A new, more contagious variant of coronavirus first detected in the UK is likely to fuel a surge of cases in the spring, several experts predicted Tuesday.
The variant, called B.1.1.7, was suspected of causing renewed spread in Britain. It’s been seen across much of the US — with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating the variant makes up for more than 1,880 cases in 45 states.
The variant could “result in more of a wave” around April or May, said Trevor Bedford with the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
So how can the US prevent the suspected spring surge? Some experts said Tuesday the best way to get ahead of the surge is through vaccinations.
Bedford, who has been closely following the rise of new coronavirus variants, predicted that vaccination and mitigation efforts, such as mask use and continued social distancing, will help prevent the virus from spreading further.
“I still do suspect that things will be brought under control in the summer, and there will be very little virus circulating,” he said.
It’s possible, however, that a new surge could begin in the fall, according to Bedford.
Dr. Josh Schiffer, an infectious diseases specialist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, agreed.
“I think with the newly infectious variants … it is going to be difficult to prevent a fourth wave altogether,” Schiffer, who has been modeling patterns of spread, said.
This week, the US surpassed 500,000 Covid-19 deaths. The mass tragedy was avoidable, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“It does … pain me when I see things like pleading for people to do the kinds of things that you know work — the mask wearing, the physical separation — and the denial,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It was “actually painful for me” to see hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, he said, and “in those same regions, there were people who were denying that this was going on, saying, ‘Oh, it’s fake news, it’s a hoax.’ I mean, how could you possibly say that when people in your own state, your own city, your own county, are dying?”
“Here we are today, looking at 500,000 Americans who’ve died thus far,” Fauci said.
“That’s the proof of what actually has been going on. You can’t deny that.”
The US Covid-19 death toll is by far the highest of any country — and more than double that of Brazil’s, which according to Johns Hopkins University data has the next highest number of virus-related fatalities.
Experts have said several factors contributed to an unnecessarily brutal pandemic, including a lack of clear messaging from the country’s leadership, state and local leaders loosening restrictions too quickly, large holiday celebrations and continued resistance to wearing face masks or social distancing.
The race to vaccinate
More than 44.5 million people have received at least one dose of their two-dose vaccines, according to data Tuesday from the CDC.
About 19.8 million have been fully vaccinated with both doses, the CDC said. That’s about 6% of the US population.
The US can expect to have a total of 240 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of March, according to prepared remarks from vaccine makers for a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday
Pfizer and Moderna — the two companies with Covid-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the US — have pledged to make a combined total of 220 million doses available for shipment by the end of March.
That would be enough to vaccinate 110 million Americans, since both vaccines require two doses.
Johnson & Johnson, which has yet to receive an emergency use authorization for its Covid-19 vaccine, has pledged to make 20 million doses available in the same time frame. Its vaccine requires only one dose.
Pfizer said it expects to increase the number of doses available for shipment from about 4 million to 5 million doses per week at the beginning of February to more than 13 million doses per week by the middle of March.
“We are on track to make 120 million doses available for shipment by the end of March and an additional 80 million doses by the end of May. And, we anticipate all 300 million contracted doses will be made available for shipment by the end of July, enabling the vaccination of up to 150 million Americans,” the company said in its prepared remarks.
Moderna, the other company with an authorized Covid-19 vaccine, said it’s on track to deliver 100 million doses by the end of March and it plans to double monthly deliveries by April to more than 40 million doses per month.
“Based on this progress scaling up manufacturing, we recently agreed to move up our delivery timeline: we now are aiming to deliver a second hundred million doses by the end of May and a third hundred million doses by the end of July,” Moderna said in its prepared remarks.
1 dose of vaccine *might* be enough for some, NIH director says
It’s possible a single dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine might be enough for those who have already been infected with coronavirus — but it will take more research to show that, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins wrote in a blog post Tuesday.
“While much more research is needed — and I am definitely not suggesting a change in the current recommendations right now — the results raise the possibility that one dose might be enough for someone who’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and already generated antibodies against the virus,” Collins wrote.
He referenced a recent preprint on a small NIH-funded study, which looked at 109 people who had already received a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
It found that for 41 people who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies before their first shot, immune response to the first dose was “equal to, or in some cases better” than the response to the second dose in people without previous infection.
“If other studies support these results, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might decide to consider whether one dose is enough for people who’ve had a prior COVID-19 infection. Such a policy is already under consideration in France and, if implemented, would help to extend vaccine supply and get more people vaccinated sooner,” Collins wrote.
“But any serious consideration of this option will require more data. It will also be up to the expert advisors at FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to decide.”
For now, Collins said, the most important things for everyone to do are to follow the three W’s — wear a mask, wash hands and watch distance — “and roll up our sleeves for the vaccine as soon as it’s available to us.”
What Americans need to do to ‘get back to normal’
While many states are seeing Covid-19 numbers improve, experts say now is absolutely not the time to drop precautions — especially as disturbing coronavirus variants keep spreading.
“The best way for us to get back to normal is to double down right now, not to throw off our masks, not to eat indoors, not to do other things that we know can risk reigniting outbreaks,” said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
“The majority of people in this country, despite previous infections and despite two months of vaccine, the majority of people still have no protection against Covid and can get infected,” Spencer said. “This isn’t over and we need to double down.”
That means continuing to mask up, keep your distance from others, avoid crowded areas and wash your hands regularly.