Vaccines and Variants: What You Should Know

Covid Vaccination

A little over a year into the global nightmare of the Coronavirus pandemic, there’s finally a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines is a remarkable achievement! It’s a miracle of science and proof of what can be achieved when governments, the scientific community, and the private sector work in concert against a common threat.

When 70% – 85% of an area’s population is immune to an infection, the infection rate drops because the virus or bacteria causing it has fewer people to infect. This is called herd immunity and causes the disease to eventually disappear. Globally, 125 million people have had COVID-19 and so have some immunity. Rapid and widespread vaccination will add to the number of immune people, leading to herd immunity and an end to the pandemic.

However, vaccine rollout and administration are not equitable worldwide. Wealthier nations are further ahead in vaccinating their populations. In contrast, many low-income countries haven’t even begun due to limited vaccine access.  The U.S. has vaccinated 25% of its people, Europe 15%, Asia 4.5%, and Africa only 0.7%.

At present, there are ten different COVID vaccines in use around the world. They are Oxford-AstraZeneca (90 countries), Pfizer-BioNtech (80 countries), Sinopharm 1 & 2/Sinovac (37 countries), Moderna (34 countries), Sputnik V (20 countries), J&J-Janssen (2 countries), Covaxin (India), and EpiVacCorona (Russia).

Another problem that can potentially prevent a speedy end to the pandemic is the development of vaccine variants.

What is a Vaccine Variant?

A virus isn’t a live organism such as bacteria or a parasite. It is genetic material known as ribonucleic acid (RNA) that can’t regenerate by itself. It needs to enter a host cell such as human or animal cells. The virus then uses the host cell’s system to make hundreds and thousands of duplicates of itself. This process is called replication. These virus duplicates enter and take over other cells in the body, causing an infection in the host.

As the virus duplicates, errors often occur, resulting in viruses that are not exact copies of the original virus. The errors or changes are called mutations, and viruses with mutations are called variants of the actual virus. Variants are similar to the original yet differ by one or several mutations.

Commonly, mutations don’t affect how the virus duplicates or the illness it causes. Occasionally, however, the variant behaves differently from the original, replicating faster, transmitting more quickly, and causing more significant disease by dodging the host’s immune system. The more effective variants soon become the predominant version causing illness in the community.

Three Coronavirus variants are rapidly becoming the most common form of the virus in the countries where they were first discovered. Each has mutations that make it more efficient at causing disease than the original SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus:

  • U.K. variant (B.1.1.7)
  • South African variant (B.1.351)
  • Brazilian variant (P.1)

All three variants have several mutations of the Coronavirus spike protein, which allow them to attach more readily to human cells. Some of the mutations also reduce how well our antibodies can disable the virus, making it easier for the virus to slip past the immune system.

Are COVID Vaccines, Effective Against Virus Variants?

The million-dollar question now is whether the various vaccines are effective against the new variants.

Vaccine technology through the years has taken into account the fact that viruses regularly mutate because of errors as they replicate. The Coronavirus is no different. Vaccines are designed to generate a widespread immune response so that according to the WHO, “changes or mutations in a virus should not make vaccines completely ineffective.”

Recent data show that many licensed COVID vaccines perform well in protecting people against the U.K. variant but have lower efficacy against the South African variant. Even with the reduced effectiveness against some variants, early data reveals that current vaccines still prevent severe COVID-19, hospitalizations and deaths. Taking the vaccine is your best bet at preventing COVID-19 for the long term.

Vaccine developers are already studying whether making slight changes in the vaccines will boost their effectiveness against current and future variants. There’s every indication that they will succeed.

It’s vital to note that reduced protection doesn’t mean that there’s no protection at all. Evidence suggests that the COVID vaccines are preventing infections quite well in real life!

Get vaccinated as soon as you have the opportunity. It’s the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Until then, please continue to mask, socially distance, and wash your hands regularly.

Toju Chike-Obi, MD