Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) spoke to whether COVID-19 could evolve to render the current vaccine ineffective.

Politico – December 21, 2020

Don’t worry about the mutation — yet

With help from Myah Ward

BRITISH INVASION— This isn’t the first time the Covid-19 virus has mutated.

In February, the virus strain that spread in Europe had more than a dozen mutations to the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells. It’s highly contagious and quickly became the dominant form of Covid.

In November, Denmark’s government ordered the wipeout of the country’s 17 million mink because of a new Covid variant spreading among the animals.

Now it’s happening again. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively canceled holiday gatherings because of a British variant. New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants pre-flight testing for people traveling from the U.K. to New York.

The virus has been mutating at a rate of one to two changes a month.

Most mutations so far are related to how contagious the virus is and not necessarily how lethal it is. Covid vaccines that have been given preliminary FDA approval and those in development will likely still be effective against these new strains, said Mark R. Schleiss, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Molecular Virology.

Covid could evolve to render the current vaccine ineffective, but it would take years and multiple mutations. There’s almost no chance of a single mutation making the vaccine not work. Measles has remained stable for decades, so there hasn’t been a need to develop a new vaccine. But researchers had to develop a new pneumococcal vaccine about a decade agoafter the disease mutated.

The vaccine rollout creates “selection pressure,” making it more likely that a variant resistant to the vaccine could emerge, said Dan Barouch, a Harvard medical school professor and the director at the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. There are a lot of unknowns about the U.K. strain. “I’m not going to reassure you,” Barouch told Nightly this evening.

Still, Barouch reassured us: Researchers already know how to develop a Covid vaccine. So if they had to develop another shot because of a mutation, they could do it in less time than a year.The Moderna vaccine took 66 days to enter a clinical trial after the coronavirus was genetically sequenced.

The more the virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate. So it helps when health officials tamp down outbreaks. “I don’t think we are going to face where we were back in March ever again because I don’t think we will be as stupid as we were in March,” said Howard Forman, a health policy professor at Yale. Schleiss points to his great aunt, who lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and still wore a handkerchief around her face whenever people came to visit. We may be wearing masks for a while, too.

There are still two big dangers. In the near term, the biggest one is that the virus is already spreading faster than any vaccine can be rolled out. Covid Exit Strategy stopped updating its map on Sunday night. They had already marked every state, except Hawaii, with dark red. The group said it would have to add two to three more shades to show the significance of the spread. On Saturday, 2,704 Americans died because of Covid, according to the Covid Tracking Project. It’s hard not to see how bad it would be if an even more contagious strain entered the country at a time when people are gathering for the holidays.

Over the long term, the danger isn’t a mutation of SARS-CoV2. It’s SARS-CoV3. Schleiss described virus mutations like apple variants: the difference between a Gravenstein and a Pink Lady. A new coronavirus would be like a persimmon or a kiwi.

“I’m very worried that we have become complacent that we are done with coronaviruses,” said Schleiss. “We just need to assume this will happen again some day.”