“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill, House of Commons, June 4, 1940
“C’mon man, gimme a break!” President Joe Biden, January 21, 2021, answering a reporter who asked if a million vaccinations a day was enough
Don’t get me wrong. I love Joe Biden. I supported him when most of my family and friends supported Elizabeth Warren—who by the way was the smartest person running for president, and had policy views most similar to mine—or Bernie, or others. Also, I didn’t think anyone as old as me should be president again. Yet I supported Biden because I was fairly sure that he had the best chance of winning, and because I was completely sure that he is an exceptionally good man. Although I did not say this to many people, I thought that he might be a great president.
Also, he is off to a good start. The new sheriff is laying down the law—on racism, LGBTQ rights, economic rescue, environmental protection, masking, social distancing, and vaccinations. But as far as the virus goes, he does not get a break from me, and no, it is not nearly enough.
Dr. Peter Hotez, a distinguished physician-virologist who is probably the most knowledgeable person about the pandemic after Dr. Fauci—but who can speak more freely than Fauci even now—wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on January 26th in which he described the new variants of the virus as a “looming catastrophe” that will bring us to 600,000 deaths by May. We need to deliver 500 million doses of vaccines—into Americans’ arms—to end community transmission. Do we want to wait 500 days? By that time the new variants will have run all over us. We need to do it by summer. Which is why Dr. Hotez is calling for 3 million vaccinations a day.
This means that we need more than two vaccines; a vast and rapid (warp-speed?) expansion of vaccination centers beyond those already planned; unprecedented invocation of the Defense Production Act; imaginative use of the armed forces, even beyond the National Guard; and innovative use of syringes and other equipment to minimize vaccine waste. A good account of the current vaccine development situation in terms of science is here, but we need more than science, we need wartime logistics.
We also need a new level of seriousness about masks, social distancing, and handwashing. If we don’t ramp up our use of these measures, we will surely face more lockdowns, with all the associated economic, social, family, educational, and psychological pain.
If you have studied with me, you recognize that we are in an evolutionary arms race with this virus. All infectious agents adapt and evolve. They evade our defenses—both vaccines and treatments. That’s why after almost four decades we don’t have a vaccine against HIV, which evolves even within one person. That’s why we need a new flu vaccine every year. That’s why every year, thousands die of TB and malaria because they are infected by strains that resist all known treatments.
If we don’t (culturally) adapt and evolve in the face of this new virus—or should I say these new viruses?—we will lose, and as always, black, brown, and Native American people will lose most. We will not win this arms race, this by far most deadly of all our wars, by asking for “a break.” We will only win by fighting the virus every hour of every day, in every place, in every way.
- The new sheriff is really, really different from the old one. His deputies can shoot straight and they know how to round up bad guys—bad viruses. The heads of the CDC, FDA, HHS and many other agencies responsible for fighting disease are superb people, not third-raters and sycophants like their predecessors; they are already speaking directly and frequently to the American people, without fear of censorship for delivering scientific truth. For the first time there is a national plan, and it is a fairly good plan. With it, we are building a shield against the virus that we never had before.
- There has been a significant decline in the past couple of weeks in the number of US cases and hospitalizations but not yet deaths, probably related to the end of the big holiday surge.
- The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are working safely, and pretty soon a few million Americans will have approximately 95 percent protection (two weeks or so after their second dose). Preliminary data suggest that protection levels could be even higher in the community than they were in clinical trials.
- The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine will likely be approved (like the first two) for emergency use in the U.S., within a couple of weeks. Despite being less protective than its predecessors, it is more effective than the seasonal flu vaccine and easily passes the threshold of 50 percent protection set by health authorities. It hides the DNA—the gene—of a SARS-CoV-2 spike protein inside the Trojan horse of a cold virus disabled from reproducing. It has tremendous advantages: first, it only requires one shot; second, it does not require any specialized freezing or cooling equipment (DNA being much more stable than mRNA). These advantages will make it literally a lifesaver in rural America and in the developing world.
- The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, despite some stumbles in the Phase III trials, is being used in the UK and was just approved by the European Union. It requires two doses but no special freezers, and will probably be added to the US vaccine arsenal in April. It is similar in principle to the J&J but uses a non-reproducing chimp adenovirus (instead of a human one) as the Trojan horse. The DNA is stable at higher temperatures, but it is still being worked out what the ideal doses would be.
- A monoclonal antibody drug (bamlanivimab, Eli Lilly) has shown 80 percent effectiveness in preventing infection in a randomized controlled trial in nursing home patients, and even greater effectiveness against deaths. This would have been tremendously important a few months ago, before we had vaccines, but now that we do, it’s not clear how the antibodies will be used—especially since they may interfere with vaccine effects.
- The big bad news, and it is really bad, is that the virus has evolved new variants—new bad guys that will make the new sheriff’s job much harder. Of course, it has been evolving all along. A new paper, “Emergence of a Highly Fit SARS-CoV-2 Variant,” traces the first big leap the virus took last spring. As you know, “highly fit” in this context means spreading faster for more reproductive success. That first mutation was a single base change known as D614G that emerged in Southern Europe and by June was the dominant strain in the world.
- Viral evolution continued. In December a new “variant of concern” (B.1.1.7) was found in Southern England that contained multiple mutations and was determined to spread much faster and cause more severe disease. The mutations make it easier for a spike protein on the virus to combine with ACE2 receptors on human cells to gain entry. Hospitalizations doubled in the UK as the new variant became dominant there. More replication, more fitness, more dominance. It has been found in several US states and is predicted to be the dominant strain here by March. Fortunately, it does not evade already existing vaccines.
- A new South African variant (B.1.351) with different mutations of the spike protein—one of the mutations is on the presenting tip of the spike protein—is spreading rapidly and may soon threaten my old friends in Botswana. Two cases were found in South Carolina. Dr. Brannon Traxler, Interim Public Health director for the state, announced that they are independent of each other and have no travel history. She added cogently, “We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate.” Another independent case was found in Maryland. Given that we only sequence half of one percent of the virus samples taken in this country, it may already be everywhere. Like the English variant, it is more contagious and produces more severe cases, but unlike the English one, it also appears to be less responsive to existing vaccines.
- A new Brazilian variant (P.1) is worrying scientists. It is spreading explosively there and has been found in Minnesota. It may infect people who have had the disease before. It may or may not turn out to be implicated in the newly announced tragic COVID-19 deaths of nine children in the remote Amazonian villages of the indigenous Yanomami.
- There is no chance that one million vaccinations a day in the United States will stay ahead of the coming invasion of these new viral variants. The best, if not the only chance, is a great intensification of other preventive measures, the same that have been recommended all along. Unfortunately the behavioral trends seem to be going in the opposite direction.
On “Meet the Press” yesterday, top epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said, “The surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England, is going to happen in the next 6 to 14 weeks. And if we see that happen—which my 45 years in the trenches tell us we will—we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country… Imagine where we are, Chuck, right now. You and I are sitting on this beach where it’s seventy degrees, perfectly blue skies, gentle breeze, but I see that hurricane, Category 5 or higher, 450 miles offshore. And telling people to evacuate on that nice blue-sky day is going to be hard. But I can also tell you that hurricane’s coming.”
Dr. Nahib Bhadelia of Boston University’s School of Medicine, asked to comment on Osterholm’s metaphor, said we are in “the eye of the storm,” not sitting on the beach with the storm hundreds of miles out. She means that the worst part of the storm so far—December and January—is deceptively slacking off. As the hurricane moves over us, the lull of the eye passes, and we get slammed with another monstrous storm surge in March and April.
Dr. Osterholm went on to say that we need “an audible”—American-footballese for a last-minute yell on the field that changes the plan. He thinks we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated once right now, and forget about the second dose until later. There is controversy about this, but Osterholm is really smart.
Recall what Dr. Traxler, South Carolina surgeon-turned-health official, said when she became the first American to announce the South African strain: “We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate.” She continued, ““That’s why it’s critical that we all continue to do our part by taking small actions that make a big difference. These include wearing our masks, staying at least six feet apart from others, avoiding large crowds, washing our hands, getting tested often, and when we can, getting vaccinated. These are the best tools for preventing the spread of the virus, no matter the strain.”
On December 15th, when I posted “Double Down or Double Deaths,” we had just crossed 300,000, but we were having the first vaccinations and hope was in the air. I said we could go to 600,000 if we don’t change our behavior. The IHME model now projects 582 thousand by May , 600 thousand taking the new variants into account. That’s the doubling. Considering we’re at 440,000 today, it’s not a stretch. Depending on what we do and what the variants do, we could be anywhere between 600 and 2,400 daily deaths in May. The difference would be the equivalent of two 9-11’s every two days. And of course May will not be the end.
The new shield we got on January 20th is not nearly big enough or thick enough. And the new variants teach us that unless we think about protecting the developing world, protecting the whole world, which is the virus’s continuous playground, our shield will be full of holes.
Are you tired of the precautions? I am too. I want to hug my children and grandchildren so bad it hurts (and I don’t care that it’s ungrammatical). I want to see live theater. I want to eat out with my wife in any sort of restaurant, even McDonalds. I want to smile at people and see them smile back. I am tired of restricting myself for the benefit of myself, my community, and my country. I am, to use an expression my mother might use, bone-tired. But I am not yet dead-tired. I will be dead-tired if and when the virus kills me.
And oh, by the way. In case you get to whisper in President Biden’s ear, give him this message from me: Mr. President, Sir, with all due respect, the next time a reporter asks you if a million vaccines a day is enough, do what you always said you would do: Level with us. Don’t say, ‘Gimme a break man.’ Say, ‘No, it’s not enough. We need three million a day at least, and I promise you I will not rest until we have that. We are at war. We will fight this virus in the clinics and in the stadiums, we will fight in the pharmacies and supermarkets, we will fight on street corners and parking lots, we will fight in convention centers and on fair grounds, we will fight in the poor dense cities and in the bucolic countryside, we will fight with syringes and tests and masks and distancing; we will never surrender.’