Question – How concerned should we be with the circulation of the variants from the U.K. South Africa and Brazil? Are the vaccines effective against these variants?
Answer from Dr. Virginia Bieluch, Hartford Healthcare’s Central Region Chief of Infectious Disease –
When viruses copy themselves they sometimes make mistakes, which can result in changes to the genetic code of the virus. If this change provides the virus with an advantage, such as spreading more readily from person to person, viruses with this new property can become the predominant virus circulating in a community and can spread to new areas when people travel. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have arisen in various areas of the world and are spreading. Among the variants are the B.1.1.7 variant (United Kingdom), B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil). All of these variants have now been identified in the United State. These variants spread from person to person more readily.
There are currently 3 vaccines available in the United States and all 3 are expected to generate protection against these variants. The vaccines may be less effective against these variants, but these vaccines are highly effective against the virus that causes COVID-19 so we continue to expect protection against these variants. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was studied in South Africa and Brazil where the B.1.351 and P.1 variants were widely circulating and the vaccine demonstrated efficacy. We don't have direct evidence of the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against these virus variants, but scientists are studying how well serum from people who have been vaccinated with these two vaccines neutralizes the variants in the laboratory.
The keys to controlling spread of these variants are vaccination and following the public health measures suggested to prevent person-to-person spread, such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated areas. The virus that causes COVID-19 will continue to develop variants as long as it spreads from person to person. The public health measures to prevent person to person spread of COVID-19 will be effective to prevent spread of these variants while we wait for enough people to be vaccinated. You should not panic about these variants, but you should continue to try to avoid COVID-19 and get vaccinated when it is your turn. We are all looking forward to returning to a sense of normalcy, but this will only be possible once we do our part to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from finding new hosts in which to replicate.