The COVID Column: Updates From Previous Columns

Updated: May 2

by Finley Keene


Waiting to get COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Photo by Savannah Torres.

I’ve decided to take a pause on all the different angles of this pandemic to analyze and update you on all the topics I’ve written about. By now, I have written four different articles about various topics concerning the COVID pandemic. The science of these subjects continues to evolve and change. For example, if you remember in March 2020, we were all advised by scientists that masks should not be used by the general public. The argument was that we were supposed to conserve them for the healthcare workers, and there was no data of their effectiveness of preventing COVID-19. Thirteen months into the pandemic, the guidelines have completely changed based on existing data. For this reason, I’ve decided to go back to the past COVID columns and provide updates for my readers.



My first column explored whether children would need to get the vaccine if and when they were available. At the time of publication none of the vaccines had been approved, even for adults, and now people 16 and older are eligible for them in New York City as of April 5th! According to The New York Times, tests show that children ages 12 to 15 can take the Pfizer vaccine, which has a high efficacy, which is very good news. In fact, on April 9th, Pfizer requested FDA approval for kids in that age group.


Unfortunately, according to Scientific American, the youngest group of people (under 12), who consist of a quarter of the world, won’t be vaccinated until early 2022. The clinical trials have just begun for people of this age group.


The question I answered in my first column was, “Will kids have to get the COVID vaccine?” The updated answer is this: most likely. We may already have many East Side students vaccinated and middle schoolers should be eligible soon. The youngest here will probably get it early next year, so we won’t reach herd immunity until then.



My second column was about how the various vaccines work. I think this is very important to understand because by now, more than 84 million people have been fully vaccinated in the United States.


There are three different types of vaccines. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, one uses mRNA (messenger Ribonucleic acid). This type tells your cells to make proteins found on the surface of the virus, so white blood cells will know to kill it off. This is used by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.


Another type is the protein subunit vaccine, which is used by the Novavax vaccine. It is like mRNA, except it is designed to have less backlash, meaning less sickness or fever after injection, which is common for most vaccines, even non-COVID ones. This vaccine is new and so I didn’t know about it by the writing of my second article in February. Currently, this vaccine is going through production, but might be hampered due to some supply shortages.


The third type of vaccine, the vector vaccine, is used by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. It uses a version of the virus so weak that it has been made safe to inject into humans. The body will beat the virus, then memorize and kill off the real virus if the person is infected. On April 13th, the FDA paused the distribution of the J&J vaccine, due to some potential side effects, namely rare blood clots in women between the ages of 18 and 48. On Friday, April 23rd, the FDA unpaused this distribution after a week long study.


There is another vaccine from China that also uses mRNA technology, but has low overall protein levels. Consequently, its efficacy is very low and therefore can’t prevent COVID well, according to Chinese scientists, says the Huffington Post. One of those officials was the director of the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To overcome the low efficacy, they are looking into combining the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.



My third column was about the variants of the original COVID-19 virus circulating the world. At the time I wrote, it looked like the U.K variant (B.1.1.7) was gaining ground in terms of being more infectious and possibly more deadly. Two months later, it looks like NYC has its own variant, B.1.526 which is causing infection rates to stay high in the city.


Though the U.K. variant is still dominating in the U.S, this New York variant is now far outpacing other variants in terms of spread throughout our city according to The New York Times (see this article). The graphics included in this article detail the various variants by zip code in NYC and you can visually see the increase in the last two months.


That being said, B.1.526, although pervasive in our city, is still not classified as a variant of concern by the CDC. This means limited resources are being used to track and study it on a federal level. According to this CDC article, a variant of concern is defined as one that is widespread, that is hidden in most tests, and is resistant to various treatment methods.


Because it’s not a variant of interest, the government doesn’t pay it a lot of attention and they don’t allocate many resources to tracking it. Tracking variants is very hard because you first have to obtain permission to use test samples. Next, you have to sequence its genomes, which are letters that represent the genetic material in a cell. Humans have roughly 3 billion in theirs, and though viral genomes are much shorter, they are still hard to find.


The Pandemic Response Lab, which is a part-government-part-private lab based in Brooklyn is NYC’s central variant track lab. They have set a goal to sequence 2000 cases a week. Unfortunately, they have fallen drastically short of their goal, averaging at about 900 sequenced per week.


The bottom line is, apart from it being pervasive in the city, we don’t know much else about this variant, and we don't know how bad this variant really is. This is the irony: this variant has to be more dangerous for us to put in the resources to track it.


Now, according to the show All Things Considered on NPR, India is being brought to its very knees by a new, scary, double mutant variant. The variants E484Q and L452R seem to have combined somehow, or have mutated again, as there has been a rise in cases of those variants. But there is some good news on the horizon: in late February, President Joe Biden approved $200 million in federal funds to track COVID variants. This will effectively triple the federal capacity to sequence genomes.


Update: right before this article went to press, the New York Times published an article about how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are in fact effective against the New York variant. They also talked about how the vaccine makes you more protected against the variants than if you already had COVID.



My fourth article was about why COVID got out of control in the U.S. To refresh, I had three categories: bad leadership, bad virus, and overall bad luck. Since that writing, Dr. Debra Birx, the former coronavirus response coordinator for the Trump Administration, said that the first 100,000 deaths were unavoidable, yet the next waves of COVID could have been avoided.


Dr. Birx made these remarks in an interview for a CNN documentary, “COVID WAR: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out.” She said that the leadership at the time, Donald Trump, had made the wrong decisions for how to handle COVID. For example, a good decision would have been to put in place a federal mask mandate.


But to end the day with some good news: President Joe Biden approved a 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus bill, including $10 billion to schools for COVID testing. This is one part that is essential to COVID relief. In addition, it includes $20 billion to help with the vaccine rollout. Testing and achieving herd immunity will get us out of this mess. To add on, there is a 51 percent decline in COVID hospitalizations in New York, because of vaccine rollout.


All of these issues continue to evolve, so it is important to keep our knowledge and awareness up-to-date. Science matters to our very existence.



If you have any questions regarding COVID-19 you want me to research and answer, please email me at finleyk@eschs.org.



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