Story at a glance

  • There are new variants of the novel coronavirus that are spreading more widely.
  • While mutations and variations are normal, experts are concerned about transmissibility and whether existing vaccines will protect against new variants.
  • Some studies suggest vaccines may not be as effective on the new variant first identified in South Africa.

New variants of the novel coronavirus have popped up around the world. While mutations and changes in viruses are normal and expected, some variants may have combinations of mutations that may be concerning to public health experts. One of the recent new variants was first identified in South Africa.

The South African variant has been found in at least 23 countries but has yet to be found in the U.S. Experts think that this variant, named 501Y.V2, could be more transmissible but this hasn’t been confirmed yet with data and research.

New variants may be concerning if they become the dominant strain circulating in the population. For example, a new variant that was first identified in the U.K. in Sept. 2020 was later responsible for 60 percent of cases in the London area by Dec. 2020.

The most concerning aspect about the new variants is whether they can get around vaccine-induced immunity. There is some research coming out now that suggests that at least some of the antibodies that we know about are less able to bind to the South African variant. However, this doesn’t factor in how other parts of the immune system could react, like T cells.


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Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that it’s not likely that vaccines will be completely ineffective against new variants. But there’s a possibility that their effectiveness could be lower.

Another preprint study on the bioRxiv preprint server, one that has not yet been peer reviewed for an academic journal, suggests that the South African variant “escapes” three classes of antibodies that are being used to treat COVID-19. A preprint study that involved blood samples from people who received either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines suggests that immune activity against several variants was reduced. The authors suggest that the mRNA vaccines need to “be updated periodically to avoid potential loss of clinical efficacy.”

“The bottom line there is some reason for concern about reduced efficacy but efficacy will not fall off a cliff,” says evolutionary virologist Stephen Goldstein at the University of Utah to Vox. “The vaccines are incredibly potent. ... If [they go] from 95% [efficacy] to 85% or even a little lower, we are still in great shape.” 

Updating the mRNA vaccines is a definite possibility. The way that the technology was developed makes it a simple process compared to traditional techniques for creating vaccines from inactivated virus or other methods. Messenger RNA vaccines take a small segment of the virus’s genetic sequence, so that means if the sequence changes it can be updated to reflect mutations. However, that could get more complicated when multiple variants are circulating.


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Health experts are concerned that if variants are different enough then reinfections could occur. There’s some reports that it might be happening in Brazil with a new variant that was first identified in Manaus. At least one case of reinfection where someone who was previously infected was later found to have the new variant and is described in a preprint.

The vaccines are still important in the fight and many experts still say that it’ll be crucial to vaccinate as many people as possible. “Imagine having to do catch-up like this all the time — it’s not something desirable,” says Akiko Iwasaki, who is an immunologist at Yale University, to The New York Times. “If we can just stop the spread as soon as possible, while the vaccine is very effective, that’s the best way.”

So while experts monitor what’s happening with the South African variant and others, we should continue to do what we can to stop the spread, which remains the same: keep distance from others, mask up and get vaccinated.


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Published on Jan 22, 2021