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Amid COVID-19 Variants, There Is An Increased Urgency For Vaccinations

NOEL KING, HOST:

The good news about the coronavirus vaccine - 25 million Americans have now gotten at least one dose - is competing with the bad news about the virus itself. There are new variants to contend with now. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us, as she often is on Mondays, following this story. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Let's start with the good stuff. The rate of new infections is dropping.

AUBREY: Yes, that's right. New infections have declined to about 150,000 documented cases a day. That's still a lot, obviously. But it's a 30% drop compared to mid-January. Hospitalizations, deaths are also declining, too. So this is encouraging.

KING: And in the meantime, for all we hear about vaccinations going too slowly, the pace of vaccinations is also increasing.

AUBREY: Yes, about 1.3 million doses are being administered a day now. As this accelerates, a key focus is boosting supply of vaccines. If the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is authorized soon, as is likely, this could help a lot. I spoke to Dr. Atul Gawande about this. He's a professor at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health and a surgeon, and he has been an adviser to Biden. He says even though the one-dose vaccine is not as effective overall as the two vaccines already authorized, it appears to be very effective at preventing what is most important.

ATUL GAWANDE: This vaccine is apparently 100% protective against hospitalization and death. So far, the only thing that's been seen is in a press release. You want to see the actual data. But this would be a very big boost to supply.

AUBREY: The FDA is reviewing the data. The federal government has actually pre-purchased the vaccine. And Johnson & Johnson would be expected to deliver millions of doses by June.

KING: My mom has gotten the vaccine now and is practically rubbing her hands in glee every time I talk to her.

AUBREY: (Laughter) I like that.

KING: I imagine a lot of people have this question - if you have been vaccinated, can you go back to, quote-unquote, "normal behavior"?

AUBREY: You know, because the virus is still circulating so widely, it's possible that someone who has been vaccinated can get exposed to the virus, become infected and perhaps spread it. There's a lot to learn here still, Noel. But Dr. Atul Gawande says it's important for people who have been vaccinated to continue to be vigilant, to wear a mask, be cautious.

GAWANDE: We're seeing more and more signs that there is going to be some degree of continued infection in people who are vaccinated but at low or even asymptomatic levels, which means that they can transmit to other people. That's why we're going to keep on asking you to wear masks.

AUBREY: This goes for everyone who's been vaccinated, as well as for all of us, of course, who have not been. Vaccines will help end this pandemic, but it's going to take time, Noel. And right now there's still a lot of virus circulating.

KING: What about the more contagious variants that are circulating? Do they change how we need to respond?

AUBREY: You know, at the moment, it's kind of impossible to know which strains are circulating in your area. CDC director Rochelle Walensky has said the agency is committed to increased surveillance, but right now it's unclear. I spoke to Angela Rasmussen about this. She's a virologist at Georgetown University.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: We're still not sequencing nearly enough of the viruses that are circulating here in the U.S. So we don't have a really good idea the extent to which any of these variants are circulating in a given community. So I think that the best thing for people to do is to assume that those variants are circulating in your community and take precautions to protect yourself.

AUBREY: And this means, basically, just keep on keeping on. I mean, some of these variants are more transmissible, but Rasmussen says they don't acquire some kind of magical properties. I mean, we fend them off with the same strategies we've been told to follow all along - avoid gatherings, wear a mask, double mask if you can. This can be beneficial. You know, here's the bottom line - Rasmussen says if we all do our part to reduce transmission, the less likely that more variants will emerge.

RASMUSSEN: Viruses cannot evolve if they don't have the opportunity to replicate. So by reducing transmission now, we can reduce the likelihood that there are going to be additional variants that may be more resistant to the vaccines emerging in the future.

KING: The two vaccines being used in the U.S. right now are the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine. Do they work against the variants that have emerged?

AUBREY: So far, the answer's yes. Dr. Anthony Fauci says there's a lot of focus on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: When you're looking at the U.K. variant, what we're seeing is a very slight, if at all, impact on vaccine-induced antibodies and very little impact on anything else. So we are covered with that.

AUBREY: However, they don't seem quite as effective against the South African variant. Fauci called it a moderate diminution, so there's some concern there. And the good news is these vaccines can be retooled to tackle new variants. Here's Dr. Gawande again.

GAWANDE: The mRNA vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, have the ability to do it just by almost, like, retyping the code of the genetic material that's included in the vaccine. And that means it can be done relatively quickly.

AUBREY: In a matter of months, so this is encouraging.

KING: It has been about two months, three months even, since we started vaccinating people. And there's still a lot of confusion over where and how to get a vaccine and who can get it. Is some of that being sorted out at a high level?

AUBREY: Yes. And I should point out, you know, the CDC tracker finds about 30 million doses have been administered so far, and about 50 million have been distributed. Some of this gap is a delay in accounting. Some is holding back for second shots. And some of this is just lack of coordination, you know, capacity to administer the shots quickly. You know, if you've had an appointment canceled or you've been told it will be months before one is available, you are not alone. But cities and states are finding their footing. There are multiple channels opening up - everything from hospital sites, pharmacy programs, mobile clinics.

Derek Burleson of Tyson Foods told me as soon as supplies ramp up, they will actually bring vaccine clinics to their employees at the meat-processing facilities.

DEREK BURLESON: A lot of our facilities are in rural areas, and so we will bring in mobile health clinics. We want to make it as convenient as possible to them.

AUBREY: There are also a lot of megasites opening, Noel - you know, stadiums, fairgrounds in some states. One is opening this week at Fenway Park, the baseball stadium in Boston. The idea is to make it convenient, accessible by public transportation, and get the efficiency of a large-scale operation.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks as always for your reporting, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.