If you look at a chart of deaths from AIDS, one of the greatest moral stains from our history jumps out. More people died of AIDS after we got the triple combination drug in 1995 that turned #HIV into a chronic condition for those who had access to it—but almost all the deaths happened outside the few wealthy countries that could afford it. Not until the mid-2000s, following much loss and activism, campaigns and pressure, did things finally change and drug access expand.
The latest news from the United Kingdom, which has better genomic surveillance than almost any other country and thus can allow us to disentangle causes of outbreaks better, is not good. The B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India, looks to be substantially more transmissible compared with even B.1.1.7, which was bad enough. The data is preliminary, and I really hope that the final estimate ends up as low as possible. But coupled with what we are observing in India and in Nepal, where it is rampant, I fear that the #variant is a genuine threat.
In practical terms, to put it bluntly, it means that the odds that the pandemic will end because enough people have immunity via getting infected rather than being vaccinated just went way up.
We seem to be holding onto the comforting fiction that we will eventually get around to vaccinating people in countries that have so far either had success keeping out the pandemic completely, or have had small outbreaks before, while they just keep up mitigating a little longer. I do not believe that the story we tell ourselves is realistic.
First, these countries can only hold the virus at bay for so long. Even quarantining all people arriving, and greatly limiting who comes in can only work for so long. See what’s happening in Taiwan: it takes only one slip-up plus a few amplifying events for a country to see its case load quickly rise.
Second, if a variant is more transmissible, all our “non-pharmaceutical” interventions will be much less able to hold them at the same level. Something even more transmissible than B.1.1.7 may be very, very hard to stop outside of vaccination (or, yes, immunity through mass infection).
Three, some places have already been keeping out the virus for more than a year—that success can’t last forever.
Four, those countries which lack both widespread prior immunity from previous outbreaks (like us!) and widespread vaccination (also like us!) are sitting ducks. Something like this variant can burn through such populations like a firestorm.