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Seeing Through Market´s Variant/Covid Fears
I wrote a brief piece last summer, with the intention of giving my readers the ability to see through the market’s concerns about delta. Today, I share some thoughts which will help you navigate this new wave of concerns, to help you optimize your investment decisions. It all comes down to really understanding how vaccines work and how the virus mutates. Once you fundamentally understand that, the water becomes much clearer.
As you may know, all viruses mutate. Some have a remarkable ability to mutate, such as influenza. This is why we need a new influenza vaccine yearly - it manages to slip past our immune system after a while because it changes so much. COVID´s ability to mutate is actually far lower than influenza´s but not zero and therefore, worth keeping an eye on. This is also why we have not see the genomic code of the current vaccines being updated. Vaccines still use the virus´ genetic sequence from when this all started. But why? Let me first start with how a cell works.
Cells are factories, as you will read more about in the upcoming $DNA (Gingko Bioworks) deep dive. Inside any kind of cell, there is a type of organelle (little machine) known as the ribosome. All the ribosome does is read genomic code and turn it into proteins, which then do useful things inside our bodies. The function each protein has inside an organism depends on its shape. Our immune system knows which proteins are foreign and which are not, by looking at their shape. When it functions well, it usually attacks foreign proteins.
That is the cell, in a very summarized version, tailored to the purpose of this post. So how do vaccines work? All vaccines do is insert genomic code into our cells, so that ribosomes can then produce a protein of a specific shape. COVID vaccines instruct our ribosomes to produce the S protein, which COVID uses to dock to our cells and unload malicious genetic information, to then override our ribosomes. After getting the vaccine, when our ribosomes produce the S protein, it is recognized as foreign by our immune systems and as a result, it produces antibodies and remembers how to produce them for the next time the virus attempts to invade. Antibodies are proteins with a specific shape, which enable them to latch onto the foreign protein and ultimately, render it useless. In this way, vaccines prevent COVID from docking with our cells in the first place and ultimately, from infecting us.
So after getting the vaccine, you get antibodies that are looking to bind to whatever S proteins they may find. This happens because proteins, due to their molecular structure, have tiny electromagnetic charges which pull them together. Shape determines which proteins are attracted to what other proteins. Below, you can see some antibodies binding to S proteins.
When we hear about variants, we usually hear about mutations of the virus´S protein. What you must know is that S protein is 4 times larger than the average protein in the body, meaning that in the proteomic world it is effectively a sort of skyscraper. I learnt this listening to this interview of Moderna´s CEO. Also, the S protein actually has many protuberance (little edges and dents) around the edges. What this means is that our ribosomes do not produce an antibody with a specific shape that the virus can outrun easily, but rather a soup of antibodies to bind to the different small shapes at the surface of the S protein. This effectively means that the S protein has to mutate a lot for our immune system to not recognize it. Hearing on the news that the new South African variants has “32 mutations” must be placed into context. Below, you can see a (terrible) sketch of mine of what this looks like:
The red circle are antibodies, binding to the protuberances in the S protein, which sits on top of the virus´nucleus, which in turn contains its RNA. In the S protein, there is a large number of protuberances and so a very considerable mutation is required for the antibody soup (or underlying cellular memory) to become obsolete.
The bottom line is therefore that whilst mutations need to be monitored, this is a part of the process that we are in. Vaccine producers, such as Moderna and Pfizer, are actively on the watch to update the genomic code of the vaccines when needed, because it is their business to do so. We have not seen this happen as of yet for the reasons explained above, but it is natural that we will see it happen going forward, as the virus continues to mutate.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned in my last post on the topic this summer, different key players in the COVID crisis have different reward functions to attend to. Variant scares are a good business for media, whilst governments prefer to err on the precautionary side of things. On the other hand, investors need to understand that the infrastructure to immunize the population is already engaged and that all we need to do is update the genomic code of our vaccines, as the virus gets along with its business. My recommendation is to continue learning more about biology, because it is going to be playing an increasingly relevant role in our world going forward. This is just the beginning of the genomics / proteomics show.
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