‘We’re Making Progress’: Texas A&M Experts Discuss Recent COVID-19 Developments
As the pandemic enters its 25th month and the United States nears a million COVID-19 deaths, health experts from Texas A&M University say the nation can’t afford to let its guard down yet.
Granted, spring has been relatively calm, with the daily average of new reported COVID cases hovering around 30,000 for much of March and early April — a far cry from this past winter, when the Omicron variant made its way to the U.S. and briefly pushed that number above 800,000. But even as the surge came to an end in late February and case numbers sunk lower than they had in months, that progress had a limit.
“I really wish (the numbers) would keep going down, but now we’ve got a festering problem,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist and professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Biology. “It’s just like a fire: if you don’t put it out all the way, eventually, it’s going to flare back up.”
It’s hard to predict exactly when the next major flare-up will happen and just how bad it will be. But as case numbers begin to creep upward again, Assistant Professor Rebecca Fischer says it’s important to stay informed and prepared.
“The expectation is that we will probably have another wave,” said Fischer, who is an infectious disease epidemiologist in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the School of Public Health. “Is it coming next month? We can’t say. But I do think that we need to be in a position where we’re paying attention and we’re being aware.”
This week, the national travel mask mandate was struck down by a federal judge. But the easing of certain restrictions and precautions does not mean the pandemic is over.
With past COVID-19 variants largely extinct, the current sources of concern for health officials are Omicron and its subvariants, including the BA.2 strain which recently became the most common form of coronavirus in the U.S.
However, BA.2 has proven somewhat unpredictable, said Peter Hotez, who serves as dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and holds fellowships at Texas A&M’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and Hagler Institute for Advanced Study. The United Kingdom was hit hard by the new subvariant, while in countries like India and South Africa, the arrival and subsequent dominance of BA.2 did not cause a major spike in case numbers.
“It’s not as straightforward as it was for Alpha and Delta and Omicron when they became the dominant variants and accelerated very quickly,” Hotez said.
Despite this ambiguity, the ability to focus solely on Omicron and the BA.2 subvariant has made the job of health officials a bit easier for the time being: “We really are fighting one head of the dragon right now,” Fischer said.
But as long as the virus continues to spread, it will also continue to mutate. And because the technology needed to identify and study new strains of coronavirus is not widespread, Fischer said we may not know much about the next major variant until it’s already upon us.
In addition, Hotez notes that Texas has been especially susceptible to new variants due to its below-average rate of vaccination — a worrying pattern that could play out again soon.
“The last two summers here in Texas, we got hit pretty hard with COVID — last summer especially among the unvaccinated with the Delta variant,” Hotez said. “Could something like that happen again with a new variant coming from abroad this summer in Texas? That’s something I’m concerned about.”
Another thing to keep in mind is how the rise of at-home testing is impacting case data. “If I take an at-home COVID test and test positive, then I’m not going to be in the numbers reported on TV,” Fischer said. “We don’t have a system for collecting that information.”
So while these tests may be quick and convenient, they also make it difficult to get a complete picture of how the pandemic is evolving.
“Still,” Fischer said, “keeping an eye on the numbers in our local community can keep us informed about increases in infection risk where we are.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
For those looking to protect themselves and others during the months ahead, the experts’ advice is simple: wear a mask around people whose health or vaccination status is unknown, get tested if you feel sick, and get fully vaccinated if you can — booster shots included.
“Boosters are the best thing we can do right now in terms of protecting people who can’t or won’t put a mask on,” Neuman said.
In late March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a second round of boosters for Americans over 50 years old as well as certain immunocompromised people — a positive step forward in shoring up the nation’s immunity, Hotez said. However, he said the first booster’s underwhelming level of protective durability has raised legitimate concerns about the long-term viability of the mRNA technology used to create most COVID vaccines.
“After the first booster, after four months, the protection against hospitalization declines from 91 percent to around 78 percent and protection against emergency room visits declines from 87 percent to around 66 percent. It’s still good but not nearly as good as it was,” Hotez said. “Is this something unique to Omicron, or is it a bigger issue around the mRNA technology?”
Alternative methods of vaccine production include the microbial fermentation process behind Corbevax, an inexpensive recombinant protein vaccine developed by Hotez and his team at Texas Children’s Hospital to help stop the spread of COVID in the developing world. Time will tell whether this or other new vaccines boast significant advantages in longevity.
“I recommend getting a second booster. I think the bigger issue is what happens four of five months from now,” Hotez said. “Are we going to need a fifth shot or a sixth shot? … I think that’s an important question for the FDA and the NIH and the CDC and the White House to address. Should they look beyond mRNA for alternative technologies?”
Regardless, Fischer says that if the U.S. is to stand a chance of truly putting the pandemic behind us — essentially relegating COVID to the realm of predictable, manageable diseases like the flu — then more people need to get fully vaccinated and continue getting new shots as they’re made available.
“If we really wanted to throw a number out there, let’s get three doses in 80 percent of the population right away and then continue to keep up with recommendations as they evolve,” Fischer said. “That is probably our best estimate of where we need to be.”
Right now, that number sits at around 30 percent. So while the task ahead may be daunting, Neuman said it’s important not to lose sight of one key fact: “we’re making progress.”
“The reason all those other variants died out is most likely because there is a little bit of immunity in almost everybody by this point, whether it’s from being infected or having a vaccine of some sort,” Neuman said. “That’s a better place to be than we were in two years ago. We’re not there yet, but I don’t want people to lose hope, because I see the progress. But it’s a job that’s not going to finish itself without our help.”