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Ellis: What to know about COVID-19 Variants

By Glenn Ellis

Over the past several months, researchers in the United States have identified a host of new strains (or variants) of the COVID-19 virus; and these variants are causing many of us more concern. Even though the vaccines out there still work against the initial version of COVID-19, there’s growing evidence that the virus is evolving in ways that can reduce the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines – particularly when they’re up against these emerging variants.

The tricky part to popping up of these variants (that lead to mutations) is that different states and counties in the United States, and other countries around the world, have experienced COVID-19 epidemics differently. Some are densely populated; some are impoverished; many different circumstances and societies around world contributing to the need for the COVID -19 virus to adapt wherever it is on the planet to survive where it is at the time. Thus, we are beginning to think about how safe we really by taking the vaccine.

All of the COVID-19 vaccines, currently available in the United States, have only been around for a short amount of time, and because of this, no one knows exactly how long immunity lasts after being vaccinated. This is true for both one-dose and two-dose vaccines.

Pharmaceutical company estimates are that it will be another one or two years to have enough data to reach the criteria for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval consideration. In the clinical trials that led to the FDA granting Pfizer an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), the FDA fact sheet on the EUA points out that the “vaccine has been shown to prevent COVID-19 following two doses given three weeks apart. The duration of protection against COVID-19 is currently unknown.”

We truly do need to “follow the science”, so that we can manage our expectations as we move forward through the current vaccine campaign. We need to have some idea of what to expect. What do we need to keep in mind, as a barometer, the steady stream of changing updates, bombarding us daily on this pandemic? Our best point of reference to guide us on our pathway through this pandemic, is the basis that the vaccines were first released under, and what was known then.

Both Moderna and Pfizer made clear in their FDA filings, “the fact that there has never been a commercial product utilizing mRNA technology approved for use.” Those vaccines are one of the many wonders and benefits of being alive at a time when science, technology, and research yield such advancements. Of similar importance for us to focus on as we wait for, what is now an imminent booster/3rd dose on the horizon, is the manufacturers who aren’t making misleading claims, and raising false hopes. Again, in FDA filings Moderna recognizes that their efforts to develop an effective vaccine against variants, “may prove less effective against variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or the company (Moderna) may be unsuccessful in developing future versions of its vaccine against these variants.”

Let me take a moment and do what I feel not enough of us who have these platforms have done during this public health crisis – provide some information on why the whole variant thing matters. After all, you say, we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic. How much more can deadly can a virus be?  It’s really rather simple: variants (or mutations) increase the ability for the virus to spread; to make it spread more quickly inside people; and becomes stronger in causing either milder or more severe disease in people.

On top of all of that, in addition to being better at not being detected in specific viral tests, the data also shows that the, heretofore, monoclonal antibodies that were so promising in treating folks who got real sick, doesn’t work as well with these latest variants And here’s the big one – variants have the potential to totally evade our natural or a vaccine-induced immunity! That’s where, and why, the booster or third dose comes in. So, you see, if we are serious about ever beating this thing, we have too, just like the scientists, think about what’s next with this virus?

The past year has been exhaustingly draining, and we are so desperate for a clear path out of this darkness. We must keep in perspective that the virus is unknown, and the method of successfully defending us from it, and controlling it are unknown. Vaccines; face masks; social distancing; and all the other “painful austerities” we’ve had to endure are all our, collective, best efforts to do what we have to do, until we know what works.

Until we get there, we must all be prepared for a joyous return to a semblance of happier times; while also being prepared for many adjustments and modifications to what we will learn, and what we will have to do, as time goes on with the vaccine rollout.

My closing words are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “We are still learning how vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19. After you’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you should keep taking precautions in public places like wearing a mask, staying six feet apart from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and washing your hands often. CDC will continue to update recommendations as we know more.”

Last week, in light of new data, the CDC relaxed its physical distancing guidelines for children in schools to recommend most students maintain at least three feet of distance, so long as everyone is wearing a mask and other prevention measures are in place.

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.