Pandemics expert urges vigilance as COVID-19 variants spread

Alumna and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Laurie Garrett sounds urgency about the need for an all-out race to stay ahead of highly contagious COVID variants in the United States

Laurie Garrett

Editor's note: This profile is a follow-up to an interview with Laurie Garrett we ran in March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic. 

Pandemics expert Laurie Garrett is thrilled that “the adults are finally in the room” when it comes to a national COVID-19 response. 

Garrett (Merrill '75, biology), an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID outbreak, praised the Biden administration’s strong emphasis on science and data, and its empathy toward victims of the devastating disease. 

“We’ve seen compassion from leadership,” said Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist and frequent MSNBC science contributor. “For the first time, we’ve seen genuine understanding of grief." 

And she recently retweeted an exhaustive breakdown of COVID data, released by Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the White House's COVID response team, showing viral-test positivity rates, and hospital bed and staff shortages in every state. 

“This is the sort of info that we should have been seeing to guide our national and local response for a year," she said, taking a dig at the Trump administration and its shambolic response to the crisis.

This may sound like an unusually cheery outlook from Garrett, who warned of a deadly globe-spanning outbreak long before the novel coronavirus spread across the Earth. 

But make no mistake; Garrett remains vigilant about the need for an all-out race to stay ahead of highly contagious COVID variants that have made inroads in the United States. 

She’s especially concerned about the paltry amount of genomic testing and surveillance that is needed to detect the new variants. The CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna have given interviews saying they are working on rapidly altering their existing vaccines so they will have mRNA code not just for the baseline COVID-19 but for the subtypes, but those vaccination tweaks raise logistical as well as regulatory concerns for Garrett.

“Then you get to the whole question of how regulatory agencies approve these rapidly. Do we have to do clinical trials all over again? Well, at the pace in which variants are showing up, the virus will keep winning," she said. "On the other hand, we can’t just throw up our hands and get rid of all safety regulations.”

A voice of caution and concern

Garrett has a longstanding reputation of noticing what others aren’t seeing. Consider the fateful tweet she posted on December 31, 2019, with an understated tone that has come back to haunt her: 

“A new, mysterious outbreak in China,” she wrote. “Symptoms are described #SARS-like, but there is no evidence yet of human-2-human transmission. And it’s centered around a fish market in Wuhan, not around live civets, as was the case with SARS. Still, merits watching.”

Garrett now wonders at the calmness of that tweet.  

“Frankly I would have sounded a greater alarm even then, except that I’d taken a lot of beatings on social media,” she explained. “I was accused of being a fear monger, of whipping up hysteria, and all this kind of stuff, so I took a fairly ‘this bears watching’ perspective. What I really wanted to say was, 'Holy crap! My hair’s on fire!'” 

Since then, Garrett’s media presence has increased exponentially. Her Twitter following has ballooned to nearly 240,000, and she is in constant demand to appear on news programs and on panels. The New York Times and Vanity Fair have dubbed her a COVID-19 “Cassandra” whose warnings went ignored for far too long. Now, she has the nation’s ear—and her schedule is often overwhelming. 

As she adjusts to a breakneck pace, Garrett, like everyone else, is pondering what the future will hold, and what a “new normal" is going to look like. 

“I was saying to everybody back in February [2020], I was giving this a 36-month ‘best case’ timeline," Garrett said. “The worst case would be we end up with [COVID] as a permanent feature in the global health landscape.” 

An all-out race against variants

Worried Americans have some daunting questions about the immediate future as well as the long-term prognosis. For instance, could the United States ramp up genomic testing and surveillance in time to get a better handle on these spreading strains before the situation gets out of control? 

Garrett noted that the new administration is trying to keep up with the variants, “But you can’t just snap your fingers and have a national mechanism of genomic surveillance. And you can’t snap your fingers and suddenly fix every single thing that is wrong with the vaccine rollout. There has been something wrong with every single step of  it .… We are in this reactive mode, and the virus is racing ahead.” 

Garrett said that the global response to COVID remains “haphazard” and without broad agreement between heads of state about a clear strategic plan or even an explicitly stated outcome, ranging from COVID containment to outright eradication. 

“We need a strategic plan,” Garrett said. She calls Biden’s COVID response impressive and an enormous improvement over Trump’s response. “It’s nearly 200 pages of basically tactical maneuvers on how to get around the virus. But it doesn’t state the strategic goal. Is the goal to get everybody back to work, or deal with the economy, or eradicate the virus, or somewhere in between?”

Even in other countries, “strategic goals are unfortunately nonexistent," she said. “Containment, elimination, eradication are all specific terms, and nobody wants to make a declaration at this time [because] it’s politically charged. But because we’re not doing that, all the tactics we’re using—vaccination, testing, quarantine—are haphazard, reactive. The virus has us by the reins and we are trying to tame the horse while it is bucking all over the place.”

And while she was appalled by the Trump administration’s COVID response—she accused him of “sabotaging America’s response to the pandemic”—she noted that few other countries seem to have COVID under control.

“We are not ahead of the virus anywhere,” Garrett said. The closest you get are island countries like Taiwan, Iceland, and New Zealand. They managed to get control within their boundaries, but the new variants are moving quickly around the world and everybody’s going to face another round. And then there’s going to be another. We clearly have hit an evolutionary tipping point now where there are sufficient numbers of people harboring virus in their bodies for sufficient time so the virus has ample opportunity to evolve.”

Unless there is a successful, massive push to vaccinate areas of the world that have had a disorganized approach to treatments and vaccinations, Garrett said, “we’re putting selection pressure on the global viral population."

In response, Garrett warns Americans not to let their guard down. 

“The mask is still the best protection you have," Garrett said, while expressing regret for remarks she made, early in the pandemic, in which she undervalued the use of mask-wearing indoors. “We now know this virus is more contagious as an aerosol than influenza, the common cold, and respiratory viruses.”  

Garrett strongly recommends continued mask use even for those who have already received vaccines. 

And she commiserates with those who feel that quarantine and isolation has been wearing them down psychologically. 

“This is a virus that exploits love and community and fun, and boy, you know, we are all really tired of not having fun," she said. "Our basic human psyche wants us to do the opposite of what we need to do.” 

Meanwhile, every society on Earth is struggling how to resolve the tension between economics and controlling the virus, though the strain is perhaps at a lower volume in places that have strong social-safety nets, she said

Room for cautious optimism

Garrett said she’s heartened by the Biden administration’s willingness to cooperate with other countries in the global COVID fight.   

“We’re seeing steps taken to engage with the rest of the world so America is no longer going to be an isolated aberration. We’ll be a player on the international stage again. All of this is cause for hope,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean that things are right around the corner going to get solved," Garrett cautioned. “But it does mean that we can begin to think again strategically of a disease that doesn’t know borders, that can't be controlled in one country, and that requires a scale of international cooperation. And through the mere act of compassion, we can begin to see the vitriolic volume and incorrect protest come down a bit, and Americans can engage in conversation again. That would certainly help.”