'When will it end?': How a changing virus is reshaping scientists' views on COVID-19

Murray said if the South African variant, or similar mutants, still spread rapidly, the amount of COVID-19 cases leading to hospitalization or death this coming winter might be fourfold above the flu.

'When will it end?': How a changing virus is reshaping scientists' views on COVID-19
'When will it end?': How a changing virus is reshaping scientists' views on COVID-19

Chris Murray, a University of Washington disease expert whose projections on COVID-19 infections and deaths are closely followed worldwide, is changing his assumptions about the course of the pandemic.

Murray had until recently been hopeful that the invention of several effective vaccines could help countries achieve herd immunity, or nearly eliminate transmission through a mixture of inoculation and former infection. But within the last month, data from a vaccine trial in South Africa showed not only that a rapidly-spreading coronavirus variant could dampen the effect of the vaccine, it could also evade innate immunity in people that had been previously infected.

“I couldn’t sleep” after seeing the info , Murray, director of the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told Reuters. “When will it end?” he asked himself, pertaining to the pandemic. he's currently updating his model to account for variants’ ability to flee innate immunity and expects to supply new projections as early as in the week .

A new consensus is emerging among scientists, consistent with Reuters interviews with 18 specialists who closely track the pandemic or are working to curb its impact. Many described how the breakthrough late last year of two vaccines with around 95% efficacy against COVID-19 had initially sparked hope that the virus might be largely contained, almost like the way measles has been.

But, they say, data in recent weeks on new variants from South Africa and Brazil has undercut that optimism. They now believe that SARS-CoV-2 won't only remain with us as an epidemic virus, continuing to circulate in communities, but will likely cause a big burden of illness and death for years to return .

As a result, the scientists said, people could expect to still take measures like routine mask-wearing and avoiding crowded places during COVID-19 surges, especially for people at high risk.Even after vaccination, “I still would want to wear a mask if there was a variant out there,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, said in an interview. "All you would like is one little flick of a variant (sparking) another surge, and there goes your prediction" about when life gets back to normal.

Some scientists, including Murray, acknowledge that the outlook could improve. The new vaccines, which are developed at record speed, still appear to stop hospitalizations and death even when new variants are the explanation for infection. Many vaccine developers are performing on booster shots and new inoculations that would preserve a high level of efficacy against the variants. And, scientists say there's still much to be learned about the immune system's ability to combat the virus.

Already, COVID-19 infection rates have declined in many countries since the beginning of 2021, with some dramatic reductions in severe illness and hospitalizations among the primary groups of individuals to be vaccinated.

WORSE THAN FLU

Murray said if the South African variant, or similar mutants, still spread rapidly, the amount of COVID-19 cases leading to hospitalization or death this coming winter might be fourfold above the flu. The rough estimate assumes a 65% effective vaccine given to half a country’s population. during a worst-case scenario, that would represent as many as 200,000 U.S. deaths associated with COVID-19 over the winter period, supported federal estimates of annual flu fatalities.

His institute’s current forecast, which runs to June 1, assumes there'll be a further 62,000 U.S. deaths and 690,000 global deaths from COVID-19 by that time . The model includes assumptions about vaccination rates also because the transmissibility of the South African and Brazilian variants.

The shift in thinking among scientists has influenced more cautious government statements about when the pandemic will end. Britain last week said it expects a slow emergence from one among the world’s strictest lockdowns, despite having one among the fastest vaccination drives.

U.S. government predictions of a return to a more normal lifestyle are repeatedly pushed back, last from late summer to Christmas, then to March 2022. Israel issues “Green Pass” immunity documents to people that have recovered from COVID-19 or been vaccinated, allowing them back to hotels or theaters. The documents are only valid for 6 months because it’s not clear how long immunity will last.

“What does it mean to be past the emergency phase of this pandemic?,” said Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. While some experts have asked whether countries could completely eradicate any case of COVID-19 through vaccines and stringent lockdowns, Baral sees the goals as smaller , but still meaningful. “In my mind, it's that hospitals aren't full, the ICUs aren't full, and other people aren't tragically passing,” he said.

'SCIENTIFIC WHIPLASH'

From the start , the new coronavirus has been a moving target.Early within the pandemic, leading scientists warned that the virus could become endemic and “may never get away ,” including Dr. Michael Ryan, head of the planet Health Organization’s emergencies program.

Yet that they had much to find out , including whether it might be possible to develop a vaccine against the virus and the way quickly it might mutate. wouldn't it be more like measles, which may be kept almost entirely cornered in communities with high rates of inoculation, or flu, which infects millions globally each year?

For much of 2020, many scientists were surprised and reassured that the coronavirus had not changed significantly enough to become more transmissible, or deadly.A major breakthrough came in November. Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE also as Moderna Inc said their vaccines were around 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials, an efficacy rate that's much above any flu shot.

At least a couple of of the scientists Reuters interviewed said even within the wake of these results, they hadn’t expected the vaccines to wipe out the virus. But many told Reuters that the info raised hope within the scientific community that it might be possible to virtually eliminate COVID-19, if only the planet might be vaccinated quickly enough.

“We all felt quite optimistic before Christmas with those first vaccines,” said Azra Ghani, chair in communicable disease epidemiology at Imperial College London. “We didn't necessarily expect such high-efficacy vaccines to be possible therein first generation.”

The optimism proved short-lived. In late December, the U.K. warned of a replacement , more transmissible variant that was quickly becoming the dominant sort of the coronavirus within the country. round the same time, researchers learned of the impact of the faster-spreading variants in South Africa and in Brazil.

Phil Dormitzer, a top vaccine scientist at Pfizer, told Reuters in November that the U.S. drugmaker’s vaccine success signaled the virus was "vulnerable to immunization" in what he called "a breakthrough for humanity." By early January, he acknowledged the variants heralded "a new chapter" during which companies will need to constantly monitor for mutations that would dampen the effect of vaccines.

In late January, the impact on vaccines became even clearer. Novavax’s clinical test data showed its vaccine was 89% effective during a U.K. trial, but just 50% effective at preventing COVID-19 in South Africa . That was followed every week later by data showing the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine offered only limited protection from mild disease against the South African variant.

The most recent change of heart was considerable, several of the scientists told Reuters. Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego , described it as “scientific whiplash”: In December, he had believed it had been plausible to realize so-called "functional eradication" of the coronavirus, almost like measles.

Now, “getting as many of us vaccinated as possible remains an equivalent answer and therefore the same path forward because it was on December 1 or January 1,” Crotty said, “but the expected outcome is not the same.”

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