Many questions have been raised by scientists, journalists and others in response to the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 that have emerged in the last few months, and are expected to become the dominant strains of the virus in the coming weeks.
One common question is whether the currently approved vaccines in the United States — those manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna — will be effective at protecting people against the new virus variants. Another is whether the vaccines will still be protective against future variants of the virus with new mutations.
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Recent studies have provided some answers, showing that the vaccines offer strong protection against the newer variants — and, according to a leading infectious disease expert, limiting future, possibly more harmful mutations is a major reason why the current vaccines should be deployed as quickly as possible.
Antibodies from vaccine effective against virus variants
To test the effectiveness of the current vaccines against the newer variants of the coronavirus, researchers didn’t directly expose people to the viruses — something that would be frowned on by most ethics committees that approve studies. Instead, the scientists took blood from 20 fully vaccinated people and performed lab tests, as noted in a recent CNN article.
When samples of participants’ blood were exposed to both “regular” versions of the coronavirus and the new variants, their cells produced a strong antibody response in both cases — exactly what is supposed to happen in a vaccinated person, showing that their immune system recognized the new variants as being very similar to the versions of the virus the vaccines were designed for. Mutations in the new virus variants did allow them, though, to escape from some antibodies. It’s not clear whether these mutations would render the vaccines to be slightly less effective, but it was reassuring that many different antibodies were deployed to fight the new virus variants.
It’s important to note that even if a vaccine’s response weren’t strong enough to completely prevent an infection from one of the new virus variants, a robust immune response could still prevent someone from becoming seriously ill — a laudable goal in a pandemic that has killed over 400,000 Americans and, at times, overwhelmed hospital capacity in some areas of the country.
Ultimately, it will probably be necessary to modify the existing vaccines to make them more effective against the new virus variants — something that should be fairly easy to do quickly, since the vaccines’ mRNA-based design allows for tweaks to the genetic material used to prompt an immune response. It’s not clear, though, at what point making a change would be appropriate — since there is no precedent for this situation, using an mRNA-based vaccine against a mutating virus.
In a joint statement commenting on the latest study, Pfizer and BioNTech — the company that developed the vaccine that Pfizer manufactures and distributes — wrote that “So far, for COVID-19 vaccines it has not been established what reduction in neutralization might indicate the need for a vaccine strain change. Should a vaccine strain change be required to address virus variants in the future, the Companies believe that the flexibility of BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA vaccine platform is well suited to enable such adjustment.”
Current vaccines may help prevent virus mutations
It’s worth noting that vaccinating as many people as quickly as possible may be a useful tool to prevent new coronavirus mutations, as noted in a separate CNN article featuring statements from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate,” Fauci noted in a news conference at the White House. To do that, they need to spread from person to person — something that the current vaccines help prevent. So if the current vaccines can be deployed widely and quickly, there might not be a need to make any — or at least not as many — tweaks to the vaccines in the future.
In the meantime, of course, good ways to prevent the spread of the virus — and any future mutations — include staying home when possible, maintaining a physical distance of at least six feet, and wearing a mask when you’re indoors or congregating with anyone who isn’t a member of your household.
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