Aug 9, 2021 - Health

America's Delta data problem

Animated illustration of a glitching Delta symbol.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America is increasingly reliant on data coming from other countries or from drug companies about the coronavirus vaccines' effectiveness over time, particularly when it comes to the Delta variant.

Between the lines: Top Biden officials are growing frustrated with the lack of internal visibility into data being collected by the CDC, particularly as they try to deal with Delta's spread.

Driving the news: Friday saw an international coronavirus vaccine data dump.

  • A South African study found that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is effective against the Delta variant, particularly against death, Reuters reports.
  • Public Health England published data collected through the end of July showing that vaccinated people are less likely than the unvaccinated to become infected with Delta, but once infected, they may be equally contagious.
  • Earlier last week, Imperial College London released a study that found vaccine's effectiveness against symptomatic disease had dropped significantly with the rise of Delta in the U.K.

Meanwhile, the CDC also published data on the vaccines' effectiveness in older Americans — except the data only went through April, before Delta became dominant in the U.S.

  • It also published two other smaller studies on vaccine effectiveness that included data through June, but they took place in specific geographic locations.
  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week that the agency is "actively working" to update its data "in the context of the Delta variant."

What they're saying: The cohort data, which follows the vaccines' effectiveness in specific groups — like older Americans — over time, is what would be really useful to see.

  • But the CDC's culture is to only release data once it's ready for publication. That may make sense for the public, but it's frustrating for policymakers trying to make real-time decisions, said one source familiar with internal discussions.
  • "That's where the tension is, like 'Where the hell are the data?'" the source said.

The other side: "Countries with centralized health care systems have advantages here. The USA doesn’t work like that," said Cornell virologist John Moore.

  • "This is an old, old problem, nothing to do with today’s CDC," he added.

The big picture: The Biden administration is ultimately trying to figure out how well-protected different demographics are against the virus, and for how long. From there, they can decide who should get booster shots.

  • But while the administration waits for more information, telling the public only that boosters aren't necessary right now, drug companies and other countries are filling the data and communication void.
  • "Just think we live in a country which is incapable of telling us the percent vaccinated or unvaccinated who require hospitalization for covid. No less any more data about them. Or track breakthrough infections. Thanks @CDCgov," tweeted Eric Topol, executive vice president of Scripps Research.
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