As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out, people around the world are getting excited by the prospect that the pandemic's end is finally here. Unfortunately, we still don't know a lot about the efficacy of the different vaccines being used to combat the coronavirus. And as we learn more, it's becoming clear that we shouldn't discard our face mask protection just yet.
The Pfizer Vaccine Seems Less Effective Against the COVID-19 South African Variant
A new study from Israeli researchers indicates that the COVID-19 South African variant may be able to overcome the Pfizer vaccine. More specifically, this mutation has a greater probability of "breaking through" the vaccine than other variants.
Conducted by Tel Aviv University and Clalit, the research reviewed test results of 800 people in total. 400 of the study participants had tested positive for COVID-19 more than 14 days after receiving the initial Pfizer vaccine dose. Unvaccinated individuals who also recently tested positive comprised the other 400 participants.
The South African variant only constituted roughly 1 percent of COVID-19 cases among both groups — but researchers found that it was eight times more likely to be found in patients who had already received both Pfizer vaccine doses.
This radical finding defied the initial expectations that researchers involved in the study had. They concluded that more research would need to be conducted since the sample size was small. "Obviously, this result didn't make me happy," said Professor Adi Stern, a lead researcher in the study. "We can say it’s less effective, but more research is needed to establish exactly how much."
Clalit director of research Ran Balicer said that this research demonstrated the resilience of the South African variant and that social distancing and other coronavirus protection protocols are still sorely needed to mitigate the spread of the illness.
The Moderna Vaccine's Effectiveness Wanes After 6 Months
Emory University researcher Mehul Suthar and his colleagues had a few choice words to describe the immunity levels they saw in study participants who had received both doses of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine: "Wonderful. Awesome. Fantastic."
But after just six months, Suthar and his co-workers found that the immunity had deteriorated. The vaccine was still effective to some degree. In fact, recipients of the vaccine should still have neutralizing antibodies for one to two years. The catch? These neutralizing antibodies were designed to handle the original COVID-19 strain from Wuhan.
With so many new variants springing up since the pandemic started, one important question remains: How effective is the Moderna vaccine against them?
Suthar believes that Moderna's vaccine should hold up well against B.1.1.7, the British variant. But other variants carry E484K or 484, a mutation that seems to evade antibody responses. It has also been found in a few samples of B.1.1.7. With that said, Suthar wonders if a reduction in antibody levels over time will leave people susceptible to variant reinfections.
It's unclear if a booster shot of the same vaccine formula would help or if a readjusted version would be necessary to mitigate infections from specific mutations.
Vaccine Distribution Inefficiencies Could Lead to More Problems
According to Dr. Ingrid Katz of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, approximately 75% of manufactured vaccines are going to only ten countries. With this current rate of distribution, world immunization could take four years to reach. Considering that we've seen numerous variants pop up in just one year, this inefficient distribution could cause many more to surface.
Suthar agrees, citing the emergence of variants in Mexico, Brazil, and even a "double mutant" from India. "Three days ago, four days ago it was found in the San Francisco Bay area," he explains. "You can see how mutants in one area, one geographical location of the world, can spread and seed themselves in another geographic location."
Keep Your Face Masks Close
As Balicer also mentioned, Suthar said that mask-wearing is still a primary way for us to mitigate the spread and transmission of COVID-19. And it will also play a key role in slowing down the creation of new variants.
We know that you were probably hoping that things would go back to normal soon — we were, too. But the truth is that we can't let our guard down just yet. If we do, COVID-19 will remain a problem that humanity has to deal with for years to come. On the other hand, if we continue practicing social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing face masks, we can put an end to this pandemic.
It's amazing that humanity was able to develop vaccines so quickly in response to this global health crisis. But there's still so much we need to figure out about these recent medical innovations. Please go get your vaccine if it's available in your local area. And continue to practice coronavirus protection protocols. It will take effort from all of us. But together, we can overcome COVID-19. We just need to be patient and vigilant.
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