US COVID-19 testing rates have plummeted

Here’s everything you need to know for this week.

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Vaccine numbers continue to go up, and case numbers continue to go down, which has made for a rare few weeks of happy news. Here’s all the latest coronavirus news.

COVAX finally takes flight

Months after vaccinations kicked off in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, other countries—particularly in the developing world—are still waiting for supplies. A damning consequence of vaccine nationalism (where governments secure shots for their citizens first at the cost of the international community) and an open vaccine market is that richer countries can snap up enough shots to cover their entire populations several times over, while many less developed (and often more vulnerable) countries are left to rely on donations or sharing schemes.

One such scheme is COVAX, which pools donated vaccines and then redistributes them to low- or middle-income countries. COVAX finally began sending out batches latest week. Ghana became its first beneficiary, followed by neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. COVAX aims to deliver more than two billion doses by the end of 2021, but even that won’t be enough to cover 100% of many countries’ people.

Vaccines do, indeed, stop the spread

Though public health experts suspected that the COVID-19 vaccines would decrease transmission (virtually every other vaccine does), it wasn’t clear to what extent the new shots would be effective, especially with how many cases are asymptomatic.

Fortunately, the evidence is hopeful. Research from Israel, where a significant portion of the population has already been swiftly vaccinated, has linked the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with a drastic drop in viral load—a drop that’s linked to lower transmission rates, as it’s harder to pass COVID-19 with less virus in your system. That same vaccine also seems to cause a dramatic decrease in asymptomatic cases, suggesting that it cuts off that avenue of transmission as well.

Approval in hand, Johnson & Johnson looks to more trials

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson passed approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the weekend. The vaccine is the third to be approved in the US (following the Moderna and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines), a remarkable feat for such a short period of time. Biden administration officials, however, have taken a far more cautious tone, warning that supplies of the vaccine could be slow and uneven at first.

The European Union is expected to also approve the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in early March, and South Africa (where a fast-spreading variant has dominated COVID-19 headlines in recent weeks) has already started giving the vaccine despite a lack of formal authorization.

[Related: These early sign of COVID-19 are easy to mistake for cold symptoms]

The vaccine’s creators are planning trials of the vaccine with pregnant women and infants, groups for whom COVID-19 vaccines haven’t been formally tested. Despite wavering from the World Health Organization, the CDC and other US public health organizations recommend that pregnant people get the vaccine if it’s available to them.

Pfizer doesn’t need cryogenic refrigerators

One of the obstacles to distributing some existing vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech’s was that they needed to be stored at cryogenic temperatures in ultra-cold freezers. Many facilities don’t have such freezers, and it made vaccines that didn’t require them (such as Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) that much more attractive. Fortunately for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized its storage for up to a fortnight in more conventional freezers that are commonly found in US pharmacies.

The US government has also launched a website that can help you find a COVID-19 vaccine site nearby.

Testing has plummeted in the US

While reported case numbers in the US have fallen from their vertigo-inducing peak in early January to levels not seen since November, testing rates have fallen too. Testing numbers have fallen nearly a third from their January peak. Some areas, such as Delaware and Los Angeles, are testing people at less than half their potential capacity.

Public health experts don’t fully know why, but they point fingers at a number of reasons: a decline in travel after Thanksgiving and the December holidays, fatigue with the pandemic, and bad winter weather like the horrific storms that recently roiled Texas. Of course, there could be another reason: the pandemic itself is winding down. But regular testing is a key way of tracking new COVID-19 variants and monitoring how widespread the virus is in any given population, so it’s important to continue testing all the time.

The pandemic may have an end in sight, but some COVID doesn’t

We’ve known for some time that some people’s COVID-19 experience doesn’t just go away. Somewhere between a tenth and a third of the infected face potentially life-altering symptoms— fatigue, shortness of breath, and even hair loss—for months, if not longer. And because COVID-19 is so new and the reasons are ill-understood, there’s no coherent guidance or standard practices for treating such long-haulers.

In their absence, a host of “post-COVID” clinics have popped up across the US to try and serve them. And there’s other potentially good news: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has allocated over a billion dollars to studying the long-term symptoms of COVID-19.