‘Think about them like individual songs’: UW-Madison professor explains COVID-19 variants

Cases of COVID-19 variants are rising statewide, but UW-Madison professor says that’s not a reason to panic.
Published: Mar. 5, 2021 at 11:20 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Wisconsin now has two different COVID variant strains spreading in the state. On Friday, DHS confirmed one case of the South African variant, and 26 cases of the UK variant. Just one week ago, the state had just six cases of only the UK variant.

One UW-Madison professor has found an innovative way to explain what these new numbers mean—and why it isn’t a reason to panic just yet.

“I think a really useful way of thinking about these variants isn’t to think about their abstract names which are impossible to remember, it isn’t to think about where they were originally from, but instead, it’s to think about them like individual songs,” explained UW-Madison professor of pathology and laboratory medicine Dave O’Connor.

O’Connor said when it comes to COVID-19 variants, he looks back to the 80s and the Billboard Top 100 charts as a helpful analogy.

“It might be like the Beatles. It might have taken over all of England, and then it might come here and take over the US,” O’Connor said of the variants. He continued, “It could also be like Robbie Williams...It never really launched here in the US.”

While cases of the UK variant are rising in Wisconsin, O’Connor said they are still relatively rare.

“It’s like the song you hear once a day,” he said.

O’Connor added it is too early to tell what happens next.

“Back in 1983, there was no way to know what was going to happen to Prince’s song “1999″ and it actually only peaked at position number 12,” O’Connor said.

Continuing his analogy, he contrasted this example to Prince’s song “When Doves Cry” which eventually landed at #1. At this point, O’Connor said we do not know which category the variants fall into.

O’Connor cautioned if other variants from South Africa and Brazil become more common, that could be a cause for concern. He said those variants look “biologically different.”

“They’re really disruptive,” O’Connor said, adding, “Nirvana displacing power pop and hair metal in the early 90s.”

However, O’Connor and other health experts agree the vaccine is the key to controlling the variants.

“One way to keep it under control is to get as many people vaccinated as we can,” said William Hartman, principal investigator for UW Health’s Astrazeneca vaccine trial.

In the context of his analogy, O’Connor explained, “Vaccines are like streaming services. If we get a vaccine, it might mean the end of CDs entirely.”

O’Connor actually debuted this music analogy at a presentation for the National Institute of Health. He said the main takeaway is that it remains important people practice safety precautions, but the variants are not a reason to panic yet.

Though cases of COVID-19 variants are on the rise, overall COVID-19 cases are on a downward trend statewide. The seven-day rolling average fell below 500 for the first time since July 2020, and Wisconsin now has a 22-day streak of reporting less than 1,000 cases daily.

Watch O’Connor’s full interview:

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