I magine for a moment that you’re a virus. Your mission is to find a host that you can invade and convert into a virus production facility. By stealing the host’s resources, you rapidly produce countless numbers of new viruses that your host will then spread to other victims. And today is your lucky day. One of your progeny has changed its genetic code, making that virus even more powerful. In scientific parlance, that virus is a variant that has gained a function. Now, rumor has it that your clever host has developed a vaccine, which tells its immune system how to destroy your kind. But your lucky streak continues as many of them refuse to take the vaccine!
The United States is once again struggling with the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, spawning a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. As reported by NPR on July 16, “The seven-day average of new cases has increased by nearly 70% to almost 30,000 per day; hospitalizations are up 36%. And deaths from the virus have risen steadily in recent days, reversing a months-long downward trend that began in mid-January.”
The troubling comeback of Covid-19 is largely fueled by the aggressive delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which is transmitted between people at a much higher rate than the original virus. The unwelcome return of this highly contagious disease has prompted reinstatements of face-mask and social-distancing policies. There is also concern that the renewed spread of the virus may force schools to send students back to virtual learning.
Unlike last year, we are fortunate to have a game-changing weapon that can quell this outbreak of Covid-19 and get us back to normal life. The Covid-19 vaccines offer excellent protection against infection and outstanding protection from hospitalization and death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 0.004% of people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 experience a breakthrough case resulting in hospitalization, and less than 0.001% die from the disease. But despite the overwhelming evidence of their remarkable safety and effectiveness, vaccines are being underutilized.
As of August 1, only 49.5% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, the current outbreak is largely confined to the vulnerable people who have yet to protect themselves with the vaccine. More than 97% of people hospitalized with Covid-19 now are unvaccinated, and 99.5% of deaths are among the unvaccinated. Intensive care units once again are filling up with Covid-19 patients, according to reports from states with low vaccination rates, such as Idaho and Missouri. This latest wave of Covid-19 is also sending more young people to hospitals.
Vaccination is the best tool we have available to curtail further spread of the delta variant. In addition to saving lives and reducing suffering, vaccines provide another important benefit that is less appreciated. As vaccination minimizes the number of people SARS-CoV-2 can infect, it deprives the virus of the opportunity to generate dangerous new variants.
Viral variants arise through random mutations that take place as the virus replicates inside the body’s cells. Variants that are more transmissible (spread more easily from one person to another) are naturally selected to disseminate rapidly through the population. This is Darwinian evolution in real time. When a virus develops such a new ability, it is referred to as a “gain-of-function.”
The functions gained by a mutant virus can be increased transmissibility (as with the delta variant) or virulence (in which case the virus becomes deadlier). A major concern among scientists is that SARS-CoV-2 could potentially mutate into a variant capable of evading the current vaccines. A group of British scientists believes this dreadful scenario is “almost certain,” underscoring the urgent need to vaccinate as much of the population as quickly as possible.
Susceptible to infection, unvaccinated people make for inviting prey that SARS-CoV-2 uses as a maternity ward. Among the trillions of viral particles generated during the course of infection, it only takes one to mutate into a new variant. Unvaccinated people are donating their bodies to the virus, allowing it to conduct gain-of-function experiments. The more people who become infected, the greater the odds that a new variant will emerge.
If people fail to arm themselves by rolling up their sleeves for safe and effective vaccines, vaccine mandates will become more popular in an effort to relegate Covid-19 to the dustbin of history.
Humanity is locked in an arms race against this virus, and we’re running out of time. We simply cannot give SARS-CoV-2 the opportunity to devise a way to penetrate the protective shield our current vaccines provide. It is imperative to get vaccinated today. As White House coronavirus coordinator Jeffrey Zients has stated, “Every person matters. Every shot matters. Every shot is progress. … It’s another life protected, another community that’s safer. It’s another step toward putting this pandemic behind us.”
Advice on how to persuade unvaccinated friends and loved ones can be found in this article by research psychologist Peggy Drexler.