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New COVID-19 variants: Vaccines still protect you

Scientists keeping an eye on effects of new strains.

Illustration of coronavirus Illustration: Getty Images

Updated February 23, 2021

By James Shea

As if the world doesn’t have enough to worry about, more contagious strains of COVID-19 are now circulating. What began as a single new variant originating in the United Kingdom has been joined by even more concerning variants from South Africa and Brazil. Additional variants are expected to follow.

Although viruses mutate all the time and genetic variation is nothing new, these novel strains of SARS-CoV-2, which cause COVID-19, have serious implications when it comes to how fast they spread and the efficacy of our vaccines.

Dr. Michelle Doll, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine, is a specialist in infectious diseases. Here, Dr. Doll addresses the effect the new variants may have on our health and our vaccines.   

Dr. Michelle Doll

Let’s start by defining terms. Is there a difference between a strain and a variant? 

The terms are often used interchangeably. There is no definite criteria for applying one versus the other. Strains will generally refer to a more established circulating virus. These include the influenza B strain, or SARS-CoV 2 being a new strain of coronavirus.

When you’re talking about a strain or variant, you’re talking about a specific genetic signature of that virus. We know that viruses will mutate over time, steadily accumulating minor changes. Sometimes those changes mean something and sometimes they don’t. If the changes are found to be significant, or the changes begin to vary enough, it is considered to be a different variant or strain. That just means there is something about that version of the virus that is distinct from the parent virus.

Were new strains, or variants, expected?

Yes, viruses are known to mutate over time, and variations of this particular virus is something that researchers have been discussing throughout the pandemic. Certainly, it has been on the radar of virologists and other scientists working on our vaccines. Additional variants are expected to appear, which is why surveillance is so important.

Why is the medical community worried about the variants?

Some of these viral mutations have produced variants with some concerning features. Changes are occurring within the area that helps the virus bind to and enter our cells. This may affect not only how the virus gets into our cells but how it spreads. And that may affect the success of vaccines that are based on their ability to recognize and block that specific interaction.

With the U.K. variant, for example, the mutation increases the amount of virus binding to our cells. That is one reason the variant is believed to be more contagious. 

Do the variants make you sicker?

The variants have not yet been shown to cause more severe disease. However, increases in overall cases and subsequent hospitalizations are reported in areas with prevalent variants circulating.

How does this impact the vaccine?

Variant strains capable of escaping our current vaccines’ protection are a huge concern, more so with some variants (South Africa) than others (UK).

Current vaccines do continue to offer protection against the variants identified, but protective antibodies may not be quite as potent against some strains. How potent is potent enough? That is the question on everyone’s mind. What we truly need is protection from severe disease, which is responsible for hospitalizations, deaths and long-term disability.

It is unlikely we will ever become 100% protected from COVID-19 via our vaccination and social distancing efforts. I think this is the expectation of many, but scientists have always envisioned a future in which SARS-CoV-2 continues to circulate in low levels and we are all relatively protected by some form of immunity. The collective population immunity needs to be enough to prevent outbreaks of severe disease.

With that in mind, vaccine developers are already working towards revised vaccines that will produce better immunity against the known variant strains. It is possible that we will need subsequent vaccines to maintain good levels of immunity against new strains as they emerge. 

Can one vaccine work on multiple strains?

Yes, many existing vaccines incorporate multiple diseases into the same shot. So certainly, vaccine developers can incorporate multiple strains into a single SARS-2-CoV vaccine.

Should we take extra precautions because of these variants?

The precautions necessary to combat these variant strains are the same you’ve been hearing about for months: hand washing, masking and social distancing. We are still working to buy time to cover more of the population with vaccination to decrease overall transmission rates.

Should people continue to wash surfaces, or are all variants of the virus spread mainly through the air?

I think there probably is a surface component based on what we see from other respiratory viruses. Surface environments are important for our infection control practices.

But there is a bigger component of droplet spread even from normal speech that I don’t think was appreciated at the beginning of the outbreak. Certainly, masking has made a big difference in prevention of short-distance droplet-mediated spread.

The challenge with contact, or surface, spread is that it’s pretty much invisible because it is harder to identify and trace those lines of transmission. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I definitely recommend diligent hand washing. 

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