It has been almost two years since COVID-19 was first documented in humans. In that time, new strains of COVID-19 have developed. Some have been no more dangerous than the original strain of COVID-19, but others—such as the Delta variant—are seemingly worse.
“A virus is always duplicating itself, and sometimes, when duplicating itself, it makes a mistake and a change occurs in its genes,” says Allison Weinmann, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with Henry Ford Health. “This mistake (or change) is called a mutation. A virus with a mutation is called a variant if it results in a significant change in the virus—for example, one that’s more infectious.
“Some mutations won’t be advantageous to variants, and if they’re not—if they don’t adhere well to their host—they will probably fade out. But other mutations, like the Delta variant, do adhere well and find ways to multiply more quickly and become more infectious.”
The good news is that we have three vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—that have been formulated to be effective against the original strain of COVID-19. It also looks like they also protect against the major variants, but the concern is that over time, this may not always be case.
How Getting Vaccinated Can Stop Variants
One reason why everyone must get vaccinated is to stop new variants from developing. The more opportunities a virus has to replicate itself, the more opportunities it has to mutate and become more severe.
“Those who are unvaccinated are ideal hosts for COVID-19, as they give the virus time to figure out how to become stronger,” says Dr. Weinmann. “Vaccinated people can fight off COVID-19 more easily, so they don’t give the virus time to grow and change. If more people don’t get vaccinated, we could eventually have a variant that’s so different from the original strain of COVID-19, that the current vaccines won’t be effective.”
One of the many advantages of mRNA vaccines (the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) is that they are easily modifiable. (The flu vaccine, for example, takes months to develop each year. But there has been talk of converting the flu vaccine into an mRNA vaccine, which may mean that its genetic code can be changed quickly into a new vaccine as needed.)
Still: we shouldn’t rely on being able to modify the vaccines—we should focus on prevention.
“It’s so important to get vaccinated, to socially distance and to wear a mask when in public areas,” says Dr. Weinmann. “The majority of patients who are sick enough to be in the hospital and dying are unvaccinated or undervaccinated. A vaccine won’t be of any help once you’re already in the hospital. You have to get vaccinated ahead of time. To save lives, to stop new variants from developing, everyone needs to get vaccinated. It’s all about prevention.”
For answers to common questions about COVID-19 vaccines, visit henryford.com/coronavirus/vaccine-faqs.
Dr. Allison Weinmann is an infectious disease specialist and sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.