Faster Vaccinations, New Mutations, and More Coronavirus News

Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

Officials try to speed up vaccinations, scientists discover more mutations, and researchers chart the pandemic’s future. Here’s what you should know:


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Headlines

Officials attempt to speed up vaccine rollout as Biden’s team prepares to tackle the pandemic

Just about everyone watching the vaccine rollout process agrees: It needs to speed up. The question is, how? On Tuesday, the Trump Administration told states to immediately begin vaccinating Americans 65 and older and others who are high-risk. The government will also begin releasing all available vaccines instead of holding back half for second doses. The announcement came amid reports, particularly from New York, of providers having to throw away doses to accord with stringent vaccination guidelines. But as guidance from the federal government refines distribution plans at the state level, confusion still reigns for many in need—notably people with disabilities—about when they’ll be able to get vaccinated.

Experts also warn that there are likely to be more hurdles when Biden takes office because his transition team has only been given limited access critical vaccine distribution information. Biden’s team was only allowed to attend Operation Warp Speed meetings starting this week, and was not invited to the sessions where sweeping new distribution decisions were made. Still, the transition team continues to roll out proposals for tackling the pandemic. On Thursday, Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan that includes the goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration. The President-elect also announced that David Kessler, a former FDA head, will lead vaccination efforts in the new administration.

Scientists discover more mutations, but they seem unlikely to seriously affect vaccine efficacy

It’s normal for viruses to mutate, and most of these variations aren’t particularly noteworthy. But in the last few weeks, several more significant mutations have captured the world’s attention, first from the UK and South Africa, then Brazil and within the US. Some countries have responded by limiting or even banning travel from certain countries. But, experts say, the only real way to get ahead of this virus in all its forms is to inoculate as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and continue wearing masks and maintaining social distance in the interim.

There is, however, some good news: Research indicates that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective at protecting against new mutations. And even though some scientists are investigating the possibility that the South Africa and Brazil strains could impact the strength of vaccines, they add that the virus would have to pick up multiple significant mutations to seriously impact vaccine efficacy, which won’t happen overnight. Research on new versions of the virus is ongoing. In December, the CDC gave public health labs $15 million to conduct more genetic sequencing of virus samples. And computational biologists recently used an algorithm to model how viruses evolve to evade our immune defenses.

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Researchers learn more about how coronavirus will affect us in the long term

As the pandemic enters its second year, researchers are learning more about how this virus has affected our world—and not all of it is bad. A new study of more than 20,000 health workers in the UK found that people with Covid-19 antibodies were as protected as those who’ve received approved vaccines for at least five months post-infection. And while we’ve all been washing our hands diligently, wearing masks, and limiting risk wherever possible, the measured levels of virtually every common respiratory and gastrointestinal virus are lower than ever before.

Researchers anticipate that years from now, when everyone has either been exposed to the virus or received the vaccine, coronavirus will circulate at low levels but rarely develop into a serious case, like a childhood infection. Children fend off new pathogens all the time; it’s one reason why they are much less likely to get seriously ill with Covid-19 than adults. Hopefully one day SARS-CoV-2 will be just another one.

Daily Distraction

Today marks 20 years of Wikipedia. For the site’s devoted editors, participating in the community is an immersive experience—almost akin to a massive role-playing game.

Something to Read

How many calories are in a human spleen? What would it have taken to survive a brutal winter on the pioneer trail? The answers to these questions are more connected than you might think: In 1846, members of the Donner Party ate their dead to make it across the West.

Sanity Check

CES, the biggest consumer electronics event of the year, wrapped up yesterday. Here are fifteen fun gadgets from the show that you can buy now.

One Question

How has the pandemic affected crime rates?

Across the 25 cities David S. Abrams examined, property and violent crimes dropped by 19 percent and drug crimes by 65 percent in 2020. In Chicago, this year’s crime statistics bore a striking resemblance to those from 1918, when the Spanish Flu tore through the city. Social distancing, it seems, correlates to lower crime rates overall. But there were a few exceptions. With more stores unoccupied, nonresidential burglaries rose 38 percent. And in some cities, car thefts rose steeply as fewer people drove to work. Abrams’ research is ongoing, and may hint at how crime changes depending on mobility, police presence, and economic conditions, even during non-pandemic times.

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