- The two variants tend to spread faster; they are more infectious: WHO
- Coronavirus variants do not seem to cause more severe illness: WHO
- Current COVID-19 vaccines are likely to work against mutant virus: Experts
New Delhi: The emergence of a new strain of mutated coronavirus in the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa has raised concerns over the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines especially at a time when India has planned to begin a vaccination programme from January 16. Two particular variants reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) have one change in common and that is called the N501Y mutation. But otherwise, the two are different. According to the WHO, the reason there is a concern is that both of these variants were associated with an increase in the number of cases in both of these countries – the UK and South Africa. Giving out more details of the two variants, WHO’s Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan, said,
Scientists have now studied this and have found that these variants do tend to spread faster, they are more transmissible or more infectious. So that’s the worrying part. However, so far, they do not seem to cause more severe illness or a higher death rate or any sort of different clinical manifestations. They seem to behave pretty much as the previous viruses were behaving and cause a pretty similar kind of disease.
When asked how concerned should an individual be about the mutation, Dr Rajesh Parikh, Director, Medical Research at Jaslok Hospital and the author of ‘The Vaccine Book for COVID-19’, told NDTV, we should be concerned but not too worried.
Will Vaccines Be Effective Against Different Mutant Of Virus?
Dr Swaminathan asserted that possible mutations are kept in mind while developing a vaccine as some vaccines need to be updated with the change in the strain of the virus. Explaining the same with an example, Dr Swaminathan said,
We have some vaccines, like measles, which you don’t need to change at all. You make the vaccine; it works pretty much all the time. But you also have vaccines like against the influenza virus, where you have to change the structure of the vaccine every year, based on the circulating strains and WHO coordinates this global network that actually identifies which strain should be used every year.
SARS-CoV-2 is mutating significantly but Dr Swaminathan is of the opinion that a couple of changes or mutations in the virus should not make the current vaccines ineffective. She added,
At this point in time, most scientists believe that the vaccines that are currently in development and a couple that has been approved should provide protection against this variant and other variant because these vaccines elicit a fairly broad immune response, a host of antibodies and cell-mediated immune responses. But right now, there are studies going on in labs around the world to actually confirm that.
Echoing the same, AIIMS Director, Dr Randeep Guleria told NDTV, it is very unlikely that vaccines will be ineffective as they induce T-cell immunity for long-term protection against viruses. But, to determine the efficacy of vaccines against mutations Dr Guleria called for more data. He added,
Vaccines try and induce neutralising antibodies by acting at multiple sites on the level of spike protein and also induce T-cell immunity in the human body. The vaccine will work despite the mutations that are happening. However, we need to see will this affect the efficacy of the vaccine. I think we need more data for that. And we also need to have a plan in place in case there is a major mutation that may lead to a significant decline in vaccine efficacy; how can we change the vaccine, which can be done, so that we cover for the mutant strain also.
Dr Swaminathan also noted that if vaccines are less effective against one or both of the two variants, it will be possible to change the composition of the antigens and the vaccines quite quickly.
Adding to this, Dr Parikh said,
The Pfizer vaccine has proven effective against the mutation in a preliminary study conducted with the University of Texas. However, the data is not peer-reviewed or published. It is likely that vaccines will be effective against the variants. If not, they can be modified easily, especially the mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains mRNA vaccines as vaccines that teach our cells how to make a protein or even just a piece of a protein. The protein then triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.
Currently, unlike influenza, coronavirus doesn’t mutate that much and therefore, it is likely that we may not have to change the vaccine as frequently as we do with influenza, clarified Dr Guleria.
Can A Recovered Patient Be Reinfected With A Different Strain Of The Coronavirus?
Dr Guleria explained that even if an individual is infected with a different strain, it will still be a coronavirus and an individual will have immunity against it. He added,
We even know from the past that even if you have an infection with another coronavirus strain there is some degree of cross-immunity. So, with this strain, the change is not that much. It is the same strain that has only mutated, you will still continue to have protection as far you have antibody and cell mutated immunity in your body. Therefore, if you have had an infection in the past, the chance of you getting reinfection with a new mutant strain is less. You will have some degree of protection.
Protecting Against The New Mutation
Dr Swaminathan said that the variant spreads in a similar way and suggested attacking the virus with the same public and social measures that have been used so far to control the spread of the coronavirus. She reiterated the health measures that have worked in the past and said,
We know that testing, that identifying those who are infectious, that being able to provide them supportive isolation, tracking and contact tracing, and quarantining all the contacts, making sure that people continue to comply with the physical distancing, with wearing a mask with avoiding crowded places, avoiding closed settings, where there are a lot of people, washing hands, respiratory etiquette, staying home if you’re sick. All of these things together definitely make a difference in bringing down transmission.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.