Accelerated vaccine rollout is imperative to mitigate highly transmissible COVID-19 variants

EClinicalMedicine. 2021 May;35:100865. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.100865. Epub 2021 Apr 25.


Background: More contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged around the world, sparking concerns about impending surge in cases and severe outcomes. Despite the development of effective vaccines, rollout has been slow. We evaluated the impact of accelerated vaccine distribution on curbing the disease burden of novel SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Methods: We used an agent-based model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and vaccination to simulate the spread of novel variants with S-Gene Target Failure (SGTF) in addition to the original strain. We incorporated age-specific risk and contact patterns and implemented a two-dose vaccination campaign in accord with CDC-recommended prioritization. As a base case, we projected hospitalizations and deaths at a daily vaccination rate of 1 million doses in the United States (US) and compared with accelerated campaigns in which daily doses were expanded to 1.5, 2, 2.5, or 3 million.

Findings: We found that at a vaccination rate of 1 million doses per day, an emergent SGTF variant that is 20-70% more transmissible than the original variant would become dominant within 2 to 9 weeks, accounting for as much as 99% of cases at the outbreak peak. Our results show that accelerating vaccine delivery would substantially reduce severe health outcomes. For a SGTF with 30% higher transmissibility, increasing vaccine doses from 1 to 3 million per day would avert 152,048 (95% CrI: 134,772-168,696) hospitalizations and 48,448 (95% CrI: 42,042-54,285) deaths over 300 days. Accelerated vaccination would also prevent additional COVID-19 waves that would otherwise be fuelled by waning adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs).

Interpretation: We found that the current pace of vaccine rollout is insufficient to prevent the exacerbation of the pandemic that will be attributable to the novel, more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants. Accelerating the vaccination rate should be a public health priority for averting the expected surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths that would be associated with widespread dissemination of the SGTF variants. Our results underscore the need to bolster the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, to rapidly expand vaccination priority groups and distribution sites.