Covid-19 variants and vaccines: 9 questions about coronavirus variants, answered -
May 05, 2021 3 mins, 39 secs
How coronavirus variants are affecting vaccines, treatments, and our attempts to return to normal.

What’s complicating the situation is the rise of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Several of these variants contain mutations that can make prior immunity less effective, allow the virus to spread more readily, and, in some cases, cause more deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is now tracking 10 SARS-CoV-2 variants internationally.

The challenge now is to vaccinate people to contain the spread of the virus, not just in the US but around the world.

But variants aren’t the only factor at play; public health measures and political will to contain the disease will also shape the remainder of the pandemic.

Sometimes these variants contain dozens of individual mutations compared to the original strain of a virus.

The combination of mutations in these variants may even be working together, making the variants more dangerous than versions of the virus with individual mutations.

Variants of SARS-CoV-2 have arisen at several points during the pandemic, but what’s concerning about the variants spreading right now is that they seem to be better able to spread.

There are several factors behind why so many SARS-CoV-2 variants have emerged.

One is simply that the virus has been spreading to more people in more countries.

As more people gain immunity through infection or vaccination, the variants that can evade that immunity remain and can circulate.

“It is not an accident that these variants first arose in areas that have a record of poor implementation of measures to mitigate spread and very high rate of infection,” said Theodora Hatziioannou, a research associate professor of retrovirology at the Rockefeller University, in an email.

But in many parts of the world, surveillance is inadequate or nonexistent, which means other variants could be spreading undetected.

It could lower the efficacy of Covid-19 treatments or render prior immunity less potent.

What ties these variants together is that they contain mutations in SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, the part of the virus that allows it to infect human cells.

Several variants actually have some mutations in common, particularly in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein.

It has been found in several variants, including B.1.525, P.1, B.1.351, and some strains of B.1.1.7.

Similarly, the N501Y mutation in the receptor binding domain has also been identified in variants like P.1, B.1.1.7, and B.1.351.

India is also coping with the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants.

If the virus continues to spread unchecked, it will increase the chances of another dangerous variant emerging.

However, some of the more targeted treatments, like monoclonal antibodies, seem to be less effective against several of the Covid-19 variants, like B.1.351 and P.1.

In the case of Covid-19, the target for these drugs is the spike protein of the virus.

On the other hand, more general treatments for Covid-19 are not likely to be affected by the variants.

For now, the main Covid-19 vaccines being distributed across the US — from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer/BioNTech — remain highly effective at preventing illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, even from the new variants reported so far.

Given that most Covid-19 vaccines remain strong against variants, it’s not clear yet whether we will need booster doses for vaccines or if vaccines will need to be reformulated.

For example, a recent study just found that the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is still effective against the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants, albeit with reduced efficacy.

That could change as more variants arise or if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 declines faster than the rate of the virus in circulation.

For its part, the FDA has also cleared the way to deploy new formulations of Covid-19 vaccines so that they don’t have to go through the same tedious and expensive clinical trials process to get approval.

The goal is to get enough of the population immune to Covid-19 such that the virus can’t spread easily.

That threshold is known as herd immunity, and for Covid-19, it may take between 70 and 80 percent of the population to become immune.

The biggest threat, though, remains the ongoing and unchecked spread of Covid-19 across many parts of the world.

As economies reopen and international travel picks back up, controlling the spread of Covid-19 in other countries will become even more important as the chances of another variant spreading will increase.

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