In the pandemic’s 17th month, we live in a world of vivid contrast between early-vaccinating countries that appear to be approaching an end to their epidemic and those falling rapidly into the abyss. Brazil and India are suffering escalating COVID caseloads exhausting health care resources. The long haul with the virus in the US and the current situation in Brazil and India have clearly underscored the importance of a strong, coordinated, and sustained public health response.
In early 2020, more than a year ago, we didn’t know how the disease spread, we lacked critical supplies like PPE and diagnostic testing, we did not have therapeutic treatments that worked, and we were a long way from a vaccine. Now that we have all these tools, international cooperation is critical to ensuring that we stamp out the virus everywhere. If this virus has taught us anything, it’s that we live in a small world and the true end of the pandemic will come only when every country has controlled the virus.
It would be a tragic error if again the US were to become overconfident based on what is impressive but only very recent progress – is there any evidence this is happening? Possibly: Vaccine skepticism has cut daily vaccination rates in half to only 1 million a day; testing has declined by 33% from its peak, while test positivity remains too high at 5.3%. As a result, many experts now believe herd immunity has become out of reach. We currently celebrate case loads of “only” 40,000 per day – an 84% reduction from January highs – but it is worth remembering that 40,000 is 50% higher than the April/May caseload that sent the US into lockdown.
So as we enter a new phase of the pandemic – the last phase provided we do not let down our guard – let’s not forget that as long as the virus is still circulating, people will continue to get sick and new variants can emerge. In fact, more effective treatments and widespread vaccination increases pressure on the virus to evolve increasingly successful escape mutations. The bottom line here: this is absolutely not the time to be complacent. Let’s continue to deploy our best tools to combat the virus: widespread testing for screening and for genomic surveillance of novel variants.