New COVID Variants Threaten to Make Pandemic Permanent

My work days move to the sound of McCoy Tyner’s mastery pouring out of the Pandora app on the television. Every so often, and always against my better judgment, I’ll flip to one of the alphabet soup “news” networks to get an update on how screwed we are. They seldom disappoint, which is to say they always do, and I flee back to the piano of the gods at speed.

Lately, however, those forays to CNN or MSNBC have been fraught with a special sort of gall. In between the litany of doom that is the average break-to-break broadcast, they’ve been showing wall to wall commercials congratulating viewers on COVID being over. “It’s been a long year, but now that things are getting back to normal…” intones one, followed by another announcing “We made it!” The imagery is all sunrises and maskless couples noshing pasta in crowded restaurants, everyone wreathed in smiles and presumably vaccinated…

…and then the broadcast begins again: “Good morning, I’m Fippy Fuzznerf sitting in for Ankles McGee, and here are our top stories. There were more than 96,000 new cases of COVID-19 recorded yesterday alone, a two-week increase of 131 percent. Around the world, known cases of COVID-caused death have surpassed 4 million out of more than 201 million known infections. Scientists credit the dramatic infection spike in this country to the national dominance of the highly contagious Delta variant, and to the fact that millions of Americans still refuse to accept vaccination. Leading COVID expert Anthony Fauci anticipates we may see as many as 200,000 new infections per day until this new spike recedes, or until enough people have gotten vaccinated. We’ll be right back after these messages.”

“…Now that the pandemic is over, isn’t it time to start planning your special vacation at last? At BookYourCrap.com, we have all the tools you need to organize the trip you’ve been dreaming about for a year…”

Sigh.

Thanks to the incredible bungling of this crisis for vital months by the Trump administration, that last horse appears to have left the barn.

“Early in the pandemic, when vaccines for the coronavirus were still just a glimmer on the horizon, the term ‘herd immunity’ came to signify the endgame: the point when enough Americans would be protected from the virus so we could be rid of the pathogen and reclaim our lives,” reports The New York Times. “Now, more than half of adults in the United States have been inoculated with at least one dose of a vaccine. But daily vaccination rates are slipping, and there is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.”

Of course, it is not all gloom and shadows at this juncture. The number of people dying from COVID has plummeted, thanks almost entirely to the vaccines. Vaccination rates are ever so incrementally on the rise. Those who are vaccinated currently face a very low chance of enduring a virus “breakthrough” which infects them, and those who do become infected have a much, much lower chance of hospitalization. The vaccines are not seamless, a small percentage of people who got the shot(s) are still getting damn sick, but the drear finality of mass death at the end of a ventilator tube has receded dramatically for the time being.

If that were the whole story, I would just put on my mask and bend my shoulder to the task of convincing as many people as possible to get vaccinated. I will still do so every single day, but there are weevils in this loaf that threaten to ruin all the progress we have made so far. Delta, you see, is not the only variant. New ones — specifically named Epsilon and Lambda — have emerged, and early research indicates these new breeds of COVID might be far more effective at breaching our vaccine defenses than Delta.

“The Epsilon and Lambda variants of COVID-19 are ‘variants of interest,’ according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and early studies show they have developed a resistance to vaccines,” reports NJ.com. “Japanese researchers found the Lambda variant, which was initially discovered in Peru and is now spreading throughout South America, is highly transmissible and more resistant to vaccines than the initial COVID-19 strain…. Meanwhile, the Epsilon variant that was initially discovered in California in 2020 is spreading in Pakistan and is proving to be resistant to vaccines, according to researchers.”

The current national conversation on COVID is not broad enough. It is essential to get millions more vaccinated — it’s an absolute top priority — but we must also recognize that we’ve let this thing burn for so long that it appears to be on the edge of evolving beyond our defenses. A virus evolves within its host at an astonishing rate. Every new host gives COVID a chance to concoct a variant with the ability to turn our vaccines into white wine spritzer, and as noted, there were almost 100,000 new infections yesterday in this country alone.

The variant that partly defies our vaccines may have already emerged in the form of Epsilon or Lambda, but the research on those two has only begun. The Law of Large Numbers says the emergence of a more strongly vaccine-resistant variant is going to happen sooner or later, and thanks to our bungled response for the first year of the crisis — and to the ongoing intransigence of millions who disdain science because it makes Donald Trump look bad — the rise of such a circumstance is all but inevitable.

The TV commercials are peddling an alluring fiction, but the facts are difficult to dispute: This thing is not over, and the way matters are going, it may never be over. The wolf is through the door, and the feeding is fine indeed.