SARS-CoV-2 Variants, Explained

As new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge, tried-and-tested solutions could be the key to stamping out COVID-19.

Tried-and-tested solutions for new variants

While the drop in efficacy for the J&J vaccine in South Africa may seem alarming, the fact remains that not a single vaccinated person that got sick ended up in the hospital, according to Dr. Mathai Mammen, global head of pharmaceutical research and development at J&J. Similarly, trials from Pfizer/BioNTech revealed that their vaccine was respectively 97 and 100 percent effective against severe disease and death in areas where B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 were dominant.

The broad protection conferred by vaccines, even in the face of emerging variants, can be partly credited to immune system cells called T-cells. With their ability to recognize multiple parts of SARS-CoV-2 beyond the spike protein, T-cells can still neutralize mutated viruses.

But much like the yearly flu vaccines, COVID-19 jabs tailored to each variant may soon be on the horizon. For mRNA vaccines like those made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, the genetic sequence could simply be modified—though the resulting shots would have to go through clinical trials once more. Just this month, Moderna announced positive Phase 2 results for their booster doses based on B.1.351.

Even as researchers develop tailored vaccines, scaling up the manufacturing of existing vaccines and ensuring their quick and widespread rollout should be the key priorities—along with maintaining public health measures like mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowded places or enclosed settings. Taken altogether, these tried-and-tested solutions should reduce the likelihood of viral transmission—and prevent new variants from emerging in the first place.

UPDATE: As of May 31, 2021, WHO has assigned new labels for SARS-CoV-2’s variants of concern and variants of interest based on letters of the Greek alphabet. While the scientific names will continue to be used in research, WHO encourages media outlets and the wider public to adopt the labels to simplify public communication.

The labels are as follows: Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), Gamma (P.1), Delta (1.617.2) and Epsilon (B.1.427/B.1.429).


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Shelly Liew/Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

A molecular biologist by training, Kami Navarro left the sterile walls of the laboratory to pursue a Master of Science Communication from the Australian National University. Kami is the former science editor at Asian Scientist Magazine.

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