As countries are busy buying COVID-19 vaccines, a new virus strain was found in the UK around a week ago and then spread to numerous countries, forcing them to temporarily restrict flights.
The new virus strain is called VUI-202012/01 as the first mutated virus was probed in December. It is 70 percent more contagious than the old version of the virus. The new virus type was also linked with the drastic surge in the numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the UK.
The mutation is not the first time given that a new strain has appeared. A mutation called D614G was found in Malaysia last August. This mutated virus – which was first detected in Europe in February – was 10 times more dangerous than SARS-CoV-2 and caused COVID-19 with flu-like symptoms.
As COVID-19 continues to mutate, questions about the COVID-19 vaccines’ efficacy linger, even though many health experts claim vaccines are still effective in containing the mutated virus as well.
Viral Mutation is Normal
A virus mutation is a condition where a virus changes its genetic material, which is a normal process.
Deputy Director of the Eijkman Institute in Translational Research at the Eijkman Institute, Professor David H Muljono told Kompas last August that viral mutation is inevitable as a virus adapts to survive around its receptor inside a human’s body.
Viruses must adapt in order to disguise themselves and bypass a host’s immune system. After the mutation, a body’s immune system will find it hard to detect the virus, allowing the virus stay longer and attack its host.
However, human intervention can intentionally help the mutation, aimed at weakening that virus for the vaccine development’s process.
How Effective are COVID-19 Vaccines for Stopping a Mutated Virus Strain?
New coronavirus mutation sparks a question of whether current COVID-19 vaccines can contain the virus’ new strain which is believed to be more dangerous than SARS-CoV-2.
Pfizer-BionTech and Moderna uses the latest technology called mRNA (messenger RNA). mRNA vaccines teach our body’s cell to produce protein that stimulates an immune response in our body.
While a traditional vaccine development method uses inactivated virus, such as found in the chicken pox and flu virus. One of the vaccine producers that still use this old technology is China’s Sinovac.
Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna’s vaccines have efficacy of more than 90 percent, as shown in the Phase III clinical trial. However, suppose the virus continues to mutate several times. In that case, those viruses will no longer be effective, said Dr. Taruna Ikrar, an Indonesian doctor and scientist based in the U.S. in a webinar held by Kabari Indonesia.
He elaborated that researchers are studying T cell – a part of a body’s immune system that protects us from infections and can memorize past illnesses.
Indonesian pulmonologist Erlina Burhan told TVOne that so far those COVID-19 vaccines are effective in tackling the new virus strain, yet further research is still needed as the situation is growing.
“Vaccines are still effective, but not everything as the most important thing is we implement health protocols by maintaining distance, washing hands regularly, and wearing masks,” she said.
The specialist added that the PCR and rapid antigen only detect the virus’s presence, not the mutation. A more advanced technology equipped with more costly test kits are needed to spot the mutating virus.
Novavax – one of the largest vaccine makers – stated in a release that it was actively testing its vaccine on the new UK strain.
“Development and results will take several weeks,” the release said.
Ikrar claimed that annual vaccination is the most suitable alternative for COVID-19 given that flu virus also mutates and the vaccination is held every year.
“Which vaccines should we choose? As long as the efficacy is above 50 percent, safe, and they provide longer immunity, that’s fine,” Ikrar said.