Feb 8, 2021 - Health

South Africa vaccine pause shows how COVID variants could derail pandemic progress

Illustration of a street sign featuring a skulls and bones with a virus icon in place of the skull
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Everything seems to be on the right track with the coronavirus in the U.S., finally. Vaccinations are going up and cases are going down. But variants could mess it all up.

Driving the news: South Africa hit the brakes yesterday on a planned rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, after a clinical trial appeared to suggest that the shot didn't work against the South African variant — arguably the scariest of the variants.

  • The decision-making here is a bit murky: As the Wall Street Journal details, this was a small trial tilted toward young people, making it a poor foundation for any firm conclusions about the AstraZeneca vaccine's strength against the South African variant.
  • Even so, the early evidence also suggests that the other vaccines are less effective against this variant than the primary strain, at least in preventing infection, if not death or serious illness.

The British variant — which is more contagious than the original strain but so far does not appear to have any significant resistance to the existing vaccines — could soon become the dominant strain in the U.S.

  • So, although cases are falling, they could soon spike again, and hospitalizations would likely follow.

The answer: Vaccines and social distancing.

  • Mutations arise when viruses spread unchecked. If you try to wait for a vaccine that works against every variant, all you'll end up with is more variants and more deaths.
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