‘People should be worried’ about COVID-19 variants, expert says

Thanks to natural mutations, more-infectious and potentially deadlier variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are now racing around the globe and are threatening to turn back the recent progress against the disease due to vaccination.

Video Transcript


KAVITA PATEL: There's a large number, the majority of the country has not been vaccinated. They should be very worried, because they are prime targets for these viruses with variants to reproduce. Remember, the goal of a virus is not to kill people, it's actually to just continue to stay alive. And the only way it does that is by infecting people. So people who are not vaccinated should be incredibly worried.

One of the biggest concerns at this phase of dealing with a pandemic is not just how many vaccines can we have that are effective, but will they be effective? And what can we do about the fact that variants of concern have now dominated all parts of the United States? Houston, Texas, first United States city just this past week to report genetic proof of all five concerning variants, which we believe are highly transmissible, and, in some cases, more deadly.

And as the CDC estimates that by the end of March the B117 variant, which is believed to be from the United Kingdom and is already known to be at least 50% more infectious and potentially more deadly, will become the normal strain, so to speak, in the United States. For this reason, variants might seem like they were outliers before, but they are now part of our daily language in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The more people vaccinated decreased the rate of infectivity becomes, the R-naught or the Rt, which is how many people, if you get the infection, how many people you will infect, that number is already coming down and will continue to go down.

It won't get to zero, but it'll be pretty darn close so that if you get infected, there's basically no chance of you infecting anyone else when we get to a certain level of immunity. Everybody's asking, is that herd immunity and that's-- what percentage is that? But it's not a light switch. So above 50%, the higher we go, then the more the chances of getting infected decrease. So that's-- that's good news. So we're getting closer and closer, but we're not going to get there in the next-- it's going to be weeks, if not months, before we get to that point.

Pfizer said that their vaccine develops antibodies against the variants, but just at a lesser degree. What that really means is that it works against the variants, but it's because the response that it's developing is only so good. It's not 100%, not 95%, but it's probably about 80%. What it could do, what's more likely is that someone who is vaccinated, we're very confident that that person won't die or get severe disease.

All major manufacturers, even those who are not authorized in the United States, are trying to understand whether their current vaccine technologies need to be tweaked or potentially a booster developed to help deal with these variants that seem to be popping up like wildfires. The boosters themselves, in effect, are easy to manufacture, because we have the genetic footprint of these variants. So you can essentially reverse engineer a technology to create a vaccine.

The more challenging question is, when do we need a booster vaccine? How often will we need one? And by the time they get authorized or go through the process to ensure that they are safe, will there be a whole other set of variants that we have to deal with? Those are all the questions that come up when talking about boosters, vaccines, and whether the vaccine you take today is going to be a vaccine that you will take three months from now again, six months from now, every year for the rest of your life.