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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

Jun 11, 2021 - Health

G7 commits to sending 1 billion COVID vaccine doses to lower-income countries

Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

The Group of 7 wealthy nations on Friday pledged to deliver more than 1 billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine to lower-income countries beginning this summer.

Why it matters: The G7 countries have been criticized for not sharing vaccines with nations that have fewer resources and are struggling to contain new waves of the pandemic.

Jun 11, 2021 - Health

FDA clears 10 million J&J vaccine doses from contaminated Baltimore plant

Emergent BioSolutions ruined 15 million of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses back in March. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration said Friday that it's allowing for the release of two batches of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine made at the Emergent BioSolutions facility in Baltimore, where 100 million doses had been set aside for review after an accidental contamination.

Why it matters: The two authorized batches amount to approximately 10 million doses of J&J's single-shot vaccine, according to AP. The doses could end up being used in the U.S. or exported to other countries.

Jun 10, 2021 - World

Biden admin to ship millions of COVID vaccines around the world from August

President Biden arriving at Cornwall Airport Newquay in Cornwall, England, on Thurday. Photo: Phil Noble/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration will ship the first batch of 500 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to 92 countries and the African Union from August, the White House announced Thursday morning.

Details: "200 million doses will be delivered by the end of this year and the remaining 300 million will be delivered in the first half of 2022," the White House said in a statement.

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