentially exposed at least twice: Once last December, when someone at a small holiday gathering I’d attended developed symptoms the next day, and more recently, when I shared a large indoor space with two people who later tested positive.

But according to my lab work, I’ve never had even a silent infection.

It’s possible I was protected by my high antibodies, or that some quirk of air flow meant I never breathed in enough virus to get sick.

Or perhaps I benefited from a different form of luck.

There’s another facet to immunity called the innate immune system, which acts as a first line of defense and sometimes knocks out a virus or other pathogen before it replicates enough to elicit the production of antibodies. Good innate immunity might help explain something many of us have experienced — not getting a cold or flu even when sleeping in the same bed with the sick person through the whole illness.

Stress, diet, general health and even sunlight might all affect innate immunity. So could other factors. There’s so much we still don’t know about the immune system.

And that’s one reason we talk about “luck.” Yes, people like me are lucky — but understanding how the luck works could help other people avoid COVID, whether for the first time or for the second or third time.

Taking a closer look at what passed for luck helped researchers like Gary Taubes discover that public health had obesity all wrong, and the standard high carb/low fat diets were causing people to gain weight.

I expect that BA.5 will be the one that gets me, since it’s growing big here in the U.S., and it’s better than any other variant at sliding past antibodies induced by past infections or vaccines. But until then, I can still tell you how I’ve managed to stay thin.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She is host of the “Follow the Science” podcast.

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