We’ve been on a long road with the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence suggests the first cases in the United States began in late 2019. The virus has disrupted our lives and changed how we work, and the impact is approaching that of the 1918 Spanish flu.
The Spanish flu virus was the granddaddy of all modern pandemics, killing 675,000 in the United States and 50 million to 100 million across the world. It will take a while to understand the full impact this virus has had and see if we reach Spanish flu levels.
Biomedical research has stepped up to create several effective vaccines that are making a huge difference. There’s a new initiative to develop oral medications to help those that are infected. The pandemic isn’t over by any means. So, how does this pandemic end?
The Association of American Medical Colleges recently suggested four keys to ending the pandemic. The first concern is variants of the virus. As the virus spreads in the population, mutants or variants arise. Some of these variants will have new properties that make the virus able to spread more rapidly or cause more severe disease.
We’ve heard about the United Kingdom and South African variants and more recently the delta variant from India. We need to make sure that we have vaccines available that can provide effective protection against these variants.
The second key is vaccination. We’ve made great progress in the United States vaccinating Americans but we still have a way to go, especially because so many people are hesitant about getting the vaccine. We also cannot vaccinate children yet, but hopefully by this fall, we will have a vaccine approved for those younger than 12 years old.
The overall reality is we must vaccinate people around the world. Until this is accomplished, new variants will arise and spread in the population. If a variant that’s resistant to the vaccine shows up, we would have to start over with new vaccines.
The third key is monitoring for new variants. We must assess how quickly these variants can spread and whether they can be stopped with the vaccines we already have. To do this, scientists have to sequence the genomes of each variant, which will require significant funding. The United States lags behind the world in genomic sequencing of COVID viruses circulating in the population. This could turn into a disaster for us if we can’t keep up.
There’s still a question as to how long immunity produced from the vaccines will last. You may have heard this referred to as how “durable” immunity will be. There’s talk of needing a booster shot to extend immunity or to cover new variants. This is similar to our annual flu shot, which is adjusted each year to target new flu strains. Ideally, we would have a universal vaccine that would cover a large number of coronavirus strains and last a long time.
These key areas to end the pandemic are all within our capabilities, and each is important. We can end the pandemic if we all work together.