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A&M System experts talk virus variants, vaccines 

A&M System experts talk virus variants, vaccines 

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Two experts from the Texas A&M System shared insight recently into three coronavirus variants that appear to be capable of spreading more rapidly. The experts said current vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer protect well against the variants, and explained that even as booster shots may be needed down the road, scientists are working hard to prepare for future virus mutations. 

The United Kingdom variant, B.1.1.7., was first detected in the U.S. in December; B.1.351, the South African variant, and the Brazil variant, P.1., were first detected in the U.S. at the end of January. The UK and South African variants have been detected in Texas, according to the CDC website. On Monday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the CDC is working to bolster detection of the variants to ascertain their true prevalence in the U.S. 

The CDC website explains that the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Ben Neuman, head of the biology department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, explained to The Eagle on Thursday that each variant has a significant number of mutations; Neuman said all three share one significant virus mutation at the point where the coronavirus spike makes human contact.

He said the understanding among experts is that the variants’ point of contact binds more strongly than earlier versions of the virus.

“These viruses are trying to bind, for the most part, in the airways,” Neuman said, explaining that the ability to “stick” better likely leads to increased infections. Neuman described a “virus Olympics” with coronaviruses competing with one another and changing over the course of the pandemic.

“Better viruses have been pushing out the older ones. It’s a virus adapting to its host. This is exactly what viruses do all the time,” Neuman said. “The viruses are essentially fighting each other for possession of people’s lungs.”

Neuman said more research is needed to clearly determine whether severe illness is more likely from the new variants.

The CDC website indicates that so far, approved vaccines work well against the variants, with more research ongoing. The CDC also said Wednesday that layering a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask can greatly increase protection against infection and spread.

Christine Crudo Blackburn, deputy director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at the Bush School, has conducted several Facebook Live video conversations and recently discussed variants and vaccine efficacy. In a recent video, Blackburn said “booster” shots to the vaccines will likely be needed as the virus changes over time.

“Most experts believe that at some point, the virus will acquire enough mutations that it will able to evade the vaccine, so updates to the vaccine will be necessary at some point,” Blackburn said. “It’s this idea that new vaccines can be developed as the virus changes, but it’s still important to get those first vaccines because they do protect against other variants.”

Getting vaccinated as soon as supplies allow, Blackburn and Neuman said, will give effective protection for what’s presently circulating, and scientists are already working to meet future adaptive needs.

Neuman said a recent study indicates the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — with tested efficacy rates against the original version of the virus of 95 and 94 percent, respectively — are highly effective against the UK variant. He said the Moderna vaccine is also shown to work well against the South African variant, but perhaps for not as long.

“We might’ve hoped that this would be easy — that we’d roll out a vaccine and the coronavirus would just roll over and die — but the world is complicated and so it looks as though it may take a little extra science to get there,” Neuman said. “The nice thing about the vaccines is that all of these are easy to update. By the time we need these things, they should be ready to go.”

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