Covid-19 Variants Can Ruin Summer If We Let Them
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s been a year since Covid-19 first shut down much of Europe, and signs of preparation for a post-pandemic world are everywhere. Whether it’s the heated discussion over vaccine passport, the U.K. starting on its latest path out of lockdown or investors dumping safe-haven assets, there’s faith that the most ambitious vaccination campaign in history is going to deliver a reopening of our economies this summer.
Plenty of supporting evidence bolsters that view, but there’s also debate over whether it really will be such a straight shot. The spread of variants more resistant to some existing vaccines is a potential cause for concern, given they might stall the lifting of restrictions or even undermine inoculation drives underway.
Some beliefs about acquired immunity from infection are being thrown into question. One trial last month suggested people who’ve recovered from the original SARS-CoV-2 have fallen sick again after encountering some variants. “I find that pretty sobering,” Danny Altmann, an immunology professor at Imperial College London, tells me.
None of this should put us back to square one. But it’s clear policy makers need to start to prepare for the risk of recurring Covid-19 surges, whether by ordering special second-generation vaccines, changing how current doses are deployed or getting creative for how we can ratchet up supply.
No wonder Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and Denmark’s Matte Frederiksen flew to Israel this week to strike a vaccine partnership with Benjamin Netanyahu, whose ability to secure doses and deploy them has led the world. The three countries have regularly shared information on the pandemic as an informal alliance, leading to some sniping from the European Union gallery. The EU is also rolling out its own project to invest in and manufacture variant-targeting vaccines. But there’s likely more side deals to come if the bloc’s plans to ramp up production and distribution don’t bear fruit soon.
It makes sense to turbocharge the vaccine pipeline. Apparently it’s not too hard to adapt an existing Covid-19 vaccine to target a specific variant, especially when using the groundbreaking messenger-RNA (mRNA) technology. Moderna Inc. last month shipped doses of a booster shot specifically designed to target the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa.
Yet each new type of shot will add an extra lap to an already messy race for limited supply. Italy’s move on Thursday to block AstraZeneca doses from leaving EU soil speaks to a frustration with manufacturing bottlenecks. After all, the country was once victim to Pfizer Inc. unexpectedly cutting deliveries to its Veneto region by half. The tension is palpable.
Beyond that, there’s more that can be done, such as deploying the vaccines we already have more effectively. The longer the rollout takes, the riskier things get. That’s why some argue first doses need to be administered quickly: The shots might be less effective against some variants, but they’ll still provide an important measure of protection.
Genomic sequencing to catch new variants quickly also needs to be taken more seriously and properly funded. Regulators are also waking up to the need to make the vaccine and treatment approvals process faster. The European Medicines Agency, lambasted for being so slow, has laid out a streamlined process for vaccines being adapted to variants.
While vaccination should prove effective at tackling severe symptoms and hospitalizations, public health departments still need to get better at planning for winter surges. There needs to be more capacity, staff and investment to deal with future waves of contagion. We can’t wait any longer to apply the lessons we’ve learned so far.
The race against variants also underlines how crucial equitable distribution of vaccines around the world is. Efforts that prioritize the rich world, which has pre-ordered enough to vaccinate its population several times over, will look very short-sighted if more contagious versions of the virus emerge in the uninoculated developing world. There are some positive steps being taken, however small. Portugal announced it would send 5% of its vaccines to a group of Portuguese speaking African countries, and Ghana received a first shipment from the multinational Covax initiative.
Will this be enough to avoid a potential summer crunch? Analysts from SVB Leerink, an investment bank specialized in health care, told clients last month that there’s a real likelihood we’ll face more lockdowns as variants spread while vaccines try to catch up. Given the already high level of pandemic fatigue, and likely resistance to any moves to shut economies down again, we’ve got to set a solid plan now. Let the race begin.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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