Let’s talk about where Covid-19 variants are coming from and under what circumstances, and how we can prevent a nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic.

First published in January 2021.

Heard of the SARS-CoV2 variant from Japan? No?
How about one from South Korea? No?
Surely variants from New Zealand and Vietnam? Of course not.
Because these places haven’t given rise to scary variants.

But what places have... has big implications for ending the pandemic.

So, let’s talk about where variants ARE coming from and under what circumstances.

Covid-19 Variants

Variants arise when infections run wild. And selection pressures lead to dangerous mutations that can then thrive. Remember, every infection creates opportunities for “errors” – or mutations.

Most mutations are meaningless. They will have no real clinical implications. But every once in a while, a set of mutations will lead the virus to become more contagious, more lethal, or improve its ability to escape our vaccines.

So, where are the variants coming from? UK, South Africa, Brazil – and possibly the United States (a Los Angeles variant is still being sorted out). Each of these countries had large outbreaks even before their variants took off.

So, what are the implications if we ever want to end this pandemic?

The nightmare scenario. | Pixabay

The Nightmare Scenario

We have to bring the pandemic under control everywhere. Letting the virus run wild, like the US and Brazil did, endangers everyone.

Imagine this... Some nations are largely vaccinated. But outbreaks are surging elsewhere. What might happen? We might see rise of variants that eventually escape the vaccines... And make everyone vulnerable again.

In a future where the US is vaccinated but others are not, we could see the rise of variants that can infect, cause outbreaks here and other vaccinated places. Requiring us to update our vaccines and vaccinate everyone again. It’s the nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic.

Keeping the outbreaks under control everywhere. | Pixabay

There is only one solution to put this nightmare pandemic behind us: Get the outbreaks under control everywhere.

How? We must put in place virus control policies, get people to wear high quality masks, have more testing AND vaccinate the world. Now. As quickly as possible.

This is what makes herd immunity advocates (remember the Great Barrington Declaration?) so naive – they literally advocated for the virus to have more chances to mutate – and what makes the United States isolationist policies so naive because we live on one planet, and variants travel.

Do you want to end the pandemic? Let’s marshal a global manufacturing effort to make lots of vaccine quickly and vaccinate everyone. Because large outbreaks anywhere can give rise to variants that can escape vaccines everywhere.

At the end of the day, we really are in this together.  

Dr Ashish K. Jha, Physician, health policy researcher. Dean of the School of Public Health, Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice, Brown University, Rhode Island.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 29 January 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Pixabay. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)