Today we bring you a new episode in our podcast series: COVID, Quickly. Every two weeks, Scientific American’s senior health editors Tanya Lewis and Josh Fischman catch you up on the essential developments in the pandemic: from vaccines to new variants and everything in between.
Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American podcast series!
Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.
Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis
Fischman: I’m Josh Fischman
Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors. Today we’re discussing whether human behavior or virus variants led to India’s COVID catastrophe.
Fischman: And we’ll talk about ways to make sense of the CDC’s new mask guidance and what it means when we’re coming out of the caves we’ve been in for the past year.
Lewis: The COVID situation in India right now is just devastating, with bodies piling up and shortages of critical supplies like oxygen. The big question is: How did things get so bad? Josh, you’ve been looking at the two possible culprits. What can you tell us?
Fischman: The first thing I can say is that people want to blame new virus variants as one of those culprits, but they’re wrong. Experts say the problem stems from what people, not variants, have done in India.
The country has gone from 100 to 200 deaths per day in the first months of this year to a shocking climb in April and May. About 4,000 people are dying of COVID every day now.
And as you say, everyone wants to know why this happened. Many seem eager to blame a new variant. The BBC and other media like calling it “the double mutant” because that sounds scary, and it has two mutations. But I’ll call it by the last three numbers virologists use to name it: 617. Vaughn Cooper, a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh who tracks these viral versions, told me 617 just is not a vicious microbe overrunning the country. For instance, it has less ability to evade antibodies than variants that became dominant in South Africa and Brazil. And it may not even be widespread in India. Cooper says the country does not track these variants very closely.
Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, did a small test on 617. He put the variant into test tubes with antibodies from nine people who had one shot of the Pfizer vaccine. The variant’s mutations did not help it. Antibodies nailed it. Gupta’s conclusions: vaccinations work, and this viral version isn’t particularly awful. And please stop calling it a “double mutant,” he says. Most of the variants running around the world now have at least two mutations. It’s a meaningless term.
Lewis: That’s fair. But what about vaccines? Could those help curb the surge?
Fischman: Yes, they could. But here’s a real problem: India doesn’t have a lot of vaccines. Only about 9 percent of its people have had one shot. In the U.S., that number is 45 percent. In Israel, it’s 60.
What India had a lot of, starting in March, was unprotected crowds—there were tens of thousands of people going to pilgrimages and religious holidays—and giant political rallies: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party ramped up a campaign with huge events and touted that his government beat the virus. Restrictions on gatherings went away: no masks, no physical distancing in a country with a lot of people. And now there are 400,000 new infections every day.
The bottom line is that people crowding together drove this disaster. Variants may play some role—another variant that spread quickly across the U.K. and the U.S. is also in India—but people and politicians lit the fire with huge gatherings and apparently by thinking the virus was not a risk.
As these sad events unfold, you may want to donate to help people in India. If you’re so moved, we’ve popped a link into the Transcript section of our Web page for this episode, and it lists several organizations that are giving medical aid and food:
[How to help those suffering in India: “10 Places to Donate to Help India amid the COVID Crisis” in New York Magazine]
In the U.S., the CDC recently announced some new guidelines for when vaccinated people can ditch their masks. What do the guidelines say, and how should we interpret them?
Lewis: The new guidelines state that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks when they are outside exercising, gathering in small groups, or dining with friends and family.
This is welcome news for many of us. We know the risk of COVID transmission is extremely low outdoors (although not zero). That’s because the virus is thought to spread mainly through airborne droplets, or aerosols, which quickly become diluted outside. It’s “like a drop of dye in the ocean,” as Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech aerosol scientist, puts it.
The CDC says unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people should still wear masks when they’re gathering with friends or family outside their household, and both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear them in crowded settings such as sports events, parades or live performances.
Fischman: All these categories are kind of hard to keep track of, though.
Lewis: Yeah, the CDC doesn’t define what counts as a “small group” of friends and family, because it depends on the context. And it’s somewhat hard to remember all the different scenarios for when vaccinated and unvaccinated people can gather and who still needs to wear masks.
Still, it’s the first step toward a return to some kind of normalcy. But it’s going to feel weird for a while. Many people who’ve been vaccinated—including me—are finding it hard to go bare-faced and feel like they’re being judged for not wearing a mask. Just a few weeks ago, the same people were judging others for the same behavior. And it’s not like we’re all wearing T-shirts announcing our vaccination status.
But eventually, hopefully, enough people will have gotten vaccinated that we can all feel safe letting our masks—and our hair—down a little.
Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us.
Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out SciAm.com for updated and in-depth COVID news.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]