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OPINION

How local dispatches on COVID can help empower us

Anywhere in the world, an even deadlier COVID-19 mutation could arise in the coming days. By letting down our guard too soon, the unvaccinated, and especially our children, will be most at risk.

adobe stock; globe staff illustration

In early March 2020, our team at the Broad Institute received dispatches from doctors in Northern Italy with news of COVID-19. The situation was dire, with hospitals at 200 percent capacity, severe ventilator shortages, and countless patients succumbing to respiratory failure. The doctors were attempting “to convey to people far from [their] reality” a crisis that was “difficult to imagine.” One of the doctors implored us, “Please stop, read this again, and think.”

Shortly after, COVID-19 became our universal reality, and over its many turns the world is finally beginning to acknowledge what scientists have warned about for years: Viruses are borderless, nondiscriminatory, and ever changing. Any village, city, country, or continent could become the next stop on their destructive path, regardless of where they originate. Often, we can only hypothesize where a virus began based on limited transmission data, but we are much less adept at determining where it might end. That part of the story depends on how individuals and communities respond, given the tools and strategies they have at hand.

It’s now up to all of us to write the ending, before another potentially deadlier mutation arises. As the Delta variant continues to tear through our communities, we are reminded that viruses will evolve in ways that we can — and cannot — anticipate. Presently, children are a glaring open target, with no access to vaccines and surrounded by an increasingly exhausted population, yearning to return to some semblance of normality. Meanwhile, vaccination rates are lagging and communities are grappling with continued mask mandates and public health measures. As schools get ready to reopen and retail businesses are bustling, the possibility of a disaster situation is fast approaching, whether induced by unexpected developments in the Delta variant’s course, or a new variant altogether.

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When COVID-19 began causing unfathomable calamity in India in early May, we should have heeded the warnings of local dispatches as a foreshadowing of what was to come. There were growing reports on the ground of fully vaccinated individuals contracting the disease. Perhaps the most concerning dispatch was that more youth were contracting the virus than ever before.

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Yet from May to July, communities across the globe dismissed the possibility that they might be equally vulnerable. We continued to relax restrictions, remove masks, and resume pre-pandemic activities. We are now paying the price, as COVID cases continue to soar throughout the United States. The repercussions of several recent outbreaks are now gripping the nation, including a post-July Fourth outbreak on Cape Cod, wherein vaccinated people constitute 75 percent of all positive cases identified thus far, while the unvaccinated continue to suffer the worst outcomes.

But we are not powerless in this universal race against COVID-19. For every case we successfully prevent, we are one step closer to blocking future mutations and possibly ending this devastation for good.

A range of tools exists to prevent transmission or ensure the most positive outcome for those infected. Preliminary data suggest that vaccines still reduce the duration of infection and severity of disease caused by the Delta variant and others. The United States has abundant access to vaccines for any individual over age 12 who is able to receive it. Case reports and studies show that broad mask use slows transmission rates of COVID-19, and that individual mask use causes a 65 percent reduction in personal risk of contraction. Combined with routine handwashing, vaccination, and social distancing, masks can help reduce community spread of the virus.

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It is no longer just a moral imperative for us to address the humanitarian crisis that this virus has caused in the hardest-hit places. It is also a matter of personal survival. To protect ourselves and others, the following actions are critical:

Scientists and public health leaders must work together to build and strengthen early warning systems across the globe. This would help generate dispatches on viral spread, mutations, and new characteristics sooner. As disease surveillance systems improve everywhere, nations will be able to formulate more effective and data-driven public health responses. Ultimately, the more we understand about the virus, the better equipped we are to continue fighting it.

Vaccines must be made available to everyone, everywhere in the world. The Biden administration took an important step in calling for the loosening of patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines. Nations must now work together to rapidly increase the manufacturing and delivery capacity of vaccines around the world and dramatically improve access everywhere.

As individuals, we must all work to fight the spread of this virus in any way that we can. If you are currently able to get vaccinated, please consider doing so without delay. If you do not feel comfortable being vaccinated for any reason, there are other ways to help ensure that you do not spread disease — by wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing measures. Stay vigilant with safety guidelines, considering the possibility that new strains could emerge that might infect children to a greater degree or break through vaccines. Seek testing if you have any signs or risks of COVID-19, or have an exposure risk, and share any positive results with the relevant parties promptly.

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Many, like us, feared the possibility of an imminent rise in cases back in May, shortly after reports of Delta cropped up overseas. But yet again, we collectively waited to witness for ourselves just how aggressive this variant would be. As a society, we have reached a symbolic fork in the road. We can either choose the path that could end this pandemic, heeding the advice of experts and lived experiences, or continue down the path that could prolong it into a nightmare scenario. As our Italian counterpart implored over a year ago, we ask that you “please stop, read this again, and think.”

Dr. Pardis Sabeti is a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and the Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease at the Harvard School of Public Health. She is an Institute Member of the Broad Institute. Yolanda Botti Lodovico is the policy lead in the Sabeti Lab at the Broad Institute. Parvathy Nair is a research associate at the Sabeti Lab.