Like other coronaviruses, the virus that causes COVID-19 is an RNA virus. A single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid) serves as SARS-CoV2’s genetic material. Genetic variants of COVID-19 are to be expected; viruses mutate commonly, and RNA viruses boast a notoriously high rate of mutation since their mechanisms for ensuring accurate genomic replication are less sophisticated than those of organisms that have DNA as their genetic material. Allowed to jump from person to person, securing the opportunity to multiply within the bodies of at least 100 million human hosts over the course of one remarkable year, SARS-CoV2 has inevitably developed a diverse tree of countless variants.
So why are we suddenly hearing more about SARS-CoV2 variants now? Well, there are several reasons. First, most viral mutations are unremarkable and inconsequential. Second, the effort to sequence viral genetic material from COVID-19 test specimens has been rather lacking. Third, it was only this winter that scientists observed three rapidly spreading SARS-CoV2 variants – first observed in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil, all sharing a similar constellation of mutations and all causing a disconcerting increase in cases in the countries in which they were discovered.
All three hold mutations impacting their spike proteins, the crown-like projections extending from the round body of the virus that act as keys to allow it to attach to human cells. Consequentially, these SARS-CoV2 variants have an advantage when it comes to infectivity, allowing the virus to transmit more readily, and perhaps markedly so. Though scientific investigations continue, the variants do not appear to cause more severe illness, a higher rate of mortality, or any symptoms not already associated with COVID-19.
Thankfully, both Pfizer and Moderna have announced that their vaccines hold their efficacy, providing protection when confronted with any of these viral strains (albeit with an admitted very slight decrease in efficacy against the South African variant). These vaccines elicit a broad and robust degree of immunity through a host of antibodies and cell-mediated immune responses. Furthermore, both companies are preemptively pressing forward with efforts to develop booster vaccines specific to the South African variant, to accommodate for that modest decrease in efficacy should this variant become widespread. They’ll stand ready to do the same if or when another variant of concern emerges. mRNA vaccine technology, fortunately, lends well to rapid, targeted tweaks and adjustments.
Ultimately, those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to be vaccinated can continue to feel confident in the degree of immunity conferred by a completed two-shot series. But we must not let our guards down. We find ourselves, yet again, at a critical stage in this swiftly evolving pandemic. So long as SARS-CoV2 is capable of infecting large numbers of human hosts, the virus will continue to mutate. We are in a high-stakes race: vaccinations against variants.
To do your part, please continue to employ the simple mitigation measures that work well to suppress viral transmission: wear a mask, wait 6 feet apart from others, and wash your hands. Continue to vigilantly practice these infection prevention strategies even after you’re fully immunized. And be ambassadors for the game-changing vaccines that offer humanity hope in our battle against this pandemic, encouraging everyone you know to take their spot, and take their shot, as soon as it is their turn. Solidarity is the way forward.
Taryn Tindall, RN, on behalf of the Deerfield Leadership Team