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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.

Go deeper

Feb 7, 2021 - Health

South Africa halts AstraZeneca vaccine rollout

A a local health official takes a throat coronavirus swab test in a Mamelodi township, east of Pretoria, South Africa, on Jan. 20. Photo: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

South Africa stopped the distribution of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine on Sunday, after researchers found that the vaccine "provides minimal protection" against infection from the new strain first identified in the country, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: A halted vaccine rollout is a huge setback for South Africa as it struggles to curb the spread of the virus and its variant and the country approaches 50,000 deaths.

Feb 7, 2021 - Health

Study: U.K. coronavirus variant is doubling in U.S. every 10 days

A mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Cal Poly on Feb. 5 in Pomona, CA. Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The highly contagious coronavirus variant first detected in the U.K. is doubling in the U.S. nearly every 10 days, according to a new study released on Sunday.

Why it matters: The preprint study from MedRxiv, which has not been peer-reviewed, comes after the CDC and top infectious disease experts have warned that the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the dominant U.S. strain.

Updated 17 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director warns "now is not the time" to lift COVID restrictions — Exclusive: Teenagers' mental health claims doubled last spring.
  2. Axios-Ipsos poll: Americans' hopes rise after a year of COVID
  3. Vaccine: J&J CEO "absolutely" confident in vaccine distribution goals — Vaccine hesitancy is shrinking.
  4. World: China and Russia vaccinate the world, for now.
  5. Energy: Global carbon emissions rebound to pre-COVID levels.
  6. Local: Florida gets more good vaccine newsMinnesota's hunger problem grows amid pandemic — Denver's fitness industry eyes a pandemic recovery.