Who Let The Doc Out?! #017: COVID-19 variants and vaccines

When the novel coronavirus was first reported from Wuhan, China, on the 31st of December, 2019, the world was on a high alert. Although it was not humanity’s first encounter with coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that usually cause upper respiratory tract infections, it was a concerning one nonetheless.

Four of the seven known coronaviruses that cause illness in human beings cause only mild to moderate disease. Three are capable of causing more serious deadly disease, and the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) is one of them. It causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation on March 11, 2020.

While a lot of the information about the signs and symptoms, management, and recovery process of COVID-19 has remained more or less unchanged over the past two years, new questions are arising regarding the new coronavirus variants and vaccination as a preventative measure.

Is the disease process different with different variants? Will the COVID-19 vaccines work against arising variants? Do you need to do any new things to stay safe?

In this article, I hope to answer these questions to help you protect yourself and the people around you from COVID-19.

How many novel coronavirus variants have been identified?

In December 2020, there were reports of a new variant of the novel coronavirus. Variants occur when there is a change known as a mutation to any of the virus’s genes. Since the first variant, named alpha after the first letter of the Greek alphabet, was reported, we have seen a steady stream of these COVID variants.

The WHO, in collaboration with national authorities, institutions, and researchers, have been on the lookout for variants that pose an increased risk to global public health. This has led to the characterization of specific “Variants of Interest (VOIs)” and “Variants of Concern (VOCs)” to guide the global response to the ongoing pandemic.

A variant of interest is one that has genetic characteristics that predict greater transmissibility, evasion of immunity and diagnostic testing, or more severe disease.

A variant of concern is one that has been observed to be more infectious, more likely to cause breakthrough or reinfections in those who are vaccinated or previously infected, and more likely to cause severe disease, evade diagnostic tests, or resist antiviral treatment.

According to the WHO tracking page, there are currently 5 Variants of Concern (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, omicron) and 2 Variants of Interest (lambda, mu). Of these, omicron was the most recently designated and is showing the highest rates of transmissibility.

Is omicron deadlier than other variants?

While omicron is spreading at much faster rates than other variants, data on whether or not it causes more severe disease is still inconclusive. Research shows that it may reduce the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatment, but severe disease can be prevented by full vaccination and booster shots.

There is no information to suggest that the signs and symptoms that we see with omicron are different from the signs and symptoms noted in other COVID variants.

Will the COVID-19 vaccines work against new COVID variants?

New information on the efficacy of COVID vaccines against different variants is constantly emerging. While earlier reports showed that one dose of J&J or two shots of mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna offered sufficient protection against severe COVID-19 even with the delta variant, more recent reports suggest stronger protection is conferred with full vaccination plus a booster dose, even against the omicron variant.

However, when it comes to the spread of COVID, both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons can become infected and spread the disease, even though vaccination significantly reduces the risk of hospitalization.

It is for this reason that infectious disease experts insist that vaccination works more effectively on a population level. When more people are vaccinated, it provides a dampening effect across the community that prevents spread of the disease and severe illness on a mass scale.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Scientists maintain that the same measures that have worked to curb COVID spread with other variants remain effective with new variants. To protect yourself and the people around you, ensure that you:

  • Mask up. Masks offer equal protection against all COVID variants.
  • Get vaccinated. More recent data shows that people who are fully vaccinated and have received booster shots are less likely to contract COVID, and often suffer less severe disease if infected.
  • Get tested and isolate. New data from the CDC advises that you isolate for at least 5 days from onset of symptoms if you test positive, and wear a mask at least 5 days after that to protect those around you.

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan