By Dr. Max Gomez

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The first months of the coronavirus pandemic were full of confusion and change.

How was virus spread? Who was most at risk? What can we do to control it?

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While we have many answers now, new variants are raising important questions about the future, CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported Monday.

It was New Year’s Eve 2019 when word began to trickle out of a cluster of viral pneumonias of unknown origin in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China. It would soon be determined that the cause was a novel, meaning previously unknown, coronavirus. What was initially thought to be a flu-like disease that had made an unusual jump from animals to humans, likely in Wuhan’s live animal market, quickly spread in the community.

The virus had mutated to allow for person-to-person transmission. The pandemic had begun.

A YEAR IN THE PANDEMIC: REMEMBRANCE & RESILIENCE

In January 2020, China logged it’s first death from the coronavirus. The city of Wuhan was shut down, the U.S. restricted travel from China, and the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency.

February 2020 saw the first death outside of China, in the Philippines, followed by France, Italy, Iran, Latin America and, finally, the U.S.

The disease got a name, COVID-19.

By April, COVID was spreading with breathtaking speed. There were already 1 million cases worldwide and more than 200,000 deaths.

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Dr. Richard Besser, former deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, explained how this virus could spread so quickly.

“It has to be easily transmittable between people. COVID does that. It has to cause significant disease, and COVID does that. And it has to be something for which the population doesn’t have underlying protection or immunity. We see that with COVID,” Besser said.

COVID VACCINE

By summer, we learned older children were potential COVID spreaders. Airborne particles were confirmed as the primary route of transmission. Moderna and then Pfizer began large-scale human trials on its vaccines. Risk factors like obesity and diabetes were shown to elevate mortality rate.

The fall brought worse news. U.S. cases soared past 10 million. Global deaths topped 1 million. But several drug makers reported positive results from their vaccine trials.

That glimmer of hope was dimmed, though, when a coronavirus mutation was detected spreading in Britain. Other variants were soon found in South Africa and Brazil.

“Some of them, unfortunately, seem to make the the virus spread more easily and some make it make it more deadly. And when that happens, if the variants are too different from the original strain, you may actually see people who got the infection early on become susceptible to that new strain, that new variant,” Besser said.

The good news is that the present vaccines seem to offer good to at least partial protection from these variants, and Pfizer and Moderna are already testing new vaccine formulations against them.

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While this past year has been long and trying, we have learned an extraordinary amount about this virus and we will continue to learn much more in the days to come — improved treatments and better drugs, more vaccines, how and why it causes long-lasting symptoms — so that we will not have to face another year with 2.5 million dead worldwide.

Dr. Max Gomez