One week ago, I wrote about my growing concern that one of the new SARS-CoV-2 variants (the 501Y.V2 variant, first identified in South Africa, in particular) might achieve immune escape. This morning, the New York Times reported on the same, in an article entitled, “Emerging Coronavirus Variants May Pose Challenges to Vaccines”; here’s what I see as the key line: “[S]cientists had hoped that the new vaccines would remain effective for years, on the theory that the coronavirus would be slow to develop new defenses against them. Now some researchers fear the unchecked spread has given the virus nearly unfettered opportunities to reinvent itself, and may have hastened the appearance of escape mutations.”
Public health failures may now be undermining remarkable techno-medical achievements, just as public health failures (and disregard for the health and well-being of the world’s poor) have created conditions conducive to the emergence of novel zoonoses like COVID-19. It’s important to note that the study (which can be found here) upon which this NYT reportage leans heavily examined the responses of antibodies found in convalescent plasma to the novel variant, and may not necessarily reflect in vivo immune responses. (The relatively rapid loss of neutralizing antibodies in convalescent individuals was – for a time, at least in the mass media – interpreted as a sign that infection with SARS-CoV-2 might not lead to lasting immunity, and yet both common sense (e.g., the fact that very few reinfections were occurring) and, subsequently, research findings both strongly suggest/ed that lasting immunity is conferred by infection.)
In the meantime, in other vaccine news, results drawn from Israel’s world-leading apartheid vaccine rollout suggest that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine really are necessary to achieve protection, while from the UK, evidence suggests that the same Pfizer vaccine is protective against the B.1.1.7 variant (which was never really in doubt).
Finally, I find it increasingly implausible that only rich, democratic countries (that happen to have disproportionately older populations, making it that much harder to hide the burden of mortality) are experiencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks. It is likely that subsequent epidemiological studies will uncover far more extensive spread of the disease across many poor and/or authoritarian countries than has yet come to light. Case in point, while there has certainly been coverage of the renewed outbreak in the vicinity of Beijing, and of the Chinese Government’s remarkable/aggressive attempts to contain it, Tweets like this one (captioned, by Bill Bishop, author of Sinocism [paywalled]: “You don’t build these unless you need to”) suggest that the extent of the latest outbreak is being dramatically under-reported.
I’m officially very worried about what potential immune escape will mean for the global path out of the pandemic, but withholding judgment until we have more definite information.