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Experts say the more viruses circulate in parts of the world, the more chances they have to mutate. Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • Experts say the United States still faces dangers from the COVID-19 pandemic if the virus is circulating in other parts of the world.
  • One reason is the novel coronavirus can continue to mutate into strains such as the delta variant if it’s unchecked in parts of the globe.
  • Experts note that with airline travel, it’s easier to spread a virus worldwide.
  • They say that’s why a worldwide vaccination program needs to be implemented.

In the United States, there is a growing feeling that we are reaching the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 50 percent of all Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

States such as New York, where vaccination rates have reached 70 percent, have now lifted virtually all their pandemic restrictions. Likewise, in California.

But worldwide, the picture is quite different.

There have already been more COVID-19 deaths in 2021 than in all of 2020. And many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, have less than 5 percent of their populations fully vaccinated.

That could spell trouble for containing COVID-19 and putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

“The reality is as long as it is raging elsewhere, COVID-19 is still a threat to people in the U.S.,” said Elizabeth Beatriz, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Bureau of Community Health and Prevention as well as public health and COVID-19 adviser at Parenting Pod.

“The most obvious reason is that not all people in the U.S. have been vaccinated, and some of the unvaccinated people are not able to be vaccinated because of preexisting medical conditions,” Beatriz told Healthline. “As people travel in and out of these areas, the virus can spread rapidly, particularly among unvaccinated people and/or people who are not taking protective measures.”

In other words, even in places with high vaccination rates, COVID-19 could still pose a threat, and in areas of low vaccination within the United States, that risk is even more so.

The other issue, experts say, is the potential for dangerous and contagious COVID-19 variants to emerge while the novel coronavirus is spreading unchecked in much of the world.

“As long as COVID-19 is circulating in any country, it has the opportunity to mutate into a variant that is more transmissible, causes more severe disease, fails to respond to treatment, evades immune response, or fails to be diagnosed by standard tests,” Aimee Ferraro, PhD, MPH, a faculty member for Walden University’s PhD in Public Health and Master of Public Health program in Minnesota, told Healthline. “Brazil, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom have experienced higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and mortality due to more virulent and deadly variants of COVID-19.”

And while India or Brazil might seem far away, without strict lockdowns, they’re closer than you think.

“With global travel and commerce what it is today, the virus truly has few, if any, geographical boundaries,” said Dr. Jonathan Leizman, the chief medical officer at Premise Health. “Ultimately, COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and we need to overcome it globally in order to truly move forward.”

Mass global vaccination provides a potential way out of this scenario, but it will require a concerted effort to produce and distribute vaccines to places where they’re needed most.

Fewer than 20 countries have more than 30 percent of their populations fully vaccinated, with the vast majority of countries having a small percentage of their populations vaccinated, Beatriz noted.

Ferraro notes that countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Russia, Canada, Australia, and China produced and used most of the early batches of vaccines.

“In addition, many low- and middle-income countries were blocked out of buying the most effective vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, and ended up making deals for unapproved vaccines with lower than 50 percent efficacy,” she said. “That means less than half of the vaccinated population in these countries are protected against COVID-19. Once low- and middle-income countries receive enough vaccines, the biggest hurdle is poor public health infrastructure that significantly slows distribution, especially to the most rural parts of each country.“

Beatriz agreed.

“Vaccine access has been very inequitable worldwide and we are currently feeling – and will continue to feel – the repercussions of that lack of vaccine access in many parts of the world,” she said.

Some countries are taking steps to combat this. The Biden administration recently announced that it would buy and donate a half-billion doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine as part of a global effort to contain the pandemic.

“Morally speaking, we should all care about the continued loss of human life due to COVID-19,” Ferraro said. “It’s a miracle that an effective vaccine was developed so quickly. It’s a tragedy that vaccines are sitting unused because of vaccine hesitancy and refusal in high-income countries while people are dying as they desperately wait for vaccines to arrive in middle- and low-income countries.”