First came the California variant, now comes … the New York variant?

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Sounds ominous, I know, but with the Churchill of the pandemic at the helm of state government, how much damage could a worrisome local variant in New York realistically do?

No more than 30-40,000 more deaths, tops, I’d guess.

Every new variant is concerning but maaaaaybe the media is being a little quick to hype the new ones, no? We know that the virus will mutate; we know that some mutations will by chance be more fit evolutionarily than others; we also know that cases have declined globally recently, even with the rise of dangerous new strains like the British and South African variants. There’s no reason to believe that the most effective vaccines, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, are powerless against any widely spreading strain, let alone more regionally focused ones like the mutation recently detected in California.

Admittedly, it’s off-brand for me not to take the most Eeyore-ish position but obsessing about each newly discovered variant when there are likely many circulating feels overly pessimistic at a moment when vaccines are becoming more plentiful. But go figure that a national newspaper based in New York would take an interest in a new strain circulating in their own backyard, America’s biggest city:

The new variant, called B.1.526, first appeared in samples collected in the city in November. By the middle of this month, it accounted for about one in four viral sequences appearing in a database shared by scientists

He and his colleagues found two versions of the coronavirus increasing in frequency: one with the E484K mutation seen in South Africa and Brazil, which is thought to help the virus partially dodge the vaccines; and another with a mutation called S477N, which may affect how tightly the virus binds to human cells.

By mid-February, the two together accounted for about 27 percent of New York City viral sequences deposited into the database, Dr. West said. (For the moment, both are grouped together as B.1.526.)…

The E484K mutation has independently cropped up in many different parts of the world, an indication that it offers the virus a significant advantage.

One scientist interviewed by the Times said he was more worried about New York’s new variant than California’s because of the two particular mutations mentioned in the excerpt. However, read all the way down to the story’s final paragraphs and you’ll find the same expert predicting that people who have been immunized, whether by vaccination or the old-fashioned way, are “very likely” to overcome the New York variant albeit possibly not without symptoms. (They could get “a little sick,” in his words.) Another expert was almost sanguine about the variant, saying, “These things are a little bit less well controlled by vaccine, but it’s not orders of magnitude down, which would terrify me.”

Here’s the latest data from New York State. An explosion of cases driven by the new variant could be right around the corner, but total cases have been falling lately despite the variant’s increasing prevalence:

For all the excitement about the New York strain, the California strain, and every other strain out there currently known to science, the practical advice to the average joe remains completely unchanged. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. Keep your distance from others to the greatest extent possible. Until a truly vaccine-resistant variant emerges, the upshot of every news story about a new one that’s discovered would seem to be “Vaccines may be slightly less effective than hoped against the particular version of COVID you’re likely to contract.” What is anyone supposed to do with that information?

Scott Lincicome had a long piece in The Dispatch yesterday about looking on the bright side with respect to the future of the pandemic. Yes, such a thing exists, and at the moment it’s brighter than ever.

Oh but what about those variants?! Again, there’s (mostly) good news and a lot of misguided pessimism (or outright fear mongering). First, both mRNA vaccines and the AstraZeneca vaccine have been shown to be effective against the highly transmissible U.K. variant (B.1.1.7), and its becoming the “dominant strain” in the United States will not necessarily lead to a “fourth wave.” With respect to the other key variant, from South Africa, AstraZeneca struggles to produce sufficient neutralizing antibodies, but Pfizer still works (and Moderna probably does), as does the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine. For people who have had COVID-19, a single shot of the mRNA vaccines also provides protection against the South African variant, which has fizzled out in South Africa and is still pretty limited here.

Variants will remain a cat-and-mouse game between the virus and the vaccines, likely requiring a subsequent booster shot at some point down the road, but (1) declining cases worldwide will decrease the chance for mutation (and thus the number of variants); and (2) the amazing mRNA technology provides a crucial advantage in fighting new variants, in that the vaccines can be rapidly updated (in only 60 days, per Pfizer) and manufactured (in around 110 days, versus “much longer” for traditional vaccines). Even the slow-moving FDA has promised it will fast-track future vaccine booster shots against COVID-19 variants, instead of requiring large clinical trials (wonders never cease). Thus, as the New York Times’ Ross Douthat noted yesterday, the variants will remain a concern for a long while but do not justify a permanent extension of our current bunker mentality.

The jury remains out on how much the vaccines do to prevent transmission, rather than just infection, but virologist Angela Rasmussen points out that a product that’s 95 percent effective at preventing the latter almost certainly has a sizable effect on preventing the former. (Early data from Israel seems to confirm that.) Even if they don’t, she continues, that’s not a major problem if and when we approach herd immunity: The polio vaccine didn’t prevent transmission, after all, but enough people were eventually immunized by it to make transmission nearly impossible anyway.

And speaking of herd immunity, some optimistic estimates are that we could reach it by summer — if we get buy-in from most of the public on getting the jab and if there are no setbacks in supply:

There are caveats. It *may* be that herd immunity will require more than 75 percent of the population to be immunized. Fauci’s estimate when he came clean in December about deceiving the public was more like 80-85 percent, and more infectious variants may arise that could push that up further. Additionally, even the most conservative estimate here for daily doses, 2.5 million per day, has yet to be approached by the U.S. The most we’ve managed in a 24-hour period to date was two million, which happened a few weeks ago before we regressed for weather-related reasons. If that’s mostly a supply problem, then good news: That supply problem is about to ease, with UPS expecting a 40 percent increase in doses shipped next week. If instead it’s mostly a distribution problem then the path to herd immunity may be a bit longer than the projection above estimates. But we’re getting there. Even with the variants circulating.





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