SARS-CoV-2 Update

It’s time for our next 14-day moving average determinations for SARS-CoV-2 for the United States and my thoughts on vaccines and mutant viruses. We use the WORLDOMETERS aggregators data set to make any projections since it includes data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Military, federal prisons and the Navajo Nation.

In the United States, SARS-CoV-2 deaths have decreased for the eighth time in a 14-day period. There were 137 fewer deaths per day than in the last 14-day period. In the last 14 days, the number of infections has decreased by 12,293 infections per day.  Our infections per day are still high, probably secondary to SARS-CoV-2 mutants, to include the Alpha/B.1.1.7 isolate, the Iota/B.1.526 isolate, the Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 isolate, the Beta/B.1.351 isolate, the Gamma/P.1 and Zeta/P.2 isolates, and the new isolate, Deta/B.1.617+. I would predict that the opening of schools, places of worship, bars, restaurants, indoor dining and travel all will contribute to further spread of multiple SARS-CoV-2 mutants and rising numbers  in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the coming months. Increased traveling as well as summer vacations, and the July 4 holiday will all cause further increases. Vaccinations, increased mask usage and social distancing, which are a part of the Biden SARS-CoV-2 plan (day 136 of plan) will be necessary to stop spread of mutants and cause  further reductions in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the future. On 6/04/21, 16,925 new infections occurred in the United States. There were also 520 deaths. The number of hospitalized patients is decreasing, but 5,631 patients are still seriously or critically ill. The number of critically ill patients has decreased by 1,761 in the last 14 days, while 6,577 new deaths occurred. The number of critically ill patients is decreasing for the fourth 14-day period, but a large number of patients are still dying each day. 

As of 6/04/21, we have had 612,249 deaths and 34,192,023 SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States. We have had 271,267 new infections in the last 14 days. We are adding an average of 135,633 infections every 7 days. Each million infections usually results in 10,000 to 20,000 deaths. On 6/04/21, twenty-two states have had greater than 500,000 total infections, and 33 states have had greater than 5,000 total deaths. Nine states (Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, New York and California) have had greater than 20,000 deaths. Four states (Florida, Texas, New York and California) have had greater than 35,000 deaths.

For comparison, on 11/20/20 in the United States, 3.70% of the population had a documented SARS-CoV-2 infection. California was ranked 41st in infection percentage at 2.77%. In North Dakota 9.18% of the population was infected (ranked #1), and in South Dakota 8.03% of the population was infected (ranked #2).

As of 6/04/21, in the United States, 10.32% of the population has had a documented SARS-CoV-2 infection. In the last 6 months, over 6% of our country became infected with SARS-CoV-2. 

As of 6/04/21, California was still ranked 36th in infection percentage at 9.60%. In North Dakota 14.45% of the population was infected (ranked #1), while Rhode Island was at 14.34% (ranked #2) and South Dakota was at 14.04% of the population infected (ranked #3). Thirty-one states have greater than 10% of their population infected and 42 states have greater than 9% of their population infected. Only one state has less than 3% of their population infected: Hawaii (2.52%).

New Mutants

In a response for the need for “easy-to-pronounce and non-stigmatising labels,” at the end of May, the World Health Organization assigned a letter from the Greek alphabet to each SARS-CoV-2 variant. GISAID, Nextstrain, and Pango will continue to use the previously established nomenclature. For our purposes, we’ll be referring to each variant by both its Greek alphabet letter and the Pango nomenclature. 

The WHO has sorted variants into two categories: Variants of Concern (VOC) and Variants of Interest (VOI). The criteria for Variants of Concern are as follows:

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; or 
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; or 
  • Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.  

The WHO categorizes the following four variants as Variants of Concern (VOC):

The criteria for Variants of Interest (VOI) are as follows:

  • has been identified to cause community transmission/multiple COVID-19 cases/clusters, or has been detected in multiple countries; OR  
  • is otherwise assessed to be a VOI by WHO in consultation with the WHO SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution Working Group. 

The WHO categorizes the following six variants as Variants of Interest (VOI):

A new mutant SARS-CoV-2 virus (lineage B.1.1.7, now referred to by WHO as Alpha), first seen in the UK in September 2020, has now been found in multiple other countries. This isolate has now been found in 50 states and the District of Columbia. This isolate is more infectious than other previously circulating B2 lineage isolates. There are two deletions and six other mutations in its spike protein. One mutation involves a change of one amino acid, an asparagine at position 501 in the receptor binding motif with a tyrosine. This enhances binding (affinity) to the ACE-2 receptor and may alone be responsible for the increased infectivity of this isolate. A study published March 10 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that the risk of death increased by 64% in patients infected with the B.1.1.7 variant compared to all other isolates. Due to air and other travel, this isolate will become the dominant isolate worldwide. 

On 4/10/21, the CDC stopped providing data to the public on the number of reported cases of all variants of SARS-CoV-2, both nationally and by state. This data used to be available at The CDC claims that the data is available in its COVID-19 Data Tracker, but only percentages, not actual case numbers, are available, and the data ends on May 8, 2021.   

Luckily, GISAID is still reporting variant data. The United States has had more isolations of the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7) in the last four weeks (9,795) than any other country in the world, to include the United Kingdom. There have been a total of 160,842 cases of Alpha/B.1.1.7 identified in the US to date. (See chart below.)

At 1,842 cases, the United States has the fourth highest number of isolations of the Beta variant (B.1.351, first identified in South Africa), and 76 of these were in the last four weeks. 

And the United States has now surpassed Brazil for the most isolations of the Gamma variant (P.1) in the world, with 12,887 overall and 1,527 in the past four weeks. 

As for the Delta Variant (B.1.617+), the variant recently identified in India, only India and the United Kingdom have more isolated cases than in the United States, which has 1,888 total cases, 546 of which were identified in the last four weeks. 

The United States has also surpassed both the UK and Nigeria for the most isolations of the Eta varian (B.1.525) in the world, with 1,064 overall and 32 in the past four weeks. 

A disturbing report out of the UK has found a second mutation in Alpha/B.1.1.7. This mutation, which occurs in the loop sequence, has also been found in the Beta/B.1.351 and Gamma/P.1 variants. (The loop sequence is in the receptor binding motif in the receptor binding domain of the S1 sequence of the spike protein.) This mutation involves a change of one amino acid of the spike protein, number 484, from glutamic acid to lysine. This point mutation allows the virus to bind better to the ACE2 receptor, which increases infectivity. People who are exposed to one of these variants (versus the old B2 isolate) are more likely to be infected and are more likely to transmit the virus to others. 

In our last three updates we summarized a research letter published in Clinical Infectious Diseases about a patient in the UK who was first infected in April with a B2 isolate and experienced only mild symptoms but was infected with the new Alpha/B.1.1.7 variant in December and became critically ill. The patient described in this research letter was not protected by a natural infection with a B2 lineage SARS-CoV-2 isolate in April 2020 from having a potentially lethal second infection with a B.1.1.7 lineage variant in December 2020, suggesting that folks who have had a past SARS-CoV-2 infection should not expect to have any immunity to new variants such as Alpha/B.1.1.7. All of the currently available vaccines were developed with spike protein from B2 lineages. Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca/Oxford are currently remaking their spike protein vaccines to address the mutations in the South African variant of SARS-CoV-2 because the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine did not work in a small trial in South Africa, where most of the patients had the Beta/B.1.351 mutant. 

New Mutant Delta/B.1.617+ Arrives in California

Stanford University announced five weeks ago that they have identified five infections with the Delta/B.1.617+ variant in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are actually three different B.1.617 variants: B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3. The most common variant appears to be B.1.617.2. This isolate is a double-mutant responsible for greater than 50% of the infections in India. The data from India the last 14 days ending on 6/04/21 is still disturbing. India has had 2,541,685 infections in the last 14 days or an average of 181,549 infections per day. During this 14-day period India reported 59,354 deaths or 4,240 deaths per day. On May 21, 2021, India reported 121,476 new infections and 3,382 new deaths. On 6/04/21 the total deaths due to SARS-CoV-2 infections in India stood at 344,101. India, with a population of 1,390,456,911, has had only 2.06% of the country infected. Their hospitals are still running out of vaccines, oxygen, medications, beds and ventilators. Sadly a health disaster continues in the world’s most populous country. I would predict that prior SARS-CoV-2 infection in India or first generation SARS-CoV-2 vaccines will have a decreased effect on this mutant discussed in the next paragraph. 

Many of you may now be familiar with the E484K mutation present in the Beta/B.1.351 isolate, the Gamma/P.1 isolate, the Iota/B.1.526 isolate, and the double mutant Eta/B.1.525. When vaccine manufacturers make booster vaccines to address these variants, they will only account for the E484K mutation. What sets this Delta/B.1.617+ variant apart from the other variants is that it has a different point mutation at amino acid 484 that involves a change of one amino acid of the spike protein, number 484, from glutamic acid to glutamine (E484Q). This point mutation, like E484K, probably allows the virus to bind to the ACE2 receptor and evade neutralizing antibodies directed against the original Wuhan sequence. A vaccine created to address E484K would not address this isolate. 

The second mutation in Delta/B.1.617+ is L452R, which is one of the same mutations seen in Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429. This mutation is also not being covered by any vaccine currently being made as a booster. It’s possible that people in California who were infected by the Epsilon mutant in the last six months might have some additional cross protective antibodies to Delta/B.1.617+.

Watching the Data

Over the next few months, we’ll be paying close attention to correlations between the SARS-CoV-2 data, the number of isolates identified in various countries and states, and the non-pharmaceutical interventions (like mask mandates and lockdowns) put in place by state and national governments. Data on infections, deaths, and percent of population infected was compiled from Worldometers. Data for this table for SARS-CoV-2 Isolates Currently Known in Location was compiled from GISAID and the CDC. It’s worth noting that GISAID provided more data than the CDC, whose most recent data on variants is from May 8. 

LocationTotal Infections as of 6/04/21New Infections on 6/04/21Total DeathsNew Deaths on 5/21/21% of Pop.InfectedSARS-CoV-2 Isolates Currently Known in LocationNational/ State Mask Mandate?Currently in Lockdown?
World173,713,909400,0753,736,0999,2832.22%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Iota/B.1.526 (USA-NYC)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)Zeta/P.2 (Brazil)A lineage isolateV01.V2 (Tanzania)APTK India VOC 32421Delta/B.1.617+ (India)BV-1 (Texas, USA)NoNo
(ranked #1)
(ranked #1)
52010.32%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Iota/B.1.526 (USA-NYC)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)Zeta/P.2 (Brazil)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)BV-1 (Texas, USA)NoNo
Brazil16,841,954(ranked #3)   38,482(ranked #2) 470,968(ranked #2)1,1847.87%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)Zeta/P.2 (Brazil)NoNo
India28,693,835(ranked #2)121,476(ranked #1)344,101(ranked #3)3,3822.06%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)APTK India VOC 32421Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
United Kingdom4,506,016(ranked #7)6,238127,823116.60%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
California, USA3,794,271(ranked #10 in world)1,12963,395529..60%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Zeta/P.2 (Brazil)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
Mexico2,426,822(ranked #15)2,894228,362(ranked #4)2161.86%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
South Africa1,686,041(ranked #19)5,66856,832672.81%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
Canada1,389,508(ranked #23)2,06325,679353.65%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)Yes, except Alberta ProvinceNo
Poland2,874,409(ranked #14)31774,101267.60%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
Turkey5,276,,468(ranked #5)6,16947,976946.19%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gamma/P.1 (Brazil)NoNo
Russia5,108,129(ranked #6)8,947                                                   123,0373773.49%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo
Argentina3,915,397(ranked #9)30,95080,4115388.59%B2 lineageAlpha/B.1.1.7 (UK)Eta/B.1.525 (Nigeria/UK)Beta/B.1.351 (SA)Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 (USA)*Gama/P.1 (Brazil)Delta/B.1.617+ (India)NoNo

*Also referred to as CAL.20C

SARS-CoV-2, Children, and MIS-C/PIMS

I’m pleased to see that COVID-19 cases and MIS-C (PIMS) cases in children in the US are finally getting national attention. The CDC now tracks total MIS-C cases and deaths in children and young adults up to 20 years old in the United States. As of June 2, CDC reported 4,018 cases of MIS-C that meet the case definition and 36 deaths—that’s 276 new cases and one new death since the May 3 report. The CDC notes, “As of October 1, the number of cases meeting the case definition for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) in the United States surpassed 1,000. As of February 1, this number surpassed 2,000, and exceeded 3,000 as of April 1.” This means it took seven months to reach 1,000 MIS-C cases, only four months to reach an additional 1,000 cases, and only two months to add an additional 1,185 cases. This suggests to us that Alpha/B.1.1.7 is causing more MIS-C. 

Date of ReportingTotal MIS-C PatientsChange Since Last ReportTotal MIS-C DeathsChange Since Last Report

Schools in the United States have been open throughout the pandemic, with teachers and education support professionals demonstrating their extraordinary ability to adapt in adverse circumstances. Teachers all over the country reinvented their teaching, taking their classrooms online in order to provide safe and remote learning experiences for students. The so-called “reopening” of schools, which more accurately refers to the opening of school buildings, as schools never closed, has been highly politicized, with many governors issuing mandates for in-person instruction, even as case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths in their states rose exponentially. The CDC has maintained that transmission risk in schools is minimal, provided that adequate safety measures are taken; however, we know that many states have not properly enforced universal masking (and some are repealing mask mandates this week), and we know that many school facilities are not equipped with the proper air handling systems. With more school buildings opening, there is a growing body of research that suggests that COVID-19 transmission can and does happen in schools. 

After recommending for months that school buildings be open, in mid-February (a year into the pandemic), The American Academy of Pediatrics, in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital Association, finally began tracking data on COVID-19 in children at the state and national level. Data reporting by states is still voluntary, and every state is different in its willingness to collect and disclose data on infections, hospitalizations, deaths, and testing rates in children. 

As of the APA’s May 27 report, only 11 states provide age distribution for testing. This makes it difficult to hold states accountable for testing each age group in proportion to its population. We’ve seen a trend in states where testing data with age distribution is available that children are tested at lower rates than adults. Hospitalization data by age group is only available in 24 states and New York City, so we only understand the severity of COVID-19 infections in children for about half the country. Age distribution for cases is provided by 49 states, New York City, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Age distribution for deaths is provided in 43 states, New York City, Puerto Rico, and Guam. It’s worth noting that New York State does not provide age data for cases, testing, hospitalizations, and deaths. Two states, Florida and Utah, only report cases in children aged 0-14, so the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in children ages 15-17 is unknown in these states. 

As of May 27, A total of 322 child deaths due to COVID-19 were reported in 43 states (an increase of 6 child deaths in one week). In the United States, The following states do not report child mortality due to COVID-19: Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Texas only reports age data for 3% of confirmed COVID-19 cases, so state-level data from Texas is extremely limited for assessing the incidence of COVID-19 in children. Even considering this, Texas reported 52 child deaths. Arizona reported 33, California 23, Colorado 15 (+2), Florida 7, Georgia 10, Illinois 18, Maryland 10, Tennessee 10, Massachusetts 8 (+1), Pennsylvania 11, and New York City 24. 

If we truly want to keep children safe, especially as many school buildings open for in-person instruction, we need to collect more complete data in every state on child testing rates, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

The New York Times reports that nationally, children 12 and up have higher vaccination rates than the general population, with 50% of children 12 and up vaccinated, and 53% of children 18 and up fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

However, some states are falling far behind when it comes to getting children—and the general population—fully vaccinated. Idaho, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have given at least one shot to less than 10% of children 12-17 years old. Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Vermont are the only three states that have given at least one shot to at least 50% of children 12-15. California has given at least one shot to 36% of children 12-17 years old. 

The Road Ahead

We are on Day 122 of the Biden-Harris administration.The President has made the pandemic a first priority and has now ordered enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone who wants a vaccination by July 2021. As of 6/5/21, 170.8 million people (approximately 51.5% of the population) have had one dose of any vaccine. 138.9 million people (41.9% of the population) are fully vaccinated. 

As of May 10, all people in the U.S. over the age of 12 are eligible to receive a vaccine. The Biden administration has already exceeded its goal of administering 200 million doses of vaccine in the first 100 days of the administration. The Pfizer-BioNtech is already approved for ages 12-15 and the Moderna vaccine should be approved in June 2021. Moderna has applied for emergency use authorization to administer their mRNA vaccines to children aged 12-15. Testing is ongoing for children in younger age groups and may be approved for ages 2-11 by the end of September 2021. 

Testing, wearing masks, social distancing and washing our hands frequently should no longer be political issues. These are non-pharmaceutical interventions used by most successful countries and some states to protect their citizens and their economies. New Zealand, Taiwan, and Australia are three countries that have done this successfully. In the United States, Hawaii is doing a better job handling the pandemic than many of our states. These interventions and vaccination should keep the pandemic from overwhelming our health care delivery systems world-wide. New mutations like Epsilon/B.1.427 + B.1.429 and the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants will probably spread rapidly throughout the United States over the next 90 days as many states (ex. Texas, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Wyoming and South Carolina) open up everything and do away with masking and social distancing. We will probably see increased new infections per day in the United States. In the UK, Alpha/B.1.1.7, has increased the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. This and other mutants may do the same thing in the USA.

The Pfizer and Moderna RNA vaccines and the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccination adenovirus vaccine are all being used to immunize people in the USA. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the Novavax vaccine may be available in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

The bad news is that all currently available vaccines are based on the spike protein sequence identified in China in December 2019. Mutated isolates, as discussed above, may overtake our ability to produce new vaccines and vaccinate the populace. Like Influenza vaccines, we may have to reformulate vaccines based on active, worldwide surveillance at least every 4 to 6 months. The FDA is currently putting together a guidance document for how to develop booster vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 mutations. A surrogate marker of protection like antibody to the mutated Receptor Binding Domains of SARS-CoV-2 should be considered for vaccine approval. 

The ideal approach to addressing the major mutations on at least five continents would be to make vaccines against each of the mutations. I’d get all of the vaccine companies and contract production companies on a call and “suggest” that two companies at least make and mass produce one of the four mutations. The government would pay the cost and buy at least 200 million doses in advance for each variant at say $40 a dose. The total cost to purchase the vaccine (800 million doses) would only be 32 billion dollars. Give each company a billion dollars each for development costs (another 8 billion dollars). Spend another two billion dollars for syringes and you’ve got enough booster doses to vaccinate 200 million people for all 4 variants. 42 billion dollars would be a small price to pay to catch up with the current mutations. Even if you had to do this every two years, it would be well worth the dollars spent. 

We are not doing adequate numbers of PCR or antigen detection assays in the United States. According to JHU, in January of 2021, we were doing up to 2,307,949 tests per day. In March 2021, the highest number of tests per day was 1,709,210, and in April, the highest number of tests per day was 2,008,319. Currently, we’re doing 710,675 tests per day (7-day moving average); that’s 1,297,644 fewer tests per day than the April high. 

We still need to perform more virus isolations and perform more DNA sequencing of viruses in each country, state, populous city, and county if we are to rapidly identify new mutations. I’m more hopeful that we will have the facilities, the equipment, and the trained staff needed to perform this work. As a nation we still need to make and distribute more vaccines to other countries, new vaccines directed against mutants, and the necessary rapid tests and protective equipment needed by medical staff, first responders, essential workers and especially teachers and students. I’m still hopeful we can work together on our and the world’s infectious disease problems. 

What Our Team Is Reading This Week