Well-Being Medical Advances

South Africa COVID-19 strain is likely spreading, but vaccines remain ‘strong tool’: CDC

Story at a glance

  • Speaking on NBC, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said more information is needed to determine if new COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against virus mutations.
  • Johnson & Johnson, along with Novavax, released data this week implying weaker efficacy when treating the South African COVID-19 mutation.

Earlier this week, the first two U.S. cases of the South African COVID-19 variant were recorded by South Carolinian health officials. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky confirmed on NBC News that the mutation “is in fact here” and that “the presumption at this point is that there has been community spread of this strain.”

The question of whether the available and pending COVID-19 vaccines will be able to fight off new mutations of the virus lingers. 

Prominent public health experts like Anthony Fauci have said that the vaccines manufactured by companies like Pfizer and Moderna should be effective against any new variants, but recent data from clinical trials from drugmakers like Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggest their vaccines are less potent against newer mutations of COVID-19.

Walensky comments that even if a vaccine is not as effective when it detects a mutation seen in the South African or British variants of COVID-19, some efficacy is still preferable to none.

“When viruses mutate and they develop strains and dominant strains they usually do so for some advantage to the virus,” she said. “That may come in the tune of our vaccines not working as well. … Even a vaccine that has 50-60% efficacy would still be a really strong tool in our toolbox to fight this pandemic. … It may just lend us to feel like we need a booster effect further down the road.”

She further added that data suggests the FDA-approved vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, are likely to still be largely effective and that data collected and released by Novavax featured a sample of under 5,000 people. 

“I think we still need to unpack the implications of what they’re finding,” Walensky said of Novavax’s forthcoming research. 

Because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are made with messenger RNA technology, they can ideally be adjusted to trigger an immune response when it encounters different protein structures seen in different COVID-19 mutations.