Einstein's mistake, Redux: COVID-19 as a Paradigm Shift

What if our response to the pandemic has been wrong - from the start?

Note: **My new Prometheus Hub page** compiles most of the research and resources I’ve used/found/analyzed/watched/etc. during [and prior to] my efforts with DRASTIC, so that those who are looking for more about COVID’s origins can find it in one place.
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A lack of acceptance regarding the importance of aerosol transmission in the spread of COVID-19 has certainly hampered efforts to control the pandemic. There is a much more concerning possibility, however - one with far more disturbing implications. Many pathogens can spread via droplets, of course, and some small percentage of those droplets will be light enough to remain suspended in the air. But, what if COVID-19 isn’t typical? What if its primary route of transmission is aerosol?

In that instance, COVID-19 would represent a paradigm shift for epidemiology; it would mean we have prioritized the wrong things in our response, and very likely magnified the impact and spread of the virus. The history of science is full of similar transformational events that changed our understanding of the world. Such shifts usually come with growing pains, but humans have always adapted to storm clouds that appear on the horizon. What makes the COVID-19 pandemic different is that our responses haven’t yet turned the corner despite the unprecedented global efforts to overcome it.

Evidence continues to grow in support of aerosol transmission being the driving force of SARS-CoV-2’s success, but that would be a horrific discovery if fully confirmed. Why? Because it would mean that our scientists missed the paradigm shift when it happened, and have been fighting tanks and machine guns with slings and arrows-with predictably tragic losses as the result.

Common sense cannot escape the gravitational pull of our scientific arrogance.

Albert Einstein’s genius is so famous that his last name has literally become synonymous with exceptionally high intelligence, but most non-physicists have never heard of the ideas that he ultimately got wrong-and not a little bit wrong.

His special and general theories of relativity jointly stand as one of the truly monumental paradigm shifts in the history of human scientific advancement, but I’d argue that the achievement is even more impressive because he ‘discovered’ the concepts by thinking - a lot - about the interplay between gravity, space and time. The ‘hard part’ was spending a decade trying to figure out the equations that could prove and explain the ideas from his daydreams.

It’s ironic that Einstein’s revolutionary conception of gravity was also the source of his greatest ‘blunder’ [his words]. Other scientists applied his ideas to cosmological mysteries and quickly realized that relativity’s ability to solve complex questions like the erroneous orbit of Mercury had universal implications. Einstein, like virtually all scientists since Isaac Newton, believed that the universe was static and eternal; his theory, however, clearly pointed towards an expanding universe instead. Einstein’s relativity contained the Greek letter lambda ‘Λ’as a sort of placeholder that would balance the equation to so that the framework of an unchanging universe would remain intact.

It only took 14 years for Einstein’s theory to be proven right - against his wishes - courtesy of Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the universe in 1929. Einstein’s folly showed how even transcendent geniuses can fail to appreciate all of the implications of a paradigm shift, even when they cause it. The difference between relativity and COVID-19. of course, is that the implications of misunderstanding relativity were harmless in the short-term.

Horses vs Tanks

COVID-19 is the second global pandemic in human history - prior events took decades to spread, but modern transportation has eliminated the element of time such that it’s the changing of the seasons between the Northern & Southern hemispheres [and the emergence of viral variants] that have dictated the rhythm of COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.

It is painfully ironic, then, that Thomas Friendman’s “Flattening” of the earth through technology has also produced an unintended consequence - the scientific response to COVID-19 was highly coordinated in its close-minded approach. From the beginning, public health officials chose to silence dissent to give the appearance of speaking with one voice, apparently afraid that a lack of consensus would undermine public confidence in their efforts.

I’d argue that their lack of honesty has been the bigger problem.

Aerosol Transmission

It’s incredibly important to understand the difference between aerosol and droplet transmission, and each of the following two videos can do that more effectively than I can manage in the space allowed by Substack [the 1st link is 2 minutes, the embedded video is 15, but excellent]:

Good Morning America

It isn’t difficult to understand that droplets from a sneeze that quickly fall to the ground, vs ones that float for hours in the air, represent different types of threats. Unfortunately, public health professionals have never operated under the assumption that this method represents a substantial percentage of a viruses’ infectivity potential. Here’s here's a world-renowned aerosol scientist explaining his recent experience with the World Health Organization [4 minutes will suffice].

There are numerous practical issues that make gaining an understanding of aerosol transmission more difficult, but we should expect our global health leaders in this crisis to bridge that gap for us. Juan-Luis Jimenez, the scientist from the video, tells how he went to brief the WHO’s transmission experts and discovered that none of the 6 members of the council had experience with aerosol science [He also mentions paradigm shifts & Einstein, which wasn’t an intentional connection-but it’s also not surprising].

The seminal study that proved aerosol transmission for COVID-19 was Evidence for lack of transmission by close contact and surface touch in a restaurant outbreak of COVID-19. The researchers used closed-circuit video recordings to examine all of the movements of the diners and wait-staff, all of the objects on the tables and the numbers of times that they were touched [as seen in the picture below], and the effects of air circulation, to statistically determine the dynamics of spread. They were able to statistically rule out all methods except for aerosol transmission.

The Impact of Ignorance

Many new readers may not be familiar with my background, so it’s important to point out that my experience with aerosol considerations extends back to the beginning of my Marine Corps career, during which my specialty was Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons defense (NBC, now called CBRN). From a biological weapons perspective, Anthrax is almost exclusively the focus, because aerosolized anthrax was the primary threat [the USSR manufactured as much as 80 tons, according the Soviet defector Ken Alibekov, who had been #2 in the chain of command for their biological weapons program]. The term ‘weaponized anthrax,’ which the US and other countries also produced, specifically refers to bacterial spores that were combined with microscopic particles to help anthrax remain suspended in the air.

I taught this subject to Marines, including 3 years as an instructor of new enlisted and officer Marines within our own job field, and also re-wrote that curriculum. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that this facet of COVID-19 hits close to home; in retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time pushing this information out to the public, but there are so many aspects of the pandemic that deserve greater attention that I’ve had to narrow my focus to be effective.

My primary message for civilians has been to simply be aware of the implications of aerosol spread so that they can make common-sense decisions that reduce the risks, such as in this Twitter thread: What if we had empowered others, rather than imprisoning them? The accumulation of evidence, however, has necessitated a return to a topic I’ve been tracking since last year [what aerosols can tell us about the pandemic’s origin] and a topic whose data points may be just now starting to become clear.

Unintended Consequences

For the first time, I feel a responsibility to preface a portion of my writing with a disclaimer - what follows is my opinion that I share because the observable data and trends lend weight to the possibilities that I describe, and I honestly feel that the potential of these explanations to account for those data trends makes these issues worthy of urgent study and consideration.

Our non-pharmaceutical interventions [NPI's] have focused on proximity far more than duration; coupled with masks, this may have been self-defeating. Why would that be the case?

We should consider what happened with seasonal influenza last winter; Flu disappeared overnight, even after lockdowns ended. This makes sense, as droplet transmission is a function of larger droplets than aerosols, and basic masks and social distancing can more than handle infections centered on droplet and/or fomite characteristics [fomite refers to surfaces/objects that can be contaminated and allow pathogens to spread when touched]. Fomites and droplets are the modes of transmission upon which almost all of our public health measures have always been based; these methods respond very well to basic hygiene measures like washing hands and cleaning surfaces for mitigation.

However, IF fomites & droplets are not the primary route of transmission, what happens after a COVID-19 lock-down and other mandates? Traditional NPIS’s that address typical pathogens are much less effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 - but the false sense of security they provide means people spend more time in close proximity with others & the result is increased viral loads received, because the limited benefit of cloth masks is quickly negated. In perfectly still air, particles would be subject to the whims of Brownian Motion [somewhat ironic, as explaining Brownian Motion was what earned Einstein his Nobel Prize, not relativity]; thus, a slight breeze has profound effects on dispersion. I can't overstate the difference that improved air circulation makes when trying to protect against COVID-19 aerosols, relative to masks/intense cleaning, etc. This argument has been made but mostly ignored in practice-perhaps because wearing masks is easier & cheaper [+easier for others to see you doing]. We've reinforced the wrong behaviors-at the public's expense.

But it gets worse:

The highlights and red text in the excerpt are mine, from when I posted this snapshot to Twitter. The first point to emphasize is that aerosol transmission often decreases the amount of infectious particles needed to produce a symptomatic infection in someone. The reasoning is fairly straightforward-if a virus causes a lung infection, being able to hitch a ride directly into the lungs is a much easier trip to make. COVID-19 can cause numerous problems along the respiratory tract, but the SARS-CoV-2 virus is incredibly well-adapted to attack 3 specific types of cells/tissue [one of the others is the lining of blood vessels].

The 2nd point is less direct but just as ominous for our purposes - the greater the specialization of a virus towards aerosol transmission, the less diversity one is likely to see amongst its population. The concept itself isn’t inherently bad, but it could help explain why the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was remarkably stable during the first few months of the pandemic, since masks & lockdowns and strict cleanliness requirements would limit opportunities for the virus to become more effective at fomite and droplet transmission.

Notice that most of the functional mutations acquired by COVID-19 in the last two years have centered on the ‘spike’ protein and its genomic environs; there’s certainly been little need to become even more efficient at attacking various systems within the body. The spike itself is central to transmission, and the primary superpower of the ‘Delta’ variant is the sheer number of infectious particles [virions] that it produces.

The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions

Scientists have been aware of most of these aspects of COVID-19 for much of the pandemic, so you’re forgiven for assuming that all of these considerations have driven our public health actions.

What if these actions have also exacerbated the problem they were meant to solve? What if the exponentially increased virion shedding of Delta is at lest partially a result of the unprecedented global scale of our like-minded public health responses?

-The diner study shows that SARS-CoV-2’s aerosol skills were advanced from the start. IF its aerosol capabilities were determinant, rather than incidental to transmission efficacy, could our NPI's have intensified that selection pathway?

-They effectively negated influenza, which.... doesn’t boast the effective aerosol capability.

-This question seems more pertinent given our current situation, in which vaccines that center on the ‘spike’ protein aren't prevalent enough to smother escape variants. However, the central flaw of the spike vaccines is that their incomplete coverage of the viral genome produces an incomplete immune response that is easier for mutation and recombination to evolve beyond.

-If reliance on masks and vaccines led to people feeling more comfortable in the company of others, then all we’ve done is created false comfort in their protective potential. Few seem to understand that time trumps other factors unless you are within the social distance 6-9 foot ‘bubble.’ True aerosol transmission means you can walk into a room, sit for 30 minutes, take off your mask and still get infected by virions from someone you never saw.

-The inevitable result is that a surge in infections will occur as long as some portion of interaction remains; however, the universality of masks has meant that the virus faced intense, unprecedented global selection pressure to overcome the difficulties it faced because of masks and social distancing.

-In the past, the ability of viruses to jump from one person to another mediated the necessity to increase efficiency [kids are the traditional scapegoat for viral vector behaviors]. With COVID-19, young children have better protection from lung invasion due to TMPRSS2 efficacy that trends downward over time. They are also half the size [or less] of adults, so the aerosol virions they transmit will be floating closer to the ground. Kids can almost be viewed as a protective buffer for everyone else, because their propensity for transmission is off-set by the ease with which hitchhikers can tag along.

When all of these considerations are rolled up together, the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 should look different than what we would typically expect from the flu, and that’s certainly the case. It’s incredibly important to understand why, because if

-we’ve exacerbated the outbreaks by focusing on space but not time, we are simply encouraging behaviors that lead to higher viral doses - regardless of wearing a cloth mask or not.

-those same precautionary measures may have contributed to the selection of even more prolific AND efficient variants, while continuing to hone the aerosol capabilities that the virus already possesses.

-our vaccines target the spike, but the virus has already exponentially increased the number of infectious particles it sheds. Thus, as it evolves beyond the protection of the vaccines we have, it has been increasing in its prowess of infectivity. Where will the mediating influence come from that weakens the virus, as other seasonal viruses have done? We are making it stronger while running out of traditional methods to allow for necessary human interaction.

The longer that this pandemic stretches on, the more entrenched public health officials become in their pattern of repeating mantras ad nauseum, and doubling down on measures that show evidence of fueling further negative consequences. We are witnessing what happens when we think we’ve solved the problem without actually doing so, and just like students sitting in class rooms right now, we are ignorant of the PRIMARY driver of the spread of COVID-19. It’s not distance, layers of cloth in masks, or unvaccinated individuals.

It’s time - and eventually we will run out of it.


P.S. - this article focuses on the actions we’ve taken to mitigate and overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s only 1 of 3 major facets to consider. Another factor is what the efficiency of COVID-19’s aerosol transmission means in relation to its origin; a third factor would be the steps that could be taken to mitigate this different threat. Origin implications are horrific, but there is optimism when it comes to what we can do to react to an aerosol threat. As an example, Ill leave you with this: air humidity plays a crucial role in determining the viability of viral particles suspended in the air.