A contagious COVID variant has spread to all 50 states. Can the U.S. get people vaccinated quickly enough to blunt the damage?

COVID-19 vaccination site; but will vaccines help stop the U.K. COVID variant?
Photo via Baltimore County Government/Flickr (Public Domain)

The B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant, which initially cropped up in the U.K., has now been reported in every U.S. state. The variant’s broad spread has experts concerned that the U.S. is headed for yet another surge.

Near the end of March 2021, the U.S. appeared to be headed toward the finish line of the coronavirus pandemic. Cases of COVID-19 were down across the nation, and vaccine distribution increased drastically between January and March. In response to the drop in cases and rise in vaccinations, many states have begun loosening restrictions. The lowered restrictions—combined with the spread of the U.K. COVID variant—have sparked concerns of a summer surge in cases.

The vaccines approved in the U.S. are all very effective against the variants, according to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. At the current pace of vaccinations, however, Osterholm is concerned too few Americans will be inoculated to prevent a variant surge. 

“We are not going to have enough vaccines, the way we are going, into the arms of enough Americans over the course of the next six to 10 weeks with this surge that we are going to stop it,” Osterholm told CNN on April 5. “It’s just simply not going to happen.”

Experts estimate that between 70%-90% of the U.S. population will need to be vaccinated before we can reach a level of herd immunity. As of April 1, only around 20% of the population had been fully vaccinated, making herd immunity an unlikely defense against the U.K. COVID variant. 

A few positive factors may help the U.S. avoid yet another surge. The efficacy of vaccines against the U.K. variant, along with warming spring weather and a high number of recovered COVID patients, should all help in preventing another surge. 

In anticipation of a potential surge, experts are debating whether to delay second vaccine doses to ensure the country has enough for everyone. While a single dose of any two-dose vaccine doesn’t provide full protection, any protection at all is better than none. 

Vaccine manufacturers are already “developing strategies to deal with the possibility of a variant that escapes coverage by first-generation vaccines,” according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Janssen, the pharmaceutical company behind the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, hopes to launch phase 1 of its trial for a COVID variants vaccine by the summer of 2021.

Sources: CNN, JAMA, New York Times

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