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Penny Moore, SA researcher at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), who no doubt has not missed a salary during the successive lockdowns, co-author of the study says data suggests the variant could partially evade the defences vaccines build in our bodies’ immune systems.

That may mean existing vaccines won’t provide as much protection to people, and that those who have had the original virus could be reinfected with the new strain.

However, both Pfizer and Moderna say they can tweak their vaccines to combat the variants within about six weeks.

John Maytham speaks to Professor Lynn Morris, principal medical scientist and head of HIV Virology at the NICD about these concerns and the process involved.

It is not unexpected from a virological point of view that the virus has got around the antibodies.

Professor Lynn Morris, Principal Medical Scientist and HIV Virology Head – NICD

But like with flu vaccines every year, the current Covid-19 vaccines can be easily and quickly tweaked and adjusted for the mutations, she explains.

What does PANDA say about vaccines?

How can a vaccine be developed?
There are two main methods to developing vaccines. Traditional vaccines contain an attenuated (weakened) virus with an intact antigen. The antigen is a protein that acts as a flag. It sits on the surface of the virus and tells the body that this substance is a foreign body that must be attacked.

The body then recognises the antigen on the surface of the virus and launches an immune response to it. The body starts to produce antibodies to attack this particular protein. Since the virus is dead, the person doesn’t risk getting the disease, although they might experience some mild symptoms from the body’s immune response.

Eventually, the antibodies taper off slowly. In the future, if the person is infected with the same virus, the immune system mounts a response very quickly, avoiding full-fledged illness.

The mRNA vaccines introduce part of the genetic sequence of the virus into the human body. Once the mRNA is inside the human cells, it uses the cells’ machinery to produce the antigen, which then elicits an immune response. This method risks less contamination in the process of producing the vaccine as animals are not used to produce the antigens and it is easy and fast to scale up to meet high demand. There are no mRNA vaccines yet in widespread use and the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine would be the first. We must ensure that it is studied at length and its safety and efficacy profiles are transparent to the public.

Do you know what is in the COVID-19 vaccines?
COVID-19 vaccines are made by different manufacturers and have different compositions.

What does 90% or 95% ok mean? How do they get to that?
95% efficacy means that about 95% of people who get the vaccine are protected from becoming seriously ill with the virus. This is a very questionable claim by the pharmaceutical companies. The trials were conducted on healthy individuals only, who are not themselves affected by the virus very much. Furthermore, the outcome measures used to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine are reduced (self-reported) symptoms rather than transmission or deaths.

Would you have the vaccine yourself?
As for any other medication, a vaccine must be shown to be safe and effective before it is introduced to the general public. Vaccines take 10 to 15 years on average to be developed. There are several phases of testing that must take place to study the vaccine: laboratory testing, animal studies, studies on healthy volunteers and finally studies on specific target groups. The purpose of the studies is to determine whether vaccines can induce an immune response and improve outcomes in terms of reducing the severity and mortality from a particular pathogen in the at-risk population. Once this is established, individuals, with the help of their physician, should do a cost-benefit analysis based on their individual profile, their age and their health status to determine whether taking the vaccine would be more beneficial than getting a natural infection.

Currently, there is no one for whom the benefit would outweigh the risk of these vaccines—even the most vulnerable, elderly nursing home patients. Both COVID-19 tests and the vaccines are only cleared for Emergency Use Authorization, so individuals taking the vaccine now need to be aware that they are actually participating in an experiment without informed consent.