Rapid relaxation of pandemic restrictions after vaccine rollout favors growth of SARS-CoV-2 variants: A model-based analysis

PLoS One. 2021 Nov 24;16(11):e0258997. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0258997. eCollection 2021.


The development and deployment of several SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in a little over a year is an unprecedented achievement of modern medicine. The high levels of efficacy against transmission for some of these vaccines makes it feasible to use them to suppress SARS-CoV-2 altogether in regions with high vaccine acceptance. However, viral variants with reduced susceptibility to vaccinal and natural immunity threaten the utility of vaccines, particularly in scenarios where a return to pre-pandemic conditions occurs before the suppression of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. In this work we model the situation in the United States in May-June 2021, to demonstrate how pre-existing variants of SARS-CoV-2 may cause a rebound wave of COVID-19 in a matter of months under a certain set of conditions. A high burden of morbidity (and likely mortality) remains possible, even if the vaccines are partially effective against new variants and widely accepted. Our modeling suggests that variants that are already present within the population may be capable of quickly defeating the vaccines as a public health intervention, a serious potential limitation for strategies that emphasize rapid reopening before achieving control of SARS-CoV-2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

Grant support

A. N. acknowledges funding from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-1762114. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Fractal Therapeutics provided support in the form of salaries for authors A.C., and M.S but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the ‘author contributions’ section.