Biden’s quest to beat back the pandemic is at a critical juncture. The number of new cases has started plateauing and even falling in some areas, and millions more vaccine doses are expected to become available within weeks. But news that the more transmissible variants have reached the U.S. reduces the government’s margin for error — potentially making it harder to continue bringing down the number of new infections, and drawing resources away from the president’s goal of inoculating hundreds of millions of Americans by summer.
“We need better genetic surveillance of all the variants out there … but you can’t snap your fingers and get it,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethics expert at the University of Pennsylvania who served on Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board during the transition. Manufacturers also need to develop vaccines capable of protecting against multiple strains — much as flu shots do — and easy-to-administer medicines to treat the virus, he added.
That’s on top of the pressing need to vaccinate much of the country. Biden’s team “already are pushing as hard as they can, but you have to push as hard as possible to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Emanuel said.
In some ways the current situation resembles March 2020, when the U.S. was dangerously behind in testing to monitor the virus’ movements and reliant almost entirely on other basic public health measures to limit its reach. Although the U.S. has two vaccines available and more in development, their slower-than-expected rollout has officials looking for ways to buy time, and protect already stretched health care systems, while they beef up their pandemic battle plans.
“You’re going to hear me say this a lot, so here it is: Wear masks. Stay six feet apart. Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. Also, now is not the time to travel,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday at a White House briefing before describing the agency’s “dramatically” scaled-up efforts to expand variant surveillance and testing over the past 10 days — including partnerships with testing companies and research labs across the country.
But even with the boosted effort, “We need to be treating every case as if it is a variant in this pandemic right now,” Walensky said.
The strains that have emerged from South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom present a mammoth challenge, said University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, who also advised Biden on the pandemic during the transition. “This is, to me, one of the most humbling moments in my scientific career of 45 years. I am certain I know less about SARS-CoV-2 today than I did six months ago. The more I learn, the less I know,” he said.
Adding to the difficulty, every new infection gives the virus a chance to mutate; over time, small mutations can converge in ways that change the virus’s behavior, giving rise to additional variants.
The CDC earlier this month…
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