Much remains unknown about the new variants, or even how many are sprouting worldwide. Scientists are racing to sequence enough of the virus to know, but only a handful of countries have the wherewithal or commitment to do so with any regularity.
The rapid spread of the new variants is a reminder of the failings and missteps of major countries to contain the virus earlier. Just as China failed to stop travelers from spreading the virus before the Lunar New Year last year, Britain has failed to move fast enough ahead of the new variant’s spread. Britain lowered its guard during the holidays, despite a rise in cases now known to be linked to a variant. And just as China became a pariah early on in the pandemic, Britain now has the unfortunate distinction of being called Plague Island.
The spread of the variant lashing Britain has left some countries vulnerable at a time when they seemed on the brink of scientific salvation.
A case in point: Israel. The country, which had launched a remarkably successful vaccine rollout, tightened its lockdown on Friday after having discovered cases of the variant. About 8,000 new infections have been detected daily in recent days, and the rate of spread in ultra-Orthodox communities has increased drastically.
A Hodgepodge of Responses
The variant discovered in Britain, known as B.1.1.7, has 23 mutations that differ from the earliest known version of the virus in Wuhan, China, including one or more that make it more contagious, and at least one that slightly weakens the vaccines’ potency. Some experiments suggest that the variant spreads more easily because mutations enable it to latch more successfully onto a person’s airway.
Dr. Bergstrom and other scientists were surprised to see this more transmissible variant emerge, given that the coronavirus was already quite adept at infecting people.
Answers to Your Vaccine Questions
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
But other experts had warned from the start that it would only be a matter of time before the virus became an even more formidable adversary.