Seeing The New COVID Variant Smoke

There is evidence of a new highly-infectious strain of COVID-19 emerging in the UK and other countries. This post is an elaboration of my current model of it, as promised in my review of LessWrong’s collection on Epistemology. Most of the information I have on this new COVID variant comes from this post by Zvi, the links from it, and comments. Read those if you haven’t yet.

Though I usually strive to have timeless content on my blog, I’m making another COVID exception. Ten months ago I write Seeing The Smoke and dozens of people told me it flipped the switch for them and let them prepare for COVID in time; this post may end up even timelier. I anticipate both my model and the evidence that feeds into it to change rapidly, everything below is a snapshot of what I believe as of Christmas Day 2020. Reminder: I am not an expert on any of this, just the Putanumonit guy putting a num on it.


The median prediction on Zvi’s LW post is around 60% that the new variant is at least 50% more transmissible and same for there being a third COVID wave in the US:

I would add a few things without straying too far from the crowd’s wisdom.

First, I would revise the crowd’s estimate for the first question down for no other reason than that the poll came at the end of a post titled We’re Fucked, It’s Over. If ever there was going to be a framing effect pushing estimates upwards, this would be it. There are also more alternative explanations for the information coming out of the UK than Zvi accounted for.

Instead of just saying that that there’s a 60% chance it has a 50% higher transmissibility, I would break it down something like this:

  • 35% that the new strain is a nothingburger.
  • 30% that it’s slightly more transmissible, say with an effective reproduction rate (rt) 20% higher.
  • 30% that it’s significantly more transmissible, e.g. 70% higher.
  • 5% in the Captain Malcolm Reynolds probability bucket.

I also believe it very likely that new variant is already present in the US, given that a dozen flights from London have landed in NYC just in the last week. Travel from the UK has been restricted on Christmas eve but the dust from the bolting horse has already settled by the barn door.

A variant that’s just 20% more infectious will still take over exponentially from the old variant resulting in a chart like the one we see.

Several people have tried to explain away the growth of the new variant as being due to things like catching a superspreader, but it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It could have rt=1.2 and catch a superspreader event to make it look like rt=1.5-1.7. This is why I am giving extra weight to the hypothesis of slightly higher transmissibility.

I also think there’s a huge difference between rtnew=1.2 and rtnew=1.7 (here I mean rt relative to the old strain given the same measures of containment) in terms of outcomes.

In the first case, to keep the virus suppressed (i.e. r<1) we need to take measures that would have yielded rt=0.8 for the old strain. New York sustained that number (albeit never dipping below 0.7) for two months running in the spring. Given that ~30% of the state has already been infected, that makes this all the more doable. Gyms and restaurants will close and people will grumble, but we’ll probably survive till the vaccine.

rtnew=1.7 is an entirely different case. Suppressing it would require the sort of lockdown that would yield rt=0.6 for the old strain, a number that has never been reached by any US state for any amount of time. I see no way in hell that Americans would agree to a lockdown much stricter than any we’ve had so far, especially after they’ve been promised that the worst is behind them.

Rural red tribers will not agree because Biden is in the White House. Urban blue tribers because containment in cities is much harder anyway. Young people will not agree because the virus harms them less than the lockdown. Dumb people will not agree because they will not understand the science and math and smart people, seeing that, will try to get infected early before the hospitals are overwhelmed.

No one will believe any of the “experts” at the CDC or WHO or Dr. Fauci because they have all repeatedly lied and tried to manipulate people and reversed their positions without admitting that they have. They all have negative credibility at this point with many Americans.

If the new virus is 1.7 times as infectious I believe that Americans will most likely simply give up on containment, the populace if not the government. We’ll have time to vaccinate the most vulnerable 10-20% of the population by April-May, at which point the majority of everyone else will get the new strain.

There is a small chance that the US will get its shit together vaccine-wise and beat the new strain in a race. Israel, for example, has a simple system in place to vaccinate the vast majority of its 9-million strong population by the end of March. On this timetable, even a virus with rt=1.7 will not have time to explode before herd immunity kills it.

The same is not true of the US, which is currently projected to reach majority immunization no earlier than the late summer by refusing to do basic things to rush the process.

And what’s the Captain Mal bucket?

The new variant being more virulent in addition to being more infectious. Another newer strain that’s even worse. Or, in a nightmare scenario, a highly-transmissible mutation that also renders the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines ineffective.

If COVID has taught us one thing, it’s that it’s all usually worse than we thought.

So the bottom line is that I currently estimate a 30-35% chance of us being truly fucked, in the sense of dozens of millions more Americans getting COVID in 2021 and hundreds of thousands more dead, along with local attempts at extreme lockdowns. I’m not going to speculate on the further implications of this for things like financial markets or the fabric of our civilization. I also anticipate that I’ll be revising these numbers in the next few days.

But rationalists are seeing the smoke again.

19 thoughts on “Seeing The New COVID Variant Smoke

    1. https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/interactive-map
      Zoom in towards london to see local authority areas. The bar at the top scrolls week by week. Each colour is twice as many cases as the last.
      There are so many areas that have changed colour every week in december. Parts of london are seeing a weekly case rate of over 3,000. That’s 3% of their total population testing positive between the 15th and 22nd.

      You don’t need to know about mutations to see that something new and worrying is afoot.

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  1. Not expecting the German vaccine distribution scheme to be much better than the US one (although they at least prioritize by age pretty well), but I don’t really have much at stake here either. Haven’t really left self-quarantine and WFH since February except for grocery shopping and quiet walks alone in the woods and I’m not gonna leave it now before significant changes in incidence rates are visible.

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    1. I agree but I would rather use the word “different”. We have a different situation, very strict lockdown. So obviously the scheme will be different compared to the US. Even though there are a certain amount of people that are still going to the office in order to work, some companies still rent the working space, for example, https://www.matchoffice.de/mieten/buro/frankfurt. Conditions, in order to work in an office, are on the highest anticoronavirus measurements.

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  2. Can you elaborate a bit more on expert credibility (Fauci, WHO, CDC, etc) and what happened to it? I’m not keeping a very close eye on the US but this could be big for social opinion dynamics post-pandemic.

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    1. I had this question too. What is Jacob’s evidence for thinking that CDC/Fauci have low credibility among average Americans? They have low cred among smart people I know. And I think they should have low cred among average people. But is it clear they do?

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      1. For myself, I am familiar with specific complaints about WHO (when they said no evidence of human-human or asymptomatic transmission, and refusing to acknowledge the existence of Taiwan even at the expense of meaningful dialogue about pandemic policy). I am less knowledgable about WHO or Fauci in particular.

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        1. I’m not asking about what the complaints are, I’m asking about what the evidence is that public confidence in CDC/WHO/Fauci is low (or lower this year.)

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      2. They seem to be toxic among the right half of the political spectrum, from what I’ve seen online. The smart righties are saying the same stuff as the rationalists, and the dumb righties think it’s all a big hoax they’re perpetrating. And if your name is mud for half the populace, you’ll need something other than your name to contain a pandemic.

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  3. A point of hope is that currently human-human contact is greatly reduced compared to last February, at least in Boston. Buses are half-full at most, >95% of people in masks, no one organizing large gatherings. And testing capacity is not perfect but much better. Even a 70% more contagious virus would get stuck around r not much bigger than 1. Which is, as you said, no chance of containing it, but a slow enough spread that I’d give <10% chance for Boston hospitals to be overwhelmed in the sense that I would get significantly worse treatment if I get sick in the middle of the wave.
    That is to say, I’d get vaccinated ASAP, but if not, I would rather try to weather this wave than try to catch it early “before hospitals crash”. I am also much more scared of long-term effects (that a hospital won’t help me with) than chances of immediate death (being young, healthy and with a good immune system), and also in a good position to bunker down for another April-May if needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. R is already greater than 1 right now. Jumping that to 1.7 times higher means you’re looking at R=1.8 or so, which is more than a doubling a week. We’ll need to be isolating a lot harder to avoid this, at a time when everyone is exhausted and miserable.

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  4. smart people, seeing that, will try to get infected early before the hospitals are overwhelmed.

    I think isolating until a vaccine is available is the smart move. It’s not like it’ll be exceptionally more difficult to not get infected just because the virus is more transmissible.

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  5. From your tweet linked in your post:

    If the UK strain is for real, the difference reaching mass immunity in March vs. August (my current best guess for the US) is not just 5 months of lockdowns, but whether half the population gets sick or not.

    I strongly disagree with your claim that the difference is “whether half the population gets sick or not.”

    This seems clearly exaggerated to me since (a) 25% of people in the US have already been infected, and (b) probably (according to Good Judgment superforecasters) more than an additional 25% of people in the US will be vaccinated by the end of March (GJ’s median estimate is enough vaccines to inoculate 128M people in the US will be distributed by March 31st). So even if no one gets infected in 2021 (an obviously ridiculously optimistic scenario) at least 50% of the population of the US will already have immunity by April. When you factor in the infections that will likely occur in Q1 2021 and the fact that herd immunity occurs before a full 100% of people are immune, it seems very clear to me that your “half” is actually higher than a reasonable upper bound, and that the real difference (in terms of percent of the US that gets sick with COVID) between the world that we are in and the world in which on March 31st we magically give everyone in the US who has not yet gotten sick a vaccine is probably more like 5-20%, and almost definitely (95%?) not more than 30%.

    Thanks for sharing your herd immunity belief (August best guess)–you’re the first person I have seen share an estimate on this. If you’re aware of others who have forecasted this, I’d appreciate it if you pointed me in their direction. And if you’re willing to share your reasoning, or give me any pushback on mine, I’d appreciate that too.

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  6. Omg I thought it was “put an um on it” not “put a num on it” – I wonder if you meant this double entendre.

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