On Friday afternoon, precisely when almost nobody was looking or listening, the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped a large and dispiriting brick: Due to the sprinting rise of the Delta COVID-19 variant, everyone needs to continue wearing masks and keep practicing social distancing. For millions of vaccinated people who have rolled like blissed-out dogs in the freedoms newly provided by the shots, this was profoundly unwelcome news.
“People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses,” announced WHO Assistant Director-General for Access to Medicines and Health Products Mariangela Simao. “They still need to protect themselves. Vaccine alone won’t stop community transmission. People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene, the physical distance, avoid crowding. This still continues to be extremely important, even if you’re vaccinated when you have a community transmission ongoing.”
The abundance of caution on display is due to the Delta viral variant, which was born in the cauldron of India’s ongoing COVID misery, and has begun making itself at home both here and around the world. That, you see, is the merciless genius of the virus: It seeks only to replicate itself within human hosts, and is always evolving to thwart our immunological/vaccinated defenses.
“Alphabetically, chronologically, the virus is getting better and better at its primary objective: infecting us. And experts suspect that it may be a while yet before the pathogen’s contagious potential truly maxes out,” writes Katherine J. Wu for The Atlantic. “As long as the virus has hosts to infect, it will keep shape-shifting in ways we can’t fully predict. That biological caprice makes it harder to anticipate the next pandemic hurdles we’ll need to clear, and assess the dangers still ahead.”
One of the inescapable question marks that arise when dealing with this wily foe concerns the vaccinations themselves: Do they work on the variants? Will they always work on the variants? How safe am I after having gotten the shots? Turns out, it may partly depend on which shot you got.
“The vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna set off a persistent immune reaction in the body that may protect against the coronavirus for years,” reported The New York Times on Monday morning. “The findings add to growing evidence that most people immunized with the mRNA vaccines may not need boosters, so long as the virus and its variants do not evolve much beyond their current forms — which is not guaranteed. People who recovered from Covid-19 before being vaccinated may not need boosters even if the virus does make a significant transformation.” The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, along with several others, are expected to be less effective in dealing with these variants, according to this study.
So… maybe the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines work for years, but maybe they don’t, and the Law of Large Numbers says a vaccine-proof variant will emerge if COVID-19 is allowed to burn unchecked through the global population. Strange how this Monday announcement about vaccination effectiveness came on the heels of Friday’s WHO advisory that we should all continue to wear masks.
Maybe not so strange. The inescapable truth emerging from this ongoing crisis is that very little of it is, in fact, under control. Half the U.S. population remains unvaccinated, including children under 12, and a certain segment of that unvaccinated population disdains even the most unobtrusive protections as an affront to freedom, because Trump. Many areas of the world beyond our borders are struggling to contend with the pandemic, allowing the virus to replicate variants that will continue to test our progress, if not subsume it altogether.
I fear what we have experienced this spring and summer in the U.S. could possibly be a false dawn, ersatz light from the other side of the tunnel that is actually another onrushing train. Thanks to the vaccines, the impact here may not be as severe, but the ideological divide in this country is mutating into an immunological divide that cannot be bridged with words or promises or prizes. Add to that the racist gap in vaccine access, and the recipe for another gruesome winter is before us all.
Don’t toss those masks just yet.