South Carolina has already been one of the states hardest hit by COVID as infections and death tolls continue to mount across the United States. But it now has even more cause for alarm: The state on Thursday announced that it had found two cases caused by the more transmissible coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa that has spread like blazes across that country, overwhelming hospitals there. The first cases of the strain to be identified in the U.S., the infected adults had no known travel history—a disturbing indication that the more contagious coronavirus mutation that has ravaged South Africa has likely been spreading within the U.S., as well.
“The presumption is, at this point, that there has been community spread of this strain,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said on the Today show Friday morning.
The rise of the new variant, like that of two other more transmissible mutations first detected in the United Kingdom and Brazil that also appear to be spreading in the U.S., underscores the grave importance of getting vaccines into arms as quickly as possible—something that America has struggled to do since the first two shots gained emergency approval late last year. Getting enough of the country vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and crush the pandemic here was always going to be a major logistical headache. But it was made worse by the Trump administration, whose rollout was beset by characteristic disorganization and dysfunction.
Desperate to turn things around, Joe Biden has already worked to deliver more doses to states, make the rollout more orderly, and to provide more federal resources to assist with the vaccinations—including, it seems, increasing the role of the Pentagon in the operation. The Biden administration is preparing to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up around 100 vaccination sites nationwide in the coming weeks and, per the New York Times, may deploy active-duty troops to help run them. “We know there’s an urgency,” Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby told the Times, noting that a more robust Defense Department role in the mass vaccination program was under consideration and likely to be sourced in a matter of days.
It’s been clear for weeks that the vaccine rollout was going to need to be dramatically ramped up to achieve normalcy of some kind later this year, as experts like Anthony Fauci have predicted. But the spread of new variants—some of which may be more than 50% more infectious, though not necessarily deadlier—have added even more urgency: The more infections rise, the more opportunities the virus has to evolve. “It’s like a competition between the virus and science,” Dr. Robert Califf, who served as Food and Drug Administration commissioner under Barack Obama, told NBC News.
“If we don’t quell the pandemic,” Califf said, “there’s a higher risk that one of those mutations will be able to escape the vaccine or therapeutic antibodies, or both.”
That may already be a challenge. The two vaccines already in use, from Pfizer and Moderna, each appear to remain extremely effective against the new strains, though slightly less so against the mutation first detected in South Africa, research suggests. But a promising candidate from Novavax, which said Thursday its vaccine was about 90% effective against the original virus, seems to be significantly less effective at fighting the South Africa strain—though the more-limited protection it provides would still help slow the pandemic. “Fifty percent is not as good as 100, but it’s a damn sight better than zero,” John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, told the Times. An effective single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, which could be approved in the U.S. next month, was also shown to provide less protection against the South Africa variant, though it nevertheless seems to reduce the likelihood of severe illness—a promising sign for researchers. But it’s also forcing developers to tailor vaccines to the new strains and to test additional boosters of the existing ones, further complicating an already challenging vaccination program.
Even so, there’s cause for hope. While the strain first detected in South Africa, the most worrying of the coronavirus mutations so far, appears to reduce the efficacy of the vaccines we have now, they remain powerful tools that will help bring the pandemic to heel—especially if the rollout accelerates and we can get people vaccinated before more destructive variants have a chance to develop. “It’s not doomsday,” epidemiologist John D. Grabenstein told the Times. “It’s just that we are going to need a bigger boat.”
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