• Erica Tapia

COVID-19 Variants and the Importance of Mass Vaccination

What is a variant?


You’re probably hearing the word “variant” more often lately and may be wondering what exactly it means and how it applies to the evolving COVID-19 situation. In virology, a genetic variant is a form of a virus that is genetically distinct from the main or original strain but not different enough to be classified as its own virus. All viruses change over time as random mutations are introduced and natural selection (the mechanism of evolution in which organisms better suited to their environment are able to survive and reproduce, changing the gene pool of the population) occurs. The SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is no exception.


Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/kQrBavaF-Fk


The Delta Variant.


After over a year of various COVID restrictions and protocols, the ARS-CoV-2 Delta variant, nicknamed the “Delta variant”, has begun to pervade society. This variant was first detected in India in late 2020 but made a name for itself in May of 2021. It is now responsible for more than 80% of infections in the United States. Although previous variants have made their way into the news in the past year, the Delta variant has caused the most chaos, as it is said to be more aggressive in its symptom profile and up to 97% more transmissible than previous strains and has caused world leaders to consider reimplementing lockdown procedures and business restrictions that many thought were to be left in the past.


Unfortunately, this isn’t the only variant.


First detected in November of 2020, the “Gamma variant” from Brazil (lineages P.1, P.1.1, and P.1.2) also shows increased transmissibility and mortality compared to the original strain. Moreover, another highly infectious variant (the C.37 variant) was detected in Peru in August of 2020. This strain is called the “Lambda variant” and is reported to be responsible for 81% of COVID cases in Peru since April. Because Peru has the highest COVID death rate of any country, this may point to the Lambda variant being alarmingly dangerous. This variant has now spread to 30 countries including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and Israel and has already been detected in 44 U.S. states. Along with increased transmissibility, infectivity, and mortality, the Lambda variant shows early evidence of being resistant to vaccines.


Variants like Delta, Gamma, and Lambda are inevitable if COVID is allowed to spread. Random mutations in viral reproduction have the possibility of resulting in more favorable traits for the virus. These traits include the ability to better infect cells (caused by the N501Y mutation present in the Alpha, Gamma, and Beta variants), spread more easily (caused by the L452R mutation in the Delta strain), and bypass the body’s immune defenses (caused by the E484K mutation in the Beta and Gamma variants), among others. These properties can also put strain on the health system by requiring different therapeutic medicines, diagnostic tools, or public health measures. Because these random mutations allow the virus to thrive, they continue to be passed onto future generations of the virus and therefore become more prevalent among human hosts. When humans contract the virus and serve as its host, we are giving it the opportunity to reproduce and introduce new mutant strains.


This is why getting vaccinated is so important.


If nobody hosts the virus, it will have no breeding ground where mutations can form. This is what scientists are referring to when they say “herd immunity”. According to Mayo Clinic, herd immunity occurs when a large portion of the community are immune to a disease via vaccination so the spread of the disease from person to person becomes unlikely, and the entire community (including the smaller percentage of unvaccinated individuals) is protected.


These new variants also have many vaccinated people wondering about booster shots. Because long term studies have not been possible, the extent to which the effects of COVID vaccines may fade over time is unknown. There is not yet a consensus regarding these extra doses among professionals. Data does not yet prove that these booster shots would even help fight COVID-19. Although the Pfizer and BioTech corporations urged regulators to approve booster shots because of increased risk of infection six months after vaccination, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on July 8, 2021 that fully vaccinated individuals did not need a booster shot. Booster shot recommendations are also dependent on the immune response of each individual. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunocompromised individuals may generate less of an immune response to initial doses. These individuals may need extra shots as more infectious variants rise to prominence. However, these claims will have to be reevaluated at a later date, as booster shots are not a priority until inoculation of at least 10% of the population of every country is achieved. On August 4th, 2021 the World Health Organization called for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September, stating that resources should be utilized on those who have not yet been vaccinated.

 

Speaking Plainly:

  • With the reinvigoration of society after initial vaccine excitement, genetic variants of COVID-19 are beginning to form and spread.

  • The Delta variant has already begun to pervade the U.S., causing increased mortality and infection rates and re-upping consideration towards mask mandates and school and business closures.

  • The Lambda variant, which is also highly transmissible and may even outwit vaccines, has ravaged countries in South America and will only continue to spread if proactive actions are not taken.

  • The best protection against these variants and future variants is widespread vaccination, and the WHO is pushing for a vaccination rate of at least 10% in every country.

  • Booster shots are on the back burner until the 10% goal is satisfied in an attempt to both reduce the spread of COVID and maintain health equality as we enter this new stage of the pandemic.