The warning signs of a longer pandemic

Sam Baker
·3 min read

All the things that could prolong the COVID-19 pandemic — that could make this virus a part of our lives longer than anyone wants — are playing out right in front of our eyes.

The big picture: Right now, the U.S. is still making fantastic progress on vaccinations. But as variants of the virus cause new outbreaks and infect more children, the U.S. is also getting a preview of what the future could hold if our vaccination push loses steam — as experts fear it soon might.

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Driving the news: The British variant is driving another surge in cases in Michigan, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resisted reimposing any of the lockdown measures she embraced earlier in the pandemic.

  • Variants are beginning to infect more kids, even as schools are on the fast track back to reopening, making the pandemic “a brand new ball game,” as University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm recently put it.

  • New research confirms that our existing vaccines don’t work as well against the South African variant.

Between the lines: This is a preview of the longer, darker coronavirus future the U.S. may face without sufficient vaccinations — one that many experts see as pretty likely.

  • Although the pace of vaccinations is still strong, there’s a growing fear that it’s about to slow down. In some parts of the country, particularly the South, demand for shots has already slowed down enough to create a surplus of available doses.

How it works: The more widely a virus can spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate. If the U.S. and ultimately the world don’t vaccinate a sufficient percentage of the population, we’ll be setting ourselves up to let the virus keep spreading, and keep mutating, continuing to give us new variants that will continue to pose new threats.

The concern isn’t necessarily that the facts on the ground today could end up being disastrous. The vaccines work against the British variant; the South African variant is not, at this point, a dominant strain within the U.S.; and we will eventually be able to vaccinate at least some children, helping the U.S.’ progress toward herd immunity.

  • But if we don’t control the virus well enough, then even years into the future, we could be living through more new variants — some of which might be more deadly, some of which might be more resistant to vaccines, some of which might be more dangerous for certain specific populations.

  • That would translate into an ongoing risk of illness or potentially death for unvaccinated people and new races to reformulate vaccines as new variants keep emerging.

  • And it would lead to a world in which today’s vaccine-eager population would have to stay on top of those emerging risks, get booster shots when they’re available, and perhaps revive some of the pandemic’s social-distancing measures, in order to stay safe.

The bottom line: This darker future is preventable, and our abundant supply of highly effective vaccines is the way to prevent it. The more people get vaccinated now, the smaller the role COVID-19 is likely to play in the rest of our lives.

Go deeper: Explore Axios' coronavirus variant tracker

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