As cases of COVID-19 variants occur across the country – and around the world – here’s what you need to know.
News of the COVID-19 virus mutations have made headlines and reports telling us that the changes are making the virus more contagious. But is that a cause for concern – and will it make the vaccine less effective? Dr Mark Shelly, Geisinger’s infectious disease specialist, explains.
Why is the COVID-19 virus mutating?
It is important to understand that all viruses mutate. In fact, it is not uncommon for multiple strains of the same virus to spread at the same time, such as what we see with the COVID-19 variants.
“The flu virus is a perfect example,” says Dr. Shelly. “The influenza virus mutates every year and scientists are studying how it mutates, which helps us understand how the coronavirus is mutating now.”
Most mutations are harmless, but some can progress to a more contagious virus, for example. This is what we are currently seeing with the COVID-19 variants.
These variants of COVID-19 may be more likely to escape the body’s defenses, and they are more likely to appear in people with partial immunity. “We will be watching closely for variants of early re-infection and any infections found after vaccination,” says Dr Shelly. “But it’s important to remember that while some mutations are more contagious, that doesn’t mean they’re more deadly.”
However, just because variants of the virus don’t seem to cause more serious illness doesn’t mean we should ignore them altogether. “There is still a lot to learn about the new variants,” says Dr. Shelly, “and I cannot stress enough the importance of practicing masking, distancing and avoiding group gatherings.” If this spreads more easily, it’s time to double down on the tools that we know will slow the spread.
Will the vaccine work against COVID-19 mutations?
At this time, there is no strong evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 variants are resistant to the COVID-19 vaccine. It has been suggested that current vaccines may offer protection against some variants, and more studies are underway.
If you are considering getting the vaccine, these variations highlight why this is a good idea. Especially for people with pre-existing conditions including cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and type 2 diabetes.
However, “remember that getting the vaccine is not an excuse to stop practicing masking and social distancing precautions,” says Dr. Shelly. “Until cases of COVID-19 are rare, continue to practice these measures to help slow the spread of the virus and its mutations.”
How are variants diagnosed and treated?
Today we can detect common viral variants. And while identifying the strains is important, it has no impact on how we diagnose or treat people with COVID-19.
Regardless of the presence of variants, we always encourage people to get the vaccine as it becomes available to them. “As we roll out the vaccine to more people, the more likely we are to get ahead of the variants,” says Dr. Shelly. “The fewer viruses there are in our communities, the less likely it is to mutate.”