- A recent survey of epidemiologists, virologists, and infectious disease specialists found that many worry new mutations of the coronavirus could render current vaccines useless within a year.
- Pharma manufacturers are currently in the process of developing booster shots to address specific variants.
- As of April 5, 167 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States.
As COVID-19 vaccinations increase drastically in the United States, experts are keeping a wary eye on the rising number of coronavirus variants.
A recent survey of epidemiologists, virologists, and infectious disease specialists found that many worry new mutations of the coronavirus could render current vaccines useless within a year.
The survey was conducted by the People’s Vaccine Alliance. It polled 77 experts from top academic institutions from 28 countries.
Nearly a third of the experts surveyed said that we have 9 months or less before the current vaccines are rendered ineffective.
Fewer than 1 in 8 said the vaccines would remain effective, despite mutations.
And 88 percent said that low vaccine coverage in many countries increases the chances for vaccine-resistant mutations to occur.
“This is a big concern, especially since we are still behind on our vaccine efforts,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health. “We need there to be 70 to 80 percent of the population vaccinated before we can let our guard down with variants emerging. The virus can still replicate and mutate.”
As of April 5, 167 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States, which translates to 32 percent of the population.
“The concept of COVID-19 ‘booster shots’ after initial vaccination is a reality we should accept,” added Dr. Robert Glatter, emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
“With the inevitable rise of variants, we will need to continually update COVID vaccinations such that an annual booster shot will be required in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Yes. Pharma manufacturers are currently in the process of developing booster shots to address specific variants, like the variants first detected in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B. 1.351), and Brazil (P.1).
Like other viruses, the coronavirus undergoes mutations over timeTrusted Source, causing concern about the effectiveness of vaccines against these variants.
When the virus replicates it may change slightly, resulting in a mutation. Not all mutations are bad or have any effect on transmissibility or disease severity.
However, sometimes these mutations can allow the virus to evade certain types of antibodies.
“The B. 1.1.7 is the most concerning of all the variants circulating in the U.S. at the time,” Glatter said. “It is not only more transmissible but also more [deadly] and represents at least a third of all current cases in the U.S.”
According to a studyTrusted Source published in Nature, this variant is associated with a 55 percent greater risk of death compared with other variants.
“COVID vaccine development continues to progress,” said Dr. Miriam Smith, chief of infectious disease at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in New York. “The evolution of virus mutations in a population at risk for infection is being addressed with reformulated or additional dosing of vaccines to enhance the host immune response.”
Despite increased efforts to vaccinate the population around the world, there are still many countries, including the United States, that are behind.
U.S. cases started to rise again in March after weeks of steep declines. The increase in cases arrived as states started to reopen and end mask mandates, and as new, transmissible variants started to spread more widely.
“The only pathway to avoiding annual vaccinations or booster shots could be a ‘universal’ coronavirus vaccine candidate that would provide coverage against all current and future strains,” Glatter said.
“But the ultimate goal would be to produce a vaccine that could work on any coronavirus serving to protect the population from all past and future coronaviruses,” he said.
Beyond that, the most important thing we can do is keep staying the course. This includes limiting nonessential travel, mask wearing, handwashing, and physical distancing.
“The situation in Europe, especially in France and Italy with ongoing lockdowns, should serve as a reminder that we must continue to be vigilant about mask wearing and distancing,” Glatter said.
“While the CDC has indicated that it is safe for fully vaccinated travelers to travel, provided they continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, we still need to be vigilant as variants continue to be a concern in the U.S. Caution is still the word,” he said.
Finally, getting the vaccine would be another important step.
Even if booster shots are required in the future, getting the maximum number of people vaccinated now can help dramatically.
“I urge everyone to get the vaccine,” Parikh said. “Get any of them as soon as possible so that we don’t have to worry about variants and the boosters. Getting vaccinated will only help this part of the puzzle.”