Show an ad over header. AMP

I am the FIRST

We’re racing to vaccinate before a “monster” COVID variant arrives

Slow global COVID-19 vaccination rates are raising concerns that worse variants of the coronavirus could be percolating, ready to rip into the world before herd immunity can diminish their impact.

Why it matters: The U.S. aims to at least partially vaccinate 70% of adults by July 4, a move expected to accelerate the current drop of new infections here. But, variants are the wild card, and in a global pandemic where only about 8% of all people have received one dose, the virus will continue mutating unabated.


"There's been hyper-accelerated evolution of the virus in recent months. The virus was kind of stable for 10 months, and then it started getting into this accelerated evolution. Now, the real question is, is there any way for it to get any worse?"
Eric Topol, founder and director, Scripps Research Translational Institute

How it works: Viruses face selective pressures thatcause them to mutate in order to spread better in the population and to escape human immunity, says Sarah Cobey, associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

  • "We're seeing both right now," she says.
  • It's unclear if SARS-CoV-2 will evolve in the long term as the type of virus that branches out into multitudes of variants that coexist or if it will have more of a replacement pattern, Cobey adds.
Screenshot from the live Axios Coronavirus Variant Tracker. Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Where it stands: The CDC currently says there are five variants of concern and eight variants of interest in the United States.

  • Two variants of concern — New York and California — may be dropping off and "on their way to extinction," Topol says.
  • Three variants raise more worries — those originally discovered in the U.K. (B.1.1.7), Brazil (P.1) and South Africa (B.1.351) — partly because "they accrued many mutations, over a dozen, almost instantaneously," says Josh Schiffer, an infectious disease expert at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
  • These three variants show varying levels of increased infectiousness, particularly B.1.1.7. Plus, P.1 and B.1.351 may be more able to evade the immune system or vaccination properties, Schiffer adds, although more data is needed.
  • The CDC is closely watching several versions of B.1.617, a variant first detected in India that may be linked to the surge in cases there now.

"We were lucky because we vaccinated ahead of the onslaught [of the U.K. strain]. Otherwise we would have been in trouble. That's the superspreader strain," Topol says.

  • Schiffer agrees partial herd immunity is causing the level of new infections in the U.S. to drop despite the highly infectious B.1.1.7's prevalence. "In the absence of vaccination, it's very likely that many places in the United States would look exactly like India right now with the new variants."
  • "We're clearly seeing really pronounced signals of positive selection for increased transmissibility and what looks like some amount of immune escape," although this was not unexpected, Cobey adds.

What to watch: "Rapid vaccination is critically important. ... Even with partial protection you can achieve higher degrees of herd immunity," Schiffer says. "When I think of herd immunity, I don't think of it as an all-or-none phenomenon. I think of it as a dimmer switch."

  • "The factories for generating new variants are areas that are getting hit very hard. If there is a new variant that's terrible — that ruins 2022 and brings us back to very dark times — it's almost a guarantee that it's percolating in an area of the world that's getting hit very hard now," Schiffer says.
  • "The one thing that could happen, but hasn't happened yet, is to have a superspreader variant like B.1.1.7 with very powerful immune evasion. ... Will we see that? I don't know. Hopefully we'll never see that monster," Topol says.

Yes, but: The U.S. appears to be experiencing a drop in vaccination demand, despite the spread of variants.

  • A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine shows the importance of people getting their second dose in fighting off the variants — but some Americans are not taking this step.
  • And foreign nations are struggling to get access to vaccines, with the U.S. only now starting the process to fill in the vaccine diplomacy void.

The bottom line: "It's just next to impossible to predict what's going to happen next," Schiffer says.

  • "I think the likelihood that we would have a variant that emerges that is worse than the ones we're dealing with now is much higher if you have a higher circulating number of infections," such as what's happening in Latin America, India and Asia.

Go deeper:

4 ffp

Why the startup world needs to ditch "unicorns" for "dragons"

When Aileen Lee originally coined the term "unicorn" in late 2013, she was describing the 39 "U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors."

Flashback: It got redefined in early 2015 by yours truly and Erin Griffith, in a cover story for Fortune, as any privately-held startup valued at $1 billion or more. At the time, we counted 80 of them.

Keep reading... Show less

Scoop: Facebook's new moves to lower News Feed's political volume

Facebook plans to announce that it will de-emphasize political posts and current events content in the News Feed based on negative user feedback, Axios has learned. It also plans to expand tests to limit the amount of political content that people see in their News Feeds to more countries outside of the U.S.

Why it matters: The changes could reduce traffic to some news publishers, particularly companies that post a lot of political content.

Keep reading... Show less

Scoop: Amazon quietly getting into live audio business

Amazon is investing heavily in a new live audio feature that's similar to other live audio offerings like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces and Spotify's new live audio platform, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: As with Amazon's efforts in podcasting and music subscriptions, the company sees live audio as a way to bolster the types of content it can offer through its voice assistant, Alexa, and its smart speaker products.

Keep reading... Show less

Hurricane Ida exposes America's precarious energy infrastructure

The powerful hurricane that plunged New Orleans into darkness for what could be weeks is the latest sign that U.S. power systems are not ready for a warmer, more volatile world.

The big picture: “Our current infrastructure is not adequate when it comes to these kinds of weather extremes,” Joshua Rhodes, a University of Texas energy expert, tells Axios.

Keep reading... Show less

"We must go further": 70% of adults in European Union are fully vaccinated

About 70% of adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The milestone makes the E.U. one of the world's leaders in inoculations, after an initially lagging vaccine campaign, the New York Times notes.

Keep reading... Show less

What Elizabeth Holmes jurors will be asked ahead of fraud trial

Jury selection begins today in USA v. Elizabeth Holmes, with the actual jury trial to get underway on Sept. 8.

Why it matters: Theranos was the biggest fraud in Silicon Valley history, putting both hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of patients' health at risk.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories