SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT COVID-19 VARIANTS? ARE THE VACCINES EFFECTIVE?
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Updated 13th December 2021
This article is continuously updated.
Reports about new COVID-19 variants have been recently all over the news and a lot of people are afraid of what this all means. Are the vaccines still effective? Are the new variants more deadly? Do they spread more easily? Scientists are working relentlessly to answer these questions and put your mind to ease.
The Brazilian variant, UK variant, and South African variant of the coronavirus are currently the center of scientific attention. These variants have already spread all over the world and are no longer limited to the country of origin.
This article will explain the COVID-19 variants, what is known, what is unknown, and what it all means for you.
Why are there several COVID-19 variants?
Viruses mutate. It’s what they do. A good example is the influenza virus. Each year, the influenza virus mutates and new variants start circulating and causing disease. This is why doctors recommend that you get a yearly updated flu shot. So, scientists are not at all surprised that new variants of the novel coronavirus have been emerging, it was expected. The COVID-19 virus contains genes (RNA), and mutations are always prone to develop as the virus spreads.
Mutations in the coronavirus can change how the virus looks, how easily it spreads, and how aggressive it is. For example, the UK variant, called B.1.1.7, spreads more quickly than the original virus. The variant has quickly become the dominant variant in the UK and, by last December, was responsible for more than 60% of the cases there.
Scientists monitor these genetic changes and analyze them to keep track of how the virus has changed over time and understand what these mutations mean.
What are the known COVID-19 variants?
Scientists have isolated several COVID variants globally, and new emerging variants are being discovered every few weeks. The variants seem to be developing independently in multiple locations around the globe. Three main variants have been particularly well described so far:
The UK variant (Alpha or B.1.1.7)
The United Kingdom (UK) coronavirus variant was probably the earliest to be identified. The numerous mutations affect the spike protein and allow this variant to spread more easily compared to the original virus. By December 2020, the B.1.1.7 variant was already the predominant coronavirus variant in the UK, causing more than half of all the cases there.
Since then, the UK variant has been detected in many other countries and is no longer contained in the UK. The new coronavirus variant is still under heavy investigation. Early research published in January reported that the UK variant might be more deadly. However, newer studies reported that it does not cause more severe symptoms nor more fatalities.
The South African variant (Beta or B.1.351)
The South African coronavirus variant was first detected in October 2020, and since then it has spread to several other countries. The identified mutations also affect the COVID spike protein. Current research shows that the mutations do not affect the severity of the disease, however, they might affect neutralizing antibodies’ ability to bind to the virus. This has led some to question if the available vaccines are effective against the South African coronavirus variant. Currently, researchers are studying the virus to provide definite answers to that question and more.
The Brazilian variant (Gamma or P.1)
This variant was first identified in Japan among 4 travelers arriving from Brazil and has since spread to several other countries as well. Recent reports suggest that the Brazilian variant might spread more easily and quickly compared to the original virus. Moreover, the unique changes in the spike protein might make it less susceptible to neutralization by antibodies generated by vaccination or by a previous coronavirus infection. More research is currently being done to confirm these suspicions.
Scientists are working around the clock to track new coronavirus mutations. New variants have been reported in Nigeria, Finland, the UK, and other countries. Extensive research is currently being done so that we know more about them as they emerge.
The Delta Variant (B.1.617.2)
This is the latest and fastest spreading coronavirus mutation to date. The delta strain was first detected in India in December 2020. The mutated virus quickly became the dominant variant in India, the UK, and is predicted to become dominant worldwide.
According to the CDC, the proportion of delta variant cases in the US is rapidly increasing and has reached 31% of cases at the time of writing of this article.
The major concern with the Delta variant is that it is much more contagious than other strains, even the Alpha (UK) variant. This threatens the world with a 4th or 5th wave of pandemic with this new variant and will compete with the vaccination efforts.
We’re still not sure if the Delta variant is more harmful than other strains. However, a recent study from Scotland showed some evidence of possible increased pathogenicity. The authors concluded that delta coronavirus infections can lead to more hospitalizations.
As for symptoms, a study from the UK showed that the Delta variant is less likely to cause a loss of taste and smell, and more likely to cause headaches, runny nose, sore throat, and fever.
There is some good news - The Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines seem to be effective against the delta coronavirus variant. They can prevent symptomatic disease and hospitalization in the majority of vaccinated individuals.
The Lambda variant (C.37)
The Lambda corona variant has been spreading mostly in South America. It was first devoted in Peru in August 2020. Since then, it has become the dominant strain in the country and is rapidly spreading to neighbouring countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.
As of last July, the Lambda variant has been detected in 30 countries worldwide. It is still a “variant of interest” and not officially classified as a “variant of concern” since there’s no clear evidence that it spreads more rapidly or causes more severe symptoms compared to other coronavirus strains.
So far, there’s been no meaningful studies that measure the efficacy of the available vaccines against the Lambda variant.
As of November 2021, Omicron is the most concerning coronavirus variant identified so far. This is the second variant of concern that’s originated in South Africa.
The identification of Omicron coincided with a new wave of the corona pandemic rising worldwide, especially in Europe, in the final quarter of 2021.
According to the CDC, it appears that Omicron can spread faster and more easily compared to the original coronavirus. It is, however, still not known whether or not Omicron can spread faster than the Delta variant.
As for the symptoms, there’s still not enough evidence to say that Omicron causes more severe disease. Early reports cited by the WHO, suggest that Omicron causes milder symptoms compared to other variants. Nevertheless, the data is still early.
The data is also lacking on whether or not the current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the Omicron variant. A small new study done on 40 patients showed that a third Pfizer shot was protective against Omicron. The authors said that 2 doses were just not enough.
Another analysis done in the UK showed that a third booster shot for Pfizer and AstraZeneca increases protection against Omicron. The booster is 75% effective against the new variant, which is significantly less than that against older variants.
Moderna CEO, for one, has announced that a special anti-Omicron booster shot is already in development and should be ready by March 2022.
The WHO says that Omicron can probably cause more breakthrough infections - infections in those already vaccinated or previously infected and that more studies are needed to confirm vaccine protection.
Are the new COVID-19 variants more dangerous?
So far, news about the new variants is -thankfully- not too worrisome. The identified COVID variants do not seem to significantly cause more serious disease or more death. Nevertheless, if some of the variants are indeed more transmissible (spread more easily), this might lead to surges in the number of infections. Subsequently, this strains the healthcare sector and might translate to more deaths. A fourth or fifth wave of the pandemic can be initiated. The emergence of the new variants, therefore, raises the need for quicker and more widespread vaccination, all while abiding by the recommended safety measures.
Does the vaccine work against new COVID-19 variants?
Vaccines equip your body with several antibody types that target more than one component of the coronavirus. So, even if one component changes due to mutations, the vaccine can still provide protection by targeting other components. The virus will need to undergo significant mutations before it becomes immune to the neutralizing effect of antibodies provided by the vaccine. Here’s what we know about the efficacy of the available vaccines against the new variants:
- Pfizer-BioNTech seems to be 88% effective in preventing symptoms of delta variant infections, and 96% effective in preventing hospitalization (after 2 doses)
- Oxford-AstraZeneca seems to be 60% effective in preventing symptoms of delta variant infections, and 93% effective in preventing hospitalization (after 2 doses).
- One study by Public Health England found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 66% effective against the original alpha UK variant.
- AstraZeneca is testing the efficacy of their vaccine against the South African variant.
- COVISHIELD, which is an Indian-produced version of AstraZeneca, seems to also be effective against the UK and Delta variants.
- COVAXIN, another Indian vaccine, seems to be effective against the UK and Brazillian variants.
- Johnson & Johnson seems to be 60% protective against the Delta variant.
- It is still unclear whether the Sinopharm vaccine is effective against the newly spreading Delta variant.
- Novavax seems to be 93.2% effective against variants of interest and concern.
Vaccine manufacturers, like Pfizer and Moderna, are already planning on developing booster shots that target the new variants. A third shot of the vaccine is already being offered in countries like the UAE. It is still not clear how beneficial a third dose of the vaccine is.
Are the new COVID-19 variants detectable by PCR?
The RT-PCR test works by detecting one or more of several targets on the virus. This means that even if one component of the virus changes and becomes undetectable due to mutations, other components will still be detectable. So far, the current PCR tests can detect different coronavirus variants.
Should you be concerned about the new COVID-19 variants?
The rise of new COVID-19 variants might make containing the pandemic a little harder, however, there’s no need for fear. The currently identified variants do not seem to be more deadly, however, they do spread more easily. So, all you can do now is to get vaccinated as soon, as you get the chance, continue to wear masks, and always maintain the usual safety precautions. If we all do this, the pandemic will hopefully end faster, and no new harmful variants will emerge.
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