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:

Vaccine mandates are suddenly much more popular

State governments, private businesses and even part of the federal government are suddenly embracing mandatory coronavirus vaccinations for their employees.

Why it matters: Vaccine mandates have been relatively uncommon in the U.S. But with vaccination rates stagnating and the Delta variant driving yet another wave of cases, there's been a new groundswell of support for such requirements.

Keep reading... Show less

American Carissa Moore wins first-ever women's Olympic gold in surfing

Team USA's Carissa Moore won gold in the first-ever Olympic women's surfing final, at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday.

The big picture: Brazil's Italo Ferreira won the gold medal in the inaugural men's Olympic surfing contest. The finals were brought forward a day due to the threat of Tropical Storm Nepartak.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Activist Tong Ying-kit found guilty of terrorism in first Hong Kong security law trial

Tong Ying-kit, the first person to be charged and tried under Hong Kong's national security law was found guilty of terrorism and inciting secession by three judges Tuesday, per Bloomberg.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Naomi Osaka eliminated from Olympic tennis tournament in Tokyo

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka was eliminated from the Olympics after losing her Tokyo tennis tournament match 6-1, 6-4 in the third round to Czech Marketa Vondrousova on Tuesday.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Extreme drought pushes 2 major U.S. lakes to historic lows

Two significant U.S. lakes, one of which is a major reservoir, are experiencing historic lows amid a drought that scientists have linked to climate change.

What's happening: Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the U.S., has fallen 3,554 feet in elevation, leaving the crucial reservoir on the Colorado River, at 33% capacity — the lowest since it was filled over half a century ago, new U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data shows.

Keep reading... Show less

North and South Korea restart hotline and pledge to improve ties

North and South Korea's leaders have pledged to improve relations and resumed previously suspended communication channels between the two countries, per Reuters.

Details: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to "restore mutual confidence and develop their relationships again as soon as possible," South Korea's Blue House spokesperson Park Soo Hyun said in a televised briefing, AP notes.

  • This followed an exchange of letters between the two leaders since April.

Go deeper: Kim Jong Un says prepare for "dialogue and confrontation" with U.S.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

U.S. teen Lydia Jacoby wins Olympic gold medal in 100m breaststroke at Tokyo Games

Team USA's 17-year-old swimmer Lydia Jacoby has won the Olympic gold medal in the women's 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Games.

Of note: The Alaskan is the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, and she beat Lilly King into second place.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Pelosi expected to extend proxy voting as Delta variant surges

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to extend proxy voting through the fall — and potentially until the end of the year — Democratic lawmakers and aides tell Axios.

Why it matters: The spread of the Delta variant has alarmed both members and staffers anxious about interacting with the unvaccinated. Pelosi’s anticipated move — continuing an emergency COVID-19 measure enacted last year so lawmakers could vote remotely — is aimed at allaying those concerns.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories