Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation president Stephen Prescott, M.D., and immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., tackle some questions about the COVID-19 variants.
1 What is a variant?
“Variants are natural, random changes in the genetic makeup of a virus,” Prescott said. “Most variants are insignificant, but some can provide viruses with an advantage, such as an ability to resist the body’s existing immune responses or to move from one person to another more effectively.”
2 Are the COVID-19 variants deadlier?
"Not necessarily," Chakravarty said. "But each appears to spread more easily than the original strain from China. Overall, that sounds like good news. But we’re still talking about a virus that has killed more than 460,000 Americans. So, even though the strains themselves may not be deadlier, they could lead to an increase in cases, which causes more deaths.”
3 Do the COVID-19 vaccines still work?
So far, the answer seems to be yes. Pfizer and Moderna studies show their vaccines to be protective against the variants, although less effective against the South African variant in particular. That means the vaccines may not prevent infections that lead to mild and moderate illness as often.
"We'd rather people didn’t get sick at all," Chakravarty said. “But the approved vaccines appear to be effective at preventing serious illness. And that really is the goal.”
4 Will I need a different vaccine?
“Probably not, but additional booster shots may be needed,” said Prescott, noting that Pfizer and Moderna are already developing variant-specific boosters in case they are needed.
In the two-shot COVID-19 vaccine regimen, the first dose teaches your body to recognize the virus. The second further instructs the immune system to remember the virus and make a stronger, more focused response if it sees it again.
“Time will tell whether we’ll need a third booster, or even an annual one,” Prescott said.
5 What can I do to protect myself?
“Viruses need hosts,” Prescott said. That means vaccination, masking and distancing can slow the spread and creation of new variants. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t get comfortable and let our guard down.”