The South African. The Brazilian. The U.K.’s “Kent.”
They sound like they could be the names of some new hairstyle. But, as most virus trackers know, they are common shorthand for the new strains of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind the global pandemic. More transmissible, and in the case of the U.K. strain apparently more deadly, the new variants have forced governments around the world to impose tougher travel restrictions and, in some cases, new lockdowns.
The new variants also pose a problem for the first crop of vaccines. That’s because almost all the vaccines approved so far target the coronavirus’s spike protein. Mutations in this protein can reduce the vaccines’ effectiveness, potentially even negating any immunity.
So far, the solution vaccine makers and governments have proposed is to begin preparing updated versions of the existing vaccines that will prompt the immune system to make antibodies to the modified spike protein found in the new variants.
But if the virus keeps mutating, the world may find it is stuck in a perpetual game of cat and mouse, always trying to catch up with the latest strains of the virus, with a large portion of the world requiring an annual booster vaccination. This is essentially what happens with the flu virus now. And, as with the flu virus, there is a constant risk that researchers will misjudge and fail to spot an emerging and fast-spreading variant that will once again put many people at risk of hospitalization or death.
Might there be another way?
Some scientists think there is: either using more traditional vaccine technology that exposes people to the real virus and all of its proteins, or using new messenger RNA technology to create a universal SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that would be effective against all current and future strains.
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China’s national regulator has approved Sinovac Biotech’s COVID-19 vaccine for use by the general public.
This is the second vaccine approved by China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA).
Both of the vaccines, along with another experimental vaccine from Sinopharm, have been used in China’s vaccination programme.
More than 31 million doses have been administered, mainly targeting groups at higher infection risks, while a fourth experimental vaccine from CanSino Biologics has been given to military personnel.
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The minister said the virus “will always try to outwit us”, adding: “We’ve just got to make sure we get ahead of the game and we outwit it.
Health minister Edward Argar said it “would not be unreasonable” to have annual coronavirus booster jabs to protect against new strains that emerge.
He told Sky News: “What we would all expect is every year we have our flu booster jabs, or our flu jabs, it would not be unreasonable to suggest something similar here.”
The minister said the virus “will always try to outwit us”, adding: “We’ve just got to make sure we get ahead of the game and we outwit it.”
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The Biden administration and states across the country are slowly making progress with their coronavirus vaccination campaign, but the unequitable scramble for doses overseas threatens to prolong the pandemic indefinitely.
Rich countries have essentially cleared the shelves, securing almost 60 percent of global vaccine supply, according to a Duke University procurement tracker, and the U.S alone has pre-purchased enough doses to inoculate the population twice over.
From the start of the pandemic, public health experts have warned about the dangers of vaccine nationalism — high-income countries hoarding shots for their own populations.
Almost a year later, those warnings have largely been realized.
“Even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a speech last month.
Tedros warned against the “me-first” approach to vaccinations.
“The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” Tedros said.
Experts argue that with the rise of new, more contagious variants, the U.S. will not be able to get back to normal until the rest of the world is also vaccinated.
“We live in a global community and if we really want to talk about true approaching normality, we have to attack this at the global level,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a recent Washington Post event.
“Because whenever there's transmission and viral outbreaks throughout the world, the United States will always be at danger, no matter what we do,” Fauci said.
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