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How the COVID-19 mutation creates even more risk

The new COVID-19 variants popping up across the world could evade vaccines. Here’s how that happens.

SHARE How the COVID-19 mutation creates even more risk
Empty vehicle lanes at the entrance to the Port of Dover, in Dover, England, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Empty vehicle lanes at the entrance to the Port of Dover, in Dover, England, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Alberto Pezzali, Associated Press

The novel coronavirus has undergone several mutations since it first appeared on our radar in late 2019. But two recent variants have worried experts since it’s possible a mutation could help the virus evade recently developed vaccines.

What’s happening?

Two new variants of the novel coronavirus have popped up across the world. One variant was discovered in the United Kingdom, and another was found in South Africa.

  • The UK variant led to nationwide shutdowns in England and the UK, disrupting the Christmas season.
  • The South Africa variant made headlines since it appears to evade antibody drugs, which could lead to more severe illness.

So how does it work?

The COVID-19 vaccine targets the spike protein of a virus, which the virus uses to attach onto cells and attack your body.

The current vaccines help train your body to recognize the spike proteins and attack it from the beginning.

  • But mutations that “change the way that spike protein looks can also help it hide from both arms of the immune system — the antibodies that attach to a virus and stop it from latching onto cells, as well as the T cells that attack the virus,” according to CNN.
  • “There could be mutations in the spike protein that change it in a way that our antibodies won’t be as good. We haven’t seen that happen yet,” Dr. Buddy Creech, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN.

However ...

Experts noted that the human immune system could develop even more antibodies that would ward off the virus over time.

  • “It is analogous to a key and lock. If that lock changes, maybe the key can’t get in,” Scott Hensley, an expert in immunology and molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN. “But imagine this not as a single door into a room, but 10 different doors. There will be nine other keys that will be able to get you into that room.”

So what should we do?

Former FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC the U.S. needs to vaccinate Americans in order to offer the best protection against the variants.

  • “The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that it may obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs,” Gottlieb told CNBC.
  • “Right now that strain does appear to be prevalent in South America and Brazil, the two parts of the world, right now, that are in their summer, but also experiencing a very dense epidemic, and that’s concerning,” he added.