We don’t yet know whether new variants of the coronavirus may impede vaccines’ efficacy. But they shouldn’t change anything about our approach to public health.
On Dec. 8, the United Kingdom became the first Western country to begin inoculating its citizens against the coronavirus, with Canada and the United States close behind—a sign for many that there may, in fact, be a light at the end of the tunnel after a year of public health catastrophe. To date, COVID-19 has caused more than 79 million infections and 1.7 million deaths worldwide, harrowing numbers by any measure. For those who have weathered or thus far avoided infection, COVID-19 has turned life as we know it on its head.
Yet despite that hope—or, rather, in order to preserve it—it’s important not to abandon pandemic protocols like mask-wearing and physical distancing too soon: Just because we now have shots against COVID-19 hardly means it has disappeared. In fact, the coronavirus has already begun to resurface in other forms—or mutations—and will continue to do so until it’s completely stamped out. Vigilance has always been key, but it is all the more critical now.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is thought to have initially crossed into humans from animal reservoirs. That wasn’t a transaction that stopped once the pandemic reached humans a year ago: Since June, more than 200 human cases of COVID-19 have been traced to mink farms, indicating that the virus likely spread from humans to mink and then back again. In November, Denmark reported 12 cases of a unique strain of the virus with a cluster of variants that had not been seen before. Global concern about the outbreak prompted Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to order a cull of 17 million living mink and announce plans to end mink farming for the foreseeable future. In response, many countries—fearing that the outbreak could spread beyond Denmark—imposed stricter border controls with the country.