Wealthy nations — including the U.S., the U.K. and the EU — have vaccinated their citizens at a rate of one person per second over the last month, while most developing countries still haven’t administered a single shot, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Why it matters:As higher-income countries aim to achieve herd immunity in a matter of months, most of the world’s vulnerable people will remain unprotected.
Experts say that mutations that may arise while the virus spreads could be a danger to us all, vaccinated or not.
The big picture: Even though more vaccines will arrive in developing nations soon, only 3% of people in those countries are likely to be vaccinated by mid-2021.
At best, only a fifth of their population will be vaccinated by the end of the year, per the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
What we’re watching: Three dozen countries have bought several times the amount of vaccine that they’ll need to vaccinate their entire population.
The U.S. alone has ordered more than a billion extra doses, Science Magazine reports. Global health leaders are saying it’s time to figure out where all of these excess doses will go.
“Over the next year or two, U.S. surplus doses and those from other countries could add up to enough to immunize everyone in the many poorer nations that lack any secured COVID-19 vaccine,” Science writes.
President Biden‘s announcement that there will be enough vaccines for all adults by May is raising hopes for a return to normal soon.
But the next few months in the pandemic are critical. Concern is growing over moves by some states to lift restrictions already, while new variants of the virus are on the rise in the U.S. Experts warn that actions taken now risk delaying getting back to some semblance of normal.
Health officials are urging restrictions to remain in place for the final stretch, saying that it will not be much longer before the situation markedly improves, and it does not make sense to lift all restrictions when widespread vaccinations are in sight.
Biden on Wednesday issued his most forceful comments to date, calling out the governors of Texas and Mississippi for lifting their states’ mask mandates and all capacity limits on businesses.
He noted that vaccinations for all adults are on the horizon.
“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it,” he said. “It still matters.”
Estimates differ on when exactly the country might return to something like “normal,” though many say they expect this summer will be much better.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC on Wednesday that he thinks even as soon as April will be “profoundly better,” given that vaccine supply will have ramped up significantly, allowing vaccine availability to be “wide open” by then.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday put the time frame at three months until the country could be vaccinated.
“The next three months are pivotal,” she said.
Thomas Tsai, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that by summer, “I think we can have a much more, I don’t want to say normal, but at least a ‘new normal’ summer.”
But experts warn that the return to normal could actually be delayed if restrictions are lifted too soon, causing a new spike in cases in the near term.
Tsai likened the current situation to the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game. “Progress has been made; it’s OK to take stock of that,” he said. “How we play the next two innings determines if this is a single game or turns into a doubleheader.”
Maintaining restrictions as people get fatigued and see the end in sight could be a challenge, though, particularly in red states that were skeptical of instituting health restrictions from the start.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, pointed to the ongoing vaccination campaign in saying that the time has come to end restrictions.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said Tuesday. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.”
Responding to Biden’s criticism on Wednesday, Reeves added: “Mississippians don’t need handlers.”
“As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts,” he added. “I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them.”
Gottlieb argued for a middle ground, saying that public health officials risk having the public simply ignore all guidance if they do not provide a “realistic glide path to a better future,” though March is “a little bit premature” to lift all restrictions.
“March really is a difficult month,” he said. “It sits between two worlds. February was a raging epidemic, it was very clear we needed to have measures in place. I think April’s going to be profoundly better, and March is sitting in the middle.”
Variants of the virus also pose a threat that adds another degree of uncertainty. The most common variant spreading in the US, known as B117, or the United Kingdom variant, responds well to vaccines, but is more infectious.
“The B117 hyper-transmissible variant looms ready to hijack our successes to date,” Walensky said.
Variants first identified in Brazil and South Africa also pose a risk of reducing the effectiveness of the vaccines, though the extent is not fully clear, and vaccine manufacturers are preparing backup plans to provide booster shots or updated vaccines if necessary.
“We are at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” Walensky said. “So much can turn in the next few weeks.”
After weeks of declines, both cases and deaths are ticking up. According to CDC data, the seven-day average of new cases per day, at 66,000, is up 3.5 percent from the past week, and deaths, at just over 2,000 per day, are up 2.2 percent.
Barbara Alexander, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, issued a statement Wednesday calling on people to continue wearing masks, distancing from others, and avoiding large gatherings.
“All of these measures together will bring us closer to ending the pandemic,” she said. “Abandoning them now will postpone the day we can put COVID-19 behind us.”
Still, the declines in past weeks and the increasing pace of vaccinations is offering some hope after a long year.
“I’m more optimistic than I have been in the last year,” Tsai said.
The U.S. may be on the verge of another surge in coronavirus cases, despite weeks of good news.
The big picture:Nationwide, progress against the virus has stalled. And some states are ditching their most important public safety measures even as their outbreaks are getting worse.
Where it stands: The U.S. averaged just under 65,000 new cases per day over the past week. That’s essentially unchanged from the week before, ending a six-week streak of double-digit improvements.
Although the U.S. has been moving in the right direction, 65,000 cases per day is not a number that indicates the virus is under control. It’s the same caseload the U.S. was seeing last July, at the height of the summer surge in cases and deaths.
What we’re watching: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday rescinded the state’s mask mandate and declared that businesses will be able to operate at full capacity, saying risk-mitigation measures are no longer necessary because of the progress on vaccines.
But the risk in Texas is far from over. In fact, its outbreak is growing: New cases in the state rose by 27% over the past week.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also scrapped all business restrictions, along with the state’s mask mandate, on Tuesday. New cases in Mississippi were up 62% over the past week, the biggest jump of any state.
The daily average of new daily cases also increased in eight more states, in addition to Mississippi and Texas.
How it works:If Americans let their guard down too soon, we could experience yet another surge — a fourth wave — before the vaccination campaign has had a chance to do its work.
The vaccine rollout is moving at breakneck speed. The U.S. should have enough doses for every adult who wants one by May, President Biden said this week.
At the same time, however, more contagious variants of the coronavirus are continuing to gain ground, meaning that people who haven’t gotten their vaccines yet may be spreading and contracting the virus even more easily than before.
What’s next: The bigger a foothold those variants can get, the harder it will be to escape COVID-19 — now or in the future.
The existing vaccines appear to be less effective against two variants, discovered in South Africa and Brazil, which means the virus could keep circulating even in a world where the vast majority of people are vaccinated.
And that means it’s increasingly likely that COVID-19 will never fully go away — that outbreaks may flare up here and there for years, requiring vaccine booster shots as well as renewed protective measures.
The bottom line: Variants emerge when viruses spread widely, which is also how people die.
Whatever “the end of the pandemic” looks like — however good it’s possible for things to get — the way to get there is through ramping up vaccinations and continuing to control the virus through masks and social distancing. Not doing those things will only make the future worse.
“Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is still the same answer and the same path forward as it was on December 1 or January 1 … but the expected outcome isn’t the same,” Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, told Reuters.
Although the nation reached a grim and long-dreaded milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 lives lost to COVID—more than were killed in two World Wars and the Vietnam conflict combined—the news this week was mostly good, as key indicators of the pandemic’s severity continued to rapidly improve.
Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations for COVID were down 30 percent, deaths were down 22 percent, and new cases declined by 32 percent—the lowest levels since late October. This week’s numbers declined somewhat more slowly than last week’s, leading Dr. Rachel Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to caution people against letting their guard down just yet: “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” Of particular concern are new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in numerous states, including one in New York and another in California, that may be more contagious than the original virus.
The best news of the week was surely a report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluating the new, single-shot COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), showing it to be highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death caused by COVID, including variants. On Friday, a panel of outside experts met to assess whether to approve the J&J vaccine for emergency use, which would make it the third in the nation’s arsenal of COVID vaccines. If approved, the vaccine will be rolled out next week, according to the White House, with up to 4M doses available immediately.
The sooner the better: new data show that since vaccinations began in late December, new cases among nursing home residents have fallen more than 80 percent—a hopeful glimpse at the future that lies ahead for the general population once vaccines become widely available.