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Concerns grow as COVID-19 variants spread across the country

A needle going into a vaccine container
New variants of COVID-19 bring questions of vaccine effectiveness. (usc.edu)

Global uncertainty has risen as scientists discover new variants of the COVID-19 virus. . 

Many of the COVID-19 variants are spreading across the globe with mutations that make them both more lethal and contagious. 

“The current few variants are the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Theodore White, professor of New and Infectious Diseases at UMKC. “This virus creates variants all the time. We will be dealing with variants for a long time.” 

Some variants, like the U.K. variant, have already spread to over 50 countries and are associated with as much as a 30% higher risk of death. 

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have also identified another mutation in the UK variant that causes a small portion of the virus’s spike protein to be deleted. This mutation has shown an increase in infectivity of 200% in lab experiments. 

Patients that survived from the U.K. variant showed to have a weakened immune response that makes blood antibodies less effective at attacking the COVID-19 virus when compared to antibodies made from the original strain. 

Professor Ravi Gupta from the University of Cambridge told BBC News “[The U.K. variant] is rapidly increasing, that’s what’s worried governments. We are worried, most scientists are worried.” 

Some Kansas Citians worry whether their vaccines will protect them, and they wonder if they are still at risk of getting sick.  

“I think we should be worried,” said Kansas City nurse assistant Yulissa Walton. “I got the COVID vaccine for work and I don’t feel any more protected than I did before.” 

That concern is shared by Aspen Lacy, a UMKC Biomedical Sciences alum. “I fear that our vaccines may not be as effective against the new strains,” Lacy said. 

Vaccines typically only work on one type of virus, however, if the virus mutations are genetically similar enough the vaccine may protect against the variants as well. But, like the seasonal flu, one vaccine will likely not be enough.  

“Vaccines are designed based on the sequence of the virus, especially the spike protein,” White said. “The variants may not be destroyed by the vaccine-induced immune response.” 

Public health experts predict that there is a fourth wave of COVID-19 coming but are unsure how large it will be.  

“These predictions are based on complex mathematical models, so I would put my faith in the models,” White said. “Will the fourth wave be reduced because health care workers and the elderly are vaccinated?  We can only hope so.” 

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