New Variants Rattle the World

January 22, 2021, by Anna McCaffrey, a fellow for Global Health Security with the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS. 

The emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants should come as no surprise. Yet, one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, world leaders are rattled as several new variants have taken hold in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, and now the United States. They confer a new competitive edge to the virus and threaten to change the pandemic game fundamentally, at the very moment when many countries are facing runaway outbreaks and worsening economic and social crises.

The United States is especially vulnerable and ill-equipped. Without a robust national genomic surveillance system, it is “flying blind” with limited visibility into how and where the virus is mutating and spreading. This is all unfolding as states are scrambling to get Covid-19 shots into arms while coping with a confused and chaotic vaccine introduction and an unrelenting surge that is bending health systems to a breaking point. The Biden administration is preparing to negotiate and implement its national Covid-19 strategy with a razor-thin margin in Congress.

Research on the new variants is just beginning and the full implications of their emergence remain unclear. One thing is clear: these new variants are generating new levels of anxiety and threatening to upend the best laid plans for Covid-19 prevention and control. They have created a sense of urgency and a renewed focus on the basics: expand genomic surveillance; achieve greater compliance in masking, social distancing, and avoidance of congregate settings; accelerate vaccination campaigns; and communicate to an anxious and skeptical public to win higher trust and confidence.

The Ground Shifts beneath Our Feet

Over the past year, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease Covid-19, has infected at least 97 million people—the true number of infections is much higher. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 30 percent of the U.S. public has been infected, roughly 100 million people. This explosive spread has given the virus nearly unlimited potential to mutate. While many mutations have had no meaningful effect, certain mutations have emerged that confer an advantage to the virus as it infects people and invades their cells. The fear is that those advantaged strains may become dominant, making outbreaks far more difficult and costly to control.

Scientists are most concerned about two types of mutations: those that increase the transmissibility of the virus (as is the case in the B.1.1.7 variant, which was originally detected in the United Kingdom) and those with “escape mutations” that allow the virus to avoid antibodies from therapeutics, vaccines, or prior infection (as is the case in the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa and the P.1 variant identified in Brazil). (At time of writing, there is no standardized naming convention for coronavirus variants. We will use these three names—B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1—in this paper.)

The B.1.1.7 variant, which is believed to increase transmission by up to 50 percent, has quickly become the dominant strain in the United Kingdom, leading to a runaway surge in cases and hospitalizations, pushing already strained hospitals to the brink. As of mid-January, one in fifty people in England had Covid-19, and nearly one in thirty in London.

The B.1.351 variant may be more resistant to existing Covid-19 therapies, including monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma. With relatively few effective Covid-19 therapies in the world’s arsenal, the emergence of a variant that can evade medicines is unsettling. New research also suggests that this variant might be able to reinfect those who have previously overcome mild Covid-19 infections.

A similar variant has emerged in the Amazonian capital of Manaus, Brazil, where an estimated 75 percent of the residents had Covid-19 by October 2020. But the city is experiencing an alarming resurgence, and the discovery of a new dominant variant, P.1, is leading experts to worry that it too is able to overcome natural immune protection.

If the B.1.351 and P.1 variants—or others with similar escape mutations—become more widespread, this could potentially lead to large numbers of recurring infections. Even more troubling, some new research indicates that vaccines may be less effective against these variants. These developments certainly do not justify any slow-down of vaccination efforts today—the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are proven to induce strong immune responses—but they do indicate that we should be prepared to modify vaccines and therapies to respond to new variants in the future.

Why are these variants emerging now? Scientists believe that some variants first emerged in patients with chronic infections, or those who were immunocompromised. As these patients remained ill over the course of several months, the virus had extended opportunities to replicate and mutate. The continued spread of Covid-19 throughout the year—and the winter surges across many parts of the Americas and Europe—then allowed these new variants to become dominant in certain geographies.

We should expect the emergence of new variants to accelerate into the future, as the virus has more opportunities to infect, mutate, and evolve.

Will Variants Push the United States Deeper into Catastrophe? 

As of January 22, 144 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant had been confirmed across 20 U.S. states, accounting for less than 0.5 percent of new cases. (The B.1.351 and P.1. strains have not yet been detected in the United States.) But the true number of B.1.1.7 cases is likely much higher, and the CDC has warned that it expects the B.1.1.7 strain to become the dominant strain in the United States by March.

That is potentially terrible news for the United States, which is experiencing uncontrolled spread across the country and has already suffered over 410,000 deaths. New cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are hitting record highs every day. The week before Joe Biden was inaugurated, the country reported 23,259 deaths, 25 percent more deaths than any other week since the beginning of the pandemic.

While the B.1.1.7 variant is not more fatal, it may be up to 50 percent more transmissible than strains currently circulating. Because the baseline in the United States is already astronomically high, a more transmissible variant could drive cases and hospitalizations up rapidly, further overwhelming hospitals that are already at capacity, potentially leading to many more deaths.

Even before the emergence of these new variants, the Biden administration faced a herculean task. The country is reeling from the failed, seditious January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Trump was impeached for inciting insurrection, and many lawmakers continue to contest the results of the 2020 presidential election. The country is arguably the most polarized and divided it has been since the Civil War. The economy is buckling under the weight of the pandemic, with over 1 million workers filing unemployment claims in the first week of 2021.

All the while, the virus continues to burn through the country, as many people continue to gather indoors and in large groups and refuse to wear masks or social distance. The national vaccine rollout thus far has been utterly calamitous, as the Trump administration left states to manage distribution without providing sufficient resources or technical guidance. No one in the Trump White House or elsewhere had a plan for the last mile of moving vaccines from delivery drop off sites to the arms of citizens.

The variants are accelerants and amplifiers. They leave the U.S. government with even less time to respond to the growing Covid-19 crisis—and the cascade of crises it has generated—both at home and abroad.

How Should the United States Respond? 

It is clear that the Biden administration is cognizant of this new dimension and is incorporating it into its Covid-19 strategy. The recently released National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness includes “increasing surveillance for variants and emerging threats” as a top priority, and the administration has called for “funding to dramatically increase our country’s sequencing, surveillance, and outbreak analytics capacity.” A national genomic surveillance system is a vital next step in addressing the threat posed by new and emerging strains. The expanded U.S. system will need to be integrated with global genomic surveillance efforts—many of which are similarly rudimentary and in need of modernization.

A more proactive way to stay out in front of new variants is to vaccinate as many people as possible before new variants can become dominant. The more people are vaccinated, the less the virus is able to circulate and the more difficult it will be for new variants to take hold. But given the CDC projections that the B.1.1.7 strain could become dominant by March and the current bottlenecks in the administration of vaccines in the United States, this will be an uphill battle. And if B.1.1.7 becomes the dominant strain, a greater percentage of the population—possibly more than 85 percent—will need to be immunized to stop the more transmissible Covid-19 from spreading. This pushes the herd immunity threshold higher, requiring an even more expansive and comprehensive vaccination effort.

An accelerated vaccination campaign will nevertheless remain central to mitigating the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant and others that may emerge, as reflected in the Biden administration’s plan for a whole-of-government vaccination effort. However, there are risks involved.

The Biden administration has announced that in an effort to accelerate the vaccination effort, it will release nearly all available doses of Covid-19 vaccines, only holding back a “small reserve and monitoring supply to ensure that everyone receives the full regimen as recommended by the FDA.” But if vaccine manufacturing does not keep pace, there is a risk that the time between the first and second doses will extend beyond the three to four weeks used in the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials, respectively.

If manufacturing or supply chain problems result in delays in the administration of the second dose, we could enter unknown territory in terms of vaccine efficacy and safety. Immunity from the first dose could wane, and some people could lose contact with the health system as the timing of their second dose remains uncertain. If a large proportion of the U.S. population remains only partially immunized (with one dose) for an extended period of time as the virus continues to circulate widely, this could theoretically selectively pressure the virus to evolve resistance to existing vaccines.

Today, 27 percent of the public is hesitant to get a Covid-19 vaccine, a major barrier to achieving herd immunity. The first month of vaccination efforts in the United States, beset by both supply and demand problems and compounded by abrupt changes in national guidance and policy, did little to raise public confidence and trust. If the U.S. government tries to stay ahead of the variants by modifying its vaccination guidance further, hesitancy and mistrust could worsen.

Back to the Future

The identification of new variants has reminded us of several things we already knew, with a new sense of urgency and clarity.

The variants remind us that SARS-Cov2 is a novel virus, and much of its science is still unknown. It moves with remarkable speed, and is an exceptionally pernicious foe. Even as our understanding of the virus and our biotechnology evolves, so too will the virus evolve. It continues to deliver shocks that throw us off balance. We should be prepared to pivot our vaccine and therapeutic development and distribution efforts to respond to novel variants—even before they have emerged.

An uncoordinated, patchwork genomic surveillance system is now recognized to be an intolerable hazard. Once again, we face dangerous blind spots in our national infrastructure. We need to be able to stay ahead of the variants and make the necessary policy changes in real time. If we do not know what we are fighting, we will lose.

The variants remind us that we need to get back to basics, but with a new ferocity and determination. The fundamental behavioral interventions—masking, social distancing, and avoidance of indoor gatherings—remain the single best weapon we possess in the fight against Covid-19, yet our political pathologies divide us over their use and prevent us from maximizing their potential. Somehow, the Biden administration will need to find a way to unify the public behind these essential behaviors.

Once again, our nation stumbles, creating greater vulnerabilities. The United States’ sluggish, confused, and chaotic vaccination program was itself a shock, and is now an open door to new variants. The Biden administration is rightfully prioritizing a more cohesive national effort, but it will need to ensure that manufacturing keeps pace with expanded distribution, so as to avoid gaps between doses that provide variants another opening. 

People remain confused. The variants remind us of the need for a national communications campaign that will bolster public confidence and trust in vaccines and in science. We cannot repeat with vaccines the mistakes made with masks, when public officials failed to explain why masks went from being discouraged to required, generating widespread confusion and mistrust. As we struggle to be nimble in tracking and mitigating new variants of the virus, we will need to communicate far more clearly and effectively to the U.S. public.

Inequities are deadly. The variants remind us of both the injustice and the danger of a bifurcated world, marked by deep divisions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, defined along racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic lines. Wherever the virus continues to spread unabated, there is the potential for a new variant to emerge that can overcome natural immunity, vaccines, and therapies—everywhere. Even as the United States struggles to get its own outbreak under control, it will need to use its influence and assets to support efforts by low- and middle-income countries to track, detect, and control spread. We cannot protect the American people without addressing the global threat.

Anna McCaffrey is a fellow for Global Health Security with the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Moderna CEO says the world wiII have to live with Covid ‘forever’

Key Point:

  • Stephane Bancel, CEO of Covid−19 vaccine maker Moderna, warned Wednesday that the virus will be around “forever.”

  • Public health officials and infectious disease experts have said there is a high likelihood that Covid−19 will become an endemic disease, meaning it will be present at all times, though likely at lower levels than it is now.
  • “SARS−CoV−2 is not going away,” Bancel said during a panel discussion at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel Steven Ferdman / Getty Images

The CEO of Covid−19 vaccine maker Moderna warned Wednesday that the coronavirus that has brought world economies to a standstill and overwhelmed hospitals will be around “forever.”

Public health officials and infectious disease experts have said there is a high likelihood that Covid−19 will become an endemic disease, meaning it will become present in communities at all times, though likely at lower levels than it is now.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel appeared to agree Wednesday that Covid−19 will become endemic, saying “SARS−CoV−2 is not going away.”

“We are going to live with this virus, we think, forever,” he said during a panel discussion at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.

Health officials will have to continuously watch for new variants of the virus, so scientists can produce vaccines to fight them, he said. Researchers in Ohio said Wednesday they’ve discovered two new variants likely originating in the U.S. and that one of them quickly became the dominant strain in Columbus, Ohio, over a three−week period in late December and early January.

Pfizer researchers said its vaccine developed with BioNTech appeared to be effective against a key mutation in the U.K. strain as well as a variant found in South Africa.

Moderna’s vaccine has been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for use in Americans who are 18 years old and older. Additional studies still needed to be completed in children, whose immune systems can respond differently to vaccines than those of adults.

U.S. officials are racing to distribute doses of both vaccines, but it will likely take months before the U.S. can vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity, meaning the virus won’t have enough new hosts to spread. Still, Bancel said Wednesday he expects the U.S. will be one of the first large countries to achieve “sufficient protection” against the virus.

There are already four coronaviruses that are endemic across the world, but they aren’t as contagious or deadly as Covid−19, according to the World Health Organization

WHO chief warns that COVID-19 won’t be the world’s last pandemic as he tells countries to prepare for future emergencies

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference amid the COVID-19 outbreak at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that there will be more pandemics in the future during a video shared on the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness Sunday (12-27-20).

Tedros said the world failed “to prepare” for the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the future countries should work to “prevent, detect, and mitigate emergencies of all kinds, whether they be naturally occurring epidemics or deliberate events.” He said investments in public health and “all-of-government, all-of-society, one health approach” could help countries successfully prepare for future pandemics.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that COVID-19 won’t be the world’s last pandemic while speaking in a video statement on the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness on Sunday. Tedros used his message to encourage countries to prepare better by working to “prevent, detect, and mitigate emergencies of all kinds, whether they be naturally occurring epidemics or deliberate events.”

“History tells us this will not be the last pandemic, and epidemics are a fact of life,” he said. He said investments in public health and an

“all-of-government, all-of-society, one health approach” could help countries successfully react to global health crises in the future.

“If we fail to prepare, we are preparing to fail. … Last year, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board published its first report, which concluded, the world remains dangerously unprepared for a global pandemic,” he said in the video.

Nearly 1.8 million people across the world have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began and more than 80 million people have tested positive for the virus. In the United States alone, more than 332,000 people have died from the virus and more than 19 million have tested positive, according to Johns Hopkins. COVID-19 vaccines are currently being given to healthcare workers, and are expected to be given to the general public in 2021

COVID-19 will be ‘with us for the next 10 years’, warns vaccine chief

COVID-19 could still be causing outbreaks in 10 years time, the creator of the world’s first approved vaccine has said.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech, partnered with US drug company Pfizer and took less than a year to get a vaccine approved.

Around 500,000 doses of the vaccine have already been administered in the UK and it looks set to be approved in several other countries within weeks.

Despite the progress, however, Sahin told a press conference on Tuesday that he believes the virus may survive for several years to come.

Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, said people would have to adapt to a “new normal”. (Getty)

Asked when he believed the world might be able to return to normal, Sahin responded: “We need a new definition of ‘normal’.”

“The virus will stay with us for the next 10 years,” he added, “We need to get used to the fact there’ll be more outbreaks.”

Sahin continued that a “new normal” would not mean countries having to go into lockdown and that scenario could be possible “by the end of t“This winter, we will not have an impact on the infection numbers,” he said, “But we must have an impact so that next winter can be the new normal.”

Sahin also urged caution on whether 60-70% of the world’s population being vaccinated would be enough to prevent further outbreaks. “If the virus becomes more efficient…we might need a higher uptake of the vaccine for life to return to normal.”

A nurse prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds. (Getty)

It comes as both BioNTech and Moderna are scrambling to test their Cobid-19 vaccines against the new fast-spreading variant of the virus that is raging in Britain. Sahin said he needs another two weeks to know if his vaccine can stop the mutant variant of the virus. “Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune

response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant,” he continued.

“The vaccine contains more than 1,270 amino acids, and only nine of them are changed (in the mutant virus). That means that 99% of the protein is still the same.”

The mutation known as the B.1.1.7 lineage may be up to 70%

more infectious and more of a concern for children. It has sown chaos in Britain, prompting a wave of travel bans that are disrupting trade with Europe and threatening to further isolate the island country.

But the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on

Saturday that vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus. More than 84,000 deaths involving Covid-19 have now occurred in the UK as of Tuesday, new figures show.


Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech are awaiting FDA approval but the tech billionaire warns that another virus is inevitable. 

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has revealed on his podcast, Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions, his thoughts on the future of global pandemics. Gates outlined his hopes for a post-covid world and what challenges humanity will face. Gates had previously warned about the prospect of a worldwide pandemic and believes that another one is almost inevitable in an increasingly globalised world. 

“We must assume it could be 3 years from now” 

When asked about it, he said: “Hopefully it could be 20 years from now,” before adding, “but we must assume it could be 3 years from now… There is a reasonable probability that the world will face something like this in the next 10 or 15 years,” he added. 

The medical breakthroughs in recent weeks have given hope that an end to the coronavirus pandemic is possible, with a number of pharmaceutical companies having

recorded successful vaccination trials. But according to Gates the elimination of the virus would not lead to a return to pre-covid life. 

He points to the growth of the ‘home office’ as employees and employers have been forced to adapt to social distancing restrictions. Technologies like video conferencing make remote working more viable than ever before and Gates told The New York DealBook conference that working practices have been changed for good. 

“My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away. We will continue to go to the office and we will continue to do business trips, but much less,” he said. Already, Microsoft have announced a permanent change to their working practices that allows employees to work from home for at least half of their working hours. 

Pandemic predictions are nothing new for Gates 

While the 2020 coronavirus outbreak seemed to take world leaders by surprise, Gates has been talking about the threat of a global pandemic for years. In a 2015 TED Talk Gates warned that the US and other countries were not prepared for a pandemic:

“If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” he said. “Not missiles, but microbes.” 

More recently, in 2018 the billionaire philanthropist told an audience at an epidemic discussion hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society that a pandemic could wipe out tens of millions if not combatted effectively. He cited a simulation carried out by the Institute for Disease Modelling that suggested that a modern version of the 1918 flu pandemic would now kill around 30 million people in just six months. 

We wont be so stupid the second time” 

Despite his warning of future pandemics, Gates is optimistic that we will learn some lessons from the mishandling of covid-19 which could help humanity avoid a repeat. 

On his podcast he suggested that the next disease would be less destructive because we “will have practised” our response to it.” 

He added that nations would have had the chance to run “sickness” games, like war games, and almost every country will respond as South Korea or Australia did where testing and quarantining helped considerably.

“Our testing tools will be much better. We won’t be so stupid the second time”

What will 2021 bring? Promising vaccines and ‘the darkest days of our war on COVID-19

A trio of promising coronavirus vaccines promises to plunge a stake through the dark pandemic-riddled heart of 2020.

That’s the good news. Less encouraging is the reality that our national resolve will continue to be tested well into 2021 as a comprehensive inoculation rollout is likely only by summer.

In the meantime, winter is coming.

COVID-19 cases and deaths are skyrocketing nationwide, taxing hospital staff and facilities. More school disruptions seem inevitable, vexing students and frustrating parents. The recession has plunged millions into unemployment, challenging the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to provide relief.

And partisan politics linger, undermining the kind of united front necessary to stem the tide of death and economic disruption.

“The only way to face this is one day at a time,” said Nina Lewellen, 30, of Detroit, whose birthday present last June was five days in intensive care with COVID-19. She is upset many of her Michigan peers continue to take the virus lightly as she continues to deal with repercussions including headaches and hair loss.

Nina Lewellen, 30, center, with her two children, Grace Lewellen, 10, left, and Grady Riney, 4. Lewellen was in the hospital for five days last June with COVID-19, and has been vocal about tell friends and neighbors in Detroit that the virus is not only real, but it is important to stay safe this winter as the case numbers climb.

“The next few months promise to bring the worst of this pandemic to our door, so I can only hope that by sharing my own serious experience maybe I can get even one person to be careful,” said Lewellen. “The vaccines will help. But we’re a long way away.”

Conversations with historians, futurists, doctors and business leaders around the country paint the coming year as both a challenge and opportunity, one that sees us all shouldering continued disruptions to the way we live and work but also, one day next year, newly appreciating the joys of attending a wedding or a throwing a Little League post-game barbecue.

The journey from here to there is a simple one, experts say. The more resolute we are in collectively facing the hardships 2021 brings us, the faster will we reap the freedom-filled rewards promised by the vaccines. And vice versa.

“We are heading into the darkest days of our war on COVID-19,” said Douglas Brinkley, historian at Rice University in Houston whose books have chronicled everything from the space race to World War II.

Our efforts to beat back the COVID-19 siege has revealed both the best and worst of American character.

“On the one hand, this pandemic has shown we have short attention spans, don’t trust science and believe in the survival of the fittest,” Brinkley said. “On the other, you see the tireless compassion of doctors and nurses working overtime to save lives. That deep community spirit is what we need now.”

Or else – that phrase seems to hang off the end of every observation made about 2021. The stakes, officials warn, are that high.

Winter could be worst U.S. health crisis "in history"

Plenty of people are sounding the alarm. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently warned that the next three months will be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,” with upwards of 450,000 deaths possible by February, up from around 280,000 currently.

World Food Program executive director David Beasley said Friday that “2021 is literally going to be catastrophic,” and the various

humanitarian crises could be exacerbated as poorer nations wait longer for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Philanthropist Melinda Gates, who along with her husband Bill has been working for decades to curb infectious diseases, said in a recent interview that vaccine skepticism in the United States threatens not only to undermine a COVID-19 recovery but also extend the “stretch of very dark months ahead of us.”

In Michigan, where increased testing has revealed a 13% jump in positivity rates and rising 7-day death toll figures, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pleaded for a rethinking of travel and holiday plans.

Medical staff members check on a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas. Healthcare leaders are warning that this winter could push hospitals and their staff to the breaking point as virus cases surge nationally.

“People need to brace themselves for the cold reality of what’s in front of us, and not stop any of the preventive measures meant to keep COVID-19 in check,” said Joel Zivot, associate professor of

anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University in Atlanta. He also works at Emory Decatur Hospital’s intensive care unit, where he treats COVID-19 patients. He had the virus last summer.

In a recent article, Zivot posited that basic math – which takes into account an 80% uptake of the vaccine that is 95% effective – could yield between 500,000 and 2 million American deaths in 2021. That calculation, whose wide death margin reflects whether the nation heeds heath community recommendations, excludes both how long it will take to make and distribute doses for all Americans, and how many will say yes.

“The vaccine is not a panacea,” he said. “It’ll take a year or more before some real material changes appear to the way we live. But, as I like to remind people, a year in a long life is a short time. We just have to be patient and think of the collective.”

'This Is Real' campaign seeks to sway skeptics

Health officials say they will continue to use media campaigns to influence often skeptical public opinions about both masks and the vaccine.

Liz Sharlot, director of communications at the Mississippi State Department of Health, said she aims to raise money to create a series of ads and public service announcements featuring testimonials from the first healthcare workers to receive the vaccine. Recent polls show that around 60% of Americans say they will take the vaccine when it becomes available.

“At first, health care workers will get these vaccines, so I want to use them in ads saying, ‘I got it, it had few effects,'” Sharlot says. “If you hear it from people, it means something.”

Joel Zivot, an Emory University professor and ICU doctor, speaks with Hailey Wetta, a critical care physician. Both work with COVID-19 patients at Atlanta's Emory Decatur Hospital.

Last summer, Sharlot helped lead the department’s “It Is Real” campaign, featuring video interviews of COVID-19 survivors.

In Detroit, a $5 million Rona 4 Real campaign is credited with changing the habits of younger Michiganders, who this summer were among those responsible for spreading the virus as they sought to mingle as cases fell. That campaign may get a twist as local leaders grow concerned that the existence of a vaccine may lead to a winter case spike.

“With the vaccine here, there’s that same risk of younger people getting euphoric and reviving bad behavior,” said Gerry Anderson,

executive director of DTE Energy and co-chair of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council, which advised Whitmer on COVID-19 and spearheaded the Rona 4 Real campaign. “But we’ll need discipline to hang in there.

Skepticism about COVID-19 may have contributed to prolonging the nation’s suffering well beyond what the United States had to endure during the last big viral conflagration, the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, said John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.”

While that event killed 675,000 Americans, or 0.5% of the 103 million population, and some 50 million worldwide, it took its biggest toll in only a 15-week period and passed through any given community in six to 10 weeks.

“There’s really no comparison to the last plague, this one is much longer period of stress and we’re not done yet,” Barry said. “We’d all be better off if early on leaders had said what should have been said, ‘This is going to a be long fight and we need to be prepared to fight it for the extended duration.’”

'Naive' to think economic landscape won't be forever altered

Economists looking ahead to 2021 see a mixed bag.

On the one hand, many spy the promise of a surge in discretionary spending as the vaccine gets widely distributed globally, bringing back everything from leisure travel to concerts and other group gatherings. Recently, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projected global gross domestic product would rise next year by 4.2% after falling by the same percentage in 2020.

A Michigan group of business and health leaders spent $5 million on a coronavirus awareness campaigned aimed at younger Michiganders. A cartoon virus figure with dark sunglasses, dubbed "Rona," is seen here, on this digital outdoor ad, being pushed backwards as the words roll out: "Not here Rona." The campaign, leaders say, was successful in making some more aware of the need to social distance and wear masks, actions that have become politicized in Michigan and other states.

However, there will be no simple reset to the fall of 2019 as the virus batters the economy in the first quarter of 2021 – JPMorgan economists have forecast a 1% contraction for the period – and countless industries endure permanent change.

“We won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2021, so in a way we’ve lost two years,” said Andrew Butters, assistant professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington.

In a recent report, Butters and his colleagues at the Kelley School predicted that employment is not likely to hit a pre-shutdown peak until “well into 2022,” and while consumer spending ultimately may recover, it will be aimed at goods and not services as people remain wary of interaction for the foreseeable future.

“After all of these changes we’ve seen in the economy in terms of businesses that have closed and jobs that no longer are viable, it would be naïve to think none of these are going to stick,” he said. “Post-vaccine, there will be winners and losers in the new economy. Some sectors, firms and households will say, ‘The economy’s back.’ And others will say, ‘Not for me.’”

Other lasting changes despite the prevalence of a vaccine are likely to be behavioral, experts say.

These include a growing awareness of contagion and a corresponding aversion to big crowds, which in turn “can, very sadly, dampen the natural curiosity we humans have about one another,” said Maria Bothwell, CEO of Toffler Associates, a future-focused strategic advisory firm founded by “Future Shock” authors Alvin and Adelaide Toffler.

A Thanksgiving holiday traveler is directed as they pass through Los Angeles international Airport. State officials nationally worry such journeys may soon lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, leading some, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, to warn that severe lockdowns could be imminent.

But, Bothwell adds, it would be inaccurate to say that the pandemic has not brought positive changes to American society.

In her plus column: the ability of entrepreneurs to help society create new ways of doing business (the recent sale of messaging site Slack to Salesforce for $27 billion is bet on the permanent shift to remote working); a renewed appreciation for science and data-driven decision making (77% of Americans have at least some trust in scientists, according to a Pew Research Center poll); and a growing spotlight on healthcare inequity (the result of the poor and people of color suffering disproportionately from COVID-19).

“On top of all that, you’ve also got a sense of elation, optimism and freedom that will surge over us as the vaccine helps us beat back the virus,” Bothwell said. “There will be more hugging and laughter. That’s something to look forward to.”

Is 'losing someone' what it takes to listen?

Until then, it’s a matter of staying alive. Detroit resident Lewellen continues to tell anyone who will listen, whether on social media or in socially distanced meet-ups, about how serious this moment of national reckoning is.

“I mean, what will it take for people to listen, losing someone?” she said.

Lewellen, who caught the virus last summer, apparently from her asymptomatic 3-year-old, had a hellish experience at the hospital. Her breathing was so shallow doctors worried they would have to restart

her heart. Once home, she was out of work for two months suffering from brain fog and insomnia.

A waiter wears a mask and face covering at a restaurant with outdoor seating in Pasadena, California. The U.S. services sector, where most Americans work, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as restaurant has been limited in an effort to curve the spread of the virus.

And that paled when compared to her mother’s 10-day stay for COVID-19, which Lewellen says left her with cataracts in her eyes that only recently were removed.

While Lewellen is hopeful the vaccines will bring welcome relief at some point in 2021, for the moment she is girding for a battle to keep those around her safe.

“I’ll just keep doing everything I can to get the word out that people need to be very careful,” Lewellen said. “I know people are really fatigued by the masks and the restrictions, but this is not over.”

Amazon faces lawsuit alleging failure to provide PPE to workers during pandemic

Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse employee, filed a lawsuit against the company
today alleging Amazon failed to provide personal protective equipment to Black and Latinx workers
during the COVID-19 pandemic. The class action suit alleges Amazon failed to properly protect its
warehouse workers and violated elements of New York City’s human rights law, as well as federal
and state laws.

“I was a loyal worker and gave my all to Amazon until I was unceremoniously terminated and
tossed aside like yesterday’s trash because I insisted that Amazon protect its dedicated workers
from COVID-19,” Smalls said in a statement. “I just wanted Amazon to provide basic protective gear
to the workers and sanitize the workplace.” Amazon did not specifically comment on the lawsuit but
said it stands in solidarity with Black employees, customers and its partners.

“Amazon’s mission is to be the earth’s most customer-centric company, and this mission is central
to our work in diversity and inclusion,” Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski told TechCrunch.
“Diverse teams help us think bigger, and differently, about the products and services that we build
for our customers and the day-to-day nature of our workplace – this is reinforced within our 14
Leadership Principles, which remind team members to seek diverse perspectives, learn and be
curious, and constantly earn others’ trust.”

The lawsuit has support from Rev. Jesse Jackson, who said he stands in solidarity with Smalls and
other Amazon warehouse workers. “COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown
communities on so many levels, from warehouses to jailhouses,” Rev. Jackson said in a statement.
“It’s an invisible enemy that is killing our communities. Chris’ case is a classic example of how
corporate greed and insensitivity can literally expose communities to untold and unnecessary risks.”

An eighth Amazon warehouse employee has died from COVID-19

Smalls was fired from Amazon in March after organizing a walkout at one of the company’s
fulfillment centers in Staten Island. As a result, New York’s attorney general is investigating if
Amazon violated federal worker safety laws and New York state’s whistleblower protections laws by
firing Smalls.

Smalls’ termination helped galvanize other warehouse workers who later formed an international
organization to demand change inside Amazon’s warehouses. Organizers pointed to worker
retaliation as one of the driving factors for the formation of Amazon Workers International.

Pandemic makes case for more automation, robotics

AUTOMATION & ROBOTICS: Outbreak poised to prompt changes in the way manufacturers use automation

Waypoint Robotics CEO Jason Walker

Waypoint Robotics CEO Jason Walker said he has spoken with potential partners who make ultraviolet light sources and aerosol disinfectant sprayers about equipping one model of his autonomous, omnidirectional robots with a disinfection source to deep clean factories overnight.   

CEO Jason Walker and part of his team at Waypoint Robotics had just returned from the Modex 2020 show in Atlanta when the governor of his company’s home state imposed a stay-at-home order because of COVID-19.

Walker and his teammates self-quarantined for 10 days after returning from the show. But due to a critical order, the group decided to get back together to work on building robots. They were able to ship a fleet of robots to their customer, a medical device e-commerce site whose clientele is almost exclusively elderly people, to use for picking operations in its distribution center.

“They really need those supplies at home so they can stay safe,” Walker said of his customer’s clientele. “The needs of the people who need those products—that’s what really was driving us to make sure we got that order out.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we patronize restaurants, shop and see our doctors. During the pandemic, robots are spraying disinfectant on city streets, taking the temperature of hospital visitors, warning joggers to social distance from other people and cooking and serving food at restaurants.

The outbreak is poised to prompt changes in the way companies use automation from Waypoint and others—if they haven’t done so already—and is predicted by some to accelerate the rate at which that happens.

For example, Walker said he has spoken with potential partners who make ultraviolet light sources and aerosol disinfectant sprayers about equipping one model of his autonomous, omnidirectional robots with a disinfection source to deep clean offices, stores, factories and other large businesses overnight. The need for such disinfection is prompted by the knowledge that the highly infectious novel coronavirus can be detected on surfaces much longer than many other bugs.

Ready Robotics CEO Ben Gibbs

Ready Robotics CEO Ben Gibbs said increased automation will enable more manufacturing in the U.S.

“That can happen automatically without human intervention every night,” he said. “If you’re talking about disinfecting an entire Home Depot every night, then that’s something I think we can do right now.”

Efficiency vs. resiliency

Even before the novel coronavirus was known to have reached American shores, more than half of executives in a Reshoring Institute survey published last October said they were planning or considering bringing some production back to the United States in the next five years. At the time, their answers were in part due to the unpredictability of tariffs and trade regulations. Disruptions in the supply chain due to COVID-19 only add more impetus.

If a wave of reshoring happens, it will lead to a chain of events that increases the likelihood we’ll see more automation to increase resiliency in the supply chain for U.S. businesses, said Ready Robotics CEO Ben Gibbs. He explained that, during the last few decades, the U.S. supply chain has been maximized for efficiency, with just-in-time delivery, minimal inventory and off-shoring to benefit from low-cost labor.

“We saw the impact of that play out during the pandemic as supply chains were disrupted, making it extremely difficult for consumers and businesses to get the goods they needed.” he said. “A major driver of that disruption comes from outsourcing of supply chains.

“The counterpoint to efficiency is resiliency where we have increased local manufacturing, carry larger inventories and have a more responsive supply chain that can weather these shocks more effectively.”

Osaro’s Bastiane Huang

Osaro’s Bastiane Huang said the pandemic is hastening the arrival of autonomous robots, but that we need to rethink metrics.

More domestic manufacturing will be enabled by increased automation, Gibbs said.

Automation will help with the labor shortage caused by the Baby Boomers retiring and the lack of people who can or want to fill those jobs. It will also mitigate the effects of higher wages in the U.S. compared with China and other low-wage countries, he said.

Bastiane Huang, product manager for the AI-software company Osaro, said she also sees the coronavirus creating urgency for customers to seriously think about automation.

“We can use machine learning to allow robots to recognize a wide variety of items, pick them up and place them,” she said. “That’s why now we can start to provide AI-enabled robotic arms to warehouses.”

With restrictions on air travel, Osaro has started to deploy its systems remotely instead of sending an engineer to set up the robotic cell, start collecting data and train the robot. As a result, the company is tweaking its systems to make them more intuitive in an effort to make the on-boarding process easier.

Independence Day not yet here

Osaro’s new practice of remote deployment reinforces the view that as virus-proof and technologically advanced as automation is, visionaries who foresee a totally automated factory, or even warehouse, will have to wait to see production devoid of humans.

“Based on my conversations with a security robot company and a delivery robot company, it’s still difficult,” Huang said. “Robots can probably handle [only] 80-85 percent of situations.”

It’s possible to view YouTube videos of highly automated warehouses like those of Ocado, a British online supermarket, and Alibaba, the world’s largest “e-tailer.” But humans work at both locations, too.

The virus is forcing robotics companies to up their game in terms of making truly autonomous robots.

“Suddenly, autonomous machines need to be better than just proof of concepts,”

Huang wrote in a March 29 article for The Robot Report. “They can no longer depend on on-site engineering support for edge cases. They must be robust enough to work independently across various real-life situations.”

The industry needs to take on much-needed reforms toward real-world autonomous systems in the following three areas, she told Smart Manufacturing:

  • Rethink metrics and measure the reliability of the system considering uncertainties with robustness metrics. “If a delivery robot can reach a max speed of 4 mph but cannot complete a single delivery without human support, the robot is not creating much value to its users.”
  • Redesign error-handling and communication. “AI companies currently tend to spend much more resources on building autonomous systems and much less time thinking about error-handling and seamless hand-off between machines and humans.”
  • Redefine human-machine interaction. “Should we reconsider human-machine interfaces that go beyond tactile, for example, voice, virtual reality/augmented reality or brain-machine interface?”

Robots will need better vision and navigation technology before they can operate autonomously in unstructured environments, Gibbs said.

Waypoint’s Walker agreed that robots are going to need the help of a person at least in the foreseeable future.

“If one has their sights set on total automation with no humans involved, it’s going to be a very long time before that can really happen,” he said. “And even if we could do it right now, what would be the social consequences of that? We are reeling from the service industry being shut off overnight, and if the manufacturing industry were likewise shut off overnight, what would that look like?”