Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Mutated versions of the coronavirus threaten to prolong the pandemic, perhaps for years — killing more people and deepening the global economic crisis in the process.

The big picture: The U.S. and the world are in a race to control the virus before these variants can gain a bigger foothold. But many experts say they already expect things to get worse before they get better. And that also means an end to the pandemic may be getting further away.

  • “It may take four to five years before we finally see the end of the pandemic and the start of a post-COVID normal,” Singapore’s education minister said last week, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Where it stands: "There are essentially two separate COVID-19 epidemics," Dutch officials said recently, referring to the original strain of COVID-19 and the burgeoning threat from mutated versions of the virus.

  • There’s light at the end of the tunnel for the first epidemic. Although the virus is still spreading uncontrolled across the U.S. and much of the world, cases and hospitalizations are down from their peak, and vaccinations are steadily increasing.
  • But the next iteration, fueled by variants of the virus, is already taking hold.

What’s next: A British variant of the coronavirus will likely become the dominant strain within the U.S. pretty soon, experts say. It’s significantly more contagious than the virus we’ve been dealing with so far, and some researchers believe it may also be about 30% more deadly.

  • “That hurricane's coming,” Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota and Biden transition adviser, said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
  • A more contagious and more lethal strain of the virus could easily send cases, hospitalizations and deaths soaring right back to record levels, even as vaccinations continue to ramp up.

“We are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country,” Osterholm said.

Vaccines work against the British variant, and they will help control its spread, just as they’ll help control the pandemic overall.

  • But vaccinations can only ramp up so quickly. The Biden administration is trying to push doses out the door as fast as it can, but there’s a very good chance the more contagious virus is moving faster.
  • The existing vaccines don’t appear to work as well against some other variants, including a particularly troubling one first identified in South Africa. They do work, and they appear to prevent serious illness and death, which are the most important things — but they may not prevent as many infections overall.
  • Vaccine makers can rework their recipes and come up with booster shots to help address more resistant strains, but that will take time.

How it works: All of these problems stem from the same underlying problem — the unchecked spread of the virus.

  • More cases mean more hospitalizations and more death. Bigger outbreaks also provide more opportunities for mutations to arise, and to spread.
  • A more transmissible virus means that a greater share of the population — maybe as much as 85% — would have to get vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity. That’ll be a stretch, given the widespread vaccine hesitancy across the country.

Because vaccine production is still scaling up, getting things under control well enough to head off a second phase of the pandemic would have to rely heavily on social distancing and mask-wearing.

  • That’s not a very promising position to be in, especially for a country like the U.S.

The bottom line: Vaccines work, and they are still the key to ending this pandemic. But leaning on them almost exclusively only makes the job harder and will likely prolong this pandemic for years.

Go deeper

Jan 31, 2021 - Health

While US hospitalizations are falling, COVID-19 variants concern experts

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. this week dropped below 100,000 for the first time since December, with sharp declines happening in almost all states, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Why it matters: CNN reports that while the decrease in hospitalizations is promising, experts are concerned that new variants of the virus will increase case rates to record heights if the national vaccine rollout faces challenges.

Jan 31, 2021 - Health

Infectious-disease expert: Speed up vaccinations ahead of potential COVID "hurricane"

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, urged the U.S. on Sunday to vaccinate as many people over 65 as possible ahead of a potential COVID-19 surge caused by the new strain first detected in England.

The big picture: About 1.3 million doses per day are being administered on average, per a New York Times analysis — on track with President Biden's goal to give Americans 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines in 100 days. But the rollout in the states has been rocky.

Jan 30, 2021 - Health

Maryland reports case of South Africa coronavirus variant

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan during a press conference in Annapolis in December 2020. Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Saturday that the potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa has been identified in the state.

Why it matters: Maryland is the second state to confirm a known case of the B.1.351 variant. Although there is no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease, preliminary data indicates that it spreads faster and more easily than the original coronavirus strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You’ve caught up. Now what?

Sign up for Mike Allen’s daily Axios AM and PM newsletters to get smarter, faster on the news that matters.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!