Here’s hoping, although it feels like the only way this horror movie of a year could properly conclude is with the big vaccine rollout party being interrupted by an ashen-faced virologist reporting that a new variant of the virus has just been identified and we’re powerless against it. 2020 is a “Twilight Zone” episode and that’s how a “Twilight Zone” episode would end.
Actually … a known virus mutating at the moment of vaccine triumph probably isn’t diabolically ironic enough for a TZ episode. A true “Twilight Zone” ending would be chagrined scientists walking out as the first COVID vaccines are being administered to announce that a new strain of smallpox has just been detected in Asia and 10,000 people are already infected.
That’s when Rod Serling steps out from behind the curtain.
We shouldn’t expect a “Twilight Zone” ending to COVID says the head of BioNTech, the German firm that developed the vaccine that’s being produced by Pfizer.
BioNTech says it’s “currently investigating the impact of our vaccine on [the UK] mutation.” So far tested ~20 diff mutations & vaccine able to address all. “Too early to draw any conclusions,” but vaccine “able to mount a strong and broad immune response so we remain optimistic” https://t.co/3CsQtpX8Pd
— Meg Tirrell (@megtirrell) December 21, 2020
Lots of people are studying the new British strain right now, which may or may not be 70 percent more transmissible than the current dominant strain of COVID, and the universal consensus for the moment is that the vaccine should work on it. The U.S. Army is performing computer analysis of the British strain but they’re pretty confident that the vaccine will prevail. The head of the European Medicines Agency’s pandemic task force agrees. So do various virologists posting on Twitter and medical experts like Scott Gottlieb.
The bottom line seems to be that, while viruses can and do evolve over time to the point where they “escape” vaccine immunity, the process just doesn’t happen that quickly — usually. We may need to worry about Pfizer’s vaccine becoming obsolete within a few years but very likely not within a few months. Gottlieb:
“Some viruses like flu evolve their surface proteins very quickly, and that’s why we need a different flu vaccine every season,” said Gottlieb, who led the FDA in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2019. “Some viruses can’t really change their surface proteins, like measles. This [coronavirus] seems to fall some place in between. It’s not going to change its surface proteins very rapidly, that spike protein, but it will change it over time.”…
“It’s probably a good thing that we used the entire spike protein in our vaccines because what we’re getting is what we call a polyclonal response. We’re developing antibodies to many different regions of that protein, so even if one part of that protein were mutated and some antibodies no longer recognize it, there would be antibodies to other parts of that protein,” Gottlieb explained. Antibodies help fight infections. “So this probably will not slip past our vaccines very easily, but eventually we will have to update the vaccines.”
Think of the spike protein as a face. The vaccine is going to train our immune system to recognize that face. The spike protein on the British variant is different in some key respect from the protein on the most common coronavirus strain — different eye color or different haircut or different nose — but in only that single respect. And chances are, if just a single feature on a face familiar to you were to change, you’d still be able to recognize that face despite the difference. It’s when multiple features change that a face begins to look completely different and unrecognizable. Same with the ‘rona, it seems. The British variant changed its hair but the antibodies that police our systems should still be able to recognize a suspect with a different haircut. “The fact is that you have a thousand big guns pointed at the virus,” said one virologist to the NYT. “No matter how the virus twists and weaves, it’s not that easy to find a genetic solution that can really combat all these different antibody specificities, not to mention the other arms of the immune response.”
The not so minor footnote is that even if the vaccine is effective against the British variant and even if that variant isn’t any more deadly than the dominant strain of COVID, the fact that it spreads much faster means we could be in for another ominous spike in infections in the next month or two with an attendant spike in deaths. Check out the UK’s case curve:
Cases started rising in October so the British government imposed some new restrictions in November and they seemed to do the trick — until December rolled around and cases began skyrocketing. On December 8, the UK had 12,000 positive tests. Yesterday it had 35,000. Are people letting down their guards on social distancing or is the new variant picking up speed within the population? “Out of control” is how the UK’s health minister described it. Britain’s European neighbors are sufficiently freaked out that travel bans have been imposed, with Brits now reportedly panic-buying at supermarkets for fear that food soon won’t be available. (Remember that the UK is also on the brink of a no-deal Brexit, further complicating trade.) “What about the U.S.?” you ask. Good question. For once, America’s worst governor is likely right about something:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) on new COVID variant found in the UK: “I believe, intuitively, it’s already here.” pic.twitter.com/UIMHlnr6fo
— The Recount (@therecount) December 21, 2020
COVID was here weeks or months before Trump imposed his European travel ban in the spring. With multiple flights per day from the UK to NYC, it’s a cinch that the British variant is already here. (Don’t we … still have a travel ban in effect?) Cuomo complained yesterday that the three airlines flying from the UK to New York should require mandatory testing of passengers before departure. Two of them, British Airways and Delta, have now agreed, which is nice but certainly not foolproof. After all, people infected with the virus don’t start testing positive until a certain amount of it has replicated in their system; doubtless numerous passengers infected with the UK COVID variant boarded or will board flights having already contracted the bug but without shedding enough of it to test positive until they’ve arrived here.
Anthony Fauci thinks it’s not worth banning travel from the UK at all — yet. Why he wouldn’t rather be safe than sorry by at least limiting the number of people with the UK strain in the U.S., I don’t know. (The next time you’re inclined to accuse Fauci of wanting to lock down everything, bear in mind that he didn’t even want to halt air traffic from Britain in this case.) “More transmissible virus that causes same severity illness is a major worry,” said one health expert today. “More infections, more virus, more chance further evolution in unpredictable ways. Don’t get behind an epidemic curve, don’t delay until you have certainty.” The emergence of the new variant should give people extra motivation to socially distance until the vaccine rollout is running at full tilt. Why give the virus more opportunities to mutate in dangerous ways when we’re on the brink of crushing it?
Although maybe “crushing” is the wrong word. I’ll leave you with this thread from Seattle virologist Trevor Bedford, who thinks we may be destined to produce a new and different “COVID shot” every year the same way we produce a new and different flu shot. The flu shot gets updated annually because the flu virus itself mutates enough that our immune systems might not recognize it from year to year. Coronavirus may be on that path too thanks to “antigenic drift,” i.e. mutations in the virus’s proteins that may render the current vaccine less effective although probably not totally ineffective in a few years’ time. It’s a drag to have to get vaccinated every fall but it beats being intubated.