Towards the end of 2020, more than 80 million people worldwide were infected with SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 since its identification in December 2019. More than one million of the infected succumbed to the disease.
With COVID-19 vaccines having been rolled out on some countries, the disease has painted a gleam picture of a disease that will stay with us as is with HIV/AIDS.
More worrying is the surge of new variants of the disease that have erupted in several countries. Will these new variants cause more infection, and a spike in deaths? Will the vaccines protect people from the new variants, or will they be rendered ineffective in the face of the variants?
Scientists are concentrating on a small number of the variants that pose more threat. Two variants of the coronavirus that have an unusually preternatural large number of mutations are B.1.351 first identified in South Africa, and B.1.1.7 in United Kingdom. Both the variants are said to be more contagious than the original virus with the B.1.1.7 variant rate of transmission placed between 50 to 70%.
However, health experts are cautious in suggesting the new mutations aren't deadlier, that is, cause more severe illness, or capable of wholly evading treatment or vaccines. Still, their high rate of infection is posing as a threat noting many health care systems are overloaded with an influx of the infected. This, in turn, means many people will succumb to the disease as they won't get the much needed treatment. The Council on Foreign Relations remarks, "the transmission of a more infectious variant could spur exponential growth in the number of COVID-19 cases, a dangerous scenario given the challenges some countries have faced starting vaccine distribution."
Are Vaccines Effective Against COVID-19 Variants?
It's too early to be certain though the consensus among scientists is that the rolled out vaccines are capable of protecting people from new variants of the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) states: "Currently, most COVID-19 vaccines target the spike protein. There are some vaccines such as inactivated virus vaccines developed in China that target the whole virus. Mutations may reduce vaccine efficacy directed against the spike protein but will not obliterate their effects. As explained, this is is because the immune responses they induce target more than a single part of the spike protein. Inactivated vaccines target an even greater array of viral proteins, inducing several protective immune responses. This instils redundancy in the protein immune responses."
Generally, viruses mutate when they replicate. This occurs when the virus gains an entry into the body through an opening (e.g. nose and mouth) and attaches itself onto a human's cell. Inside the cells, they make copies of their genetic material (either RNA or DNA) which aids their spread or infection to other cells. "If the virus can copy itself and hijack enough of your cells without being wiped out by your immune system, that's how you get sick," states Cleveland Clinic.
Mutation occurs when an error or mistake occurs during the copying process. This, in turn, means the DNA or RNA gets changed. "These changes happen randomly and by accident. It's a normal part of what happens to viruses as they multiply and spread," states WebMd. WHO notes that the copying of a virus' genetic information is not accurate. "It produces mistakes such as substitutions, deletions or sometimes insertions of amino acids - the building blocks of proteins. These changes are called mutations."
The changes might be advantageous to the virus as it will enable the virus to survive in a new environment or host. Most of the time, the mutations weaken the new versions of the virus, or affect how the virus works. Mutations in viruses, according to WHO, become notable when "they change an important characteristic of the virus such as its ability to infect different hosts, rate of transmission, ability to evade the host's immune system, vaccines, therapeutics and diagnoatics cause pathology or disease severity."
Recent studies on the effectiveness of the approved vaccines against eruption of new variants of coronavirus show that they're less effective in guarding people against new variants that are more contagious. Even if that's the case, they can't still slow the spread of the virus, and prevent people from becoming severely ill. This is according to U.S. White House medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci during a White House briefing on January 2021.
The vaccines offer strong protection against B.1.1.7 but less effective against B.1.351.
"Even if they are less effective against the South African variant, Fauci said, vaccines are still worth getting because they make infection less serious: They "profoundly" reduce the rate of serious disease, hospitalisation and death," Forbes reports. Furthermore, Forbes reports, "Fauci also said if people are vaccinated en masse, the virus will replicate less and have fewer opportunities to mutate, meaning new variants will eventually stop emerging."
The vaccine makers whose vaccines were approved are working around the clock in modifying the effectiveness of the vaccines so that they can offer strong protection against the more contagious variants of the coronavirus.
How Effective Are Vaccines against COVID-19?
In WHO's Science in 5 program, Dr. Katherine O'Brien, the organization's Director of Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals indicated it's not yet known how long immunity lasts from the vaccines that are in circulation.
Furthermore, she noted, "The clinical trials demonstrated that the vaccines protect against the disease. But what we don't know yet from the clinical trials in whether or not the vaccines also protect people from just getting infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and whether or not it protects against transmitting to somebody else." By closely monitoring the vaccinated, they'll be able to know how long the effectiveness of the vaccine lasts, and be able to answer the question, "Do they only protect against disease or do they also protect against getting infected and being able to transmit to somebody else, even if you're not having any symptoms?"
According to Dr. O'Brien, the approved vaccines are two-dose vaccines. The first dose effectiveness is felt within two weeks of having got the first dose. She says that it's really the second dose that boosts the immune response with the immunity getting stronger within a shorter period of time after an individual gets the second dose.
She emphasizes that people should continue observing the precautionary measures - wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, not gathering in large groups, and handwashing. This, she says, is because there is a short supply of vaccines, and there is still no evidence of using vaccines for certain age groups e.g. children. "So for the time being, those age groups are going to continue to be at risk of both disease and infection and being able to transmit to other people." Until when a large percentage of people are vaccinated, scientists know what the vaccines can do to prevent infection, and the certainty there won't be a spike of infection, people should adhere to the precautions.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Alianess Benny Njuguna