Breakthrough cases: What we know right now

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. Here’s how states and the CDC are tracking these cases now, and what we know about vaccine protection against the variants.

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Delta and Gamma are starting to dominate

Delta, or B.1.617.2, is particularly dangerous. As I’ve written before, this variant spreads much more quickly than other strains of the coronavirus and may cause more severe illness, though scientists are still investigating that second point. Thanks to this variant, it’s now much more dangerous to be unvaccinated than it was a year ago. It’s quickly becoming dominant in the U.S.

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All variant data are weeks old

It takes three to four weeks for data on a variant COVID-19 case to be made public. I have been quietly stressing out about this fact for about a month, since I learned it from Will Lee, VP of science at the genomics company Helix. This lag time includes the actual sequencing process as well as coordination with public health authorities and sequencing data repositories.

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CDC stepped up sequencing, but the data haven’t kept pace

The CDC has stepped up its sequencing efforts in a big way over the past few months, going from 3,000 a week in early January to 10,000 a week by the end of March. But data on the results of these efforts are scarce and uneven, with some states doing far more sequencing than others. And the CDC itself publishes data with gaping holes and lags that make the numbers difficult to interpret.

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New CDC page on variants still leaves gaps

This week, the CDC published a new data page about the coronavirus variants now circulating in the U.S. The page provides estimates of how many new cases in the country may be attributed to different SARS-CoV-2 lineages, including both more familiar, wild-type variants (B.1. and B.1.2) and newer variants of concern. These new data are useful, but the page has some presentation problems

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NYC variant looks like bad news

In a press conference on Wednesday, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that the recently identified NYC variant (since christened B-1526) is outpacing the original strain in spreading speed, and his senior advisor for Public Health, Dr. Jay Varma, said that these two variants combined account for 51% of all cases in the city.

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What makes a successful semester during COVID-19?

In the COVID-19 Data Dispatch this week, I wanted to share some bonus material from my recent Science News story. One of my favorite interviews that I did for this feature was with Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of Harvard University and MIT. The Broad Institute helped over 100 colleges and universities set up COVID-19 testing and student symptom monitoring, most of them in New England. When I talked to Dr. Sabeti, though, she mostly spoke about Colorado Mesa University—a small school in Grand Junction, Colorado that saw it as a moral imperative to bring all of their students back to campus this fall.

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Some optimistic vaccine news but variants still pose a major threat

Nobody who got any of the vaccine candidates was hospitalized or died from COVID-19. That’s huge, especially as variants continue to spread across the U.S. J&J’s numbers are especially promising when it comes to variant strains. Moderna and Pfizer released their results before the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) or B.1.351. (S.A.) variants reached their current notoriety, which makes J&J’s overall efficacy numbers look worse by comparison. But the fact that no one who got the J&J vaccine was hospitalized no matter which variant they were infected with is a cause for optimism.

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