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.
Of course, all of this good news might be wasted if vaccine supply and distribution lagged. But here again there’s reason for optimism.