New virus variant may not be stopped by current vaccines, as American lifespans drop by 1.1 years
Even before he took office, Donald Trump started patting himself on the back for the only measure of “success” he’s ever recognized: an increase in the stock market numbers. However, while stocks and bonds may be the be-all and end-all for some of Trump’s most deep-pocketed supporters, there’s another measure that may have more meaning for most Americans—one that measures being and ending.
Under Donald Trump, the average American life expectancy is now over one year lower than it was when Trump took office. In 2016, news accounts frequently referenced the decline of American life expectancy from 78.7 to 78.6 years as a sign that Americans—specifically white, rural Americans—were suffering from unemployment and the opioid crisis. But as Trump leaves office, life expectancy in 2020 has dropped by 1.13 years. As expected, most of that decline comes from the way that Trump has bungled the response to COVID-19. And, as also might be sadly expected, the effect is even larger for Black and Latino communities where Trump’s handling of the crisis has erased more than a decade of progress in lowering racial gaps.
The answer to Trump’s question of “What the hell do you have you got to lose?” turns out to be years of life. And meanwhile, a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be more contagious, more deadly, and unstoppable by current vaccines.
The changes to U.S. life expectancy are recorded in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers Theresa Andrasfay from the University of Southern California and Noreen Goldman from Princeton University document how loss of life due to the coronavirus has dropped U.S. life expectancies overall to 77.48, the lowest since 2003. Meanwhile, Black Americans saw an overall drop in life expectancy of 2.10 years. Latino life expectancies for 2020 are down by an agonizing 3.05 years. For Black Americans, that means that life expectancy is now more than five years lower than it is for whites.
Between 2000 and 2014, life expectancies were up an average of 0.15 years each year. That continued a trend that had seen an almost 10-year increase since the 1960s. When numbers dipped by just 0.1 per year from 2015-2017, the news was dominated by articles pointing to increasing rates of suicide and deaths resulting from opioid addition. But the loss of life-years in 2020 dwarfs all previous declines, and it is unclear—with COVID-19 not only still present, but reaching new highs for both cases and deaths—how that decline might continue into the new year.
Meanwhile, there is a powerful reason to be even more concerned about the worldwide pandemic. The longer the pandemic carries on, and the more people are infected, the more likely the world is to see new mutations. There have already been hundreds of minor variants found from the original sequence of DNA made on the original virus found in Hunan province. Most of these appear to have no significant impact on the virulence or contagiousness of the disease. However recent mutations affecting the “spike protein” (the chemical which the virus uses to enter human cells) in both the U.K. and South Africa have raised serious alarms. It appears that these changes may make the virus as significantly more contagious. However, they do not seem to be related to an increased rate of serious illness, and—most importantly—they still seem to respond the the current round of vaccines.
None of that may be true of a new variant that is currently ravaging the city of Manaus in Brazil. Like Donald Trump in the U.S., Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has taken an extremely hands-off approach to dealing with coronavirus. Bolsonaro has mocked scientists, covered up data, dismissed expects, and openly modeled how not to conduct social distancing. As a result, Brazil is second only to the U.S. when it comes to the number of COVID-19 deaths.
But what’s happening in Manaus is frightening for more than the level of neglect it shows from Bolsonaro. As this thread from epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding makes clear, this is a situation that demands immediate, firm, and coordinated reaction from the whole world.
First, there is the immediate threat to the city. Facilities in Manaus are completely out of oxygen, and despite efforts to bring in more supplies, they can’t keep up with rising demands. As The Guardian reports, they are facing “a tsunami of cases.” That so many serious cases and resulting deaths are happening at the same time as a new variant has been located in the city may indicate that this variant is both more contagious and more deadly than pervious versions of SARS-CoV-2.
Even more concerning, this is happening in a city that was already one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in earlier surges. In fact, Manaus was so infected that it was thought to be at level already approaching “herd immunity.” But now the number of cases, the hospitalization rate, and deaths are all soaring again. How is that possible? It’s possible because it appears that this new variant, the Brazil P1 variant, is not stopped by neutralizing antibodies generated by past COVID-19 infection.
That’s because this new variant carries a mutation to the spike protein known as E484K. That mutation has been previously seen in a handful of cases, notably in Japan. There are already documented cases of people who had COVID-19, and have still been infected by the versions of the virus carrying this mutation. This mutation is directly on the region of the spike protein that attaches to the ACE2 receptor in human cells. It’s by blocking this region that current vaccines halt the entry of the virus, but laboratory tests suggest that the E484K mutation makes neutralizing antibodies over 90% less effective at binding to the virus. While that is not a complete measure of the effectiveness of a vaccine, the combination of factors: the high incidence of disease in an area already thought to have reached essential herd immunity, the demonstrated connection between this mutation and reinfection, and the laboratory tests all point to a new version of the virus that could deliver a follow-up punch to a world that is still reeling from COVID-19.
This should be sounding a global red alert at the highest level. In a very real sense, this might be considered a whole new disease: COVID-21.
While scientists work to understand the level of threat that the Brazil P1 variant represents, agencies around the globe need to take immediate action to isolate, test for, and quarantine both the P1 variant and all other variants carrying the E484K mutation. Otherwise that year lost to life spans in 2020 could be just a start.
And the best thing that everyone else can do is: Get vaccinated. As soon as possible. Because not only will that slow the rate of misery and death, but the only way to reduce the risk of more mutations is to provide fewer places for the current virus to reproduce.