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Ellis: All about the COVID-19 mutations

By Glenn Ellis

The newest mutations of the COVID-19 showing up in the United States will bring with it, over the next three or four weeks, the most difficult days of the pandemic we have seen so far. Studies in laboratories show that a mutation makes a person’s antibodies less effective at killing the virus. Viral mutations help a virus to disguise parts of its recognizable traits, so the pathogen might have an easier time slipping past immune protection. These mutations can also tell us what we don’t know…what lies ahead, in terms of other mutations and/or future pandemics.

The job for all of us now is to, first and foremost, survive; stay alive; and be as healthy as possible. Our second “job” is to learn and educate ourselves as much as we can; empowering ourselves with better understandings on how to ask the “right” questions; where to go for credible; factual information that you can trust; and to “personalize” the pandemic, by learning exactly what is necessary for you and your family to be safe and protected during this, and future pandemics…rest assured, there will be others.

None of the experts can predict when; but they all agree that it’s not if, but when. Among the many options this pandemic is providing for us to “learn”, we are being introduced to a range of new questions, as a result of the introductions of mutant variants.

Mutations in viruses -including COVID-19 – are not new nor were they unexpected. All RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others. We are all familiar with the how flu viruses change often, which is why you get a new flu vaccine every year. When viruses mutate, generally, they either kill the virus (a type of “virus-suicide”) or they can have no effect whatsoever on the normal behavior of the virus.  To date, we are seeing variants (or mutant strains) from the United Kingdom; South Africa; and Brazil all hitting the United States at the same time, while we’re battling furiously against the rage of the initial version of COVID-19. Now, that there technically four different strains of a deadly virus circulating.

Scientists initially felt there was no cause for concern about the vaccines being distributed not being effective against emerging mutations, after hearing of a mutant strain being reported in United Kingdom. South African officials noticed that their mutant strain not only appeared to make the virus more able to spread (or transmit), and more capable of evading the immune system’s response; alarms bells sounded when the antibodies produced in people who had previously recovered from COVID did not completely neutralize a variant. This mutation phenomena became even more concerning when, contrary to all prior global clinical experience with the virus to date, this month researchers reported, for the first time that the mutant strain shows initial indications that it has the ability to evade the vaccine.

News of this has caused mixed reactions from different stakeholders.

You see, when this thing first made its appearance, public health experts and scientist knew it would bad, but they felt that at least it would be stable. As it turns out they were only half right; it is bad, but it is anything but stable.

Pfizer and Moderna, have been reluctant to support any changes to their respective vaccination schedules. The drug makers on grounds that the vaccines weren’t tested and so their efficacy is unknown. On the face of it, this position seems sensible; yet under current circumstances, it is dangerously overcautious. Some researchers and scientists think more lives would be saved by providing just one dose of the vaccine as soon as possible, or as others think, maybe we should provide just one dose of the vaccine to all people who face the highest risk of dying from Covid-19, whoever they are, for whatever the reason.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding mutations of COVID-19, the last thing we need to do is to minimize the potential of the vaccines to control this pandemic. We don’t have to worry that the mutation will make the existing vaccines available useless. The vaccines available now have what’s known as a polyclonal response, causing armies of antibodies to attack different parts of the virus. When the virus starts to mutate, causing changes to any of those target sites this increases the potential for the vaccine to be less effective, or not work at all.

There is growing concern among scientists who think the coronavirus could eventually change so much that the vaccines could reach a pint of providing no immunity. The more that people are protected from the virus – either through vaccination or infection – the more evolutionary pressure that puts on the virus to survive by mutating. Even though it would take years to reach that point of evolutionary mutation, could take years, the vaccine makers are confident that can modify their formulas to match a newer variant in only take weeks.

In the spirit of empowering the community with adequate information to make informed decisions, keep in mind that we are not helpless, we could wipe COIVD-19 out, if everyone wore a mask for four weeks.


Glenn Ellis, MPH is a Visiting Scholar at The National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee University and a Harvard Medical School Bioethics Fellow. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com