If you’re feeling like covid-19 will never end, like things will keep getting worse, like the variants will render the vaccines useless, like 2021 is turning out to be just two 2020s in a trench coat: Take heart. There’s actually good reason to be optimistic right now, and a return to a more normal life is coming soon.
Speaking as someone who’s been covering the pandemic since the beginning, I spent much of last year warning that things would get worse (and sadly, the death toll has ended up much higher than many experts ever thought it would). But while the situation is still serious now, it’s time to be hopeful and look forward to a much better year.
As of early February 10, some 46 million Americans over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, just over 10% of the country’s population. These numbers are far from dazzling, especially compared to top-performing countries like Israel, but the pace of new daily vaccinations has steadily increased since the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were first released to the public last December. By late February, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine candidate—a single-dose shot—is expected to become the third vaccine to win an emergency use authorization in the U.S. And by June or earlier, Norovax’s candidate could join the picture as well, as could the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
These newer vaccines may not be as impressive as the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech shots, which are upwards of 90% effective at preventing any illness from covid-19. But importantly, at least according to the data collected to date, all of these vaccines do seem great at preventing serious illness and death from the viral infection. That’s a crucial accomplishment, considering that nearly a half million people have died from covid-19 in the U.S. so far, while hundreds of thousands have been hospitalized and/or left with lingering symptoms from serious illness. A vaccine that ensures you’ll have a mild cold at worst instead of needing a ventilator is nothing to sneer at.
In recent weeks, there has been increasing worry about the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus and how they could affect the protection provided by vaccines. In the U.S., it’s feared that B.1.1.7—a more transmissible variant first found in the UK—will become widespread here by March. But the news isn’t all bad. So far, the research has suggested that our existing vaccines should provide about as much protection against B.1.1.7 as they do for earlier strains.
There is more concern about B.1.351—the variant first discovered in South Africa—since evidence suggests it’s better at evading the immunity provided by earlier infection and at least some vaccines. Earlier this week, South Africa suspended its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after some early data showed that it offered “minimal protection” in preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant. But some experts are still hopeful. For one, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may yet protect against serious illness. And data from other vaccines has suggested they should provide some level of protection against B.1.351, even if it is diminished somewhat (South Africa has since announced it will use Johnson & Johnson’s candidate, which has shown efficacy against serious illness from B.1.351).
Perhaps the most important buffer against variant pessimism is to see what’s happening in South Africa right now. Despite the arrival of B.1.351 and its vaccine stumbles, daily cases have taken a sharp plunge in the country in recent weeks. And the same downward trend is happening throughout the world, including in the U.S.
To be clear, none of this is an argument for letting down our guard. Daily new cases and current hospitalizations in the U.S. are still above the peaks we saw in the spring and summer last year, and the spread of more transmissible variants, both local and from elsewhere, do pose a serious short-term threat that could erode some of the progress we’re seeing. That’s why it’s still so important to remain vigilant in reducing our personal risk of catching or spreading the coronavirus for now. At the same time, it’s okay to push back against doom-and-gloom attitudes and recognize that things are looking up. The worst of this nightmare is likely coming to a close.
On Wednesday, a poll from the AP found that one-third of American adults definitely or probably won’t get a covid-19 vaccine. That means most people are still on board for vaccination. Come summertime, it’s expected that there will be enough doses available for every American adult who wants to be vaccinated. By then, the level of immunity provided by vaccines and natural infection (and possibly some seasonal effects) will probably tamp down the emergence of large new outbreaks. Later on in the year, it’s possible that children will have access to a vaccine as well.
This measure of protection alone won’t ensure herd immunity, nor lead to the eradication of the coronavirus. It’s almost certain now that covid-19 will become an endemic disease, one that could cause trouble every fall and winter like the flu. So booster shots for new variants may need to be regularly taken.
But ultimately, these vaccines will ensure the end of the pandemic sooner than later. We’ll be able to have parties indoors without fear of becoming the next superspreading event. Classrooms will be full of students. Weddings, concerts, and sporting events will once again become the welcome breaks to our daily routine. Not all of the harms caused by the pandemic will be mended so quickly, and grieving for lost loved ones will go on, but at least we’ll be able to start picking up the pieces. That much is cause for celebration.