The Mutated Coronavirus Is a Ticking Time Bomb - The Atlantic
par Zeynep Tufekci
A new variant of the coronavirus is spreading across the globe. It was first identified in the United Kingdom, where it is rapidly spreading, and has been found in multiple countries. Viruses mutate all the time, often with no impact, but this one appears to be more transmissible than other variants—meaning it spreads more easily. Barely one day after officials announced that America’s first case of the variant had been found in the United States, in a Colorado man with no history of travel, an additional case was found in California.
There are still many unknowns, but much concern has focused on whether this new variant would throw off vaccine efficacy or cause more severe disease—with some degree of relief after an initial study indicated that it did not do either. And while we need more data to feel truly reassured, many scientists believe that this variant will not decrease vaccine efficacy much, if at all. Health officials have started emphasizing the lack of evidence for more severe disease.
All good and no cause for alarm, right? Wrong.
A more transmissible variant of COVID-19 is a potential catastrophe in and of itself. If anything, given the stage in the pandemic we are at, a more transmissible variant is in some ways much more dangerous than a more severe variant. That’s because higher transmissibility subjects us to a more contagious virus spreading with exponential growth, whereas the risk from increased severity would have increased in a linear manner, affecting only those infected.
Increased transmissibility can wreak havoc in a very, very short time—especially when we already have uncontrolled spread in much of the United States. The short-term implications of all this are significant, and worthy of attention, even as we await more clarity from data. In fact, we should act quickly especially as we await more clarity—lack of data and the threat of even faster exponential growth argue for more urgency of action. If and when more reassuring data come in, relaxing restrictions will be easier than undoing the damage done by not having reacted in time.
Transmissibility increases can quickly—very quickly—expand the baseline: Each new infected person potentially infects many more people. Severity increases affect only the infected person. That infection is certainly tragic, and this new variant’s lack of increase in severity or lethality thankfully means that the variant is not a bigger threat to the individual who may get infected. It is, however, a bigger threat to society because it can dramatically change the number of infected people. To put it another way, a small percentage of a very big number can easily be much, much bigger than a big percentage of a small number.
We can and should deploy whatever weapons we have in our arsenal, as soon as possible. If public-health officials can accelerate our ability to detect the new variant, they must. “You could imagine case-based interventions specifically targeting the early variant-transmission chains,” Bedford told me. “I wouldn’t expect to contain them, but I could imagine buying a week or two.”
A week or two may not seem like a lot, but combined with other aggressive public-health measures, we may actually gain a few additional weeks. Maybe all of that could delay this new variant’s widespread establishment until February or even March.
This moment is somewhat similar to America’s initial COVID-19 surge and shutdown in March. We need to once again talk about the importance of flattening the curve. We need to again preserve hospital capacity, so our fatality rate doesn’t increase. But this time around, we can be a lot more hopeful: We need to flatten the curve because delaying potential infections just a few weeks or a month can make a tremendous difference when highly effective vaccines are being rolled out.
We are in a race against time, and the virus appears to be gaining an unfortunate ability to sprint just as we get closer to the finish line.
Maybe—just maybe—this variant will turn out to be a false alarm, not nearly as transmissible as we feared. We will know soon enough. Our precautions will still be net positives. But if it is indeed much more transmissible, we may face a true tragedy: exponential growth with massive numbers of illnesses and deaths just as highly effective vaccines are being made available. We’ve had a year to learn—about the importance of early action, of acting decisively even in the face of uncertainty, of not confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence. A year to learn to aim not for perfection in knowledge but for maximal impact even while considering the trade-offs. And most important, a year to learn to not wait when faced with threats with exponential dynamics but to act as early and as decisively as we can—and to adjust and tamper later, if warranted.
“Exponentials are so cruel that nobody wants to look them in the eye,” Morris told me. This is true, but averting our eyes doesn’t avert the outcomes. Each one of us is now counting on every person who serves the public—mayors, city-council members, health officials, nurses, FDA regulators, members of Congress, journalists—to speak up now, and to speak up loudly. We must insist on swift and aggressive action, along with more resources, in order to get this right. It is not too late. Many lives depend on what we do next.