Breathe easy: how respiratory viruses evolve to become milder

The Queen has suffered ‘mild, cold-like symptoms’ from her Covid-19 infection, according to Buckingham Palace. The wording reminds us that, except in the very vulnerable, the common cold is always and everywhere a mild disease. There are 200 kinds of virus that cause colds and they hardly ever debilitate healthy people, let alone kill them. Yet we were recently told by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) that ‘it is a common misconception that “viruses mutate to cause less severe disease”’. If that is the case, how did all common colds become mild — and why would Covid not do the same? As somebody with a

Has Covid changed the English language forever?

It was Nervtag that did it for me. The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) was responsible for reviewing, and then delivering, the bad tidings to the government about a new variant of the Covid-19 in the UK. So much more easily transmitted did the group judge it to be that, within hours, a Prime Minister who had said he wanted to protect Christmas at almost any cost had cancelled it, and France led what became a procession of more than 40 countries curbing travel with the UK. As alarming as the news was in itself, the name coined for the group of scientists bringing it to

Neil Ferguson’s mysterious membership of Nervtag

It seems like a lifetime ago when the Imperial College academic Neil Ferguson was caught breaking lockdown rules to meet his married lover. Since then, a whole series of mad, bad and downright nonsense regulations have come and gone. At the time though, the breach was taken very seriously by both the government and Ferguson himself, who had been the main champion of strict lockdown rules being instated in Britain. On 5 May, Ferguson promised to stand down as a government advisor, saying he regretted ‘undermining’ the government’s harsh measures on social distancing. His decision was backed by the government. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said Ferguson had made ‘the