You mentioned the current COVID-19 crisis in India, where a new variant has been described as a “double mutant,” but on Twitter you called it a “scariant.” Why?
First of all, the B.1.617 variant isn’t a double mutant. It has 15 mutations. It’s a stupid term, focusing on two mutations which largely have been put aside as to concern. One of them is the L452R, which is the same as one of the California variants, and that hasn’t proved to be particularly serious or concerning. The other is the 484Q, and it’s not clear whether that has any function.
The B.1.617 is not the driver of the catastrophe in India. It may be contributing a small amount, but it has been overhyped as the double mutant that’s causing it all. Adding to that are what I call “scariant” headlines here in the United States when a few cases of that variant have been seen.
I coined the term scariant in early February because it was a pretty clear trend. People don’t know what variants are. They know a little bit about mutations but not variants, and they’re scared. A few variants are concerning, but we keep learning more and more things to decrease the concern. That’s why I wrote the New York Times op-ed, to try to provide some reassurance, since there’s such paranoia.
Do you think booster vaccinations will be necessary? If so, will those be of the original vaccines or new ones that incorporate the variants?
As we go forward, there’s still potential for new variants that we haven’t seen yet that combine the worst of all features – transmissibility and immune evasion – especially since we have a world where COVID-19 is unchecked. So, we’re not out of it yet, but at least for the moment, we have vaccines that are capable of protecting against all variants.
In most people, the immune response against SARS-CoV-2 is very durable and strong and may well last for years. With the most closely related SARS-CoV-1, people still had immune responses up to 18 years later. However, some people will have less robust vaccine responses, including the elderly and the immunocompromised. If they don’t have great responses to the vaccine to start with, over time they’re likely to become more vulnerable, especially if they’re exposed to the variants with some degree of immune evasion.
I think we need to study these individuals post vaccination. A lot of people fit into those categories, including seniors, people being treated for cancer or autoimmune conditions, or post organ transplant. We could set up a prospective study to see whether they develop symptomatic COVID-19 and if so, from what – the original strain, B.1.1.7, or the newer variants.
That’s where I think booster shots may be needed. They may not be necessary across the board, but perhaps just in these special subgroups.
All of the current vaccines can be tweaked to include new variants, but the need for that is uncertain as of now. Moderna is working on a so-called bivalent vaccine that includes the original SARS-CoV-2 strain plus the B.1.351 variant, but it isn’t clear that that’s going to be necessary.
Currently, at least 200 COVID-19 vaccines are in development. There will be vaccines you can inhale, room temperature mRNA vaccines, and potentially even oral vaccines.
There may be a step down in efficacy from mRNA to the others, though, and that shouldn’t be discounted. All of the available vaccines so far protect very well against severe disease and death, but some are less effective against mild to moderate infections, which may then lead to long COVID. We don’t yet know whether those who get mild infection post vaccination can still get long COVID.