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How to Deal with New COVID-19 Variants

As countries race to vaccinate people against COVID-19, new variants of the coronavirus are again raising concerns around the world.

In the U.S., about 1.7 million people are receiving shots from drug makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna each day. The two vaccines were approved for emergency use in late 2020 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drugs have also received permission for emergency use in Europe, South Korea and Japan.

Sputnik V, a vaccine developed by Russia’s Ministry of Health is being given to people in Russia, Belarus, Venezuela and other countries. China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines have received emergency use permission in China, United Arab Emirates, Brazil and Egypt.

Several other vaccines, including those from drug makers Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca, are awaiting decisions from health officials in some countries. At the same time, the United Nations-backed COVAX program wants to provide 2 billion vaccine treatments to lower-income countries around the world to fight the virus.


FILE - People wearing protective face masks wait to register their names for a COVID-19 vaccine at a government-run health clinic in Kolkata, India, January 29, 2021.

Worrisome variants

Like other viruses, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is always changing and has been changing all along. Sometimes new variants appear and disappear. Other times, new variants appear and spread across many countries.

The head of Britain’s vaccination effort said the world faces around 4,000 variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. But three variants found to have come from South Africa, Britain and Brazil are most worrisome.

Drug makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech said they are developing additional booster shots to fight against the worrisome variants. Others noted their shots have shown different levels of effectiveness against the variants.

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that drug makers would not have to start new trials for vaccines adapted to fight against the new variants. The health agency added that the companies could use a similar process for the yearly influenza shot to test the effectiveness of the updated vaccines.

Take the vaccine

Dr. Gigi Gronvall is a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She spoke with reporters last week to discuss vaccines and their effectiveness against the coronavirus variants. Gronvall said some people are worried that the vaccine will not work against the variants. But she wanted people to understand that if they can get a vaccine, they should take it.

“If you've had the vaccine and your friend has not, and you're both exposed to somebody who has the virus, the likelihood that you're going to get sick is 95 percent less, so you have a 95 percent less risk than your friend. So that's the way you should be thinking about it.”

Dr. Andy Pekosz, another Johns Hopkins University professor, joined Gronvall in the video call with reporters. He noted that the variants from South Africa and Britain came when the virus was spreading easily. He said every time the virus moves to a new person, it can change slightly. So, the way to prevent more changes in the virus is to prevent it from moving to a new person through vaccination.

“That really is the critical thing. You've seen the emergence of variants during times when countries have had really peak amounts of virus spread.”

The two scientists added that along with vaccines, public health officials should continue to emphasize other preventive measures, including wearing face coverings and spending time in areas with good air flow.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Words in This Story

variant - n. something that is different in some way from others of the same kind

income –n. money that is earned from work, investments and business; used to describe the average amount of money people make is a certain place

booster (shot) –n. an extra amount of a vaccine that is injected into a person or animal that improves or extends protection against a targeted disease

expose - v. to cause something to be affected by a virus or something that could be harmful

emphasize - v. to give special attention to something

critical - adj. extremely important

peak - adj. filled with the most activity

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