How would COVID-19 vaccine makers adapt to variants?
By tweaking their vaccines, a process that should be easier than coming up with the original shots.
Viruses constantly mutate as they spread, and most changes aren’t significant. First-generation COVID-19 vaccines appear to be working against today’s variants, but makers already are taking steps to update their recipes if health authorities decide that’s needed.
COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna are made with new technology that’s easy to update. The so-called mRNA vaccines use a piece of genetic code for the spike protein that coats the coronavirus, so your immune system can learn to recognize and fight the real thing.
If a variant with a mutated spike protein crops up that the original vaccine can’t recognize, companies would swap out that piece of genetic code for a better match — if and when regulators decide that’s necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Updating other COVID-19 vaccines could be more complex. The AstraZeneca vaccine, for example, uses a harmless version of a cold virus to carry that spike protein gene into the body. An update would require growing cold viruses with the updated spike gene.
The Food and Drug Administration said studies of updated COVID-19 vaccines won’t have to be as large or long as for the first generation of shots. Instead, a few hundred volunteers could receive experimental doses of a revamped vaccine and have their blood checked for signs it revved up the immune system as well as the original vaccines.
More difficult is deciding if the virus has morphed enough to modify shots.
Globally, health authorities will monitor coronavirus mutations to spot vaccine-resistant mutations. They’d also have to decide whether any revamped vaccine should protect against more than one variant.
Overall the process would be similar to what already happens with flu vaccine. Influenza viruses mutate much faster than coronaviruses, so flu shots are adjusted every year and must protect against multiple strains.Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.