America has reached a grim milestone—the number of people who’ve died from COVID-19 has officially topped 200,000. This means that since the first known death related to the disease on February 6th, over 858 people have been dying each day.
To put it in perspective, the numbers are equal to having the 9/11 attacks every day for 66 days or experiencing 109 Hurricane Katrinas. More people have died from the virus than were killed in battle during the 5 most recent wars combined (Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq War, War in Afghanistan, and Persian Gulf War).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death in the country. Unfortunately, researchers are predicting that another 180,000 people could die by January 1st. However, experts say that we can save almost 115,000 of those lives if we increased mask use to 95%.
As deaths continue to mount, scientists are continuing to study the virus to understand it better. One group from Houston just released a study, yet to be peer-reviewed, that examined over 5,000 genetic sequences of the virus. It shows the virus is continuously acquiring mutations. As with all viruses, most of these are inconsequential. However, one of these mutations has made it more contagious. None of the mutations, so far, has made it deadlier.
The concern is that since transmission is so widespread throughout the country, there are plenty of opportunities for the virus to continue to change, leading to a mutation that results in it becoming more harmful. According to Dr. David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “Wearing masks, washing our hands, all those things are barriers to transmissibility, or contagion, but as the virus becomes more contagious it statistically is better at getting around those barriers.”
When looking at what this means to combat the virus, Morens states, “Although we don’t know yet, it is well within the realm of possibility that this coronavirus, when our population-level immunity gets high enough, this coronavirus will find a way to get around our immunity. If that happened, we’d be in the same situation as with flu. We’ll have to chase the virus and, as it mutates, we’ll have to tinker with our vaccine.” This means that we need to remain vigilant and continue to do what we can to protect ourselves from the virus.
Part of being prepared is to develop a vaccine that’s effective and safe. The other part is to have as many people as possible receive it. As a result of President Trump’s remarks saying there’ll be a vaccine by Election Day and the administration’s interference in federal science agencies, public health officials fear Americans will reject the vaccine over concerns of it being rushed and potentially contaminated.
To gain public trust in the vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to provide transparency in the process. As a means of accomplishing this, the agency will be issuing new standards for emergency authorization of the vaccine. The guidance is expected to be more rigorous than what was used to approve hydroxychloroquine or convalescent plasma. Both of these endorsements received significant amounts of backlash due to the lack of information. Emergency authorization is a quicker process than formal approval. When it comes to the vaccine, the goal is to get it the public more rapidly, but without cutting safety measures.
Per sources familiar with the situation, under the new guidelines, the FDA is asking manufactures to follow participants in late-stage clinical trials for an average of at least two months, starting after they receive the second vaccine shot. The agency is also looking for at least five severe cases of the disease in the placebo group for each trial and some cases of the disease in older people. Before this, the FDA said that any vaccine would have to be at least 50% more effective than a placebo to be approved. Given these potential stipulations, the amount of time it’ll take for companies to get together their application, and the length of time it’ll take the agency to review the material, experts estimate that the earliest a vaccine will be authorized is sometime in December.
In response to the FDA’s announcement, the president said that it “sounds like a political move” and indicated that the White House might reject the plan. Trump continued with that he has “tremendous trust in these massive companies” in their development of the vaccine and feels that they, not federal regulators, should decide when it should be available. Many public health experts think that his comments raise more questions regarding the integrity of the vaccine approval process instead of reassuring the American people.