More than fifteen months into the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the initial SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be under control. Infection rates are steadily falling; more than half of Americans have received at least one vaccine shot, while more than forty percent have received both; and, spurred by low transmission rates and the possibility of “herd immunity,” many states have begun to reopen stores and remove mask mandates.
The United States’ COVID program has been remarkably successful, considering its slow start and its competition around the world. However, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the fight against COVID-19 has remained a race against time – and against other variants which have the potential to be more destructive.
The problem is as follows. The original virus strain in the United States has been thoroughly vaccinated against. However, as the virus survives and reproduces in unvaccinated populations, it festers and mutates, potentially into a variant that the Pfizer, Moderna, and other vaccines do not protect against.
As yet, doctors do not know what the vaccines produced under Operation Warp Speed can and cannot combat. One variant, in particular, has concerned Fauci: the particularly noxious Delta variant, which has exploded in the number of cases reported – doubling every two weeks, the same rate at which COVID-19 spread in Spring 2020. At the moment, roughly twenty percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States can be traced to the effects of the Delta virus.
One piece of good news is that the existing vaccines seem to combat the Delta variant. The Pfizer vaccine was tested specifically against the Delta variant and determined that it was eighty-eight percent effective at preventing symptoms in those infected with it. While this is several points lower than Pfizer’s rated effectiveness against the regular COVID-19 virus, it is well within the range of an effective vaccine. (There is no word yet on the Moderna vaccine’s effectiveness against the Delta variant.)
The problem that Fauci has confronted throughout the pandemic has been a surprising wave of vaccine hesitancy, which has so far been faced with the urging of Americans to take the vaccine quickly. One positive statistic to this effect has been hospitalization rates: the major vaccines are ninety percent or more effective against COVID-19, and right now, more than nineteen in every twenty patients at a hospital for COVID-related sickness have not been vaccinated.
At the moment, President Joe Biden has established a goal of achieving a seventy percent initial vaccination rate – that is, seven out of ten American adults receive at least one shot of vaccine – before July 4. However, this goal is unlikely to be met.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.