The news on COVID-19, both good and bad, is coming at us fast. But we must learn to connect the good and bad in our minds if we are to save our society as we know it.
First, the bad news: As everyone knows, cases and hospitalization rates are soaring. We are number one in the world, with well over 100,000 new cases per day consistently for the past two weeks, and our hospitals are almost full in many places, especially in the Midwest. And yet, “COVID-19 denial” persists. The science is growing that masks help, especially when combined with social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came to that conclusion two weeks ago in a comprehensive report looking at 200 countries. And now comes a confirmatory CDC report about Kansas: After the governor there instituted a mask mandate in early July, the 24 counties that complied had a 6 percent decrease in the seven-day average of daily reported cases by Aug. 23, whereas the 81 counties that opted out showed a net 100 percent increase over that same period.
This report is very well-timed, since it is coming right before Thanksgiving, when millions of Americans are throwing caution to the wind and traveling to large gatherings where they will dine with people with unknown COVID-19 contacts, and many more outbreaks are sure to result.
We are not a society known for its patience — but now is the worst possible time for this kind of denial. After all, help is on the way. Regeneron’s polyclonal cocktail (which President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE told me in an interview made him feel better almost right away) was just given an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA, following one for Lilly’s monoclonal antibody. Both show scientific evidence of decreasing the severity of the disease when given early in the clinical course.
And then there are the vaccines. Pfizer/BioNTech have applied for emergency approval for their messenger RNA vaccines, a genetic “signaler” that induces our cells to make the virus’s spike protein; this protein manufactured by our own cells then provokes an immune response and protection against the virus in more than 94 percent of cases so far. This technology is new but has appeared to be quite safe, with the only prominent side-effects being temporary flu-like symptoms, headache or fatigue. The technology also is costly, and the vaccines must be kept quite cold — more so the Pfizer vaccine, which must be distributed in dry ice, whereas the Moderna vaccine may simply be kept frozen.
But if those limitations might slow the rate of vaccination, now comes the much anticipated Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine, which is cheap and has a chimpanzee adenovirus (a vector that cannot infect a person) carrying the genetic payload to trigger an immune response. This platform has been tried safely before in humans for Ebola, including children, so we have more safety data on which to rely. Not only that, but it can be stored in a refrigerator and easily distributed.
Results were just released from an ongoing clinical trial of diverse populations in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. More than 24,000 volunteers received the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine or a placebo, and the vaccine was found to be safe; 30 cases of mild COVID-19 were found in people who received two doses of the vaccine, and 101 cases in those who received a placebo injection. This was 60 to 70 percent effective, with the number rising to 90 percent when the dose of the first of the two injections was halved.
Perhaps most importantly, the vaccine appeared to reduce viral transmission with “an observed reduction in asymptomatic infections.”
Whichever vaccine emerges to immunize most of “the herd,” here and globally, and whether the effectiveness is ultimately 70 or 90 percent, the results will dramatically slow the spread of COVID-19, saving millions of lives around the world.
Help is almost here; the calvary is coming. In the meantime, we must not despair. We must do what we can to decrease spread, a concept known as “source control.” The more you are separated and the more barriers you have between yourself and others, the less chance that you can pass along the virus. This concept is more important, the more of the virus there is around. That means you and me, Americans. This is what we need to do as we give thanks for our great scientists this Thursday.
Marc Siegel, MD, is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, “COVID: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”