Could the rush to reopen states challenge vaccine efficacy?

Written By Rachel Nash, Copy Editor

On Friday, March 19, the United States met President Biden’s goal of administering 100 million coronavirus vaccine shots into the arms of Americans—six weeks early. But, despite this parting of clouds and inkling of sunnier days ahead, recent actions taken by various governors may be giving us cause not to put away our winter boots just yet. 

With the increase in the rate of vaccinations, the governors of ​Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming have all lifted their states’ mask mandates and eased COVID-19 restrictions—some dropping them all. Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania has also announced plans to relax some of the state’s coronavirus restrictions. 

There is no denying that the past year has left people drained and eager to return to a less restrictive world, but letting our guard down now would be the equivalent of deflating our own tires in the Tour de France. Up to this point, we have been pedaling madly uphill as we watch the virus speed past, but with the increasing administration of vaccines, we have been able to shift to an easier gear, allowing us to catch up and gain a lot of ground. Though there are sure to be bumps in the road ahead, the last thing we need is a flat tire.

Some argue that the United States has remained constrained for too long, and businesses need to reopen to relieve the financial burden on millions of Americans. I don’t disagree with the notion that the American people deserve some sort of fiscal support, but the abandoning of mask mandates won’t provide this relief. 

Thankfully, Congress recently passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package (with a 70% approval rating among American adults), and many people have already received their share of the economic aid. With the financial support from this legislation, governors who have ended their mask mandates and completely loosened restrictions are left with a far less persuasive defense to not protect their constituents from the risky, and frankly, selfish behaviors of their neighbors.

To add to an already weakened defense, the use of the growing vaccination rate to encourage the reopening of states is an argument refuted by many of the nation’s leading medical experts, including the head of the CDC, Dr. ​Rochelle Walensky. “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground that we have gained,” Dr. Walensky said, in sharing her frustration with those who have chosen to ignore the advice of public health officials. This disregard for the CDC guidance has led President Biden to find other solutions to enforce anti-maskers to comply with the public safety measures, such as requesting that the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, or OSHA, look into updating their workplace safety requirements to include masks. 

This measure would not enact a universal mask mandate, but OSHA, being a federal regulatory body, would ensure that masks are worn on all worksites under OSHA’s jurisdiction regardless of each state’s individual masking requirements. Though such a measure would be highly beneficial, and the rollout of the vaccine is looking increasingly better, there is another factor in the trajectory of the pandemic that many people, particularly a few governors, don’t seem to fully grasp—variants. 

Variants, or mutations in the coronavirus, pose a threat to the progress made by the vaccines. In the world of viruses, Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest” could lead some to believe that viruses are evolutionary masters. It is because of this genome modifying property that we receive a new flu shot each year, and COVID-19 is no less adaptive than the flu. 

In fact, the COVID-19 variant originally discovered in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7, has 17 mutations, with 8 being found in the spike protein, the area that binds to human cells upon infection. When compared to the original coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7 is likely to lead to more severe illness and higher mortality rates and may have a 70% higher transmissibility rate. According to the CDC, B.1.1.7 could be the dominant strain within the US by the end of March or early April.

Though some may not find a great deal of concern in this, it is worrisome to health officials, for with every person infected with the coronavirus, and once infected, every replication of the virus within that body, there is a chance for mutation. This is even more so for immunocompromised individuals.

A recent study from the UK included one such individual; an immunosuppressed man in his 70s who had contracted the virus. A month after initially testing positive, the man was admitted to the hospital and remained there for another nine and a half weeks before eventually passing. His experience is deeply saddening, and we should hold him in our hearts and thank him for granting his doctors permission to study the virus as they battled it together. 

Throughout his time in the hospital, the doctors regularly genetically sequenced samples of the virus from his body and worked diligently to help him recover using convalescent plasma treatments. What they found was astonishing, as over the course of the man’s nine weeks in the hospital, 10 different variants were found at various times to be battling for dominance, with some displaying more prevalence than others. The doctors also noted that with the numerous treatments of convalescent plasma, the virus mutated to negate the antibodies introduced. 

This new understanding of the coronavirus’s behavior derived from the study is a game-changer. Not only were the doctors able to see how quickly the virus can mutate within an immunocompromised body, but they were also able to observe how these mutations often outsmarted the antibodies introduced by the convalescent plasma. Some researchers are now being led to believe that the B.1.1.7 variant actually originated in an immunocompromised body as well. 

The results of the UK study are yet another addition to the argument against reopening the country with a majoritively unvaccinated population. The science says: the more people that contract the virus, the more opportunities it will have to mutate, and the closer it may get to being capable of disregarding the antibodies provided by the vaccine, thus potentially making the vaccines ineffective and antiquated.

This new knowledge of the virus’s habits and abilities is unsettling, but it helps to reflect on where we were last year and to see how much we’ve learned. As a world, we have made scientific strides once deemed impossible, and the vaccine rollout is weeks ahead of schedule. The storm appears to be clearing, and we’re beginning to feel the sun on our cheeks again—but we must remember to remain vigilant and wear our masks. Now is the time for patriotism, the time to care for our fellow Americans as thousands of our frontline workers have done so for the past year, and as former President John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”