“We thought they had indicated there was a lot more vaccine available,” Joe Biden said, in a CBS interview taped Friday and aired Sunday. “That didn’t turn out to be the case.”
It was a blunt assessment of a sobering reality. The previous administration was perhaps more derelict in its pandemic duties than feared, which is saying something because partisanship aside, I doubt many rational people on either side of the aisle were truly under the impression that things were going any semblance of “well” in the fight against COVID during the final months of the Trump presidency.
“We did the math,” CBS’s Norah O’Donnell told Biden. “At the current rate… it’s gonna take almost a year to get to [herd immunity], can you wait that long?”
“No we can’t,” Biden sighed. “We’ve ramped up every way we can,” he remarked, somehow channeling a patient tone while describing the situation as it stood when he took office.
“Look, it was one thing if we had enough vaccine — which we didn’t,” Biden went on to tell O’Donnell, who then pressed him on whether he could strong-arm (for lack of a better way to describe her line of questioning) Moderna and Pfizer. “The idea that… we can get to herd immunity much before the end of this summer is very difficult,” Biden concluded.
Cases are, of course, trending sharply lower (figure above), which is good news. But the threat of more virulent (and possibly vaccine-resistant) strains, along with the reality of the mounting death toll, continue to cast a pall over the outlook.
For example, an influential model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now shows that in a worst-case scenario, the death toll could hit more than 700,000 in the US by June. If herd immunity is variant-specific, the model’s worst-case “is likely too optimistic,” researchers warned.
Sunday brought dour news on that front. “South Africa halted use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus vaccine after evidence emerged that [it] did not protect clinical trial volunteers from mild or moderate illness caused by the more contagious virus variant that was first seen there,” The New York Times wrote, calling the setback “a devastating blow to the country’s efforts to combat the pandemic.” Apparently, immunity acquired after being infected with other versions of COVID doesn’t necessarily protect against mild or moderate reinfection by the mutation, either.
“In an analysis, submitted as a pre-print prior to peer-review publication, a two-dose regimen of the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine provides minimal protection against mild-moderate COVID-19 infection from the B.1.351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa in mid-November 2020,” the analysis said, adding that “these early data, which will be submitted for scientific peer-review, appear to confirm the theoretical observation that mutations in the virus seen in South Africa will allow ongoing transmission of the virus in vaccinated populations, as has been recently reported in those with prior infection.”
Shabir Madhi, the virologist at University of the Witwatersrand responsible for running the Astra-Oxford trial in South Africa, said the findings “force us to recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic and shift the focus from the aspirational goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at risk individuals in population against severe disease.”
That sounds like the world could find itself going back on defense soon, after being on offense against the virus for the past couple of months.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout needs to be put on a temporary halt while we get the clinical efficacy information in,” Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist at Columbia who helps advise the South African government, said. Health minister Zweli Mkhize summed it up quite succinctly. “The Astra vaccine appeared effective against the original strain, but not against the variant,” Mkhize remarked. “We have decided to put a temporary hold on the rollout of the vaccine. More work needs to be done.”
Late last month, Goldman modeled various economic scenarios for the US in an attempt to quantify the effect of both delays in the achievement of herd immunity and the possibility that virus-resistant strains become common. “We find that downside risks from greater consumer caution or a highly infectious virus strain are moderate, as our annual and Q4/Q4 growth forecasts would remain above consensus in both of these scenarios,” the bank wrote.
“This relatively positive finding partially reflects a strong growth outlook for GDP components other than services spending in 2021, which in turn reflects our favorable outlook for disposable income and fiscal support,” Goldman added, before cautioning that “the emergence of a vaccine-resistant virus strain poses a significant downside risk to our forecast, and we would expect both annual and Q4/Q4 growth to fall below consensus expectations in this scenario.”
In the linked article above, I talked a bit about the timeframe for developing new vaccines against the variants. Moderna is already on the case when it comes to the South African strain.
At the risk of extrapolation (and it’s always risky to extrapolate) one gets the distinct impression that COVID isn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. The situation in South Africa is troubling, and you’d be forgiven for fretting that Goldman’s “vaccine-resistant strain” forecasts for US growth might be on the optimistic side.
Coming back to Biden, it’s almost hard to know what to make of his cadence and demeanor. And not because he’s saying anything wrong. In fact, there’s a sense in which he’s saying everything “right,” if you equate “right” with the truth.
Americans have become so accustomed to — and I’m struggling to conjure a polite euphemism — let’s call them, “statements the veracity of which are questionable,” that Biden’s straightforward, sober assessment of a difficult situation comes across as almost unduly pessimistic. And that’s tragically ironic because, as discussed here last month, he’s very optimistic about the country. So optimistic, in fact, that you could argue Biden is putting too much faith in a nation that’s lost its way.
That faith may be tested anew in the event one or more variant becomes prevalent in the US and begins to evade the vaccines.