The latest headlines have been dominated by news of the COVID-19 variants that have been discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. Health officials estimate that the British variant will be the predominant strain in the USA by March. Many are concerned that the vaccines which are currently being distributed worldwide are not as effective against these new variants. Dr. Sandra Kesh, Deputy Medical Director and Infectious Disease Specialist answers some timely questions about why the vaccines remain a key factor in ending this pandemic.
1. Is it true that the COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against the new variants of the virus?
Although the currently available vaccines appear to be somewhat less effective against one of the variants, this doesn’t worry me so much. All of the vaccines currently authorized for use (Moderna and Pfizer) remain very effective in preventing severe disease and death from COVID-19. The primary goal of vaccination is not to prevent every single infection, but to prevent severe illness and death due to infection. The flu vaccine works by the same principle – even though some people who get the flu vaccine still get the flu, most do not get seriously ill or die from it. If we can get to the point where COVID-19 is another flu-like illness, then we are looking at the end of the pandemic. And the vaccines we have now are well-positioned to get us there.
2. Does this mean I should wait to get the vaccine until a more effective one is available?
No! As experts have said repeatedly, get the first vaccine you are offered, and don’t worry if it’s not as effective as another one. It’s far better to have some protection now against this infection, than run the risk of exposure while you’re waiting for your top choice.
3. Will we have to get repeat vaccines like we do with the flu shot? How often will we need a booster?
Yes, this seems highly likely. It remains unclear how often we will need boosters, but the very good news is that vaccine manufacturers are already tracking the way the virus is changing, and tweaking their vaccines so that newer generations will be well-matched against more “resistant” strains. The key is to get as many people vaccinated, as quickly as possible. The longer the virus spreads uncontrolled, the more likely we will see newer variants. That’s why it is critical that everyone who can get vaccinated, be vaccinated!