The coronavirus has evolved as it made its way across the world, as any virus is expected to do. But experts have been startled by the pace at which significant new variants have emerged, adding new urgency to the race between the world’s best defenses — vaccinations, lockdowns and social distancing — and an aggressive, ever-changing foe.
The new variant pummeling Britain has already been found in about 45 countries, from Singapore to Oman to Jamaica, but many countries are effectively flying blind, with little sense of how bad the problem may be.
Long before the pandemic emerged, public health officials were calling for routine genetic surveillance of outbreaks. But despite years of warnings, many countries — including the United States — are conducting only a fraction of the genomic studies needed to determine how prevalent mutations of the virus are.
Denmark, which has invested in genetic surveillance, discovered the variant afflicting Britain in multiple Danish regions and recently tightened restrictions. The health minister compared it to a storm surge, predicting that it would dominate other variants by mid-February.
And as countries go looking, they are discovering other variants, too.
With the world stumbling in its vaccination rollout and the number of cases steeply rising to peaks that exceed those seen last spring, scientists see a pressing need to immunize as many people as possible before the virus evolves enough to render the vaccines impotent.
“It’s a race against time,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and a member of a World Health Organization working group on coronavirus adaptations.
The vaccine alone will not be enough to get ahead of the virus: It will take years to inoculate enough people to limit its evolution. In the meantime, social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing — coupled with aggressive testing, tracking and tracing — might buy some time and avert devastating spikes in hospitalizations and deaths along the way. These strategies could still turn the tide against the virus, experts said.
“We do know how to dial down the transmission of the virus by a lot with our behavior,” said Carl T. Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We’ve got a lot of agency there.”
Read the full article in The New York Times.