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From The New York Times, unlikeable borrow, this is a daily. Today, we're announcing a major step forward as President Biden accelerates plans for manufacturing vaccines.
We're now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.
And several states raced to fully reopen. It is now time to open Texas 100 percent. An update from my colleague, science writer Carl Zimmer, on the state of the pandemic. It's Thursday, March 4th. Karl March this month, we have just entered marks the one year anniversary of the pandemic for I think a lot of us, especially those of us who live in New York, because that's when life started to change pretty dramatically. And now a year into this pandemic, it seems like we're in a relatively good place.
The daily infection rate has now been falling consistently for weeks and weeks. Americans are being vaccinated in growing numbers, but we're all terrified that variants of the virus will ruin everything. Does that more or less feel like where things are kind of. We all convinced ourselves starting after January 9th or so that we were skiing down a slope that was going to take us all the way straight down to the end of this pandemic. And it is true that we had on average, around January 9th, about a quarter of a million new cases every day, which was horrific and the highest we'd ever reached in this pandemic.
And we did go down and down and down and down and down. But then actually people may not have noticed. But towards the end of February, like February 20th, twenty first that ski run stopped. We leveled out at about sixty seven thousand cases on average a day. And that's where we've been ever since. So that long fall for now has stopped.
Hmm. I honestly did not realize that that this, as you call it, ski slope down of declining infections has basically halted.
Just bear in mind that we had a peak in the spring, then we had a higher peak in the summer. Then we had a way higher peak in December and January. And now we're just back down to the summer peak. And somehow we've convinced ourselves that that's OK. And if you remember, in the summer, we were all freaking out, rightly so, because tens of thousands of people were getting covered every single day and I was out of control.
So we're still out of control. We're just less out of control than we were in January. Now, it's possible that as we move for this ski slope will start to go down again and we could pick up speed and have another decline in cases, but. For a while now, it's just been flat. So, Karl, what explains that? Why have those declines and infections stopped?
You know, it's going to take a while to sort this all out, but there are two clear possibilities. One is that people have been looking at these dramatic declines for weeks now and have decided that the pandemic is officially over. The governor of Texas literally just announced that Texas is open for business. One hundred percent. Right. And the CDC is actually asking these politicians to just slow the roll a little because we still have these relatively very high cases.
So that may be one reason why we have gone from this really dramatic decline to a flat stretch.
In other words, human behavior, people starting to get together more and be less cautious and sharing viruses.
Got it. OK, what is the second possible explanation?
The second possible explanation is that we're starting to see the effect of the variance.
Scientists have had their eyes on dozens of variants just to see just how dangerous they might be. And there are definitely three that have really gotten them worried. And they actually give them a name for that. They call them variants of concern.
They have incredibly poetic names. There's only one one seven bee, one three, five, one and one.
OK, well, where shall we start, we should start with B. one one seven, because that's the one that has really been on fire in the United States, be one on seven, was first identified in the United Kingdom. And it's been here since December, probably in the United States. And it has been doubling maybe every nine or 10 days or so. Wow. And now we're up to. Twenty five percent of all coronaviruses in the United States are estimated to be one one seven.
So it has swelled up in Florida that maybe actually be much higher, maybe thirty six percent or so of the variance. This is a very contagious variant. Unfortunately, it may also be a rather lethal variant.
Just how much more lethal the current estimates are, maybe 30 percent more lethal, maybe even more.
That's a serious escalation. Yes, it is. It is just the fact that it is more contagious is dangerous because that can eventually lead to just more cases overall and more cases mean more people going to the hospital and more people dying. Right now, if you add on top of that that it's more lethal, it's really something that you want to crush.
And what's our understanding of how this variant is responding to the currently available vaccines?
It's responding to the vaccines, just like all the other coronaviruses in Israel, for example, they've been rolling out vaccines at an incredible pace and they can actually see the decline in hospitalizations and other effects of covid-19. They've got lots of B one one seven there. And that does not seem to be affecting the vaccines, which is great news. And we also have to remember that things like masks and social distancing and good ventilation, they work against one one seven two.
It's just that we have to be really diligent with all those measures to really bring B one one seven down conditions like a lockdown that might really help to crush an outbreak of some other variants just aren't going to be good enough or be one one seven. But if you are really diligent about controlling the transmission of this variant, you can make a difference. And that's great for the vaccines because vaccines work best when the cases are low.
OK, onto the second variant of concern.
Second variant of concern is called B one three five one that was first identified in South Africa. It's in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control has recorded so far fifty three cases in 16 different states.
And what kind of risk does it pose?
So the big risk that people are worried about is that it seems like this virus is good at evading defenses. So, for example, if you got covid-19 from another variant and developed immunity through antibodies B one three five, one might be able to get past those antibodies and get into your cells anyway. So it could infect you. It could infect you. That is an especially unwelcome development. It is unwelcome.
Now, this is something that happens with viruses all the time. So, for example, with influenza, influenza evolves and then immunity you might have had by having the flu before doesn't prevent you from getting the flu again. So, you know, it's not shocking, but it is disappointing. And what about this variance response to vaccines?
This variance response to vaccines has really brought up a lot of people in the vaccine business short. It has really worried them. It just so happened that where this variant took off, South Africa was also the place where a number of vaccine companies were running trials so they could actually see how well their vaccines worked against B one three five one. And then they could compare it to other countries where the variant was not yet common. And you can see that there are vaccines that work pretty well or very well in other countries.
And in South Africa, they didn't work well at all. So that tells you that the antibodies that we're producing when we get vaccinated with the first generation of vaccines may not work as well against B one three five one. They'll still give some protection, but not as much protection as we had hoped from the initial results of vaccines.
So given all of that, what is the lethality of this variant? I'm guessing it's pretty high.
There's actually no evidence that it's more lethal than other variants. So, you know, at least we don't have to worry about that.
And what about the third variant? The third variant is P one. P one was first identified in Brazil. It. Two is in the United States, there are only so far 10 cases that have been identified in five states. So this one is seems to be the rarest of all as far as we can tell. But, you know, when I talk to experts and say, OK, all these variants, you know which one really worries you?
Some of them say P one. P one is the one that that keeps them up at night. And why do they fear it the most of these three variants of concern?
They fear it because P one has a pretty extraordinary origin story.
It arose in a city called Manala's, which is a city of a bit over two million people in the Amazon. Now, in the spring last year, Manala's went through a terrible time with covid-19. The city was ravaged, the cemeteries were overflowing. And then later, scientists estimated that maybe as many as 75 percent of people got infected. Wow. It's a huge amount. Now, the true amount might be somewhat lower, but in any case, a lot of people got infected.
And so some people are saying, well, maybe Manala's has herd immunity now. Right? Maybe they don't have to get worried about huge surges in the future because they've been through this and they have immunity. That turned out to be wrong because in December they started going through an even bigger spike. Huh. And so scientists are saying, well, what is going on? And as they investigated this new second outbreak, they discovered that a new variant had arisen and was probably driving the outbreak called P1.
Got it, the one that some scientists now fear above all else, and a place like the United States.
Yeah, well, they're taking a look at it more closely since its discovery. And they're finding that not only does it spread quickly, but appears to be able to evade antibodies, maybe antibodies that people develop from a previous infection. So maybe some people are getting reinfected in Manassas. And, you know, it also raises concerns about vaccines, for example, how vaccines work against one. And the reason that they fear it is that P one has the left of mouse.
It is found throughout Brazil and in many other countries, including the United States. And now we have to wait and see. Is P one going to behave in these new homes as it did in Manaus?
Which would include reinfecting people who had previously gotten coronavirus potentially on a mass scale.
It could it could just take off and infect people who have never had covered before, maybe infect people who have had covid before. It might even infect people who've gotten vaccinated.
OK, well, what do we know about how vaccines will or won't protect against this variant? We know very little about how vaccines will or won't work against one. There's been no vaccine trial in a place where there was lots of one. That would be the best way to learn about it. Scientists have done experiments where they put the P1 virus in a test tube with cells and watch them infect the cells and then throw in antibodies produced from vaccines. And it looks, at least in a test tube like P1 is able to get away from some of those antibodies and get into the cells.
But, you know, we're not test tubes. So the fact that antibodies are less effective against P1 than other kinds of coronaviruses doesn't really tell us exactly how much vaccines will be harmed in their effectiveness.
So one of the reasons scientists are freaked out by this variant is because they don't know how it will respond to vaccines. Correct.
It's kind of a wild card. If it took off, more people might be getting infected even though they're vaccinated. We just don't know. We don't know. And, you know, we would like to have more certainty as we're trying to bring this pandemic to an end. And we have this this variant that popped out of Manaus and is now moving around the world. We still don't know a lot about it.
Karl, when we talk about variants, it had been our assumption that we had reached a point in the pandemic where there just weren't that many people left to infect, right to a combination of previous infections and vaccinations. The number of folks who remained vulnerable was supposed to have shrunk. And the idea was that the virus would slowly run out of potential hosts.
But the variants that you are discussing here and their features, including their ability to dodge antibodies and reinfect people and potentially outwit vaccines, that would seem to change that calculation about fewer hosts being available. Yes. When you you're talking about so-called herd immunity, you're sort of assuming that that immunity applies to all the coronaviruses that are out there. If you got a P one or a B one three five one floating around, that can evade some of those antibodies.
The vaccines are less effective against it than that. Herd immunity isn't quite what you had hoped, but that is something that science can deal with. We know how to deal with new variants. I mean, no variant is going to be a match against a really great vaccination campaign.
If we get a lot of people vaccinated as fast as possible, it's just going to make it really hard for all these different variants to get from person to person. And the faster we do it, the better shape we're going to be in. We'll be right back. This episode of The Daily is supported by Now What's Next, a podcast from Morgan Stanley that helps make sense of life during and after the pandemic to chart what's changed and where we might be headed.
Host Sonari Glinton talks with everyone from restaurant owners to therapists to astronauts, even third graders, about the opportunity we have now to rethink some age-Old assumptions and create a better world search for now.
What's next, wherever you listen to podcasts. So, Karl, on the subject of vaccinations, we now have a new one from Johnson and Johnson, which is the third to be authorized for use in the US. What exactly do we need to know about it and how it fits into everything that we've been talking about?
Well, this is the first vaccine that's been authorized as just a single shot. So it is effective at preventing covid-19 with just one dose. It appears to have milder, less common side effects when you get vaccinated. So in terms of the achiness or the fever, it seems like there's a bit less of that. And also it can be kept in refrigerator for three months and stay just fine, as opposed to Fizer and modernities vaccines, which have to be kept frozen.
So it's a lot easier and a lot of different ways.
And how is it possible that a single dose can accomplish in this vaccine, what two doses is required to accomplish with the other vaccines we have so far from Adana and Pfizer?
Well, when Johnson Johnson was testing out the vaccine initially in mice and in monkeys, they were really struck by the fact that even after one dose, these animals were getting really strong production of antibodies. And when I gave them a dose of the coronavirus, this vaccine did a really good job with just one dose and fighting it off. So they said, hey, let's go for one dose. Interesting, because we're in a pandemic. And, you know, if we can use a million doses to vaccinate a million people instead of half a million people, we're going to go a long way to helping to stop this pandemic.
So that was the choice that they made. And now we know that one dose of Johnson Johnson vaccine is effective at preventing covid-19.
So if this is not too delicate or complicated a question, how does the Johnson and Johnson vaccine as a single dose stack up against the two dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in terms of effectiveness?
So Moderna and Pfizer have an efficacy of 95 percent. So that's a measure of how much they reduce your risk of getting sick. Johnson Johnson's. They found an efficacy in the United States of seventy two percent. But you have to be careful with those kinds of comparisons because Johnson Johnson was carrying out their trial at a different time than Pfizer and Moderna did. Pfizer and Moderna started their trial in late July. Johnson Johnson didn't start for a couple of months after that.
So by the time that Johnson Johnson had a lot of recruits getting vaccinated, we were in the middle of a really intense surge of covid much bigger than what we had dealt with before. And what vaccine developers have found is that if you run a trial when rates are really high, you might end up with an efficacy estimate that ends up being low. And that's just because your volunteers are getting exposed to the virus more they have more of a chance of getting infected.
If rates are low, people just might not have the opportunity to get sick in the first place. And you don't really put your vaccine to as much of a test.
That's fascinating. You're saying people in clinical trials might catch the coronavirus at higher rates at a more serious time of the pandemic, which could make Johnson and Johnson's vaccine seem less effective than perhaps it really is?
That's correct. There are ways that you can test two vaccines head to head under exactly identical conditions, and those are really important. But in the middle of a pandemic, we're not able to do that. So we have these independent trials. And the key thing is that they all work well. And not only that, but Johnson Johnson's vaccine actually has a very high efficacy for keeping you from getting severe covid that's going to send you to the hospital and put you at risk of death.
After about twenty eight days after vaccination, nobody went to the hospital well, from the vaccinated group with Johnson Johnson's vaccine. So that gives you a sense that this thing is going to protect you. And so we now have three good options for getting vaccinated and being protected from this disease.
Right. I recall a colleague of ours telling us early on in the pandemic that any vaccine that is 50 percent or more effective is spectacular. And all three of these vaccines are well beyond that level of effectiveness.
Yeah, they all go way beyond the threshold that the FDA set last year for a coronavirus vaccine. And the fact is that when scientists take a look at how much benefit there will be at waiting to use a really effective vaccine versus pushing out a less effective vaccine very quickly, it turns out that waiting is just a mistake. You're giving the virus more time to spread and to second people and to kill people. So the faster that we can get all of these vaccines out, the more effective we're going to be at driving down the pandemic and getting ahead of the variance.
So I don't to put words in your mouth, but tell me if I'm right here to those who are listening and thinking to themselves, well, if I had a choice, I think I would like X vaccine over Y vaccine. It sounds like the reality is you would be very lucky to have any of these three vaccines, no matter which one.
You just get the first vaccine that you can get. You should not be waiting around waiting for your favorite bespoke vaccine to become available in that time. You could get it right. So get the first authorized vaccine that you can. It is going to reduce your risk of getting covid-19, and it's also going to reduce your risk of passing on the virus to other people. We're starting to see that there's evidence that these vaccines, including Johnson Johnson's, reduce transmission.
And that's really important because that is going to bring down the overall burden of the epidemic across the whole country. Karl, you said that variants are no match for a good vaccination campaign, which makes you wonder where exactly we are in the US vaccination campaign at this moment and how Johnson Johnson's vaccine might change that, if at all.
And we're doing pretty well. I would say over 50 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine. We're getting towards two million people a day getting vaccinated, and that is going to increase. So we can imagine three million people getting vaccinated a day, maybe four million. Mm hmm. Johnson Johnson is going to help this increase in a big way, starting with four million doses that they're going to be able to supply immediately now that they're authorized.
And Johnson Johnson and Merck, which is a very experienced vaccine manufacturer, have entered into a partnership brokered through the Biden administration to ramp up their supply even more. Pfizer and Moderna have also entered into agreements to be supplying hundreds of millions of more doses as well. And just on Tuesday, President Biden made a big announcement.
He said that there will be enough doses of the coronavirus vaccine available for the entire adult population of the US by the end of May, which is kind of a shockingly new and early deadline that really changes people's expectations.
It really is, because before Biden was shooting for the end of July, so he has just brought his schedule up by two months.
And that suggests that between all three of these vaccines and the ramping up of production, the country is clearly just starting to hit its stride and is essentially going to be able to get vaccines to adults in the country faster than we thought.
Well, certainly the vaccine companies are going to get us those vaccines. The question is, are we going to be able to get those vaccines to people quickly? And that is going to come down to really good distribution systems across all the states. But right now, it's a real patchwork and that is a legacy of our state based health care system, where each state is left to its own devices. Some of them are doing well and some of them are definitely not.
We've got a lot of vaccines coming. And so we really need to be efficient in getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can.
And I guess, Carl, then the question becomes, how does everything we're talking about interact and on what schedule? Right. Vaccine distribution, variance, blossoming and spreading and reopenings like the one we just learned about in Texas, back one hundred percent when we know not everyone in Texas has been vaccinated and the variants are spreading. It's going to be a very complicated spring and summer. You know, we could see a huge fourth surge. I really hope we don't.
But if we aren't careful, we could let the variance take off and explode before enough people are vaccinated. But if we vaccinate quickly while we're keeping on our masks and being careful and make sure that all the states are doing as good a job as they can to get vaccines to everybody, we can really get this pandemic behind us in a way that saves a lot of lives.
I have to ask this asking of everyone on our show, have you gotten your vaccine? I have not gotten my vaccine yet, but I am really stoked in the state of Connecticut, they are going to open up my age group and March 22nd. And I have to say, you know, having been reporting on vaccines for about a year now, you know, when I started reporting on these things, I didn't know if these vaccines would exist. Right.
And now one of them is about to go into my arm and I'm really looking forward to it, whichever one it is. Right. Well, all we ask is that you record the experience. Absolutely. There will be selfies. Thanks, Carol. Thanks a lot. On Wednesday, during an event at the White House, President Biden was asked by reporters about the decision by Texas and later Mississippi to end their mask requirements. I hope everybody realized by now these masks make a difference.
We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people's arms. Biden called it a mistake. The last thing the last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine. Take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters. 3M is using science and innovation to help the world respond to covid-19 and taking action to support communities in the fight.
Since the outbreak, 3M has responded with cash and product donations, including surgical masks, hand sanitizer and respirators through local and global aid partners. In addition, 3M plants are running around the clock, producing more than 95 million respirators per month in the U.S.. Learn how else 3M is helping the world respond to covid-19. Go to 3M Dotcom Slash covid 3M Science Applied to life.
Here's what else you need to know. The Times reports that the Capitol Police force is preparing for another possible assault on the Capitol building after obtaining intelligence of a potential plot by a militia group to attack the building today in response to that intelligence. The House of Representatives cancelled plans for a legislative session on Thursday to avoid having lawmakers in the building. The plot appeared to be inspired by supporters of on the pro Trump conspiracy theory, and I want to address the recent allegations that have been made against me.
During a news conference on Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo apologized to the women who have accused him of sexual harassment, but said that he did not plan to resign because of them. I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable.
It was unintentional. And I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it, and frankly, I am embarrassed by it, and that's not easy to say, but that's the truth. The women have accused Cuomo of inappropriate comments and conduct, including unsolicited kissing, but during his news conference.
Cuomo insisted that he had never inappropriately touched anyone. Today's episode was produced by Rachel Quester and Nina. It was edited by Dave Shaw and MJ Davis live and engineered by Corey Schwebel. That's it for The Daily, I'm Michael Barbaro see tomorrow. What do they do at Dana Farber Cancer Institute? They solve puzzles against a deadly opponent. One puzzle began by discovering the PDL one pathway, which showed how the immune system can be enabled to attack cancer cells years later.
This led to a successful treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. And later, still, new treatments for melanoma, kidney and other cancers. Learn about a nearly 75 year momentum of discovery at Dana Farber. Again, everywhere.