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Faye Flam

What Else Could Covid Inflict on Us? Ask Australian Rabbits

New virus variants evolve to evade hosts’ immune systems. But those immune systems also keep adapting.

You can run but you can’t hide.

You can run but you can’t hide.

Photographer: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Rabbits were the victims of the deadliest epidemic in recent history — a germ warfare attack, really — with a virus that killed off more than 99% of the 100 million rabbits inhabiting Australia in 1950. However, the virus didn’t “win” — both the virus and the rabbits are still around today and continue to influence each other’s evolution. 

There’s a lot scientists can learn from Australian rabbits about the long-term future of Covid-19. That future depends on how the virus evolves. And while evolutionary biology can’t predict precisely how it will evolve, it can lay out some possibilities. Viruses can not only change in transmissibility and virulence, they can alter the way they get into cells, start infecting different parts of the body, or find new ways to evade an animal’s immune system.