The new variant of SARS-CoV-2 emerging in the United Kingdom has made its way to the United States. As Covid-19 grows worse in the United States—around 180,000 cases and 2,000-4,000 deaths per day—this new, potentially more contagious variant of the virus will only accelerate the hardship of the coming months. It’s time to recalibrate. Measures to control Covid-19 in the US are not working and vaccine rollouts are slower than we hoped. Things will only get worse. We must rethink our strategies to manage Covid-19 to save the hundreds of thousands that will die in the coming months.
The recipe for Covid-19 success requires quality ingredients. The first of these is to follow France’s lead: shut things down across the country. Asking people nicely to stay home, as we’ve done in the US, has unequivocally failed. As thousands lose their lives, nearly a million Americans flew on Christmas Eve. France experienced worse infections rates than us in recent months, but reduced rates by twenty times with strict lockdown enforcement.
We’ve seen the effectiveness of stringent lockdown measures before. At the start of the pandemic, the US maintained adequate control over the spread before reopening the economy and unleashing the virus. In addition to France, European countries like the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain similarly controlled Covid-19 to a high degree. Rates began to spiral, again, as economies reopened. Japan recently bar entry to all nonresident foreign nationals as a new Covid-19 precaution. A few weeks of lockdown could singlehandedly halt the rapid acceleration of cases we currently experience, and in tandem with other measures, can bring Covid-19 completely under control.
The next ingredient is to accelerate vaccine distribution throughout the country. The US vaccine rollout is already far behind schedule. Operation Warp Speed’s initial estimates were 20 million vaccinated by the New Year and 20-25 million more in January. Only about 2 million have received the vaccine or 10% of the previously set goal.
We have several high-quality US vaccines, but now there are two Chinese vaccines and the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine approved in other major nations. We should work to import those to bolster our vaccine distribution efforts at home. The Chinese vaccines are roughly comparable in effectiveness to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but they are cheaper to produce and easier to transport. We need more data on the safety and effectiveness of all the vaccines, which will only be apparent in time, but having more vaccines available to more people would be significant progress.
The third ingredient is the implementation of cheap, rapid, at-home tests. These tests could cost as little as fifty cents, they deliver results within fifteen minutes, and they can be self-administered or administered by a parent for a child. The first at-home rapid test was granted emergency use authorization a few weeks ago. Abbott Laboratories, maker of a fifty-cent Hepatitis C test used in Egypt, is developing a cheap test of their own.
Having everyone tested regularly could help us identify those infected, regardless of if they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. Those with a confirmed case would be quickly isolated and would receive financial assistance in the form of direct payments or commodities like food, shelter, medical needs, and so on.
With all these ingredients, there must be a chef to prepare the recipe. The federal government has yet to take responsibility for major Covid-19 initiatives. Testing, treatment, and now vaccine regimes were left to the states to figure out. I suspect no level of US government—federal, state, or local—has the courage and the power to do what is needed in the face of likely citizen resistance. Americans don’t want to feel forced into home isolation, vaccinations, or mandatory testing, so American politicians are scared to implement such policies.
The new strain is making all the above items all the more necessary. We don’t know much about the UK strain found in Colorado, but there are many causes for concern. It seems this is strain is highly infectious, more so than strains up to this point. It also opens the door to the possibility of other new strains of the virus. There are likely homegrown strains in the US that have yet to be identified.
With every new strain, there are new mutations to the structure of the virus. If there are too many mutations, the vaccines we are distributing may not provide protection. Scientists seem unconcerned that the UK variant will fall into this category, but variants may already exist that are too far gone for our current vaccine regime.
We must act before this pandemic becomes any worse. A nationwide lockdown, improved vaccine distribution, and a rapid test regime could bring this pandemic under control in a matter of months. The recipe is written and the ingredients are available. At this point, the question is whether or not the chefs—our public leaders—decide to cook.