Four Important Insights About COVID-19 Variants

Throughout the pandemic, the coronavirus has mutated into multiple COVID-19 variants. Here’s what you need to know about these variants and their impact on public health.

Air Date: February 17, 2021

Moderator: Suzanne P. Clark, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Featured Guests: Dr. Sharon Peacock, Director, COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, Dr. Jonathan Li, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

COVID-19 vaccines have been rolling out in the United States steadily since late 2020. With the rapid increase in vaccination, people are starting to feel optimistic about returning to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. However, there is one aspect that should still keep people on guard: COVID-19 variants.

Like other viruses, the coronavirus has mutated into new variants, many of which can be traced to different world regions. Each variant may have some unique side effects and symptoms, the most common similarity being that they are more transmissible. However, with continued health measures and vaccine distribution, these new variants can be combated.

Here are four insights to know about COVID-19 variants.

Virus Mutation Occurs Naturally and Is Often ‘Survival of the Fittest’

While the prospect of a stronger coronavirus can be frightening, Dr. Sharon Peacock of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium assures that this is common for viruses.

“Viruses mutate through a natural process, and most mutations are actually neutral,” Dr. Peacock said. “Some might even be detrimental to the virus, but a few alter the way the virus functions in a way that's adverse to us.”

“Viruses mutate as a part of natural selection and survival of the fittest,” she continued. “So from a virus perspective, if it's going to persist against other viruses, it needs to be the fittest version of itself that it can be.”

Vaccines and Healthy Habits Can Counter Some COVID-19 Variants

Many people fear that if there are COVID-19 variants, the current batch of vaccines will be ineffective against them. Scientifically, there has been no cause for alarm, as these vaccines have proven effective against the variants.

“I'm confident that the vaccines that we're rolling out … are going to be sufficient to give people a variant cover,” said Dr. Peacock.

More than vaccines, there is a lot that everyday people can do to prevent the spread and mutation of these variants. For one thing, “viruses only mutate when they’re infecting people,” said Dr. Peacock.

“Each time the virus goes through a human body has an opportunity to make a mistake in its genome. So driving down the burden of disease is absolutely a top priority. That comes in two flavors: One is vaccinating people. The second is [continuing] the behaviors that we adopt to try to avoid spreading the virus, [washing] the hands [and] face, following the rules, [and] doing what we can to reduce spread in our community.”

Businesses Need to Be Patient in Planning Reopening If Variants Cause New Surges in COVID-19

Businesses are eager to resume normal operations and have employees return to the workspace. With the vaccine having a strong rollout, many leaders try to strategize their employees' returns, but they need to practice flexibility and patience.

“I think that in the next few months, we can start to see how life would get better,” said Dr. Peacock. “I'm optimistic that if people take up the vaccine, if they do follow the rules, that we will be getting into a better place, certainly by the summer or into the autumn. I think better days are to come up, but in the end, we'll be living with this virus rather than simply getting rid of it and never seeing it again.”

It’s Uncertain Whether Vaccinated Individuals Will Need Annual Booster Shots

There's been speculation that the COVID-19 vaccine won't be a one-time dose but rather the type of shot that requires an annual booster, much like the flu shot. Dr. Jonathan Li of Harvard Medical School currently says the science is still out on any conclusion.

“It potentially could be a reasonable strategy,” Dr. Li said. “Once someone already has been vaccinated, I think it will be easier to try to boost them with another dose, with a different variant.”

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