Scientists underestimated the coronavirus — and are racing to keep up with evolution – The Washington Post

He just didn’t know it would happen quite this fast.

For much of 2020, most people — including most experts — weren’t particularly worried about the virus’s ability to evolve. SARS-CoV-2 was changing, but so far that hadn’t amounted to anything especially concerning. Then, in late fall, it jumped. Distinctive new versions of the virus sparked alarming surges in Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

In a few short months, variants have become a global preoccupation. Nearly every time public health experts talk about the trajectory of the health crisis, they dwell on the variants, the loose cannon that could wreck hard-won progress.

Their sudden emergence caught scientists off guard and set the stage for the next chapter of the pandemic. The mass vaccination campaign that could have felt like a wave of relief is instead an ominous, urgent race against a changing virus. The path to herd immunity, the powerful milestone when the virus won’t be able to spark new outbreaks, is looking longer and more complex. Vaccines may not totally vanquish but simply chase a continually changing virus.

As scientists work to get a handle on the variants, the situation gives the public a rare front-row seat and real-time