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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