For the past few months, we’ve been watching the vaccines and variants race in real time. With every new case, the coronavirus has the opportunity to mutate—and many scientists agree that it will inevitably mutate into a viral variant capable of outsmarting our current vaccines.
How will we know when that happens? Through genomic surveillance, examining the structure of coronavirus lineages that arise in the U.S. and globally. While epidemiologists may consider any new outbreak a possible source of new variants, one key way to monitor the virus/variant race is by analyzing breakthrough cases—those infections that occur after someone has been fully vaccinated.
In May, the CDC changed how it tracks breakthrough cases: the agency now only investigates and reports those breakthrough cases that result in hospitalizations or deaths. I wrote about this in May, but a new analysis from COVID Tracking Project alums and the Rockefeller Foundation provides more detail on the situation.
A couple of highlights from this new analysis:
- 15 states regularly report some degree of information about vaccine breakthroughs, some including hospitalizations and deaths.
- Six states report sequencing results identifying viral lineages of their breakthrough cases: Nebraska, Arkansas, Alaska, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.
- Washington and Oregon are unique in providing limited demographic data about their breakthrough cases.
- Several more states have reported breakthrough cases in isolated press briefings or media reports, rather than including this vital information in regular reports or on dashboards.
- When the CDC stopped reporting breakthrough infections that did not result in severe disease, the number of breakthrough cases reported dropped dramatically.
- We need more data collection and reporting about these cases, on both state and federal levels. Better coordination between healthcare facilities, laboratories, and public health agencies would help.
Vaccine breakthrough cases are kind-of a data black box right now. We don’t know exactly how many are happening, where they are, or—most importantly—which variants they’re tied to. The Rockefeller Foundation is working to increase global collaboration for genomic sequencing and data sharing via a new Pandemic Prevention Institute.
Luckily, there is a lot we do know from another side of the vaccine/variant race: vaccine studies have consistently brought good news about how well our current vaccines work against variants. The mRNA vaccines in particular are highly effective, especially after one has completed a two-dose regimen. If you’d like more details, watch Dr. Anthony Fauci in Thursday’s White House COVID-19 briefing, starting about 14 minutes in.
New research, out this week, confirmed that even the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine works well against the Delta variant. The company reported that, after a patient receives this vaccine, blood antibody levels are high enough to beat off an infection from Delta. In other words, people who got the J&J shot do not need to rush to get a booster shot from an mRNA vaccine (a recent debate topic among some experts).
Again, we’ll need more genomic surveillance to carefully watch for the variant that inevitably does beat our vaccines. But for now, the vaccinated are safe from variants—and getting vaccinated remains the top protection for those who aren’t yet.
More variant reporting
- National numbers, May 28The COVID-19 plateau continues, with hospital admissions and viral levels in wastewater (the two main metrics I’m looking at these days) both trending slightly down at the national level. Newer Omicron variants are still on the rise, but don’t seem to be impacting transmission much yet.
- National numbers, May 14COVID-19 spread continues to trend down in the U.S., though our data for tracking this disease is now worse than ever thanks to the end of the federal public health emergency. If newer Omicron variants cause a surge this summer, those increases will be hard to spot.
- The federal public health emergency ends next week: What you should knowWe’re now less than one week out from May 11, when the federal public health emergency (or PHE) for COVID-19 will end. While this change doesn’t actually signify that COVID-19 is no longer worth worrying about, it marks a major shift in how U.S. governments will respond to the ongoing pandemic, including how the disease is tracked and what public services are available. Here’s all the key info you should know about this, in one place.
- National numbers, April 23Across the U.S., COVID-19 spread continues at a moderately high plateau as newer versions of Omicron compete with XBB.1.5. Officially-reported cases and new hospitalizations declined by 7% and 8% respectively, compared to the prior week.
- National numbers, April 16COVID-19 spread appears to be at a continued plateau nationally, with slight declines in cases, hospitalizations, and viral concentrations in wastewater. New variants are on the horizon, though, at a time when data are becoming increasingly less reliable.
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