COVID variants more contagious, vaccine still highly effective, experts say

Concern over emerging variants of the COVID-19 virus has experts asking how well the vaccines protect against them.

As essential workers and people over age 65 begin to get vaccinated this week, infectious disease doctors said rolling out the vaccine quickly is essential to prevent more COVID-19 variants from developing. There have already been many that surfaced in the United States including Illinois.

"Fortunately, it doesn't mutate as rapidly as influenza does but because there are so many people who are infected or at risk for infection, we are allowing the virus to develop these variants," said Dr. Richard Novak, UIC infectious disease director.

Dr. Novak said some of the variants are more contagious and are not protect by natural immunity.

"Once somebody had the infection, they make their own antibodies. Those antibodies don't seem to protect against reinfection with new these variants, both South African and Brazilian variants," Dr. Novak said.

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While there is also concern current vaccines may not be as effective against the new variants, doctors said they are effective enough to protect people.

"These vaccines from the outset were amazingly effective, you know. Ninety-five percent was beyond our wildest dreams of what we are expecting, and any incremental decrease in these vaccines is still a significant amount of protection, said Dr. Allison Bartlett, University of Chicago Medicine infectious disease specialist.

Doctors said the key is staying one step ahead of variants. Moderna and Pfizer are already working on boosters.

"The need for boosters in the coming years was sort of a given for these vaccines given the uncertainty and duration of immunity," Dr. Bartlett said.

Dr. Bartlett said the advantage of the current mRNA vaccines is tweaking them through technology can be done much more quickly compared to a flu vaccine.

Since vaccines are part of the solution, and it will be awhile before everyone is vaccinated, doctors said the new variants are a reminder to double down on protocols.
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