A month into what many had hoped would be a brighter year, 2020 is still casting a long shadow over us. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths have reached levels not seen even at the peak of the pandemic last summer. Every day brings the number of coronavirus cases and deaths to new heights. On February 4, 2021, more than 5,200 Americans died from COVID-19, a single-day high. Since the pandemic began, more than 450,000 American have been buried, the equivalent of losing two-thirds of the District of Columbia. There is some cause for hope, however, as the number of daily positive tests and hospitalizations for the virus appear to be declining.
Hope may be around the corner, as two different vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency distribution in the US. These vaccines, which were created by Boston-based Moderna and a collaboration between American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech, both rely on using messenger RNA, or mRNA, to help the immune system recognize and fight the novel coronavirus.
However, distribution of the vaccine lags significantly behind projections. In 2020, only about 3 million doses were administered, far short of the federal government’s goal of having 20 million Americans vaccinated by the end of the year, and as of February 7th, less than ten percent of the country had been vaccinated. There is an expectation that under the Biden administration, vaccine rollout will accelerate: President Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million people by his hundredth day in office. Some call this goal far-fetched, while others say it is far too low.
In addition to the healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities who were given first priority, several states have also opened up vaccine eligibility to anyone older than 65 or to adults with medical conditions that put them at high risk for severe COVID-19. Currently, vaccines are being distributed proportionally to states based on their adult population, but soon they shall be allocated based on the population of people 65 and over and the speed at which vaccinations are being given in each state.
Moreover, the US is choosing to give more people their first dose of the vaccines rather than reserving some for a round of booster shots, trusting that enough vaccines will be manufactured by the time they are needed. Pfizer recommends a 21-day gap between the first and second doses, while Moderna suggests administering the second shot after one month. Both vaccines provide some protection from the virus one to two weeks after the initial inoculation, building to full immunity a few weeks after the second shot.
The surge in cases that began towards the end of 2020 and continues in 2021 may have been caused by gatherings over the winter holidays, but it may also be attributed to new mutations of the virus. While there are several known new variants in circulation, including worrisome mutations discovered in South Africa, Brazil and Nigeria, one of the most prevalent is the UK variant, which appears to spread significantly faster and far more easily. The UK variant has shown up in most US states and is suspected to be behind the recent resurgence of cases in the UK.
It is unclear whether vaccines will need to be modified to protect against the new strains. According to a study by Pfizer, their vaccine may be effective against some of the new strains of coronavirus, including the UK variant, without any modifications, and Moderna says they may be able to update their vaccine without any major clinical trials. Amid the rising number of coronavirus cases, there is some cause for optimism, but it appears that the virus will get significantly worse before it finally gets better.