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Doctor on coronavirus: 'We're in an arms race now'

·Senior Editor
·5 min read
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There are signs of hope in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic with more COVID-19 vaccines being approved for emergency use authorization (EUA) by government regulators and the number of vaccinations surpassing the number of total confirmed cases in the country.

At the same time, a new challenge has risen: Mutant (variant) strains of the virus have begun popping up around the globe, most notably in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

“We’re in an arms race now against this virus to see: Can we get people vaccinated quickly enough before these new, more contagious, more transmissible strains really take hold and become the dominant strains?” Dr. Summer Johnson, dean of health sciences at the University of New Haven, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Vaccination is one key component of that.”

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The challenge has been the rollout of the vaccine. In the U.S. so far, however, only 7.6% of the public (slightly more than 26 million people) have received at least one dose of a vaccine. However, the country finally surpassed the number of coronavirus cases with vaccines.

The goal is for the country to get to administering 2 million doses a week in the near future, which Johnson still thinks is a possibility.

“What we’re heaving at the local level is that states and counties have the vaccination sites ready to go,” Johnson said. “I think the other piece is making sure we also have enough vaccinations to get the shots in the arms. If we can figure those two things out, we can hit the 2 million a week goal pretty easily.”

7.6% of the U.S. population is inoculated. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
7.6% of the U.S. population is inoculated. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘Think just like we do with the flu vaccine every year’

Pfizer (PFE) and Moderna (MRNA) have begun distributing their vaccines to the public while Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Novavax (NVAX) await government approval.

To reach herd immunity, which would allow a return to relative normalcy for much of society, an estimated 80 to 90% of the public needs to be vaccinated.

“The faster we can get people to having some kind of immunity … even though we’ve seen some of these vaccines now that are being studied and being tested against these new strains aren’t quite as effective as they are against some of those original strains, they are still effective,” Johnson said. “It’s going to slow the spread of those more aggressive mutants which will mean ultimately, we’re going to be able to get control of the overall spread of the virus.”

Betty Bucks, a teaching assistant who is classed in the 1B category, which includes teachers and childcare providers, receives the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., January 21, 2021.  REUTERS/Cheney Orr
Betty Bucks, a teaching assistant who is classed in the 1B category, receives the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., January 21, 2021. REUTERS/Cheney Orr

And though vaccinating more people means containing the spread of the virus, Johnson said the coronavirus is still likely here to stay in a mitigated form.

“Think just like we do with the flu vaccine every year, we have to do our best guess and our predictions about what are the dominant strains in any given year or in any given country likely to be,” Johnson said, “and to include those strains, that mRNA, into those vaccines if we’re talking about Pfizer or Moderna, so I think we can do that.”

A preliminary study found that the Pfizer vaccine is still as effective against the mutant strains. Johnson & Johnson, on the other hand, said theirs are slightly less effective, but they still prevent serious hospitalizations and death from the virus.

Wesley Wheeler, President of Global Healthcare at United Parcel Service (UPS) holds up an example of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine vial during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee hearing on the logistics of transporting a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., U.S., December 10, 2020. Samuel Corum/Pool via REUTERS     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Wesley Wheeler, President of Global Healthcare at UPS, holds up an example of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine vial in Washington, D.C., December 10, 2020. Samuel Corum/Pool via REUTERS

The evolution of the mutant strains has led to both Pfizer and Moderna start the process of developing booster shots to their original vaccines.

“We’re likely to see the continual need for updating and honing which strains are in these vaccines and people getting vaccinated hopefully not more than once a year, but maybe initially, at least a few times until we figure out what strains are really going to dominate in what parts of the world,” Johnson said.

‘We’re on our way to turning the corner’

Unfortunately, like the flu virus, thousands of people could still die from COVID-19 every year even after vaccines are widely distributed.

“That’s a scenario we seriously have to plan for,” Johnson said. “The reality is that the way we’re seeing and how quickly this virus is mutating as it spreads around the globe in new hosts, unless we’re really able to slow down the spread and give this virus less opportunity to mutate — maybe once we have 7 billion people on the planet vaccinated — we won’t see that kind of mutation and spread. But we need to get to a very high level of vaccination across the plan before we can really slow this virus down.”

People stepping out of a Covid vaccine location are directed by a volunteer wearing a face mask and shield to a waiting area in Los Angeles, California on January 28, 2021. - The daily number of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to remain elevated for another two weeks due to a recent surge of Covid patients swarming intensive-care units, but hospitalization numbers have been trending downward, according to the LA County Publlic Health Director Barbara Ferrer. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
People stepping out of a Covid vaccine location are directed by a volunteer wearing a face mask and shield to a waiting area in Los Angeles on January 28, 2021. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

In the meantime, it’s back to basics — wearing a mask, staying home, practicing good hygiene, and getting tested when needed. The country is already seeing cases and hospitalizations on the decline.

“We’re on our way to turning the corner,” Johnson said. “There is very good news out there. The consistent messaging that we’ve been getting from the federal government about the importance of masking, the importance of getting tested, is going to continue to help us reduce case numbers and reduce serious cases in hospitalization. Vaccination is, of course, going to help that tremendously.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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