Officials say the new coronavirus strain that was first detected in the U.K. could drive an increased spread of the virus across the U.S. by March, which would mark a year since the pandemic was officially declared.
On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged that the new COVID-19 variant is more transmissible and is likely to increase outbreaks in the coming weeks if public health measures aren’t maintained, reports the New York Times.
The U.S. recorded its deadliest day of COVID-19 losses last week, and the new variant has been detected in at least 13 states.
From the Times:
In the new report, C.D.C. scientists devised a model to assess how quickly the variant might spread in the United States, assuming about 10 percent to 30 percent of people have pre-existing immunity to the virus, and another 1 million people will be vaccinated a day beginning this month.
If the variant were about 50 percent more contagious, as suggested by data from Britain, it would become the predominant source of all infections in the United States by March, the model showed. A slow rollout of vaccinations would hasten that fate.
“We know that that’s an overestimate of the current level of vaccination that’s occurring,” said Michael Johansson, a researcher at the C.D.C. “But certainly, we hope that we get to levels that are higher than that by the time that this period ends.”
All viruses accumulate mutations over time; most of the mutations disappear, but those that confer an advantage — greater contagiousness, for example, or faster replication — may take root and spread. A more transmissible variant, in particular, is likely to spread quickly through a population.
The new coronavirus has accumulated mutations of concern faster than many researchers had anticipated.
In the midst of this depressing news, the federal government is reportedly still fumbling the vaccine response. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Human Health Services, Alex Azar—who on Friday cited the Capitol attack in submitting his resignation effective January 20, when he would have been booted from office anyway—said earlier in the week that the government would be releasing its reserves of coronavirus vaccine doses in order to speed up distribution.
But it turns out those government reserves may not actually exist.
From the Washington Post:
Because both of the vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States are two-dose regimens, the Trump administration’s initial policy was to hold back second doses to protect against manufacturing disruptions. But that approach shifted in recent weeks, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Operation Warp Speed, which is overseeing vaccine distribution, stopped stockpiling second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the end of last year, those officials were told. Shipping of the last reserve doses of Moderna’s supply, meanwhile, began over the weekend.
The shift, in both cases, had to do with increased confidence in the supply chain, so Operation Warp Speed leaders felt they could reliably anticipate the availability of doses for booster shots — required three weeks later in the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech product and four weeks later under Moderna’s protocol.
But it also meant there was no stockpile of second doses waiting to be shipped, as Trump administration officials suggested this week.
Pfizer has come out and said it still has reserve doses of its vaccine ready to ship for the government, according to Reuters. But the mixed messages from the authorities executing Operation Warp Speed help explain why only 12 million Americans have been vaccinated out of the 31 million COVID-19 vaccines that have been shipped so far—there’s a lot of bad communication going on.
President-elect Biden characterized the Trump Administration’s vaccine rollout as a “dismal failure thus far,” reports CNN, and he has committed to a goal of administering 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. It’s ambitious but clearly necessary, especially if thousands more Americans could be infected by this more contagious strain of the virus in the coming weeks. Officials say the available vaccines still protect against the new variants.