Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

What the near future may hold

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

We begin this week peering into a crystal ball. Two New York Times science reporters, Carl Zimmer and Donald G. McNeil Jr., looked ahead to the next year of the pandemic and wrote about how the next few months may unspool — both for better and for worse.

Our colleague Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote that since January, when he began covering the coronavirus, he has been a “consistently gloomy Cassandra” — reporting on the catastrophic fallout of the pandemic that many experts saw coming.

And yet, he said, he has recently become cautiously optimistic.

The worst-case scenario — in which some 2.2 million Americans die from the virus — has not come to pass. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have made huge sacrifices in shutting down parts of the economy, maintaining social distance and wearing masks.

Those sacrifices have made the possibility of a “twindemic” of coronavirus and influenza infections seem far less likely now, too. The flu season is typically seeded each year in the Northern Hemisphere by travelers from the Southern Hemisphere. But this year the flu season there was almost nonexistent because of anti-coronavirus measures.

Donald also noted that the percentage of infected people who are dying from the virus has been falling because of all of the lessons we’ve learned during the last few months. Nursing homes have gotten better at protecting their residents, steroids like dexamethasone have lowered the number of deaths, and tactics like rolling patients onto their stomachs and delaying ventilator use have also been shown to help. Pharmaceutical interventions like monoclonal antibodies, still in the early stages of availability, are likely to become even more effective.

Vaccine development has been moving much faster than anticipated in part because the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed appears to be working. It has put more than $11 billion into seven vaccine candidates, and Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser on the program, said he expected two to be approved by January, with an efficacy of 75 to 90 percent. Mr. Slaoui also said that factories would produce enough doses for all 330 million Americans to be vaccinated by next June. That all suggests the pandemic in the United States may be over far sooner than expected, possibly by the middle of next year.

Still, we’re not there yet — and the pandemic has repeatedly taken a turn for the worse just when things were looking better. Cases are still on the rise in most of the United States and across the world, and experts warn that autumn and winter may be grim as indoor dining, in-school instruction, jet travel and family holidays end up increasing infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

“Pandemics don’t end abruptly; they decelerate gradually, like supertankers,” Donald wrote. “Even by spring, we will not be entirely safe, but we probably will be safer.”

Many leaders — most notably President Trump — have described the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine as an off switch that will instantly normalize our lives. But experts are warning of a perplexing and frustrating period that could follow.

Our colleague Carl Zimmer wrote that when the first vaccine arrives, it may not be the most effective vaccine, offering only moderate protection that will make it prudent to keep wearing a mask.

And the first vaccine to reach the finish line may end up hampering the trials of its competitors.

Volunteers in experimental trials may drop out, slowing down research and regulatory approval. And vaccines that are not as far along might have to prove that they are better than the first shot, resulting in trials that are bigger and take more time. That could lead to steep costs that may halt development.

One possibility: By next spring or summer, there could be a number of vaccines on the market without a clear sense of how to choose among them.

Some of this confusion is inevitable, but it’s also a result of how the process was designed. Rather than testing a number of vaccines against each other, as the World Health Organization is doing, the United States took a “harmonized approach” that allowed vaccine companies to run their own trials as long as they followed certain guidelines.

Finally, drug companies and regulators will have to monitor patients, even after clinical trials are over, to look for rare but dangerous side effects. Random events — like a group of older people all having strokes shortly after being vaccinated — could raise the possibility that the vaccine was the culprit. The uncertainty may lead some people to avoid vaccines entirely, which would weaken our collective ability to fight Covid-19.

  • New York City cracked down on some coronavirus hot spots, issuing more than 60 summonses and tens of thousands of dollars in fines to people, businesses and houses of worship that did not follow newly imposed restrictions.

  • The prime minister of France warned that local lockdowns might be imposed as the country battles a second wave of the virus.

  • Iran announced its highest single-day death toll from the virus for the second day in a row, with 272 new victims.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

One hilarious adaptation we have had to make in our household is cutting each other’s hair. Our household members are not competently trained hair stylists. My husband is an astrophysicist, my nonagenarian mother spends her days reading voraciously, and I am a retired schoolteacher. Now, every month or so we set up our shop on the patio and clip away, styling one another’s hair. Admittedly, we look a bit disheveled, but Zoom only sees a small fraction of our bloops and we are getting a kick out of ourselves! We proudly think we look pretty darn cute!

— Charlene Reichert, Santa Barbara, Calif.

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Jonathan Wolfe