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OMRF experts answer your COVID-19 variant questions

The Shawnee News-Star
COVID-19 vaccine.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Variants of COVID-19 from Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom are circulating in the U.S. With vaccinations up and case numbers down nationwide, will the mutations undo recent progress?

Not if we stay vigilant, say experts at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.

1. What is a variant?

“Variants are natural, random changes in the genetic makeup of a virus,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “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, said OMRF immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., but each appears to spread more easily than the original strain from China.

“Overall, that sounds like good news,” said Chakravarty. “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," said Chakravarty. “But the approved vaccines appear to be effective at preventing serious illness. And that really is the goal.”

“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,” said Prescott. That means vaccination, masking and distancing can slow the spread and creation of new variants.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything,” he said, “it’s that we can’t get comfortable and let our guard down.”