I have been patiently waiting to type anything on the viral variants we continue to hear about in the news, since it seems like every day there is something new out there to discuss. In this article I hope to help ease some concerns over the mutations that may be arising as well as better prepare you for future discussion.
Today is January 7th as I write this. What happened in our nation’s capital yesterday is beyond horrifying to me. I did a post a while back on why people believe the way they believe and how we can help our children learn to be more accepting in the future. If you are interested in this topic, you can check that out here.
Variant versus Strains
Luckily, time has seemed to fix this. However, early on many posts online and news agencies were referring to the changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus to be different strains. That terminology is incorrect to use. It would imply that the virus itself has completely changed with different properties and affects on the body. What is happening is we are seeing different variants. A variant means that something has changed within the genetic structure of the virus; however, it still performs similarly to how it did prior to the change.
Doesn’t it Seem Like the Virus is Changing a Lot???
If the only information you get is from the news, then yes, it feels like the virus seems to be changing a lot lately. However, this is not uncommon. The flu virus changes a TON, like every year. Other viruses, like Measles, hasn’t changed since we started vaccinating against it.
All viruses act differently in this case. This is due to how the virus is created. As its genetic code gets replicated, errors can occur that change the structure (see, humans aren’t the only imperfect creatures on this planet). Most of the time these mutations cause no changes to the virus or can make it less effective, thus killing off that line of viral code.
However, some genetic changes can INCREASE how well a virus acts. This could affect how easily it spreads, its resistance to our immune system, or complications experienced during or after the infection.
Does This Mean the Virus Is Now Stronger Than Before???
Great question. Just like we were saying in March about COVID, it is still too early to say for sure about this specific variant. Actually there are several variants out there. One in the UK, one in South Africa, and many more.
What seems to be the case is that this newer variant in the UK is more easily spread. That means it could cause an increase in infectivity, but does NOT mean it increases death rates or other comorbidities. They believe this increase in contagiousness is due to a small change on the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to cells. Think of this protein needing certain areas of the attachment site to be turned to the “on” position. Let’s pretend this area had, say, 4 areas that could be turned “on”, and the “original” SARS-CoV-2 virus had 2 in the “on” position, then this variant has 3 “on.” Thus, it is easier for the virus to connect to and infect cells. Make sense?
Since the Virus is Changing, Does That Make the Current Vaccines Worthless?
The simple answer is NO. The spike protein has a lot of genetic information in it (somewhere over 500 amino acids if I remember right), so there would need to be A LOT of changes to make a vaccine less likely to work. The vaccine targets multiple sites on the spike protein, so you need more than 1 change for a lack of immunity to occur. However, it could happen.
Based on what we know at this point, it does not appear that the vaccines would be any less effective against this variant than it is against the original template. However, they are currently doing studies on this variant and its genetic code to make sure of that. Until we know any more, I still recommend that people should get the vaccine. There is NO data or evidence out there that indicates a need to not vaccinate. The positive news is that once we DO know the full genetic code of this new variant, another mRNA vaccine could easily be created and distributed.
Where To Go From Here (and what about all those vaccine reactions I keep hearing about?)
More information will be coming out over the next weeks or months on these variants and how they affect us. Make sure to get your information from multiple reputable sources. Sadly, the world we live in today relies on the use of negative news to get viewership. We saw this when the vaccines were first being used in the UK. Instead of discussing the thousands of people who received the vaccine, we only heard about the 2 workers who had an allergic reaction.
The same thing happened here in the States once it became available for emergency use. Instead of seeing articles about the joy of healthcare workers receiving this incredible piece of science, articles were searching for those rare cases of allergic reactions to continue the storyline.
Based on data up to 1/6/2021 (as reported by a recent National Geographic article), it looks like about 1 of every 90,000 injections of the vaccine has had an allergic reaction. HOWEVER, there has only been a small amount of use so far in our country, and that number is most likely to go down (i.e. less cases per injection) as more and more people are inoculated.
Let’s pretend (for fun) that the number stays at 1:90,000 vaccinations leads to an allergic reaction, ok? Our country has had 21.4 million COVID cases up to this date, with 361000 deaths. That is a 1.7% death rate, or about 1 death out of every 59 COVID cases. Let that sink in. And that is just deaths. No comorbidities, complications, or other adverse events are included in that number. Just deaths.
Some may argue that we are grossly under representing COVID numbers, so let’s pretend we only know about 1 of every 10 COVID infections. That means that the death rate would be 1 of every 590 COVID cases. That is still substantially more than a possible allergic reaction to the vaccine. When we discuss risk versus benefit in medicine, this is what we are talking about.
If you have other questions about COVID, parenting, being a dad, or others, don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know
Stay Safe. Stay Healthy.
Imperfect Dad, MD
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