As new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 continue to pop up in the U.S. and other parts of the world, Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, which is the maker of one of two coronavirus vaccines approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, believes the virus could be around “forever.”
Speaking during a panel discussion at the annual JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, Bancel said he agrees with emerging data suggesting that “SARS-CoV-2 is not going away.”
“We are going to live with this virus, we think, forever,” he said, according to a CNBC report.
Kristian Andersen, an infectious diseases expert at Scripps Research Institute, told Stat News in a report Thursday that new and more infectious variants of the virus that have erupted in places like South Africa, the U.S. and the United Kingdom is cause for concern.
“I’m very, very concerned that we’ve now gone from a virus that we could control to a virus that we really can’t, unless we do something very dramatic,” Andersen said.
Experts say the containment of these new variants would require an expansion of testing and genomic sequencing, contact tracing, social distancing, mask wearing and other efforts to limit the spread of the virus that has already claimed more than 380,000 lives in the U.S.
At least two new variants of the coronavirus have sparked concern around the globe due to data showing them to be more contagious. The 501Y.V2 or B.1.351 variant was first identified in South Africa and has since spread to a dozen other countries. The coronavirus variant known as B.1.1.7, first seen in the U.K., is now in more than 30 other countries.
“Even if B.1.1.7 (or some other more transmissible variant) isn’t any more likely to cause severe disease or death, we may see a larger volume of deaths in its presence simply because there will likely be more infections than there would be without it,” Maia Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Stat News.
Experts, like Brooks Miner, an evolutionary ecologist at Ithaca College, are just hoping that enhanced mitigation efforts to limit the spread of the virus or target the mutations could buy the U.S. some time to expand its vaccine campaigns.
“We’re basically in this race because if we reach herd immunity before B.1.1.7 becomes responsible for a majority of cases, then B.1.1.7 might never become responsible for a majority of cases,” Miner said.
Last month, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, predicted the U.S. could achieve herd immunity against COVID-19 by "the end of the second quarter 2021."
“By the time we get to the fall, we can start approaching some degree of relief where the level of infection will be so low in society we can start essentially approaching some form of normality," he said.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, noted in a recent report, however, that global herd immunity is highly unlikely this year and it is critical that countries and their populations maintain strict social distancing along with other control measures for the foreseeable future.
“Even as vaccines start protecting the most vulnerable, we’re not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021,” Swaminathan said in a Moderna Healthcare report. “Even if it happens in a couple of pockets, in a few countries, it’s not going to protect people across the world.”