What about these new COVID variants? Do the vaccines work against them?
SARS-CoV2 is a virus which mutates to survive. So there have been many variants out there. The 3 big ones that we hear about are the B 1.1.7 or the UK variant; the B1351 or the S. African variant and the 501Y.V3 or the Brazil variant. Scientists have the entire genetic code for SARS-CoV2, so they know exactly where these mutations are occurring to cause these variants.
The UK is the most prevalent worldwide and the reason it is of concern for us is because there have also been the highest number of cases reported in the US—and even then, we have not done a good job of sequencing all of our reported COVID cases, so it is likely we are undercounting how many cases there are. The UK variant’s mutations cause a >50% increase in the virus’s transmissibility. We DO not know if this changes how lethal it is; but we do know that the more patients who get sick the higher the number who are going to die—so this is important.
We are uncertain if the South African or Brazil variant change the virus’ transmissibility
The important question is how do our vaccines work against these variants. And what we do know so far is that ALL of the vaccines still prevent severe disease in all of these variants.
Overall, the vaccines appear to work well against the B 1.1.7 (UK) variant. The South African variant is a bit more worrisome—we are seeing some immune evasion and reductions in vaccine efficacy. But again: the J&J vaccine conducted their clinical trials in South Africa, so we know that the this vaccine is effective against this variant.
But getting back to the nature of viruses to mutate: the more we can decrease the spread of the virus, the more we can decrease these mutations and the number of variants we have. And we accomplish decreasing spread by wearing a mask, socially distancing and getting vaccinated!