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Makeover virus threatens blockade, cycle of illness

The biggest shock to the world economy in the first century is literally change.

More toxic and potentially deadly variants of Covid-19, first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, are widespread, as vaccine deployments have raised expectations for widespread economic recovery. I will.

There are two threats to the new variant. First, to combat the high risk of infection, restrictions on activity may be tightened and some economies may return to recession. The UK, where one of the rapidly expanding variants is now widespread, returned to a complete blockade on January 5. The UK economy, which shrank 10% last year, may now be shrinking. The International Monetary Fund announced on Tuesday that it will grow 4.5% from its October forecast of 5.9%. Tobias Adrian, director of the IMF’s financial and capital markets division, said a widespread, more contagious virus could be a “true headwind” for economic recovery.

Push and pull the pandemic

In order for the pandemic to end, each infected person must be infected with less than one other person. That is, the number of reproductions must be less than one.

Factors driving effective reproduction numbers in the UK

Basic reproduction number

Of the original strain

With wearing a mask

Improved hygiene

Below 1, the epidemic disappears. Spread on it.

Currently valid

Reproduction number

The second threat is a new variant that may be resistant to the immunity given by existing vaccines and past infections, which causes a new cycle of restriction and requires a new round of vaccination. There is a possibility.

Manufacturers believe that vaccines can be renewed relatively quickly when such variants emerge. Nonetheless, James Stock, an economist at Harvard University who studied viruses and the economy, warned that “the scenario for this remains a much longer time frame.”

“All economic adaptations have been considered temporary, such as restaurants with 25% capacity,” he said. “If this becomes chronic, a really major restructuring of the US economy will be needed.”

Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Minister of Education, co-chaired the task force of his government’s Covid Vassal, “4 to 5 years before finally seeing the end of the pandemic and the beginning of normality after the covid. It may take years. “

Mutations are virus-specific and, for that matter, economic-specific. The financial crisis will recur, as financial innovation will eventually circumvent the regulations that came into force after the last crisis. Similarly, viruses are constantly mutated, and natural selection ultimately predominates in the most reproductive mutants.

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However, the virus mutates much faster than finance. Approximately 300,000 Covid-19 variants have been detected in the past year, according to a treatise by Eduardo Costas, a professor of genetics at the Complutense University of Madrid, and two colleagues.

To get a foothold, mutants like the UK have to acquire very favorable mutations-relatively rare in combination. But as more people become infected around the world, new, highly infectious mutants are more likely to emerge, Costas said in an email.

“It’s like playing the lottery with more numbers,” he added.

As new coronavirus variants dominate the world, scientists are competing to understand how dangerous they are. The WSJ explains. Illustration: Alex Kuzoian / WSJ

According to scientists, a British variant called B.1.1.7 spreads 30% to 70% faster than its predecessor and can be 30% to 40% deadly. This means that non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masks and social distance need to be significantly dialed up to keep mortality unchanged. It also means that more people must be infected or vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” when the epidemic disappears.

In the UK, JP Morgan’s David Mackie estimated that the new variant increased the number of virus reproductions (the number of people who continue to be infected in the absence of immunity or intervention) from 3.3 to 4.9. Due to masks, hygiene and social distance, the number of reproductions is below 1 and is the threshold for reducing cases. This comes at a great cost. The UK economy is almost certainly shrinking.

A contact tracing phone app that was active in Singapore last week.


Photo:

Lauryn Ishak / Bloomberg News

Indeed, the increasing importance of restrictions on life-saving activities has reduced public tolerance to them, as evidenced by the recent curfew riots in the Netherlands. In the United States, some states have refused to set restrictions, and most other states only target high-risk activities such as eating indoors.

Nevertheless, if the number of cases surges again, the restrictions may be tightened. Even if this is not the case, more people will voluntarily distance themselves from society. Both will undermine recovery. Goldman Sachs predicts that a delay in achieving herd immunity will delay the recovery of the United States by two months and reduce growth by 2 percentage points this year.

Widespread administration of existing vaccines should eliminate epidemics associated with current variants. However, the likelihood of vaccine resistance mutations increases over time and worldwide cases.

“This is one of the reasons why it’s important to think globally as well as locally,” said Alessandro Vespignani, a scientist at Northeastern University who models the pandemic. “We were able to carry out a fully deployed vaccine campaign in the United States and Europe. However, if the virus is wild and many cases occur elsewhere, it can become a boomerang. Immunity There may be variants that can escape the protection of the system. “

This is putting pressure on the Biden administration and the governments of other wealthy countries to speed up immunization and minimize the number of variants, not only domestically but also in poor countries. The IMF expects the vaccine to be widely available in most developed and some developing countries by this summer, but will not be available in other regions until the second half of 2022.

“If something goes wrong, we need to put our infrastructure in place so that it’s much more prepared in March, April, and even now,” added Vespignani. This means broader genome surveillance for dangerous mutants. Ability to rapidly update vaccines and administer to the entire population. A cheap and fast inspection that is widely available to contain outbreaks.

Write to Greg Ip at greg.ip@wsj.com

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Makeover virus threatens blockade, cycle of illness

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