The World Health Organization said Monday that the coronavirus variant first identified in India last year will be reclassified as a “variant of concern,” indicating that it has become a global health threat.
The B.1.617 variant has been found to spread more easily than the original virus, with some evidence indicating that it may evade some of the protections provided by the vaccines, according to a preliminary study. But the shots are still considered effective. The agency will provide more details on Tuesday.
The highly contagious, triple-mutant variant is also the fourth variant to be designated as a global concern, prompting enhanced tracking and analysis. The other variants are those first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
“We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, per Reuters. “There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.”
A variant is labeled as “of concern” if it is shown to be more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments, according to the WHO.
The global agency said the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India in December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020.
The variant has already spread to other countries, and many nations – including the U.S. – have moved to end or restrict travel from India.
“Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant and this lineage and all of the sub-lineages,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19.
India reported a record-high of daily coronavirus cases, averaging about 391,000 new daily cases and about 3,879 deaths per day, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“A vaccinated friend attended an indoor gathering of 35 people, half of which were unvaccinated. Nobody wore masks or socially distanced. I am vaccinated, but should I avoid contact with this person for some period of time? I am concerned that my friend may have inadvertently been exposed to variants, although no problems as of three days post-event.”
The scenario you describe is likely to be low risk to you and your friend because you’re both vaccinated. It’s not ideal — mostly from the perspective of the people at the meet-up who weren’t vaccinated yet. When non-immunized and immunized people gather in a space, precautions should account for those who haven’t had their shots yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises. Those precautions include everyone wearing masks inside in public or indoors if there’s a multi-household mix of people who aren’t vaccinated.
Mingling indoors without masks or distancing is “likely low risk for the vaccinated people,” the CDC writes (the emphasis is the agency’s). That’s because the vaccines are so protective.
Real-world results continue to support clinical trial conclusions that coronavirus vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic covid-19. In a CDC study of almost 2,500 fully vaccinated health-care workers, only three had confirmed infections. “Front-line workers were 90 percent less likely to be infected with the virus that causes covid-19,” an epidemiologist and author of that study told The Post last month.
Emerging reports also suggest vaccines hinder asymptomatic infection. Two doses of an mRNA vaccine reduced that by 92 percent in Israel, according to a study published this week in The Lancet. And there’s encouraging news that vaccines protect against variants of concern. As we mentioned above, and reported Wednesday, research in the New England Journal of Medicine showed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was “90 percent effective at blocking infections caused by the B.1.1.7 variant,” which is the more transmissible variant first detected in the U.K. The vaccine was slightly less effective, at 75 percent, against the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa.
It’s good to hear that there haven’t been any problems in the days after this gathering. From what you’ve described, it doesn’t sound as though your friend needs to take any actions like quarantining. In fact, the CDC advises quarantine is generally unnecessary for fully vaccinated people, even after known exposure, unless an immunized person begins to show symptoms.
That said, you’ve asked journalists, not doctors — here’s our usual disclaimer to consult your primary-care physician if you have specific concerns about your susceptibility to the virus. If you’re wary about jumping back into social life, that’s okay, too, and not unusual after living through an ongoing pandemic. Some psychologists suggest easing into social situations post-vaccination, borrowing from principles of exposure therapy; for instance, if you’re anxious and would like to take extra precautions for your next visit with your friend, you might suggest meeting up while outside or you can wear a mask.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week issued guidelines for what vaccinated people can safely do, the agency employed the word “risk” 43 times.
The word often carried a modifier, like so: increased risk, residual risk, low risk, potential risk, minimal risk, higher risk. The CDC did not define “low,” “minimal” or “higher,” instead using broad brushstrokes to paint a picture of post-vaccination life.
For example: “Indoor visits or small gatherings likely represent minimal risk to fully vaccinated people.”
On Wednesday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said she could not give a definitive answer to what a “small” gathering is, because there are too many variables.
“If we define a small- and medium-sized gathering, we actually also have to define the size of the space that it’s in, the ventilation that is occurring, the space between people. And so, I think we should get back to the the general concepts,” Walensky said.
The situation has left people where they’ve been since the start of the pandemic: forced to play the role of amateur epidemiologist.
In the early days of the pandemic, we wondered if we could catch the coronavirus from a passing jogger and if our groceries, fresh from the store and resting on the kitchen counter, threatened to kill us. Science has attenuated some of our earliest fears. But more than a year into this crisis, we’re still trying to perform complicated risk calculations while relying on contradictory research and shifting CDC guidance.
Risk analysis is not something humans are necessarily good at. We rely on anecdotes more than scientific data. The questions we ask rarely have a simple yes or no answer. Risk tends to be on a sliding scale. Outside of self-isolation, there is no obvious way to drive the risk of viral transmission to zero, nor is risky behavior guaranteed to result in a dire outcome. We have no choice but to live probabilistically.
The risk landscape keeps changing as well.The virus is mutating, and there are many different variants in circulation. Many people are now fully vaccinated, some only partially vaccinated (in between shots, for example), some unvaccinated and some armored with a level of immunity through natural infection. Add the extreme variation in disease severity because of age and underlying conditions, and the risk equations get so long we may run out of chalkboard.
The restrictions imposed by governments have sometimes made little sense. Casinos were open before schools in some states. Mask mandates outdoors remained in place even when indoor dining became permitted.
“It seems to me if we are going to have indoor dining, we should have mask-free jogging,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said in an email.
One thing that is incontrovertibly true: The coronavirus vaccines are remarkably safe and effective, and people should get vaccinated if possible.
“These are off-the-scale good,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “These are much better than vaccines that we rely on every year, like the flu vaccine.”
Even for people sold on vaccines, there remain lingering questions about what is and isn’t safe, and what is and isn’t the proper way to go about daily life in an increasingly vaccinated society. Here, we present some answers, with the caveat that our knowledge of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is still evolving, as is the virus itself.
Q: Why do I still need to wear a mask after I’m fully vaccinated?
A: You don’t need to wear a mask outdoors when fully vaccinated, except in crowds (such as at a sports stadium or a concert), nor do you have to wear one indoors among other vaccinated people or members of your own household.
But there are situations where you still need to mask up. You could still get infected with the coronavirus, and although it would most likely be mild or asymptomatic, you could transmit the virus to another person. Again, the odds of that happening are low, and there is encouraging data from Israel that suggests vaccinations dramatically reduce community spread.
But remember: A vaccination campaign is not simply about protecting the vaccinated individual. The goal is to build immunity broadly. Moreover, many communities still require masks in public settings — so it’s the law. It’s also polite — you don’t want to make people guess if you’ve been vaccinated or not. That probably will change when infection rates plummet and vaccinations are far more widespread.
“It is also a show of solidarity that we are still in this together,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for the World Health Organization’s covid-19 response. “It’s about you and your community, your family, your friends, your workplace, your loved ones. It’s not just about you.”
At some point, viral transmission will plummet. We’re a long way from that point. As long as the virus is circulating in our communities, we need to use what we can to limit the spread and drive down the infection rate.
“Because [the vaccines] are not perfect, that’s precisely why we are urging people to be cautious,” Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said in a recent White House covid-19 task force news briefing. “We have great confidence in vaccines. We understood they are not perfect.”
Q: If you’re vaccinated, are you definitely protected against the coronavirus?
A: You’re very likely protected from symptomatic illness. That’s why Adalja, echoing the consensus, said, “These vaccines are something that will change your life.”
In clinical trials, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were about 95 percent effective in blocking symptomatic illness after two shots. The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not quite as effective but just as good at preventing severe illness and death — which is the highest public health priority in a pandemic like this.
Q: But aren’t there also breakthrough infections?
A: As of April 26, the CDC had documented 9,245 breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated people. But look at the denominator: Those cases were among more than 95 million people. That’s fewer than 1 in 10,000 people vaccinated. (The agency noted that this is probably an undercount because of lack of testing and surveillance.) Of those rare breakthrough cases known to the CDC, 27 percent were asymptomatic and only 9 percent required hospitalization.
Adalja said people need to focus on probabilities and not anecdotes.
“This is kind of a cognitive bias that people have with many kinds of risk. It’s just like when there’s a shark attack in Australia. How much coverage does that get?” he said.
Q: Should people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine worry about blood clots?
A: If you notice unusual and serious side effects, such as severe headaches, contact your doctor. But the risk is extremely low. Federal regulators reauthorized the use of the vaccine after a 10-day pause, having found 15 cases of a serious clotting disorder among the 7 million people who had received the vaccine at that time. By any calculation, the risk of a bad vaccine reaction is much less than the risk of getting a serious case of covid-19.
Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who is an expert on vaccination, suggests that the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine suffers from bad timing. Had it been approved first, before the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, its many virtues would have been celebrated and the rare side effects minimized.
He noted that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is “refrigerator stable” for up to five weeks. The vaccine is appealing to public health officials because it’s one-and-done and can be more easily deployed in remote locations and in places where recipients are homebound.
Q: How long will natural or vaccine-induced immunity last?
A: No one knows, but the initial evidence is encouraging, said Alessandro Sette, a professor of immunology at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. A research paper published by Sette and fellow researchers in January showed that 90 percent of people who recovered from a coronavirus infection had robust levels of immunity eight months after they became sick. Immunity did not suddenly drop after eight months — that was merely the limit of the research period.
“Ninety percent having a good immune response also means 10 percent don’t. That is a reason for vaccinating and being careful even if you had the disease,” Sette said.
Immunity post-vaccination also appears durable, and there is less variability in levels of antibodies and other immune system cells following a vaccination than following a natural infection, Sette said.
Because this is a novel disease, and vaccines have not been widely deployed for very long, it is too soon to know how long antibodies will last. But Sette pointed out that the immune system has other weapons against invasive viruses, including “killer T-cells,” which continue to be able to recognize infected cells and kill them, preventing viral replication.
Q: Do the vaccines work against these new virus variants? And shouldn’t we be worried about a new variant that has even scarier, vaccine-evading mutations?
A: The immune response generated by vaccines is sufficiently protective against coronavirus variants to prevent most people from getting seriously ill.
Infectious-disease experts do worry about future mutations that could allow the virus to exhibit vaccine evasion. That said, there are limits to how much the virus can mutate — how much it can change its structure — and still function, according to Sette.
“The virus has to walk a tightrope,” he said. The virus can mutate to escape the effect of a specific antibody, but “it can’t change too much.”
He added, “While the virus has surprised us this year in a number of ways, the data we’ve seen so far does not suggest there’s an infinite number of ways the virus can mutate and escape immune recognition and still be as infectious.”
Q: When will we reach herd immunity?
A: No one knows what level of immunity would throttle virus transmission, and it probably varies from one environment to another and from one season of the year to another. But in the United States, at least, vaccinations have already had an effect. The virus increasingly is slamming into immune-system walls. Eventually, with enough vaccinations, most of the people who get infected will be dead-end alleys for the virus.
The virus appears destined to pop up in smaller outbreaks that could be more easily contained. But the virus won’t disappear, especially because it continues to spread at catastrophic rates in many countries that have low levels of vaccination. The only infectious disease-causing virus ever eradicated is smallpox.
For now, successful navigation of the pandemic may simply mean taking steps to reduce the threat of a serious case of covid-19 (as best as anyone can determine it) to the level of other threats that we typically tolerate, and which don’t tend to keep us awake at night.
Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Martin Bazant and John Bush, PhD, developed a model to calculate indoor exposure risk to COVID-19 by factoring in the amount of time spent inside, air filtration and circulation, immunization, variant strains, mask use, and respiratory activity such as breathing, eating or talking.
“We argue there really isn’t much of a benefit to the six-foot rule, especially when people are wearing masks,” Mr. Bazant told CNBC. “It really has no physical basis because the air a person is breathing while wearing a mask tends to rise and comes down elsewhere in the room so you’re more exposed to the average background than you are to a person at a distance.”
As with smoking, even people wearing masks can be affected by secondhand smoke that makes its way around the enclosed area and lingers. The same logic applies to airborne droplets of the virus, according to the study. However, the study did note that mask use by both infected and susceptible people reduces “respiratory plumes” and thus increases the amount of time people may safely spend together indoors.
When crafting guidelines, the CDC and World Health Organization have overlooked the amount of time spent indoors, Mr. Bazant claims.
“What our analysis continues to show is that many spaces that have been shut down in fact don’t need to be,” Mr. Bazant said. “Oftentimes, the space is large enough, the ventilation is good enough, the amount of time people spend together is such that those spaces can be safely operated even at full capacity, and the scientific support for reduced capacity in those spaces is really not very good.”
Opening windows or installing new fans to keep air moving may be just as effective or more effective than purchasing a new filtration system, Mr. Bazant said.
The CDC currently recommends staying at least 6 feet away from other people and wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19, citing the fact that the virus spreads mainly among people who are in close contact for a prolonged period.
“The distancing isn’t helping you that much and it’s also giving you a false sense of security, because you’re as safe at six feet as you are at 60 feet if you’re indoors. Everyone in that space is at roughly the same risk, actually,” Mr. Bazant said.
After three rounds of peer review, Mr. Bazant says he hopes the study will influence social distancing policies.
NEW DELHI — More than a year after the pandemic began, infections worldwide have surpassed their previous peak. The average number of coronavirus cases reported each day is now higher than it has ever been.
“Cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday.
A major reason for the increase: the ferocity of India’s second wave. The country accounts for about one in three of all new cases.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Earlier this year, India appeared to be weathering the pandemic. The number of daily cases dropped below 10,000 and the government launched a vaccination drive powered by locally made vaccines.
But experts say that changes in behavior and the influence of new variants have combined to produce a tidal wave of new cases.
India is adding more than 250,000 new infections a day — and if current trends continue, that figure could soar to 500,000 within a month, said Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan.
While infections are rising around the country, some places are bearing the brunt of the surge. Six states and Delhi, the nation’s capital, account for about two-thirds of new daily cases. Maharashtra, home to India’s financial hub, Mumbai, represents about a quarter of the nation’s total.
Mohammad Shahzad, a 40-year-old accountant, was one of many desperately seeking care. He developed a fever and grew breathless on the afternoon of April 15. His wife, Shazia, rushed him to the nearest hospital. It was full, but staffers checked his oxygen level: 62, dangerously low.
For three hours, they went from hospital to hospital trying to get him admitted, with no luck. She took him home. At 3:30 a.m., with Shahzad struggling to breathe, she called an ambulance. When the driver arrived, he asked if Shahzad truly needed oxygen — otherwise he would save it for the most serious patients.
The scene at the hospital was “harrowing,” said Shazia: a line of ambulances, people crying and pleading, a man barely breathing. Shahzad finally found a bed. Now Shazia and her two children, 8 and 6, have also developed covid-19 symptoms.
From early morning until late at night, Prafulla Gudadhe’s phone does not stop ringing. Each call is from a constituent and each call is the same: Can he help to arrange a hospital bed for a loved one?
Gudadhe is a municipal official in Nagpur, a city in the interior of Maharashtra. “We tell them we will try, but there are no beds,” he said. About 10 people in his ward have died at home in recent days after they couldn’t get admitted to hospitals, Gudadhe said, his voice weary. “I am helpless.”
Kamlesh Sailor knows how bad it is. Worse than the previous wave of the pandemic, like nothing he’s ever seen.
Sailor is the president of a crematorium trust in the city of Surat. Last week, the steel pipes in two of the facility’s six chimneys melted from constant use. Where the facility used to receive about 20 bodies a day, he said, now it is receiving 100.
“We try to control our emotions,” he said. “But it is unbearable.”
We’re a year into the coronavirus pandemic, so the math that undergirds its risks should by now be familiar. We all should know, for example, that the ability of the virus to spread depends on it being able to find a host, someone who is not protected against infection. If you have a group of 10 people, one of whom is infected and nine of whom are immune to the virus, it’s not going to be able to spread anywhere.
That calculus is well known, but there is still some uncertainty at play. To achieve herd immunity — the state where the population of immune people is dense enough to stamp out new infections — how many people need to be protected against the virus? And how good is natural immunity, resistance to infection built through exposure to the virus and contracting covid-19, the disease it causes?
The safe way to increase the number of immune people, thereby probably protecting everyone by limiting the ability of the virus to spread, is through vaccination. More vaccinated people means fewer new infections and fewer infections needed to get close to herd immunity. The closer we get to herd immunity, the safer people are who can’t get vaccinated, such as young children (at least for now).
The challenge the world faces is that the rollout of vaccines has been slow, relatively speaking. The coronavirus vaccines were developed at a lightning pace, but many parts of the world are still waiting for supplies sufficient to broadly immunize their populations. In the United States, the challenge is different: About a quarter of adult Americans say they aren’t planning on getting vaccinated against the virus, according to Economist-YouGov polling released last week.
That’s problematic in part because it means we’re less likely to get to herd immunity without millions more Americans becoming infected. Again, it’s not clear how effective natural immunity will be over the long term as new variants of the virus emerge. So we might continue to see tens of thousands of new infections each day, keeping the population at risk broadly by delaying herd immunity and continuing to add to the pandemic’s death toll in this country.
But we also see from the Economist-YouGov poll the same thing we saw in Gallup polling earlier this month: The people who are least interested in being vaccinated are also the people who are least likely to be concerned about the virus and to take other steps aimed at preventing it from spreading.
In the Economist-YouGov poll, nearly three-quarters of those who say they don’t plan on being vaccinated when they’re eligible also say they’re not too or not at all worried about the virus.
That makes some perverse sense: If you don’t see the virus as a risk, you won’t see the need to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, it also means you’re going to be less likely to do things like wear a mask in public.
Or you might be more likely to view as unnecessary precautions such as avoiding close-quarter contact with friends and family or traveling out of state.
About a quarter of adults hold the view that they won’t be vaccinated when eligible. That’s equivalent to about 64 million Americans.
Who are they? As prior polls have shown, they’re disproportionately political conservatives. At the outset of the pandemic, there was concern that vaccine skepticism would heavily be centered in non-White populations. At the moment, though, the rate of skepticism among those who say they voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and among Republicans is substantially higher than skepticism overall.
That shows up in another way in the Economist poll. Respondents were asked whose medical advice they trusted. Among those who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, half say they trust Trump’s advice a lot or somewhat — far more than the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the country’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.
If we look only at Republican skeptics, the difference is much larger: Half of Republican skeptics say they have a lot of trust in Trump’s medical advice.
The irony, of course, is that Trump sees the vaccine as his positive legacy on the pandemic. He’s eager to seize credit for vaccine development and has — sporadically — advocated for Americans to get the vaccine. (He got it himself while still president, without advertising that fact.) It’s his supporters, though, who are most hostile to the idea.
Trump bears most of the responsibility for that, too. Over the course of 2020, worried about reelection, he undercut containment efforts and downplayed the danger of the virus. He undermined experts such as Fauci largely out of concern that continuing to limit economic activity would erode his main argument for his reelection. Over and over, he insisted that the virus was going away without the vaccine, that it was not terribly dangerous and that America should just go about its business as usual — and his supporters heard that message.
They’re still listening to it, as the Economist poll shows. One result may be that the United States doesn’t reach herd immunity through vaccinations and, instead, some large chunk of those tens of millions of skeptics end up being exposed to the virus. Some of them will die. Some may risk repeat infections from new variants against which a vaccine offers better protection. Some of those unable to get vaccinated may also become sick from the virus because we haven’t achieved herd immunity, suffering long-term complications from covid-19.
Trump wants his legacy to be the rollout of the vaccine. His legacy will also probably include fostering skepticism about the vaccine that limits its utility in containing the pandemic.
All the things that could prolong the COVID-19 pandemic — that could make this virus a part of our lives longer than anyone wants — are playing out right in front of our eyes.
Driving the news: The British variant is driving another surge in cases in Michigan, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resisted reimposing any of the lockdown measures she embraced earlier in the pandemic.
Variants are beginning to infect more kids — “a brand new ball game,” as University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm recently put it.
New research confirms that our existing vaccines don’t work as well against the South African variant.
And some experts fear the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. is about to slow down.
Between the lines:The concern isn’t necessarily that the facts on the ground right now could end up being disastrous, but rather that we’re getting a preview of the longer, darker coronavirus future the U.S. may face without sufficient vaccinations.
If we don’t control the virus well enough, then even years into the future, we could be living through more new variants — some of which might be more deadly, some of which might be more resistant to vaccines, some of which might be more dangerous for certain specific populations.
That would translate into an ongoing risk of illness or potentially death for unvaccinated people and new races to reformulate vaccines as new variants keep emerging.
And it would lead to a world in which today’s vaccine-eager population would have to stay on top of those emerging risks, get booster shots when they’re available, and perhaps revive some of the pandemic’s social-distancing measures, in order to stay safe.