Vaccines vs. Variants

A race to end the COVID-19 pandemic

By Aditee Prabhutendolkar | Published 04/12/2021

It seems almost ironic that just as pharmaceutical companies received approval for their COVID-19 vaccines, new variants of the virus found their way into the country. The vaccines that are currently being released were manufactured and tested in consideration of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, which originated in Wuhan and quickly made its way throughout the world.

Since the pandemic began, the virus mutated many times, but most of these variants weren’t as ideal for survival as the original strain and thus died out quickly. The main reason why there are so many mutated versions is the sheer number of people that have been infected by the virus globally--the more the virus spreads person to person, the more chances it has to make a mistake in DNA replication.

Given how many times the virus has mutated in transmission, as pure probability would have it, there are now two more dangerous and aggressive strains for us to worry about. The B.1.351 strain originated in South Africa and was first observed in the U.S. in December 2020. The B.1.1.7 strain originated in the U.K. and was first observed in the U.S. in January 2021. As of right now, B.1.1.7 is the most common variant in the U.S. It has a higher rate of transmission than the original strain, especially in those who haven’t built up immunity yet (either through previous infection or vaccination).

The question naturally arises: are the vaccines effective against the variants? So far, Pfizer and Modern have proven effective against B.1.1.7, but less effective against B.1.351. The B.1.351 and potential other variants seem to be pharmaceutical companies’ primary concern. Of course, many vaccines are still being tested against these new strains, so information is likely to be updated in the near future.

The companies that are primarily distributing vaccines in the U.S.--Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson--are updating their vaccines and beginning the process of clinical trials in light of the situation. Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are considering providing an extra dose as a booster against these new variants.

It almost goes without saying, but scientists from the CDC are still strongly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated once they are able to, but it’s important that we don’t treat vaccines as cure-alls. Vaccines will certainly provide some immunity and highly likely protect us from the original strain, but (given the new variants and the possibility of more) taking precautions is still necessary.

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