Covid-19 Variants — Should I Panic?

Photo by thom masat on Unsplash

March 2020. The month where most of us in the UK became aware of the threat of ‘Covid-19’ — a new disease which started in China but had spread across the world and was now growing in the UK too. But less than a year later, there was hope.

Vaccines.

And they seemed to work well! Even scientists seemed surprised with how how effective they appeared to be. And if we had a vaccine which worked against Covid-19, then we were safe right? Job done?

But then the news reporters started talking about something else.

Variants.

I.e. new versions of the Covid-19 virus which seem more dangerous, more infectious and perhaps can’t even be stopped by vaccines. Are we all doomed?

How does a virus work and what the heck is a variant?
Covid-19 is a virus. Viruses work by entering the cells of our own body and, once in there, they can make their own copies of themselves. When they do this it can make us ill (1).

For the purposes of this (very unscientific) explanation, it is helpful to think of the Covid-19 virus as a soldier which is invading our cells.

Our immune system is like the body’s own army, working to protect us from invading forces such as a Covid-19 virus. When we have a vaccine it ‘trains’ our immune system to recognise Covid-19 so, if we become infected, we can fight it off quicker and hopefully it stops us becoming ill.

But, viruses don’t stay the same forever. In fact all viruses change (or ‘mutate’) randomly. Most of the time these mutations are small and insignificant; imagine our Covid-19 soldier changing the colour of their shoes.

However, every so often the virus can mutate in such a way that is beneficial for itself. This is what happened in the UK in November. A new variant (the UK variant) appeared which could spread much more quickly and easy from person-to-person (2) — a bit like a soldier gaining a horse so it can travel faster.

This new variant led to a big increase in the number of cases and meant the UK had to be put into a new national lockdown in January.

Does this mean vaccines won’t work against variants?
Not exactly, but this is something which scientists are worried about. As mentioned above, vaccines train our immune system to recognise and act against Covid-19. But there is some evidence that certain variants may change to an extent that vaccines don’t work as well.

One mutation which is of concern is called E484k. This funkily-named change is seen in a few of the variants including the ‘South Africa variant’. This change is a bit like the virus soldier now wearing a suit of armour: it makes the virus more difficult to recognise and harder to take down — even for people who have had the vaccine (3, 4).

However, this doesn’t mean that vaccines won’t work at all. At the moment, most scientists think that vaccines should provide some reasonable protection against most variants — for example, it may stop people getting seriously ill even if it doesn’t stop them getting some mild symptoms (3).

Despite this reassurance, it is really important to keep levels of these concerning variants as low as possible. The truth is we don’t exactly know how much these could evade vaccine protection and if they were to change further then vaccines could become less effective (3, 4).

What is the UK doing about tracking variants?
The UK has the best genomic sequencing (technology that can identify variants) in the world (5). This means that we can do a fairly good job of tracking when outbreaks of these variants occur. Currently there are 4 variants ‘of concern’ with a number others ‘under investigation’ (2).

For now, the vast majority of cases here are made up of the UK variant and we know that the Pfizer and AztraZeneca vaccines (the main ones used in the UK at the moment) work well against this variant. However, these may not work so well against other variants (6).

There are also rules to help stop variants coming into the country — such as making people from certain ‘red’ countries where there are variants quarantine and test negative when they enter the country.

Will these variants stop happening or will we be in a never-ending battle against a virus that keeps changing?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Many scientists think that we will be dealing with variants of Covid-19 for many years to come. Recently, the UK has purchased 60 million ‘booster’ jabs from Pfizer — these are essentially updated vaccines which are designed to work against the variants (7). We may well need to have regular booster vaccines for the next few years.

However, there is a way that we can help prevent variants developing in the first place. For this, we need to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases to as little as possible. Less virus = less chances of it mutating into a new dangerous variant.

Right now the world isn’t doing a great job of that.

India is currently suffering a crisis of epic proportion with hospitals overwhelmed due to an explosion of cases which may be driven by a new Indian variant of Covid-19. India currently only has ~10% of its population vaccinated which means that the vast majority of people can still become very ill. This is not only bad for India, but bad for the world. As cases of Covid-19 grow, the chances of new, dangerous variants developing increase. And if they spread to other countries then that could cause big problems — especially if a new variant develops which vaccines don’t work against. We would almost be back to square one having to update our vaccines (8).

For this reason, it is no good for rich countries to simply vaccinate themselves whilst poorer countries have to cope with little to no vaccines. If we want to protect the world from variants we need to effectively reduce the number of cases of Covid-19 and vaccinate as many people as possible across the world.

For a visual representation of the vaccine inequality happening right now have a look at this chart…

The % of people vaccinated in rich regions is much higher than in poorer regions.

So, are we doomed?
In short, no. But we are not out of the woods yet. The UK currently has low levels of the virus and there is a large amount of people vaccinated which should help keep another surge at bay — especially if we can keep vaccinating. At the moment, evidence suggests that vaccines will still do a good job of protecting us against variants. On top of this scientists are confident that they will be able to produce updated booster jabs fairly quickly — as vaccine production increases around the world, this provides hope that we can continue to stay on top of this virus.

But, if we want to truly solve the problem of variants, once and for all, then we need a global approach to get the world vaccinated. Otherwise new variants could develop and the scenes which are happening in India may happen in many other countries too.

TL;DR there is no need to panic about variants at the moment — vaccines are still great at protecting us and Covid-19 levels in the UK are low. However, we need to get the world vaccinated to truly solve the problem of variants.

WHAT CAN I DO?
Be sensible and encourage people to get vaccinated: sticking to the rules as best as possible helps reduce the number of Covid-19 cases and helps protect everyone. Vaccines are safe and effective; the more people who get vaccinated the better.
→ Read this article to learn more about why we need to encourage a global response to Covid-19.

References
(1) What Are Viruses and How Do They Work? — Tufts Now
(2) What do we know about the new COVID-19 variants?- Gov.uk
(3) Covid-19: The E484K mutation and the risks it poses- The BMJ
(4) Could new COVID variants undermine vaccines? Labs scramble to find out- Nature
(5) How Britain became the world leader in sequencing the coronavirus genome- The Telegraph (Paywall)
(6) Covid variants: latest on the Indian, Brazilian, UK and South African variants — British Heart Foundation
(7) COVID-19: UK secures 60 million more Pfizer coronavirus vaccine doses for autumn booster jabs-Sky News
(8) Why India’s Covid crisis matters to the whole world-BBC News

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