Category Archives: COVID-19 Variant

The Pandemic Will Likely End In One Of These Four Ways; Social Media and More About Vaccines.

I am getting really frustrated having to try to convince friends and patients of the value of vaccinations for Covip-19. Vaccinations promise an end to the coronavirus pandemic in the US. What kind of ending, though, is up to us?

I “loved” the excuse that she knew that the GOVERNMENT was putting tracers in the vaccines to track our every move and racist thoughts.

And with the cases and deaths due to COVID increasing in such very high numbers, while Israel as a country is the only country that has reached herd immunity. Their vaccinations are over 80% of their population and their new cases are so very low.

Reporter Dan Vergano noted that if the White House’s vision goes according to plan, vaccinations will end the pandemic in the US in time for 4th of July fireworks. Or the pandemic won’t end, and these shots will be the first of many we’ll get for years. Or they’ll offer a brief summer respite — before a more severe version of the coronavirus catches fire.

A return to a life resembling normalcy looks closer than ever now that, as of Monday, vaccines are available to every adult in America. Around 80 million people are already fully vaccinated, and President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the US has already reached his goal of 200 million shots in the first 100 days of his administration, eight days early.

But with half of the population still unvaccinated and COVID-19 cases once more rising, just how close are we to the pandemic ending, both in the US and across the world?

Whether the pandemic ends in the US by Independence Day — or much further in the future — will depend on the vaccines, the virus, and decisions people make, experts say. The big questions include how long the vaccines’ protection lasts, how well they fight off new coronavirus variants, and whether the entire globe can hold off these emerging threats. Then there’s the X factor of how many people will be willing to get shots.

The benchmark for a successful vaccination campaign has long been considered to be “herd immunity” — having enough people vaccinated to keep sick ones from sparking outbreaks. That might require 80% of US adults getting vaccinated, according to infectious disease researcher William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Other experts have urged Americans to not obsess over herd immunity. “I can’t say it’s going to be ‘this’ percent,” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this month, although he has previously floated percentages ranging from 70% to 85%. “We’ll know it when we see it. It’ll be obvious.”

Getting to that turning point could take very different routes, experts told BuzzFeed News. Although the summer everyone hopes for is within reach, worse outcomes are also possible. At this pivotal moment in the crisis, a lot depends on how willing people are to help themselves by continuing to wear masks and isolating until they are fully vaccinated — and to help people around the world get vaccinated too.

“It depends on decisions we make,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, a University of Texas epidemiologist, said this month at a Stanford University symposium about herd immunity.

Here are four ways that the pandemic could end in the US.

1. The Better Ending: Vaccination Returns Life Close to “Normal”

By June, most US adults get vaccinated. The shots halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, even the more transmissible variants. And people feel safe shopping, traveling, and visiting each other, almost like they did before the pandemic.

This is the best outcome — and it isn’t completely far-fetched. Half of US adults have received at least one shot. Even with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine paused, more than 3 million shots are being administered a day; at that rate, every adult American could receive one by late June.

Israel offers a glimpse of this future. There, a fast-paced campaign had immunized more than half of the population by mid-April. The results have been striking in the country of 9 million, with new cases falling to around 200 a day, 2% of the January peak. Starting this weekend, an outdoor mask mandate will be lifted.

White House / Via whitehouse.gov

White House COVID-19 briefing slide, showing case drop with 62% vaccination

Similarly, in the US, new cases among nursing home residents dropped by 96% and deaths by 91% between December, when vaccinations started, and March. After a slow start, more than 4.8 million people in nursing facilities have received at least one shot.

Although case numbers have increased in recent weeks, Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, predicts “a smaller bump over the next couple months that should by the summer settle down to a pretty low level of cases.”

That doesn’t mean that masking would stop. It’s worth noting that the declines in both Israel and nursing homes happened while restrictions were maintained. Under current US plans, young teens won’t start getting shots until the fall and elementary school–age children in the winter of 2022, meaning that their schools will likely keep face coverings, some virtual classes, and other restrictions for the foreseeable future.

But most partial or full closures of shops, restaurants, universities, and bars could end this summer if US cases fall like they did in Israel.

The bottom line is that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which make up the great majority of US shots, have proven 90% effective in real-world studies against COVID-19. Although some people have gotten infected despite vaccination, their numbers are small: about 6,000 cases out of 84 million fully vaccinated people, or .007%, according to CDC data.

“It is not unexpected — the vaccine is not 100% protective,” Scott Lindquist, a Washington state health department official, said in a recent press briefing about “breakthrough” infections there. “But what we saw were mostly very mild symptoms, if any at all.”

And existing vaccines appear to protect against new coronavirus variants, such as the B.1.1.7 strain, according to CDC data. “If you lose a little bit of protection to a variant, but the vaccine still keeps you safe, that’s still a good result,” Bhattacharya said. Vaccines aside, he noted that a sizable chunk of the population — more than 1 in 5 Americans by one recent estimate — also has some natural immunity from past infections, though studies suggest that this protection likely isn’t as long-lasting or robust as vaccination.

“I do think we’ll be OK by the summer,” said the immunologist, who is personally planning to travel to see his family in cities across the country. “Tickets booked for early July!”

In this future, the coronavirus cools down enough to be managed like the measles: a virus tamed by a vaccine that is added to childhood shot regimens, with occasional outbreaks in unvaccinated communities.

2. A Mixed Ending: Defanging, Not Defeating, the Virus

Mass vaccination delivers yet another future: the death rate from COVID-19 drops drastically, because the shots prevent severe and fatal illness, but outbreaks continue, largely among pockets of unvaccinated people, including younger people who are less targeted for vaccines or less worried about getting sick in the first place.

“A more realistic scenario is that older, more vulnerable individuals will receive a disproportionate number of doses,” said infectious disease modeler Jack Buckner of the University of California, Davis, by email. “Under these conditions additional outbreaks are more likely but the case fatality rate would be lower.”

Last month, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was asked whether a sharp decline in death rates, with case numbers remaining high over the summer, might lessen the public’s urgency to get vaccinated. She called it a concern, but noted that children are dying of COVID-19, albeit very rarely, and that long-term complications from infections, also known as “long COVID,” plague even people with mild cases. A recent study from Sweden, for example, found 1 in 10 healthcare workers who had mild cases have felt effects, like loss of smell and taste, fatigue, and breathing problems, for months after.

“We’re going to defang the virus rather than defeat it.”

In this mixed scenario, we dodge a summer surge of deaths, but outbreaks occur in some counties or states. Herd immunity is also never quite reached in this future, because variants circle the globe every year like variations of the seasonal flu. Post–mass vaccination, the coronavirus would then enter a “mild endemic state,” where SARS-CoV-2 is reduced to a childhood cold, said Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at the recent Stanford symposium about herd immunity. “We’re going to defang the virus rather than defeat it,” he said. “We’ll make it a nuisance that makes people a bit ill, rather than something that kills people in large numbers and causes the hospital system to groan under the weight.”

A related possibility is that vaccination only delivers immunity for a year or two and requires regular booster shots for older and younger people alike, which the heads of Pfizer and Moderna have told investors might be the case. (On Sunday, Fauci said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the FDA and CDC — not vaccine makers — will decide by fall about boosters.)

“Even if we reach the herd immunity threshold in the US or in rich countries, this virus is going to continue to circulate,” said Lipsitch.

Right now, doses are only promised on the order of hundreds of millions, and the planet is home to 7.8 billion people. The World Health Organization has warned that global under vaccination would be a catastrophic moral failure, prolonging coronavirus transmission around the world.

3. A Worse Ending: A Fourth Surge for the Summer

The better outcomes are far from inevitable. White House officials regularly say that the US is in a race between vaccination and more contagious coronavirus variants. In this scenario, we lose the race. The result: a fourth surge.

The reasons for worry are plain in case numbers that have stopped declining and are instead trending upward again, now averaging around 67,000 newly-reported infections a day. The more transmissible and dangerous B.1.1.7 coronavirus strain is quickly becoming the predominant one nationwide, now accounting for 26% of all new cases.

“We remain in a complicated stage,” the CDC’s Walensky said Monday. “On the one hand, more people in the United States are being vaccinated every single day and at an accelerated pace. On the other hand, cases and hospitalizations are increasing in some areas of the country, and cases among younger people who have not yet been vaccinated are also increasing.”

If the US falls behind on vaccinations, then a second lockdown period might result. Rising hospital admissions could lead governors and mayors to shutter bars, restaurants, and stores once again.

“We are in real risk of throwing away all the gains we have made, and losing another summer,” Debra Furr-Holden, a Michigan State University epidemiologist, told BuzzFeed News.

Her state, as well as the rest of the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, is in the thick of massive outbreaks right now. Some counties reopened bars, gyms, and restaurants too early, Furr-Holden believes, which in her view should serve as a warning to the rest of the country.

Although 74% of US adults say they want a shot, up from half in September, that’s still not enough to achieve herd immunity, some suggest. “We have to get about 80% of adults vaccinated,” said Schaffner, the infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt. “We’ve never done that with any vaccine in the United States.”

Some areas of the country are also much more resistant to vaccination than others. In states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi, as many as 37% of people tell pollsters they don’t want a shot. Politics clearly plays a role. Older, rural conservatives express the most hesitation, and their fears are reinforced by misinformation and fearmongering on right-wing cable channels.

“We are running into people who have expressed some hesitancy, so we have to listen to them and address their concerns,” said Schaffner, who is based in Nashville. Walensky acknowledged this week that “the administration of vaccines across the country is not uniform.”

But Andy Slavitt, the senior White House COVID-19 adviser, said he was unwilling to entertain the idea of the federal vaccination campaign shifting doses to parts of the country clamoring for shots and sending less to ones in areas where they go unused. “We are not going to quote-unquote ‘punish’ less-ready areas,” Slavitt told BuzzFeed News during a briefing this week. The key, he said, is to convey to people that while vaccines were hard to get during the initial rollout, there are now more than 60,000 vaccination sites nationwide, and at least one of them is within 5 miles of where 95% of the population lives.

Whether enough Americans will take that message to heart remains to be seen. If not, we may only reach herd immunity after another painful surge.

4. The Bad Ending: After the Summer, Global Variants Revive the Pandemic

Then there’s the worst-case scenario. In a mostly unvaccinated world, a new and more deadly coronavirus variant — or variants — overpowers vaccines and restarts the global pandemic all over again. The US, along with everyone else, has to begin again with new vaccines.

“Coronavirus mutates a lot — they can do it in humans, they can do it in animals — and the question is how important are these mutants going to be,” Stanford University infectious disease expert Julie Parsonnet said at the herd immunity symposium held at her university. “We don’t live just in Palo Alto, or just in California, or just in the United States. We live in a world where there are a lot of unvaccinated people, and as long as we don’t focus on the world more globally, we’re going to have problems.”

For now, the available vaccines are effective against the variants circulating in the US. But experts are surprised at the speed at which more transmissible ones have arisen, said Bhattacharya of the University of Arizona. Their arrival reflects just how widely the coronavirus has spread from host to host, each acting as a lab for new mutations to emerge.

“The places where the variants are growing, they’re not growing because they are evading the immune system, they are going nuts because there aren’t enough people that are immune,” Bhattacharya said. “Obviously this isn’t the best situation, because the longer you let this go, the better the odds that you will get some weird thing that will eventually start to grow out because it can evade the immune system.”

Last week, the White House announced a $1.7 billion effort to detect such new strains. Pfizer, Moderna, and other vaccine makers are already testing prototype booster shots that are designed explicitly against variants, such as the B.1.1.7 strain.

In the face of this threat, a recent risk analysis led by George Ioannou, an expert on veteran care at the University of Washington, offers a framework for who should get prioritized for vaccines. To prevent deaths as much as possible, people with the most severe risk factors, such as diabetes, heart failure, or kidney failure, should be given shots first, this work suggests. At the same time, if there is enough supply, vaccines should be administered as quickly and widely as possible to combat the new variants.

“You really don’t want that threat just hanging around,” Bhattacharya said.

But even in this worst case, the silver lining is that the coronavirus has nevertheless proven amenable to vaccination, he and other experts noted, unlike HIV, which for decades has thwarted vaccines. A coronavirus strain that evades the current vaccines will almost certainly be susceptible to shots that have yet to be designed.

That means vaccines will at some point deliver an end to the pandemic, no matter how many changes in work, school, and daily life it leaves behind, said Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis, author of Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.

“Eventually it will return to normal,” Christakis told BuzzFeed News. “Plagues end — they just do.”

Social Media: A Parasite on Our Pandemic Mental Health

Doctor Vinay Prasad reported that recently, a physician colleague of mine, someone whom I’ve met in person and with whom I’ve shared a laugh, began to tweet increasingly hostile barbs about me. In a certain respect, it was a typical social media interaction — an uncharitable reading of one’s point of view and a scornful reply. But it was also unusual, as we have met in person, face to face.

In my experience, online anger like this is summoned only when the other person has been depersonalized — just a face dissociated from a person. I’d rarely experienced it from someone who I knew in real life. Just as I started to wonder what might be going on, a mutual friend called to say they had seen the out-of-character barbs. Apparently, this colleague has been suffering from a serious medical illness and was going through a hard time. By the end of the call, I was left feeling sympathetic.

Later that day, I noticed that a professor whose tweets I greatly enjoyed had shut down their account. Poof! They, and their astute comments, were gone entirely. I sent them a note, mostly to let them know that I had been affected by their sharp thinking over the years, and was sorry to see them go. The person wrote back that the growing hostility had driven them away. Every time they said anything, they felt mobbed by a sea of increasingly angry voices. They didn’t need the stress.

Finally, the same day, a colleague from another university called me to ask for some advice. She had been on Twitter, and was troubled by increasingly hostile and negative feedback. The specifics were ugly, and I could tell from the tone in her voice that my colleague was pained. I gave the few tips I know and went for a long run to think.

What Is Going On?

In the best of times, social media is a double-edged sword. It is a great way to get a message to many people, but it is de-personal, and driven by the economy of attention. Anger, disgust, and outrage are the emotions that engage and addict the users. People, good people, can become disinhibited and say things they don’t truly mean, or would never say in real life. Of course, this is during the best of times.

We are not in the best of times. People have been cut off from friends, family, and co-workers, and many are living in isolation. In fact, it is the loneliest year in human history. The largest number of people in history (billions) have deprived themselves of, at least some, social interactions. Mental health is suffering, and physicians, healthcare workers, researchers are suffering alongside everyone else. When we are tired and angry we are not our best selves, and paired with the algorithms of social media, it is a recipe for disaster.

Where Are We Now?

Every day people go online and the difficulties of the last year loom large in our minds — over 500,000 dead Americans, disjointed and often incoherent policy responses, the list goes on. Some are angry that we didn’t do more, sooner. Others are angry about interventions and restrictions that were broadly implemented that might not have helped, and even hurt. Both groups might be right: we were unwilling to do some things that might have helped, and simultaneously pursued other interventions that didn’t, and unfortunately hurt less-fortunate Americans. It will take years to tease these apart, as I have written. Regardless, we are angry. So, we go online looking to vent that anger. If we felt the bigger error was not enough restrictions, we get angry when someone is critical of restrictions. And if vice versa, we find a different scapegoat. A philosopher recently told me, we get most angry when other people don’t follow restrictions that we are able to follow.

The angry train goes off the rails when we invent motivations for others. Folks who share our point of view are always good people who want to save lives, and folks who disagree with us are people indifferent to human beings, grifters, ideologues, or attention-seekers. But, if one steps back, how can that possibly be? Surely people on all sides of an issue — whether that be school reopening or best vaccination practices — have varied reasons for holding their view. A tiny fraction may have some ulterior motive, but surely the vast majority hold their view for the same reason folks who disagree hold their view — an alternative interpretation of facts and values. I suspect a year from now the idea that the world is full of strictly good and bad people will look particularly ridiculous.

How Can We Make It Better?

I don’t know how we can improve the situation on social media, and more critically, reverse the anguish so many are facing in real life — but I do have some tips about how we might help ourselves.

1. Get offline. The professor who deleted their account had the right idea. Each of us has to decide if social media serves our purposes and makes us better informed or happier, but probably all of us should use it less. Read it less, and post less.

2. Mute all notifications. I did this a few years ago, and I quickly found more joy in my life. Say what you have to say, and let it go. No need to reply to anyone, and the easiest way is to set the accounts to never disturb you again.

3. Don’t reply to others. If you read a point of view you disagree with, what value is there in replying to the other person? Just state your point of view in your terms on your feed. No need to pick a fight. Just make your point on your terms.

4. If you are having a hard time at home or work, don’t use social media. It is hard enough to manage when you wake up in a good mood, but when you are feeling tired, scared, afraid or sick, it is too much. Corollary: If you love someone, and they are hurting, suggest they do the same.

5. Meet or call someone every day. Social media thrives from our loneliness — it’s a cheap way to feel less lonely in the loneliest year of human history. But it is a neon light to the sun. Call someone. Visit someone. Interact more in real life.

6. Tell someone you don’t know you appreciate their thoughts. Perhaps the best thing we can do to combat negative emotions is to give some positive feedback to folks we appreciate. I have sent some emails to people, but perhaps I am not thinking big enough. I plan to go on social media and talk openly about people whose thinking delighted me over this last year. It is the least I can do to combat the animosity.

Toward More Productive Dialogue

When we are feeling powerless, getting angry at someone is seductive. It is a way to channel and reorient your energy. Unfortunately, it leaves all involved worse off. Instead, consider using your energy to articulate or refine your perspective, to push for positive change. That doesn’t mean that there are not real errors — but jumping on a single tweet by a minor character in a drama is unlikely to be the change-maker. My tips are just suggestions, but all meant to re-orient the compass toward productive dialogue.

Scientists Reveal How the AstraZeneca Vaccine Causes Unusual Clots

Brenda Goodman reported that scientists in Germany say they’ve worked out the two-step mechanism by which the AstraZeneca vaccine causes rare but devastating blood clots that gobble up the body’s supply of platelets.

So far, European regulators have reported more than 220 cases of unusual blood clots and low levels of platelets in patients who received the vaccine, called Vaxzevria, which was developed with funding from Operation Warp Speed as part of the race to develop a suite of vaccines to protect people from COVID-19. Vaxzevria has not yet been authorized for use in the United States.

“This is, in my opinion, rock-solid evidence,” said Andreas Greinacher, MD, head of the Institute of Immunology and Transfusion Medicine, University Hospital Greifswald, Germany, who was among the first scientists in the world to link the rare clots to antibodies against the platelet factor 4 protein.

Greinacher said he found the same mechanism using three different technologies to gather evidence: dynamic light scattering, super-resolution microscopy, and electron microscopy.

“This is what scientists usually think is confirmatory evidence,” he said in a call with reporters hours after publishing his study as a preprint ahead of peer review on the Research Square server.

Greinacher said he felt an urgent need to get the information out as soon as possible. He said his team had worked around the clock for 5 weeks to get answers, “because we are in the middle of the vaccination campaign. This was the driving force for us and the big motivation to provide these data as fast as any other possible,” he told reporters on the call.

Greinacher said that he believes the mechanism linking the vaccine with the rare clotting reactions is likely to apply to other vaccines that also use adenoviruses to ferry instructions for making the virus’s spike protein into cells.

“My assumption is, and that’s a hypothesis, that this is a class effect of vaccines using adenovirus,” he said. He added that he could not be certain because he only studied reactions to the Vaxzevria vaccine. But previous studies have shown that adenoviruses can cause the type of platelet activation he saw in the reactions he studied.

Greinacher said that he had worked out an agreement with Johnson & Johnson about an hour before the call to collaborate on studying its COVID-19 vaccine. The company had previously been unwilling to share information, he said.

At least seven cases of the same pattern of unusual clots have been documented in people who received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which also uses an adenovirus as its delivery vehicle. Over 7 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been given in the United States so far.

While the reactions are extremely rare, they can be serious. One person, a 45-year-old woman in Virginia, has died. That led the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Food and Drug Administration to call for a pause on administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week. The company also announced that it would hold clinical trials to get more answers about the reactions.

In his new study, Greinacher and colleagues describe a cascade of events that has to happen in the body before the vaccines broker these large clots. He explained that while everyone has the basic immune machinery that leads to the unusual clots, it is almost always kept in balance. The body uses a series of checks to prevent any step in the process from getting out of control.

In some cases, however, there’s a perfect storm where each stage progresses to the next and the end result is very hard to control. That autoimmune attack, which causes the body to go into a hyper-clotting state, typically burns itself out after a few weeks. So if patients can get rapid treatment, the condition nearly always goes away.

He said he only knew of one case of an autoimmune syndrome like this lasting 10 years, but that was in a patient who had taken the blood thinner heparin, which can cause a nearly identical syndrome.

Two-Step Process Leads to Clots

In the first step, the adenovirus shell in the vaccine, along with proteins from the cells where the vaccine is grown, come into contact with platelets from the blood.

Platelets are best known as colorless cell fragments that rush to the site of an infection or injury, helping the blood congeal to stop bleeding; they also play a key role in the body’s immune response.

When activated, they surround invaders like bacteria and change shape to release chemical signals they store in granules.

When platelets are activated en masse, as can happen rarely after a person takes the blood thinner heparin or gets the Vaxzevria vaccine, they release a flood of these signals, Greinacher explained. These blaring signals recruit an ancient and hard-to-control branch of the immune response.

“Imagine this is like a dragon in the cave who was sleeping for a long time [but] which now got alerted by someone’s throwing a stone on it,” he said. The chemical signals awaken B-cells that then produce massive amounts of antibodies against the platelet factor 4 protein, which helps coordinate blood clotting.

The body erroneously thinks it is reacting to massive amounts of pathogens in the body, so the immune system overshoots. The antibodies bind the platelets, the platelets recruit white blood cells, and “then the whole thing is exploding,” he said.

The second key step in these reactions is caused by EDTA, a calcium-binding agent and stabilizer that is added to the Vaxzevria vaccine.

EDTA is not listed as an ingredient in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

EDTA opens junctions between cells that form the walls of blood vessels, causing them to become leaky. This allows the giant complexes formed by proteins and platelets to enter the blood circulation, where they — on very rare occasions — trigger that bodywide alarm.

Asked if he thought there was anything that could be done to make the vaccine safer, Greinacher said his first thought would be to try to get rid of the EDTA, which causes the second step in the process. But he said he was not a vaccine developer and didn’t know how important it might be to its formulation.

Why might the Johnson & Johnson vaccine lead to similar types of clots, even though it doesn’t contain EDTA? Greinacher speculated that size might play a role.

When this reaction occurs in patients who have taken heparin, the size of the heparin molecule matters. With unfractionated heparin, the longest kind of molecule, the reaction is 10 times more common than when patients take smaller low-molecular weight heparins.

Other vaccines might form smaller antibody-protein complexes that generate smaller warning signals, making the reaction less likely.

As for why the reaction appeared to be more common in women, Greinacher said he was growing skeptical that there is a large gender bias. He pointed out that most of the first vaccine recipients in Europe had been healthcare workers, who are disproportionately women.

He noted that women might be slightly more susceptible because of hormones and because women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, but that the risk was probably more balanced between men and women than it first seemed.

“It’s not a disease of young women,” he said.

Several European countries have changed or abandoned their use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Last week, Denmark said it would no longer include Vaxzevria as part of its vaccination program. Italy has recommended that AstraZeneca vaccine only be used in people over age 60. UK officials said people under age 30 should be offered an alternative.

Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency said a warning about the risk of blood clots and low platelets should be added to product information for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

ACIP Green-Lights J&J Vax for All Adults

Finally, Molly Walker reported that the pause is lifted, and Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is once again recommended for adults, according to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).

In a 10-4 vote, with one abstention, ACIP said in updated interim guidance that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is recommended under FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) for all adults.

They ultimately decided that including a separate warning on the vaccine, as well as in an FDA EUA fact sheet and materials on the CDC website, was sufficient. One choice the committee chose not to vote on would have added language that women under age 50 should be aware of the increased risks of rare clotting events, and may opt for a different authorized COVID-19 vaccine. The committee agreed that any further qualifiers would be too cumbersome for local jurisdictions to implement and might contribute to vaccine hesitancy.

Johnson & Johnson researchers unveiled a proposed warning that the FDA agreed to add to the vaccine’s current EUA. It warns about the risks of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), and recommends that clinicians consult with the published American Society of Hematology guidance for diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

ACIP member Grace Lee, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, said that putting a qualifier for any demographic group would be “extremely confusing,” because every ACIP recommendation “is a benefit/risk balance.”

The committee believed that the benefits of one-dose vaccination outweighed the risks, as it makes this vaccine available for vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness, incarcerated populations, and home-bound populations.

The “no” votes came from members who felt that younger women would not be adequately informed about the risks of this rare adverse event by a warning label and EUA fact sheet.

“I did not object to the recommendation. I objected to the absence of any kind of guidance from us,” said ACIP member, Sarah Long, MD, of Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. “This is an age group that is most at risk and is getting the vaccine predominantly to save other people’s lives. I’m very sorry we haven’t chosen to put up front the knowledge we have that … there are options.”

ACIP chair, José Romero, MD, ultimately voted yes, but added that he thought there was a bit of a “selective interpretation” in terms of how much younger women would be informed. He urged vaccination sites to have a second vaccine available so that younger women are not forced to shop for vaccines.

“These events are rare, but they are serious,” Romero said.

The American Medical Association (AMA) reiterated their support for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and pledged to help inform patients about the rare adverse events.

“The AMA will continue to work with the FDA and the [CDC] to ensure physicians and patients are aware of the rare, but increased risk of [TTS] in women under the age of 50, as well as the appropriate treatment, so they can act quickly,” said AMA president Susan Bailey, MD, in a statement.

On April 13, CDC and FDA agreed to a “pause” on use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine out of an abundance of caution. At that point, there were six cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) with thrombocytopenia, one fatal. ACIP met on April 14, but agreed to wait to vote until more data accrued on the available cases, including potential risk factors.

As of April 21, the number of cases rose to 15, with three deaths. Seven patients remain hospitalized, including four in the ICU, while five were discharged home.

Thirteen of these cases were in women ages 18-49, with two in women older than 50. Based on these data, Tom Shimabukuro, MD, of the CDC, estimated that the rate of TTS was 7.0 per million doses in younger women, and 0.9 per million in older women. Seven cases of 15 were among women ages 30-39.

While all cases were in women, Shimabukuro noted that some data were still under review, “including potentially male cases,” although as of now, there were no cases reported in men.

Median patient age was 37, with a median time to onset of 8 days following vaccination. While 12 cases were CVST, three were other forms of thrombosis. Seven patients had obesity, while two patients apiece reported oral contraceptive use, hypothyroidism, or hypertension. No patients had established coagulation disorders.

All patients had thrombocytopenia, with 10 patients having severe thrombocytopenia, or platelet levels under 50,000. Of the 11 patients where a platelet factor 4 heparin-induced thrombocytopenia ELISA antibody test was performed, all were positive. Four patients did not have available results. Seven patients with CVST experienced intracerebral hemorrhage.

Non-heparin anticoagulants were used to treat 12 patients and intravenous immunoglobulin to treat eight patients, while platelet transfusion was used for seven patients and heparin for six patients. Shimabukuro noted that the six patients received heparin prior to the CDC Health Alert about treating this condition.

Shimabukuro said that cases under investigation may increase, as researchers plan to broaden their case definition to harmonize with the draft Brighton Collaboration case definition for TTS. This could include other thrombotic events, including venous thromboembolism, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, ischemic stroke, and acute myocardial infarction.

As I try to conquer my depression in my interaction with some of my patients who refuse to get vaccinated, I wonder if we, our country will ever reach herd immunity as Israel has accomplished. I am trying to figure out whether it is worth keeping these patients in my practice due to my concern for my staff, my other patients and our families.

Please get vaccinated!!

Throw Away Your Mask After COVID Vaccination or Not, What about the Mutations and Infection after Vaccination?

As our national mortality statistics reach over 500,000 and a third vaccine has been approved by the FDA I thought that we should examine the use of masks, etc. after vaccinations. This is an important question especially considering the increasing findings of more viral mutants.

 Recently, a spirited discussion was sparked on social media: is it acceptable to relax masking 14 days after the second COVID-19 vaccine dose? Doctor Vinay Prasad and Doctor David Aronoff, in this post will discuss the advice as to whether to continue wearing masks as well as social distancing, etc. after one completes their vaccination.

Doctor Prasad starts off by noting that having spent some time thinking about the topic, and discussing with colleagues, I have reached two conclusions. First, it is a tradeoff with residual uncertainties, and reasonable people can disagree. But also, I favor the view that generally, 14 days after vaccination, we can relax some restrictions.

The caveats

It is important to be upfront with the caveats. Everything I say applies to average people in the community — I am not speaking about enhanced precautions in high-risk settings like nursing homes or medical centers. My argument is contingent on there being no “vaccine escape,” that is, no mutation in the coronavirus that markedly reduces vaccine efficacy. If that happens, may God help us. I am not sure we will make it.

Finally, my argument is appropriate for most places and most times, but if health systems are overwhelmed, e.g., as we saw in places like southern California or New York City, it might be reasonable to temporarily increase precautions. Additionally, my guiding principle does not apply to businesses, such as grocery stores or pharmacies, which can and will enforce their own policies.

Now, having said that: for most people, once you get 14 days out of your second dose of vaccine, I believe you can ease up on masking or another restriction, such as visiting a loved one for lunch or having more than one person visit a nursing home at the same time, or a small gathering of vaccinated people for dinner without masks.

The data

There are three lines of evidence that I wish to offer for my claim. First, consider the efficacy of the vaccine. The efficacy of the two mRNA vaccines is superb, offering 95% reduction in the rate of acquisition of symptomatic COVID-19 in randomized trials. That is a remarkable result. But the key statistic here is one step beyond the vaccine efficacy. If you get two doses of the vaccine, and if you remain asymptomatic 14 days after the second dose, what is the probability you will develop COVID-19? For Moderna, the answer is there is a 99.92% chance that you won’t. Only 12 cases occurred after this time in 14,550 actively vaccinated people in the trial, while the control arm experienced nearly 3.5% cumulative incidence. For Pfizer, only eight cases occurred amongst people who had completed a second dose and went 7 days without symptoms, again a 99.95% chance of not getting COVID if one remained asymptomatic a week after the second dose. In other words, if you get 14 days past the second dose, and feel fine, the likelihood you will get COVID-19 in these studies is very low. Some argue that in the real world — where folks are not as motivated as trial participants — the rate of SARS-CoV-2 acquisition might be higher, and thus relaxing rules riskier. But this logic cuts both ways: if people in the real world are less compliant, then the rules might be relaxed no matter what we say.

Next, consider the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2 to others. That risk is in part driven by symptomatic infections which are exceedingly rare after second doses. Risk of spreading is diminished by the brisk immune response that occurs after symptomatic infection once someone is vaccinated. In the Moderna study, there were 30 cases of severe COVID overall and zero in the vaccination arm. Less symptomatic and less severe COVID will result in a lower propensity to propagate SARS-CoV-2. Moreover, studies of both recombinant antibody products speed viral clearance from airways. If the body is primed to manufacture anti-spike antibodies through vaccination, there is likely a similar rapid clearance and subsequent reduction in infectiousness occurs.

What about asymptomatic infection and so-called silent spread? In the Moderna trial, swabs taken from asymptomatic participants as they were receiving dose 2 showed a roughly 60% reduction in PCR positivity. It is likely that a second dose and longer asymptomatic period will result in greater reduction in PCR positivity. Preliminary data from AstraZeneca’s ChAdOx1 vaccine also showed reduced in asymptomatic PCR detection. In short, it is highly likely that receipt of vaccination and a 14-day asymptomatic period afterward results in both personal protection and reduced likelihood of ongoing viral propagation.

Third, what is the effect size of masks? More correctly — what is the effect size of masks 14 days after a vaccine with 95% efficacy? What is the effect of masks if PCR positivity is only 1 in 1,000 amongst asymptomatic people? I think we must confront a forgotten truth. Masks make sense not because we have perfect randomized controlled trial data showing they protect the wearer, or others, but based on bio-plausibility, and the precautionary principle, they were a reasonable public health measure to incorporate.

Authors of a 2020 update to the Cochrane review wrote, “Compared to no masks there was no reduction of influenza-like illness (ILI) cases (risk ratio 0.93, 95% CI 0.83-1.05) or influenza (risk ratio 0.84, 95% CI 0.61-1.17) for masks in the general population, nor in healthcare workers (risk ratio 0.37, 95% CI 0.05-2.50).” But the truth is none of these trials perfectly fits the moment. And we never did a cluster RCT of cloth masks — as they are used in the politically torn U.S. — to clarify the effect size with SARS-CoV-2.

The truth is I wear a cloth mask and I quite like it. But I have seen no data that can tell me the added benefit of masks 14 days after vaccination with 95% efficacy. It’s the biological equivalent of asking what happened before the Big Bang. If you ask, what is the evidence that it’s safe to stop wearing a mask, I say, what is the evidence that it’s still beneficial?

This same line of thinking applies to other restrictions that could be eased instead. What evidence supports restricting nursing home visitors, if all parties are vaccinated and masked? What evidence supports banning a small dinner, if everyone has had the vaccine? There is no evidence that supports these continued prohibitions.

Knowing these three facts allows us to put it all together. Is it reasonable to tell someone that, if they are asymptomatic 14 days after the second vaccine, they are highly unlikely to get COVID-19, and also less likely to spread the virus — both by having less severe disease, less asymptomatic carriage, clearing virus faster, stronger antibody responses, and fewer symptomatic cases? Absolutely, is my view.

It is then reasonable to say that the theoretical benefit of the mask may be so small that easing up on its use is fine. Alternatively, you might keep the mask, but ease up on something else, and, to be honest, most people might actually prefer a different concession. You might choose to see family instead, or have a gathering with your vaccinated friends. Getting vaccinated is like getting a stack of tickets at Chuck E. Cheese — you get to decide what to trade them in for!

The politics/sociology

Some contend my stance will undermine efforts to normalize masks, send mixed messages to the public. That’s possible, but it is also possible that my message empowers and excites people to get vaccinated, which is the only viable path out of the nightmare we find ourselves in. I think the less scientists manipulate their statements while trying to guess the response the better. I have tried to be fully transparent in my thinking on this topic. None of us knows the second or third order effects. If we distort the facts and bang on harder about prolonged mask use or other restrictions, will the world actually be better? Or will we provoke a deep backlash that has been brewing for some time? Do we risk losing some folks who might otherwise get vaccinated? I am not an incarnation of God, so I don’t know. I worry that the likes and retweets on social media encourage the fearful message rather than the correct one.

Public health experts have reminded me to talk about despair. We are all facing it, and when you clamp down on a society with restrictions, a free society can only bear it for so long. There must be a path out of it, and easing restrictions — particularly when the burden may outweigh the unproven, theoretical, and at best highly marginal benefit — is a great way to renew optimism. Folks who spend time doing boots on the ground public health share their view with me that this is a great place to start.

The last objection I want to discuss is that my policy is not the safest policy. It is not absolute safety. Indeed, I acknowledge this is true. But I disagree that wearing a mask is absolute safety. I disagree that only one nursing home visitor is the safest policy, and only having a picnic outside is safest. Only truly becoming a hermit is absolute safety. Lock yourself in home, and get all foodstuffs delivered. When you go out, always wear an N95, and do this even a year or two after vaccination. After all, who knows if the vaccine will wear off? None of us really wants absolute safety. We seek reasonable safety, and I will defend the proposition that is achieved merely by a prolonged asymptomatic period after second vaccination and after that something can be relaxed — and there are several options.

The end of COVID

COVID-19 will someday no longer be the topic of daily and breathless news coverage. The virus may always circulate, and some people may always get sick, but the real end will be when we stop thinking about it every moment of every day. That’s how this pandemic will end. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

People need to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel because there is.

Vaccination in the absence of viral escape is the way out of this. Once a person is a sufficient time and distance away from the second shot, and if they are feeling well, we can start to view them differently. They are less a vector for the transmission of a plague, and more a real person — with hopes and wants and desires and seeking connection. In such a moment, if they remove their mask to share a smile with me, I can promise you, I will lower my mask, and smile back.

And Opposing View-Now Is Not the Time to Relax COVID Restrictions

Doctor David Aronoff counters the argument with the facts that the COVID-19 pandemic has now raged on for more than a year. In the U.S., we have documented more than 24.5 million cases and 400,000 COVID-19-related deaths, with between 3,000 and 4,000 people dying each day. The CDC projects we will reach nearly 500,000 total deaths within the next month. COVID-19-related hospitalizations remain at an all-time high. America continues to suffer through a third wave of disease activity that has dwarfed the peaks of the Spring and Summer of 2020.

And, while COVID-19 is beating down on us, it could be worse, believe it or not. We have learned much about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, easily, through our breath from one person to another. Most nefarious has been the extent to which transmission occurs silently, moving from infected individuals who feel well, look well, and have no idea that they are infected. However, we know that maintaining our distance from others protects against transmission, as does the use of cloth face-coverings. It has been through social distancing and mask use that we have, in the absence of vaccination and herd immunity, been able to limit the damage done by this horrible infectious disease.

Clearly, vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are the light at the end of the tunnel, assuming that viral mutations do not escape our vaccines sooner than we can put out the fire. With estimates that more than 60% of the population will need to have immune protection against SARS-CoV-2 to benefit from herd immunity, we have a long way to go. While less than 10% of the U.S. population has been formally diagnosed with COVID-19, a recent estimate suggested that by November of 2020 we were at about 15% of the U.S. population immune to the virus. And while that figure may now exceed 20%, this leaves more than 250 million Americans without immune protection, and falls short of the roughly 200 million people who might need to be immune for herd immunity to take hold.

Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH, has authored a thoughtful, evidence-based commentary, making a strong case for why we can relax some restrictions following successful immunization against SARS-CoV-2. He succinctly lays out an argument about why and how immunization, in the absence of vaccine-escaping virus mutants, will confer strong enough protection to render tight adherence to wearing masks and other restrictions unnecessary. And, while I think he has the right idea (I would love to see more people’s faces right now and share a meal with my friends), it is premature to suggest that now is that time. It is OK for us to hold differing opinions (that’s what we do). Two well-intentioned scientists can both look at the same data and reach different policy conclusions. So, let me focus on the case for keeping our masks on, even as we roll our sleeves up. The same logic holds for other restrictions.

First, given how active COVID-19 is right now we need to be doing everything in our power to slow its spread. Lives hang in the balance. I really like the Swiss Cheese model of pandemic defense, popularized by Australian virologist Ian Mackay, PhD, which demonstrates the concept that each measure we implement to interrupt the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is imperfect yet when layered together they cooperatively reduce transmission risk.

Even immunization is not a perfect defense. Thus far, SARS-CoV-2 vaccination has not been shown to eliminate the risk that someone will get infected or pass the virus on to others. Studies published to date on the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccines show clear protection against developing symptomatic COVID-19. But they also show that some vaccinated people still develop symptomatic disease. And, given what we know about the disease in non-immune people, symptomatic infections represent a fraction of total infections. This predicts that despite immunization some people will develop asymptomatic infection. Do I think that SARS-CoV-2 immunization will significantly protect people against both asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19? Yes. Do I think the risk to an individual will be zero following successful immunization? No. Stated differently, removing masks from vaccinated people (or relaxing social distancing) is likely to increase the risk for propagating COVID-19 compared to maintaining these restrictions. And, even if that incremental risk is small, why take it, given where we are with the disease now?

There will be a time when immune people can let their guards down, allowing even non-immune people to do the same (a benefit of herd immunity). But that time is not now.

The issue of wearing masks has been a contentious one, not helped by mixed messaging from leaders in the federal and state government. This has translated into story after story of difficulty convincing people of the public health benefit of wearing face-coverings. What we do not need are more people out and about in public spaces without masks, which sends the wrong message at the wrong time. We cannot know if an unmasked person is unvaccinated or simply an anti-masker. Why provide fuel for people to skirt mask policies based on stating they have been vaccinated, when they might not have been? And the same holds for hosting dinner parties or participating in other gatherings.

To safely advise people that once they are immunized, they can leave their masks at home and relax other infection control measures we need to record sustained decreases in disease activity, hospitalizations, and deaths, to the point where leading infectious disease and public health experts are comfortable recommending that we can de-escalate these interventions. We also need to ensure widespread vaccine uptake, particularly among Black, indigenous, and people of color, who have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. Recent data show that Black Americans, for example, are getting vaccinated at lower rates than white Americans.

We remain in the thick fog of a true healthcare emergency and need to be doing all we can, especially the simple things, to shut it down. Now is not the time to let up on masking, even for the relatively few who have been immunized. Abandoning mask-wearing and social distancing, even in immunized persons, is not the right thing to recommend, yet. We need masks on and sleeves up.

COVID-19 Variants: ‘The Virus Still Has Tricks Up Its Sleeve’

Now more on the counterpoint reported by Molly Walker who interviewed Dr. Warner Greene as followed: We are honored to be joined once again by Dr. Warner Greene. He’s senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes and a professor at University of California San Francisco. As we’ve discussed, COVID-19 variants are very much in the news. Can we go over what is the latest news about the variants, even today? What do we know about them and what’s the latest that’s been happening?

Variants are very much in the news. What we’re seeing is the slow but steady evolution of the coronavirus. There are now four major variants that are of concern. And, in fact, they call them variants of concern. The first recognized was the U.K. variant, recognized in the south of the United Kingdom. It has an increased transmission efficiency. And there are some reports that it may be somewhat more virulent, particularly in men over the age of 60.

Of even greater concern is the South African variant, which contains mutations that confer resistance to certain monoclonal antibodies, like one of the two monoclonal antibodies developed by Regeneron. The Eli Lily monoclonal antibody doesn’t seem to work against the South African variant and vaccine efficiency is also reduced with the South African variant.

Similarly, the Brazilian variant has basically the same set of mutations that are conferring antibody resistance, causing real concern. What it means for the vaccines, etc.: I think that both the South African and the Brazilian variants are a major concern. And it is possible that those variants as they spread, and they are in the United States now, we may need to revise the vaccines to account for these types of variants. That’s not clear yet, but better to be prepared, in case we do need to revise the vaccine.

And then there’s a fourth type of variant, which is just kind of emerging, less well-studied at this point, but out of California. So clearly there, the virus is searching for a lock and key mechanism trying to search for ways to allow itself to replicate better. We’re applying immune pressure. So, it’s mutating away from some of that immune pressure, and that’s why this antibody resistance is emerging.

So, what types of mutations does the SARS-CoV-2 virus have to go through to make it a variant?

Well, for example, the South African variant has 27 mutations, nine of which occur in the spike protein. The spike is the protein on the surface that binds to the ACE2 receptor and allows entry and fusion into the host cell. And, of course, that’s where most of the vaccines are focused, is on the spike. That’s where the monoclonal antibody therapeutics are focused, on the spike. And so the virus is looking for ways to avoid these types of immune pressures and it’s making mutations in its receptor binding domain and the internal domain that confer resistance to certain types of neutralizing antibodies.

Given that recent studies from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson last week found somewhat reduced clinical efficacy of vaccines against these variants, what type of booster modification is required for vaccines in order to better combat them with the mRNA and the viral vector vaccines? Is it different, is it the same?

I think the booster that, for example, Moderna and Pfizer are now working on is to take the genetic sequence of the variant and use that as the immunogen. So, there is a mutation at position 484 that is absolutely key for this loss of antibody protection. You would introduce an RNA that now has that same mutation at position 484 into the vaccine to create a vaccine that is really tailored to take that particular type of virus out. And that mutation is shared between the South African and the Brazilian variants.

And so it wouldn’t require a different type, depending on the type of vaccine, it would just be the same type of reformulation. It wouldn’t be mRNA, different than a viral vector, it would just be a different formula. It’s not anything to do with the type of vaccine. It still would be an mRNA-based vaccine. It would just contain a different RNA or more likely it will be a multi-valent vaccine that would be original virus, as well as a new virus.

It’s not clear exactly how that would be administered. It may be that we want to boost immunity against the old virus, as well as the new virus, so we would use a multi-valent approach in that case. But the mRNA vaccine platform is quite amenable to this type of updating. That’s a real advantage, much more so than the adenoviral vectors, the virus-delivered vaccines. It’s a more complicated process there.

If we could just look at the vaccines as we have them now against this wild-type strain, if for some reason we didn’t have any boosters, what type of progress could we make against the pandemic? Can we vaccinate our way out of the pandemic, even if we don’t have these boosters? Have these variants prevented that?

To be clear, these variants, the Brazilian and the South African variants, are only compromising the neutralizing antibody response against the coronavirus. The T-cell immune response presumably is fully intact and remains unevaluated. So it’s quite possible that these vaccines will stand up better than we expect or predict. Clearly the U.K. variant does not appear to be a threat, although the recent acquisition of the neutralizing mutation at 484 causes concern that the virus is evolving. Even the U.K. variant is evolving.

I would say that the one thing that is disturbing to me, or that causes me pause is the story in Manaus, Brazil. Manaus is in the Amazon basin, they had a huge outbreak in the spring. It was thought, as reported, that there would probably be herd immunity within the community up to about 75%. Then this variant comes in to the community and it’s just sweeping through, causing re-infection or what appears to be re-infection.

Now did the original immunity wane and these people were all sensitive? Is it just that the variant is able to avoid both the T-cell and the antibody response that was present in the herd in Manaus? That kind of real-time experiment is concerning in terms of the spread of this virus. And I think data like that and what’s going on in South Africa is what’s really prompting the vaccine companies to get prepared now. We don’t know the full dimensions of the problem, but better to overprepare at this point in time.

So, given what happened in Brazil, do you think that’s evidence of viral escape?

Certainly, the South African and Brazilian variants, the mutations they are acquiring in their spike protein are examples of escape from the antibody neutralization. These are mutating principal antibody-binding sites that are responsible for neutralization, so that these variants are emerging under the influence of immune pressure. It’s harder to get around the T-cell immunity though, because T-cell immunity differs from person to person based on the composition of our HLA genes and our immune response. And T-cells are really the major defense mechanism against viruses, so let’s hope that our T-cells fill in for any gaps that the antibodies might come up a little short on.

I’m not sure exactly what has happened in Manaus, whether there was really ever herd immunity, whether it’s waned, but I do know that the variant there is hitting hard. So, that’s a big question mark. I think Brazil holds the answers to a lot of the future of this pandemic. We need to understand precisely what is going on there.

What do we need to be studying in Brazil specifically? And what type of data would we need to be looking at and tracking, what types of real-world studies and epidemiological studies would you like to see out of what’s happening in Brazil to help us going forward?

I would like to know whether or not there was real herd immunity. Before this new variant began to spread, was there clear evidence of a good antibody response and retention of durable antibody responses against the original strain of “wild-type” virus. So, if, in fact, there was an intact immune response, and this virus was able to overwhelm that response, well that’s not good news, but if the response had waned or had never really developed fully, then that’s a less daunting problem.

Now on the positive side, you look at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it’s not the world’s best at preventing you from becoming infected with or developing minor respiratory symptoms. But even with the South African variant, this vaccine protects you from severe disease, having to go to hospital and dying. And frankly, that’s what we want from a vaccine. That is fantastic. You may have a runny nose or a mild upper respiratory tract infection, but you’re not going to develop life-threatening pneumonia and require hospitalization, intubation, etc. And I’d sign up for that type of vaccine any day.

All we have from the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are these kinds of in vitro and in lab studies that if you expose them to these variants, this is what they’ll do, but do we need some type of clinical efficacy? Would you say at this point that we don’t have evidence of clinical efficacy against the variants with these two vaccines that are currently being distributed?

Exactly. The mRNA vaccines are not being tested extensively in areas where the variants are prospering, but one of the trial sites for Johnson & Johnson was in South Africa. So, they were able to see how their vaccines stood up against that variant and it fared very well in terms of prevention of serious disease.

When do you think that we are going to get these types of studies? Is that something that we’re going to see as the vaccine trials kind of evolve, and are we going to be able to get that from the mRNA vaccines? Are we just going to not know what their clinical efficacy is until we get a booster, we’re just going to only have the lab evidence?

It’s likely that the virus is probably replicating at higher levels or more virus is replicating in terms of country here in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world, in terms of the breadth of cases that we’ve had, etc. We just simply do not have the genomic surveillance types of apparatus to necessarily detect these variants. For example, we’re just now detecting the California variants. There may be many variants in the United States. We do know that the Brazilian, as well as the South African, variants are in the United States, and it’s possible that there is community spread of these variants. So, we just have to really ramp up our sequencing efforts to really track what’s happening within our pandemic within the country and what types of viruses that we’re dealing with.

And it’s in that kind of setting as variants begin to hold sway. For example, it’s suggested that the U.K. variant will become dominant in the United States by March. So, our prediction is that the current vaccines will do very well against that variant. Now, if that variant is replaced by, for example, a South African variant, which is more immunologically daunting, well then, we’re going to have to see how the mRNA vaccines hold up against that. And it’s that kind of real-world information that’s going to inform whether or not we need to boost the immune system with a third shot.

Are the variants occurring in regions due to the similarities in the genome of the regional population, causing the viral RNA to mutate in a specific direction, and do antigen tests pick up variants?

No, the antigen tests will not pick up the variants. You really have to do the sequencing to find these mutations. So, it’s clear that the virus has a set of mutations and it’s trying different combinations. All the virus wants to do is to replicate better. The U.K. variant has one mutation in the receptor binding domain, which confers tighter binding to the ACE2 receptor and a higher level of transmission by 40% to 70%. And that’s the variant that may become dominant here in the United States by March. In contrast, the South African and the Brazilian variants, they not only have the same mutation that the U.K. variant does, they’ve added to it. They’ve added at least two additional mutations that really take out these neutralizing antibodies.

Now, did these two variants arise independently? Some would say yes. I don’t think that we know precisely because one person coming from South Africa carrying the virus could seed the virus in Brazil. So, we don’t know, but there are subtle differences. The virus is working toward a solution here for avoiding the antibodies.

Now, another question is, is the virus throwing everything at us right now that it’s got? Is this it and can we expect a pretty much static situation from here on out? And, you know, I don’t think so. I think the virus still has tricks up its sleeve, and will continue to evolve as we put additional immune pressures on it. So, that would be my guess, but we’re right at the cusp of the evolving science. And to think that where we were a year ago with no defense, no innate or no intrinsic immunity to this virus, and nothing really therapeutic or preventive. And now we’re in a situation where we have multiple, highly effective vaccines. It’s a true triumph of science.

Can you go into how else the virus could mutate? Is there any way that it could mutate that T-cell immunity that we have that would be compromised? Is that possible or is it just not that complex a virus?

Yeah, there may be the emergence of escape mutations that escape a cytotoxic T-cell, CD8 T-cell responses, or CD4 helper T-cell responses. We could certainly see that and it’s much harder to monitor for those types of immune reactions. So, certainly, like you get immune escape against antibodies, you can have immune escape against T-cell immunity as well.

California man tests positive for COVID-19 weeks after second jab: report

Edmund DeMarche reported that a California man said he was diagnosed with COVID-19 three weeks after he received his second dose of the vaccine, reports said.

CBS Los Angeles reported that Gary Micheal, who lives in Orange County’s Lake Forest, found out he had the virus after being tested for an unrelated health concern. His symptoms are relatively minor, the report said.

He received the Pfizer vaccine, the report said. Patch.com reported that he got his first dose on Dec. 28 and his second jab on Jan. 18.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease scientist, said the latest evidence indicates that the two vaccines being used in the U.S. — Pfizer’s and Moderna’s — are effective even against the new variants.

A doctor interviewed in the CBS report said that he was not surprised to hear about Michael’s diagnosis.

“I think I’ve heard of six or seven independent cases over the last three weeks of individuals that have been vaccinated with different timelines that have tested positive, and I think we’re going to continue to see that more and more,” Dr. Tirso del Junco Jr., chief medical officer of KPC Health, told the station.

Fauci has estimated that somewhere between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population needs to get inoculated to stop the pandemic that has killed close to 470,000 Americans.

And Now Four people in Oregon who received both doses of vaccine test positive for coronavirus

Minyvonne Burke reported that four people in Oregon have tested positive for the coronavirus after receiving both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, health officials said.

There are two cases each in Yamhill and Lane counties, the state’s Health Authority said in a series of tweets on Friday. The cases are either mild or asymptomatic.

“We are working with our local and federal public health partners to investigate and determine case origin,” the agency said. “Genome sequencing is underway, and we expect results next week.”

The agency referred to the individuals who tested positive as “breakthrough cases,” meaning that they got sick with the virus at least 14 days after receiving both doses.

The Health Authority said more breakthrough cases could pop up.

“Clinical trials of both vaccines presently in use included breakthrough cases. In those cases, even though the participants got Covid, the vaccines reduced the severity of illness,” the agency said in a tweet.

“Based on what we know about vaccines for other diseases and early data from clinical trials, experts believe that getting a Covid-19 vaccine may also help keep you from getting seriously ill even if you do get the virus. … Getting as many Oregonians as possible vaccinated remains a critical objective to ending the pandemic.”

The agency’s announcement came the same day its health officer said there has been a decline of daily Covid-19 cases over the past several weeks. As of Friday, there were 149,576 cases in the state, according to the department’s count.

“These decreases are a testament to the actions all Oregonians are taking to slow the spread of Covid-19 and the sacrifices made – thank you,” health officer Dean Sidelinger said at a news conference Friday.

Another breakthrough case was reported in North Carolina, according to NBC affiliate WCNC-TV in Charlotte. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services told the outlet that the person had mild symptoms and did not need to be hospitalized.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that quarantining is not necessary for fully vaccinated people within three months of having received their last doses as long as they do not develop any symptoms.

They do, however, still need to practice certain safety measures such as wearing face masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowds or poorly ventilated spaces.

“Fully vaccinated” means at least two weeks have passed since a person has completed their vaccination series and now we have the addition of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which is a single dose with less effectivity but about the same activity of our yearly flu vaccine.

So, as I have said before, continue to wear your masks, whether one, two, three or whatever the number of masks that we are going to be advised with future “scientific” evidence.

Another New COVID Strain Is in the US; Will Present Vaccines Work with these New Strains, Pandemic Strategies Including New Migrants and What Happened to Merck’s Vaccine?

This has been an interesting few week and almost led me to close my office and retire. We had a patient come in the office and complete the questionnaire and “by-pass” our screening procedures, lying to us about his exposure to the COVID-19 virus. He just visited his brother the two days before the days office visit and lied to us, saying that he had no recent exposure, etc. However, a week later he called our office to allow notification that his COVID test was positive.

The thing that angered me and my staff more was that the patient waited a number of days to notify, besides lying to us about his exposure. This led us to close the office, cancel all patients until we could have a complete cleaning of the office and all get COVID tested.

Luckily, we all tested negative and all my staff and I had at least had our first vaccine doses. If we had tested positive, we would have to notify all the patients that were seen in the office between his visit and the day that we closed the office.

What an irresponsible set of actions and my fear is that this goes on in many situations because many of our patients, etc. are selfish and irresponsible and don’t care about anyone else except themselves…and they think the virus is all a lie, util one of their family members or close friends dies. How totally stupid and disgusting!! 

John Johnson wrote that the virus continues to mutate quickly. Anyone tracking the news is familiar with the new UK strain that is moving around the globe and threatens to become the dominant strain in the US soon. Now, health authorities in California have identified yet another strain that has popped up in about a dozen counties, reports the Los Angeles Times. Coverage on that and more:

  • California strain: The variant has been linked to large outbreaks in Santa Clara County and smaller outbreaks elsewhere. It’s still too early to say whether the new strain is more contagious or more lethal than the first forms of COVID that emerged, but studies on that are being prioritized. Bottom line: “This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard,” says Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County health officer.
  • A lament: In a New York Times op-ed, Ezra Klein runs through the coming COVID changes under the Biden administration. They include plans to get vaccinations organized on a mass scale, along with expanded testing and contract tracing. It’s all pretty basic stuff, he writes, which has him astonished that the Trump administration hasn’t done these things yet. “That it is possible for Joe Biden and his team to release a plan this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response imaginable.”
  • Hopeful trend: US deaths are about to pass 400,000, but one medical expert spies a positive trend in the new data as well. “Over the last four days for the first time in months, we’ve seen a steady decline … a thousand per day fewer hospitalizations in the United States,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University tells CNN. “We’ve seen the same trend in new cases.” The next two months will likely be brutal, he adds, “but there is a ray of sunshine” as vaccinations continue.
  • Hopeful, II: In “The Morning” newsletter at the Times, David Leonhardt is tired of the “they’re only 95% effective” drumbeat, and he’s not alone. “It’s driving me a little bit crazy,” Dr. Ashish Jha of the Brown School of Public Health tells Leonhardt. Dr. Aaron Richterman of the University of Pennsylvania adds, “We’re underselling the vaccine.” As Leonhardt explains and doctors emphasize, the vaccine will save your life, even if you’re in that other 5%. To wit, of 32,000 people who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in trials, only one person suffered a severe COVID case.

Migrant caravan demands Biden administration ‘honors its commitments’

Now, a real challenge for the new Biden administration. Adam Shaw noted that a migrant caravan moving from Honduras toward the U.S. border is calling on the incoming Biden administration to honor what it says are “commitments” to the migrants moving north, amid fears of a surge at the border when President-elect Joe Biden enters office.

More than 1,000 Honduran migrants moved into Guatemala on Friday without registering, The Associated Press reported. That is part of a larger caravan that left a Honduran city earlier in the day.

The outlet reported that they are hoping for a warmer reception when they reach the U.S. border, and a statement issued by migrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, on behalf of the caravan, said it expects the Biden administration to take action.

“We recognize the importance of the incoming Government of the United States having shown a strong commitment to migrants and asylum seekers, which presents an opportunity for the governments of Mexico and Central America to develop policies and a migration management that respect and promote the human rights of the population in mobility,” the statement said. ” We will advocate that the Biden government honors its commitments.” 

Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s policies on border security and immigration. He has promised to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which keeps migrants in Mexico as they await their hearings. The Trump administration has said the program has helped end the pull factors that bring migrants north, but critics say it is cruel and puts migrants at risk. 

Biden has also promised a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally and a moratorium on deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The migrants’ group also pointed to promises to end the asylum cooperative agreements the administration made with Northern Triangle countries.

“A new United States Government is an opportunity to work with the Mexican Government to develop a cooperation plan with Central America to address the causes of migration, together with civil society organizations, as well as an opportunity to increase regional cooperation regarding the persons in need of protection, and to dismantle illegal and inhuman programs such as Remain in Mexico, the United States’ Asylum Cooperation Agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as the Title 42 expulsions by the United States authorities,” it said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) order that allows the U.S. to quickly remove migrants on public health grounds.

Biden officials, however, have been keen to send the message to migrants that it will not mean open borders overnight.

“Processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off,” incoming Biden domestic policy adviser Susan Rice told Spanish wire service EFE. “Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not.” 

“Our priority is to reopen asylum processing at the border consistent with the capacity to do so safely and to protect public health, especially in the context of COVID-19,” she said. “This effort will begin immediately but it will take months to develop the capacity that we will need to reopen fully.”

It is unclear how far the migrants will get, and Guatemalan and Mexican governments have indicated they intend to turn them back. But the caravan comes amid fears that the new outlook on immigration and asylum from the Biden administration will fuel a surge at the border.

Acting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Mark Morgan said on “America’s News HQ” on Saturday that the caravan could include more than 5,000 migrants and blamed the tone from the incoming administration.

“We’re looking at two groups that are well over five thousand. And one of those groups have already gotten through the Guatemala border. And they’re on their way to El Rancho, which is about the located centrally in Guatemala,” he said. “It’s coming. It’s already started, just as we promised and anticipated it would with this rhetoric from the new administration on the border.”

President Trump warned this week that ending his policies and increasing incentives would lead to “a tidal wave of illegal immigration, a wave like you’ve never seen before” and that there were already signs of increased flows.

“They’re coming because they think that it’s a gravy train at the end,” he said. “It’s going to be a gravy train. Change the name from the caravans, which I think we came up with, to the gravy train because that’s what they’re looking for — looking for the gravy.”

Biden transition official tells migrant caravans: ‘Now is not the time’ to come to US

Yael Halon reported further on the migration noting that a migrant caravan moving from Honduras toward the U.S. border called on the incoming Biden administration to honor their “commitments” to the migrants moving north, citing the incoming administration’s vow to ease Trump’s restrictions on asylum.

But on Sunday, an unnamed Biden transition official said that migrants hoping to claim asylum in the U.S. during the first few weeks of the new administration “need to understand they’re not going to be able to come into the United States immediately,” NBC News reports. 

More than 1,000 Honduran migrants moved into Guatemala on Friday without registering as part of a larger caravan that left a Honduran city earlier in the day.

The Associated Press reported that they are hoping for a warmer reception when they reach the U.S. border, and a statement issued by migrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, on behalf of the caravan, said it expects the Biden administration to take action.

The Biden transition official, however, warned migrants against coming to the U.S. during the early days of the new administration, telling NBC that while “there’s help on the way,” now “is not the time to make the journey.” 

“The situation at the border isn’t going to be transformed overnight,” the official told the outlet.

“We have to provide a message that health and hope is on the way, but coming right now does not make sense for their own safety…while we put into place processes that they may be able to access in the future,” the official said.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s policies on border security and immigration. He has promised to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which keeps migrants in Mexico as they await their political asylum hearings. The Trump administration has said the program has helped end the pull factors that bring migrants north, but critics say it is cruel and puts them at risk. 

Biden has also promised a pathway to legal permanent residency for those in the country illegally and a moratorium on deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The migrants’ group also pointed to promises to end the asylum cooperative agreements the administration made with Northern Triangle countries.

President Trump warned last week that ending his policies and increasing incentives would lead to “a tidal wave of illegal immigration, a wave like you’ve never seen before,” claiming that there were already signs of increased flows.

AMA President: Biden Team Must Create National Pandemic Strategy

Ken Terry stated that now that the campaign is over, that the incoming Biden administration must formulate an effective national strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic, said Susan R. Bailey, MD, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), in a speech delivered today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Bailey noted that America’s fight against the pandemic is in a critical phase, as evidenced by the escalation in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in recent weeks. Emergency departments and ICUs are overwhelmed; many frontline clinicians are burned out; and the state- and local-level mechanisms for vaccine distribution have been slow and inconsistent, she said.

“The most important lesson for this moment, and for the year ahead, is that leaving state and local officials to shoulder this burden alone without adequate support from the federal government is not going to work,” Bailey emphasized.

She called on the Biden administration, which takes over next week, to “provide states and local jurisdictions with additional resources, guidance, and support to enable rapid distribution and administration of vaccines.”

In addition, she said, the incoming administration needs to develop a more robust, national strategy for continued COVID-19 testing and PPE production “by tapping into the full powers of the Defense Production Act.”

Biden Vaccine Distribution Policy

In a question-and-answer period following her speech, however, Bailey said she opposed the president-elect’s decision to release nearly all available vaccine supplies immediately, rather than hold back some doses for the second shots that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require. On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that it plans to do the same thing.

“We’re a little bit concerned about the announcement that [the Department of Health & Human Services] will not hold back vaccine doses to make sure that everyone who’s gotten their first dose will have a second dose in reserve,” Bailey said. “We don’t have adequate data to tell us that one dose is sufficient — we don’t think it is — and how long you can wait for the second dose without losing the benefits of the first dose.”

She added that it’s not recommended that people mix the two vaccines in the first and second doses. “Since the Pfizer vaccine has such rigid storage requirements, I want to make sure there’s plenty of vaccine for frontline healthcare workers who got the Pfizer vaccine because it was the first one to come out in December. I want to make sure they get their second dose on time and [do] not have to wait.”

Bailey said she hoped there will be plenty of vaccine supply. But she suggested that state and local health authorities be in communication with the federal government about whether there will be enough vaccine to guarantee people can get both doses.

Bolstering Public Health

In her speech, Bailey outlined five areas in which steps should be taken to improve the health system so that it isn’t overwhelmed the next time the US has a public health crisis:

  • Restore trust in science and science-based decision making. Make sure that scientific institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are “free from political pressure, and that their actions are guided by the best available scientific evidence.”
  • Ensure that the health system provides all Americans with affordable access to comprehensive healthcare. Bailey wasn’t talking about Medicare for All; she suggested that perhaps there be a second enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance exchanges.
  • Work to remove healthcare inequities that have hurt communities of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. She referred to a recent AMA policy statement that recognized racism as a public health threat.
  • Improve public health domestically and globally. Among other things, she noted, the public health infrastructure needs to be revitalized after “decades of disinvestment and neglect,” which has contributed to the slow vaccine rollout.
  • Recognize the global health community and restore America’s leadership in global efforts to combat disease, which are critical to preventing future threats. She praised Biden for his promise that the US will rejoin the World Health Organization.

At several points in her presentation, Bailey rejected political interference with science and healthcare. Among other things, she said public health could be improved by protecting the doctor-patient relationship from political interference.

Answering a question about how to separate politics from the pandemic, she replied, “The key is in sticking to the science and listening to our public health authorities. They all have to deliver the same message. Also, leaders at all levels, including in our communities, our schools, churches and college campuses, should wear masks and socially distance. This isn’t about anything other than the desire to get out of the pandemic and get our country on the right track again. Masks shouldn’t be political. Going back to school shouldn’t be political. Taking a certain medication or not shouldn’t be political. We need to stick to the science and listen to our public health authorities. That’s the quickest way out.”

Asked when she thought that life might get back to normal again in the US, Bailey said a lot depends on the extent of vaccine uptake and how much self-discipline people exhibit in following public health advice. “I think we’re looking at the end of this year. I’m hopeful that by fall, things will have opened up quite a bit as the Venn diagrams of those who’ve gotten vaccines grow larger.”

Merck Ends Development of Two Potential COVID-19 Vaccines

Tom Murphy, AP Health Writer, pointed out that the drug maker, Merck, said Monday that it will focus instead on studying two possible treatments for the virus that also have yet to be approved by regulators. The company said its potential vaccines were well tolerated by patients, but they generated an inferior immune system response compared with other vaccines.

Merck was developing one of the potential vaccines with France’s Pasteur Institute based on an existing measles vaccine. The French institute said it will keep working on two other vaccine projects using different methods.

Merck entered the race to fight COVID-19 later than other top drug makers.

It said last fall that it had started early-stage research in volunteers on potential vaccines that require only one dose. Vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna were already in late-stage research at that point.

The Food and Drug Administration allowed emergency use of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines late last year. Each requires two shots.

Five potential vaccines have reached late-stage testing in the United States, the final phase before a drug maker seeks approval from regulators. Results from a single-dose candidate developed by Johnson & Johnson are expected soon.

Since vaccinations began in December, nearly 22 million doses have been delivered to people nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 6% of the population has received at least one dose.

A total of 3.2 million people, or 1% of the population, have received both doses required for those vaccines.

More than 419,000 people in the United States and 2 million globally have died due to the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The government is paying Merck & Co. about $356 million to fast-track production of one of its potential treatments under Operation Warp Speed, a push to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The money will allow the Kenilworth, New Jersey, company to deliver up to 100,000 doses by June 30, if the FDA clears the treatment for emergency use.

The treatment, known as MK-7110, has the potential to minimize the damaging effects of an overactive immune response to COVID-19. This immune response can complicate the life-saving efforts of doctors and nurses.

Merck said early results from a late-stage study of that drug showed a more than 50% reduction in the risk of death or respiratory failure in patients hospitalized with moderate or severe COVID-19. The company expects full results from that study in the first quarter.

Merck’s other potential treatment is an oral antiviral drug.

Merck said it will focus COVID-19 research and manufacturing efforts on two investigational medicines: MK-7110 and MK-4482, which it now calls molnupiravir. Molnupiravir, which is being developed in collaboration with Ridgeback Bio, is an oral antiviral being studied in both hospital and outpatient settings. If these oral antiviral drugs are effective this will be a real advancement in the treatment of COVID-19. Merck said a phase 2/3 trial of the drug is set to finish in May, but initial efficacy results are due in the first quarter and will be made public if clinically meaningful. 

Merck said results from a phase 3 study of MK-7110, an immune modulator being studied as a treatment for patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19, are expected in the first quarter. In December, the company announced a deal to supply MK-7110 to the U.S. government for up to about $356 million. (Reporting by Deena Beasley Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

Moderna Study: Vaccine Effective vs COVID Variants

With the weekly announcement of new mutant strains of the COVID virus we are all wondering whether the vaccine that are being administered will be effective against the new strains. Carolyn Crist noted that as mutated strains of the coronavirus represent new threats in the pandemic, vaccine makers are racing to respond.

Moderna, whose two-dose vaccine has been authorized for use in the U.S. since Dec. 18, said Monday that it is now investigating whether a third dose of the vaccine will work to prevent the spread of a variant first seen in South Africa, while it also tests a new vaccine formula for the same purpose.

“Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective … against this and potentially future variants,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in a statement.

Moderna on Monday also said its COVID-19 vaccine could protect against the U.K. strain but that it is less effective against the strain identified in South Africa.

Pfizer and BioNTech, whose vaccine were also authorized in December, announced last week that their COVID-19 vaccine creates antibodies that could protect vaccine recipients from the coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

“This is not a problem yet,” Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNBC.

“Prepare for it. Sequence these viruses,” he said. “Get ready just in case a variant emerges, which is resistant.”

There were at least 195 confirmed cases of patients infected with the U.K. variant in the U.S. as of Friday, according to the CDC. No cases from the South African variant have been confirmed in the U.S. To try and prevent the variant from entering the country, President Joe Biden plans to ban travel from South Africa, except for American citizens and permanent residents.

The U.S. has reported more than 25 million total COVID-19 cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, marking another major milestone during the pandemic.

That means about 1 in 13 people in the U.S. have contracted the virus, or about 7.6% of the population.

“Twenty-five million cases is an incredible scale of tragedy,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times. She called the pandemic one of the worst public health crises in history.

After the first U.S. case was reported in January 2020, it took more than 9 months to reach 10 million cases in early November. Numbers rose during the holidays, and 10 million more cases were reported by the end of the year. Following a major surge throughout January, with a peak of more than 300,000 daily cases on some days, the U.S. reached 25 million in about 3 weeks.

Hospitalizations also peaked in early January, with more than 132,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country, according to the COVID Tracking Project. On Sunday, about 111,000 patients were hospitalized, which is the lowest since mid-December.

The U.S. has also reported nearly 420,000 deaths. As recently as last week, more than 4,400 deaths were reported in a single day, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Deaths are beginning to drop but still remain above 3,000 daily deaths.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released a new projection last week that said new cases would decline steadily in coming weeks. New COVID-19 cases have fallen about 21% in the last 2 weeks, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

“We’ve been saying since summer that we thought we’d see a peak in January, and I think that, at the national level, we’re around the peak,” Christopher J.L. Murray, MD, director of the institute, told the newspaper.

At the same time, public health officials are concerned that new coronavirus variants could lead to an increase again. Murray said the variants could “totally change the story.” If the more transmissible strains spread quickly, cases and deaths will surge once more.

“We’re definitely on a downward slope, but I’m worried that the new variants will throw us a curveball in late February or March,” Rivers told the newspaper.

So, next, when we get vaccinated do we need to wear masks and continue social distancing?

We will explore that set of questions next.