Photo of two health care professionals in protective gear giving a COVID swab test to a person

COVID-19: answers to concerns about new variants

Mark Cameron was part of the rapid-response research team when the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak hit Toronto in the early 2000s. Now a faculty member in Population and Quantitative Health Sciences, he is conducting COVID-19 and other infectious disease research while also sharing his scientific expertise with media outlets around the country. 

Here, he participates in a Q&A session regarding COVID-19  variants.

This piece is part of an ongoing series to provide the campus community insight about COVID-19-related issues.  

Will the approved vaccines help protect against the new variants?

Unfortunately, several recent mutations appear to have been beneficial to the virus by increasing its ability to infect us at lower exposures. Fortunately, the vaccine companies have been studying these variants closely and there is no indication yet that these new variants can escape the current vaccines. In fact, Moderna just released data Monday (Jan. 25) that shows that blood from those who have received the vaccine can still completely neutralize the UK variant (known as B.1.1.7). While there was some loss of neutralization power against the variant identified in South Africa (B.1.351), vaccine recipients could still fend it off. Of course, more work is being done to understand the extent and duration of immunity.

What if I haven’t been able to get my vaccine yet—is COVID-19 even more dangerous to me now?

There has been some concern voiced that the new variants may be more dangerous because they can be transmitted more easily and/or cause greater damage after infection. We don’t know for sure yet. It could just be that the new variants are regaining access to our most vulnerable because of significantly increased transmissibility. Even so, personal precautions are as critical as ever in avoiding spread of infection, as well as quick ramp up of the vaccine’s rollout.

Are pharmaceutical companies going to upgrade vaccines to cover this new variant?

Yes, they are already developing boosters. The mRNA vaccines constitute a brand new and easily customizable platform. The vaccines contain a message that our cells read to make a version of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that tells our immune system how to respond later. If COVID-19’s spike protein message changes in the wild, it’s easy to change this same message in the vaccine to match new variants if necessary.

If I have received my vaccine already, will I now need another for the new variant?

No, the current vaccine appears to cover the current variants. Now, it’s possible that we may need another COVID-19 vaccination in the future, either as a booster of immunity against the current variants or as an immunization against any new variants. While it would be very unusual for a coronavirus to change at a rate similar to influenza viruses, it bears mention that the U.S. annual flu vaccine program works exactly in this manner, i.e. staying one step ahead of the virus through many scientific efforts.

They are saying this new variant is more contagious and more deadly, is this true? There is so much misinformation I don’t know what to believe.

We don’t know for sure whether any of the new variants are more deadly. Clearly, because they are more transmissible and can cause more cases, they in turn can cause more deaths, especially if the new variants are regaining access to our most vulnerable by sheer number of new infections. Personal and public health precautions are as critical as ever in avoiding spread of infection, as well as quick ramp up of the vaccine’s rollout.

Would double-masking make a difference? Should everyone get N95 masks?

I am of the opinion, unfortunately, that until the vaccine reaches most of the US population, we will have to up the ante on our mask use (and social distancing). What masks and practices may have worked against the original variants of SARS-CoV-2 may not work as well against the newly transmissible variants. Doubling masking may fit the bill, but I think better access to a wider selection of certified masks, up to and including N95 masks, as well as better guidance in getting them properly and comfortably fit per the individual would go further.