Throughout 2020 and as we plan for 2021, HGS has trusted the professional insights of Dr. Virginia Gurley, whose steady and reliable point of view has provided us with a sound perspective regarding the pandemic. Her end-of-year statement offers guidance as well as words of encouragement for the months ahead.
“COVID-19 has spread by leaps and bounds across many parts of the world. Global tolls now stand at 78 million cases and 1.7 million deaths since the start of the pandemic. We have ample evidence that growth of new cases and deaths is inversely related to implementation and cooperation with pandemic control efforts. A simple comparison of current new cases per capita tells the story. The U.S. stands at 65 new cases/100,000, while Canada stands at 18 new cases/100,000. And although the predictions of a grim winter are now coming true, new insights and vaccines are suggesting there will be light on this summer’s horizon.
Here are some recent learnings:
• Among confirmed COVID cases, about 1.6% are fatal, and deaths lag behind case counts by about 3 weeks. This insight is helping regions manage their hospital bed capacity and forecast if and when field hospitals are likely to be needed. Fatality rates would increase if hospitals become overwhelmed, but so far, our brave healthcare workers are holding strong.
• In about 10% of confirmed cases, COVID symptoms linger for more than 12 weeks – what is now being called Long COVID. There is still much to learn about how best to treat Long COVID, but that work is progressing rapidly.
• Several genetic mutations in the part of the virus that allows it to infect human cells have been identified in recent weeks. These mutations appear to increase transmissibility of the virus and could reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines. These findings have brought to light that closer study and tracking of the different mutation strains is needed, and as a result of some preliminary studies, geneticists predict it will likely take several years of further spike protein mutations before the new vaccines could become ineffective.
As the armamentarium of vaccines grows, and the numerous vaccine distribution challenges are wrestled to the ground, several key questions are critical to quelling the pandemic.
• First, we need to understand whether those who are vaccinated can still transmit the virus to those who are not protected, either by vaccination or by prior infection. Because of this uncertainty, we will all need to keep wearing masks, physically distance, minimize gathers and the like, until at least 65-75% of the population is immune. If we all practice transmission prevention while the vaccine is being distributed, it’s reasonable to assume we will achieve this level of herd immunity this summer.
• Second, we need greater understanding of how long each vaccine provides effective protection, as well as how long an initial COVID infection provides protection against getting re-infected. It’s already understood that some people develop weak protection following an initial infection. The durability of protective immunity will be the primary determinant of how long we will be battling COVID-19.”
Gurley believes there is real optimism for why and how we will put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us over the coming six to nine months.
“There are still several dark months to go before we turn the corner, but ingenuity, hard work and discipline have been at the forefront of the remarkable progress that has been made to date. Let’s all pull together to bring this chapter to a close.”