READING that SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has recently undergone multiple mutations in its spike protein is a concern for everyone, writes our regular expert contributor professor Deborah Briggs.
At this point, there are many unanswered questions about the newly identified B.1.1.529 variant, named Omicron by the World Health Organization.
We would all like to know if the Omicron variant is more transmissible and/or infectious than previously identified variants, including the highly transmissible Delta variant, and if the currently licensed Covid-19 vaccines protect fully vaccinated individuals.
Epidemiologists, researchers, and medical experts are scrambling to collect the data we will need to have in order to answer our questions even as I sit writing this article.
Clearly, we do not know all that we need to know about Omicron at present and it will take at least another couple of weeks to collect the information necessary to determine the global implications of a new variant.
Gathering and analysing essential real-time data always takes time. However, there are some facts based on the lessons that we have already learned over the past two years that can help us protect ourselves and our families.
I have posed a few frequently asked questions below and provided answers that may be useful as we all adjust our lives to living in the age of Covid-19.
Why has SARS-Cov-2 mutated, and will it ever stop changing?
Viruses change over time. That is a proven fact. Very simply explained, there are two types of viruses, those defined as RNA viruses and those defined as DNA viruses. RNA viruses are more prone to mutations than are DNA viruses and SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is an RNA virus.
Thus, we can expect the SARS-Cov-2 virus to continue to change and evolve over time and as it is passed from one person to another.
The mutations that happen to a virus can cause it to change, for example, in how easily it can be passed on to an uninfected person and/or the severity of illness that it can cause.
However, viral mutations do not always mean that a new variant will be more infectious, nor does it mean that a new mutation will cause more severe illness and increased risk of death. Mutations can also cause a virus to be significantly more infectious but only cause a slight and brief feeling of being unwell.
We will have to wait for the data to be analysed to more clearly understand what changes the variant Omicron will mean for all of us. Meanwhile, it is best to be cautious and employ the precautionary measures that we know to work to prevent infection.
Why are there reports of fully vaccinated people still getting Covid?
No vaccine is 100 per cent protective against infection. None. Vaccines do provide a level of protection for each person that depends on many personal factors including but not limited to: individual genetics, underlying medical conditions, age, sex, type of exposure, etc.
In addition, vaccines are designed to induce our immune systems to produce antibodies to specific proteins, called antigens, found on some part of the infectious agent.
For example, the Covid-19 vaccines licensed for use in the UK were all designed to cause a vaccinated person to make antibodies that will attach to the spike protein of the SARS-Cov-2 variant initially identified at the start of the pandemic. Once our antibodies attach to that viral spike protein, the virus will be destroyed.
When a virus, like SARS-Cov-2 mutates, the antibodies that our immune system has already produced to the initial viral variant may not attach as securely to the new viral variant because the attachment site on the new variant has changed a bit.
But…let’s take a closer look at some real-life data that has recently been published evaluating the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines across the general population. Here is the link if you want more information.
In that study, 482,464 patients were evaluated of which 344,848 were fully vaccinated. The results showed that Covid-19 infection rates were three times higher in unvaccinated individuals compared to fully vaccinated individuals; hospitalisations were two times higher in unvaccinated individuals; and deaths were seven times more likely.
It is important to remember that among those hospitalised in this study, vaccinated patients were older than unvaccinated patients and a higher percentage of hospitalised patients had one or more underlying medical conditions putting them at higher risk.
The study proved that fully vaccinated persons have a better chance to avoid infection. Additionally, vaccinated persons have a higher chance of avoiding hospitalisation, even if they have an underlying condition. Finally, vaccinated people who do end up in hospital have a higher survival rate than those unvaccinated.
What is the point of wearing a mask if I have been fully vaccinated and have received a booster?
To me, the most encouraging news about what we have learned since the pandemic started is that face masks actually do prevent infection. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea that an adequate face mask might actually protect against inhaling the virus was questionable, but we now have positive proof that face masks work.
Wearing a face mask appropriately is of course the important point here. A recent study showed that wearing a face mask reduced the incidence of Covid-19 in healthcare workers by 70 per cent.
We have seen that fully vaccinated people can still be infected, so it makes sense for everyone to wear a face mask in public places for that extra bit of protection against infection.
When can we ever get back to ‘normal’?
Well…I am only going to give you my opinion in answer to this question and that is that SARS-Cov-2 will not be going away in my lifetime.
We do not yet know what level we need to reach as far as vaccination coverage is concerned in order to reach herd immunity but until herd immunity is achieved in the population of every country across the world, Covid-19 will continue to be a major public health issue.
The good news is that Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective. In addition, face masks and hand washing are effective in preventing infection. Lastly, the vaccines that we do have can be quickly adapted to produce immunity to new variants that may arise in the future.
Professor Deborah Briggs has served as an expert to the World Health Organisation in the field of rabies prevention. She has provided expertise in the field of vaccine production and clinical trials for major pharmaceutical companies and continues to teach an online graduate level course in Global Public Health for Kansas State University. She lives in Bridge End, Burra.
More from Professor Briggs:
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