Story at a glance
- The U.S. has largely reopened to prepandemic activities with fewer public health measures.
- Nearly 50 percent of the population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated.
- Experts are concerned that relaxing restrictions too early could lead to new variants.
In many parts of the world, governments are attempting to open society back up. But there has been some walking back of guidelines, such as with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updating the masking recommendations for people who are vaccinated. Some experts are worried that relaxing restrictions too soon will not bode well for fighting against variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic.
A handful of experts express these concerns in a paper published in the journal Virulence.
“Although vaccines have weakened the link between infection and mortality, they should not be used as an argument to justify a broad change in policy for countries experiencing an exponential increase in infection numbers,” said Kevin Tyler, the lead author and editor in chief of Virulence UEA's Norwich Medical School, in a press release. “This is because most of the world's population are still unvaccinated, and even in countries with efficient vaccination programmes, a significant proportion of society, particularly children, remain unprotected.”
“Relaxing restrictions boosts transmission and allows the virus population to expand, which enhances its adaptive evolutionary potential and increases the risk of vaccine-resistant strains emerging by a process known as antigenic drift,” Tyler said. “Relaxing restrictions boosts transmission and allows the virus population to expand, which enhances its adaptive evolutionary potential and increases the risk of vaccine-resistant strains emerging by a process known as antigenic drift.”
“We have an arms race on our hands,” said co-lead author and evolutionary biologist Cock Van Oosterhout of UEA's School of Environmental Sciences in the press release. Humans have the use of vaccines in this race, new tracking technologies and changes in behavior that can prevent spread.
Limiting the spread of the coronavirus would restrict the rate that new variants would arise, Tyler said. The coronavirus can evolve as it is spread and infects more people. This is what has led to the emergence of new variants.
“But given that the infection rate is about the same now as it was during the first wave, we are pretty much 'at evens' with this virus,” Van Oosterhout said.
In the U.S., vaccination rates have stagnated. According to the CDC, about 57 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and just less than 50 percent are fully vaccinated. Of people who are over 12 years of age, about 67 percent have had at least one dose and about 58 percent are fully vaccinated. That leaves millions of people who have not had a single dose.
“As long as there are large numbers of unvaccinated people around the world transmitting the virus, we're all at risk,” said co-author and director of the Earlham Institute Neil Hall in the press release.
The experts recommend that we continue public health measures like social distancing and compulsory mask wearing. Vaccinations alone won’t end the pandemic, says Van Oosterhout.
Hall said, “We have to co-exist with caution — if we ignore global health policies which have proven to reduce infection, the virus will further adapt.”
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