For about a year now, Governments and pharmaceutical companies have been working around the clock to develop a vaccine for the original SARS-Cov 2 virus, and that’s just been released, as you know, in the UK and the USA.
The problem is that the new strain of Covid which has driven the UK into a Christmas lockdown, and resulted in chaos in British airports last night, as Irish people desperately tried to get the last flights out of the UK before an Irish-Government ban took effect, could be “on a pathway for vaccine escape”, according to the BBC:
Vaccine escape happens when the virus changes, so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people.
This may be the most concerning element of what is happening with the virus.
This variant is just the latest to show the virus is continuing to adapt as it infects more and more of us.
A presentation by Prof David Robertson, from the University of Glasgow on Friday, concluded: “The virus will probably be able to able to generate vaccine escape mutants.”
That would put us in a position similar to flu, where the vaccines need to be regularly updated. Fortunately the vaccines we have are very easy to tweak.
In short, this is terrible news. Vaccines, for those of you who don’t know, train the body to recognise the virus, and prepare defences against it, in the hope that when you encounter it, your body is able to kill it before it takes root, preventing you from developing any symptoms.
But this mutation of the virus – while still likely to be covered by the original vaccine – means that the virus has demonstrated an ability to evolve and become more effective at infecting humans, and evading our natural defences. Your body has prepared defences against one version of the virus, but it simply doesn’t recognise the mutant – meaning that you have no defence at all. What the scientists are saying is that that ability to mutate means that future mutations are likely to render the Covid vaccine redundant, at least temporarily, and will each require new vaccines themselves.
The good news is in bold, above: We are already used to this situation with influenza, where a new vaccine is released annually, covering the most common new mutations of the flu in a given year. The bad news is that even with those vaccines, the flu still manages to infect and kill thousands of people annually – and covid, unlike the flu, has an ability to incapacitate even very healthy people.
In the longer term, though, as the BBC notes, producing an annual vaccine – at least for those most at risk – should not be a massive problem. The problems this news poses are twofold:
First, in the immediate term, it’s not clear when, or if, the virus will mutate again in a way that makes the present vaccine ineffective. That could happen by the end of this week, or next month, or not for another full year. If a mutant strain that can bypass the vaccine arrives very quickly, though, then that will throw all of the world’s hopes for 2021 into the bin. Tens of millions of doses of the various vaccines have been produced, and are ready for distribution. The nightmare scenario is that just as they’re released, the virus changes just enough to make them useless.
But there’s a second problem too, which is that scepticism about the vaccine is already uncomfortably high in places across the western world. You can be absolutely sure that there will be lots and lots of facebook posts in the coming days about how terribly convenient it is that the vaccine might now have to become an annual dose, rather than a once-off. Even though such scepticism has no observable basis in fact, any news that makes it seem as if the vaccine is potentially ineffective will be devastating PR in what is an already febrile environment.
The other thing here is that there’s no news, as yet, on just how bad this new variant is. All of the official chatter is that it’s no more harmful than the original virus, except for being more easily transmissible. But not all of the chatter is as positive. Here’s Harry Cole, a very plugged in UK journalist:
Not a drill. Snowballing whatsapp chatter.. VUI-202012/01 is fast becoming "Superona".
— Harry Cole (@MrHarryCole) December 20, 2020
“Superona” is not the Christmas Present we needed, to put it mildly.