Imperfect Copies Are A Problem

Take a freshly painted work of art, or a photograph that’s printed the first time. Now, feed it through a copy machine, and compare the copy to the original. Repeat the process, using the copy to create a second copy, then the second copy to create the third. What you find is, gradually, imperfections creep into the copy.

Take a large digital image, with 100 million pixels, and make repeated copies of it. Computers do an amazing job, but everyone knows, sooner or later, bit level errors do turn up. You can’t copy that much data perfectly every time.

Take a small clump of RNA (we call them viruses), which has millions of components, and have it replicate endlessly. You see the same process, with imperfections appearing in the copies. Tiny imperfections, certainly, but they are imperfections.

In most cases, the imperfections in copies can be ignored. Either they are insignificant in size, or they don’t change the image enough to make any difference. Sometimes, they wreck the image, and the image gets destroyed. Sometimes, they enhance the image in surprising ways.

I bring this up because it’s my understanding of how viruses work. The virus duplicates itself, endlessly, but not quite perfectly. Imperfections appear in the duplicates. Most of those imperfections are harmless, or meaningless. Some of those imperfections actually damage the virus, making the virus less virulent, and thus killing of virus copies that have those imperfections.

But, sometimes, if enough copies of the virus get made, copies show up that have improvements in them. That make the virus more virulent. That make the virus better at making copies of itself, and spreading faster. That help the virus infect animals, and spread.

When you remove all limits to the rate at which a virus can copy itself, the rate at which such changes occur may not increase, at a statistical level. However, due to the unlimited way in which the virus spreads, the appearance of such improved copies of a virus will become more frequent. It’s like making more copies in less time. The more copies you make, the better the odds that one will have an improved ability to spread, or copy itself.

This is where people can take individual actions to reduce how rapidly such changes happen in a virus. If people can take action that slows down the rate at which the virus replicates, they slow down the rate at which the imperfect replication process can produce an imperfect copy that improves the virus, and makes the virus more virulent.

Some societies understand this. They use social methods to slow down the virus replication process. They wear masks. They practice social distancing. They wash their hands thoroughly. They care about their neighbors, and want their neighbors to be safe from the virus.

Some societies do not understand this. They reject social methods to slow down the virus replication process. They refuse to wear masks. They refuse to practice social distancing. They refuse to wash their hands. They want personal freedoms above everything else, even if their neighbors get sick and die.

This is what is happening in the world now, from my perspective. A significant section of the world population is effectively not attempting to slow down the virus replication process, and instead, is letting the virus run wild, and replicate at will. This increases the number of copies of the virus that get made. And as I’ve already said, the more copies that get made, the more times the virus can make an imperfect copy that improves its ability to spread.

In the case of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, you can see this replication process at work, with new variants of the virus occurring. In each case, the significant new variants were identified in parts of the world that do not have social practices that slow the replication process of the virus down. The Delta and Omicron variants are the best examples. Simply identify where those variants first appeared, and it becomes apparent that letting the virus run wild, and make endless copies of itself, improves the odds that the virus will make an imperfect copy of itself that increases its ability to make copies of itself, simply because more imperfect copies of the virus turn up, since the virus can make more copies of itself.

Things like vaccines can help the body form defenses that limit the rate at which the virus can make copies of itself. This is why we have vaccines. Not to prevent the virus from happening, but to limit how many copies of itself it can make. If the virus can’t make copies of itself, the number of imperfect copies decreases, and the chances an imperfect copy of the virus gets made that improves the ability of the virus to spread, decreases.

A vaccine does not prevent the virus. It’s not supposed to. It’s not meant to. It’s purpose is to reduce the rate at which the virus can replicate itself. It is, again, a social tool to limit the rate of replication, and thus the rate of change, that a virus can have.

Now, we have societies, and sections within societies, that are rejecting this tool, the vaccination, and insisting on allowing the virus to replicate endlessly. As I’ve already said, this replication process is the cause of virus variants that improve the spread of the virus.

These social behaviors that make no effort to limit the rate of replication of a virus leave me wondering how the societies based on them have survived, and how many times those societies have endured hardships, and diseases, they didn’t need to endure.

Suffice to say, it is an educational experience to watch how the societies of the world behave when a virus, such as the SARS-Cov-2 virus, spreads to every society. It becomes very apparent, looking at virus case numbers, which societies believe in limiting the rate of replication of the virus, and which societies don’t. It also becomes very apparent how limiting the rate of replication limits the number of imperfect copies that improve the virulent nature of the virus, while not limiting the rate of replication increases the rate at which imperfect copies appear that improve the ability of the virus to spread, and make additional copies of itself.

It is something I have been watching, and thinking about a great deal in the past two years, as the COVID-19 virus has spread across the planet.


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