Scientists Warn Future Coronavirus Mutations Could Evade Vaccines and Treatments

Vaccinating quickly is more important than ever

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
6 min readJan 11, 2021

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Photo: Ariana Drehsler/AFP/Getty Images

The relentless surge in Covid-19 cases coupled with an emerging and more contagious strain, if not contained promptly, could allow the coronavirus to mutate and evolve enough to evade existing treatments and vaccines. While infectious-disease experts say such scenarios are not a certainty and could take months or more to play out, there’s widespread agreement on the urgency to take action now to reduce that risk.

Slow vaccine rollout amid already out-of-control virus spread, along with the recent emergence of a mutated strain thought to be about 50% more contagious, have created a “perfect storm” that “could undermine diagnostic testing, antibody treatment, and vaccine efficacy,” says Tom Frieden, MD, former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a battle Frieden dubs humanity vs. virus. “The virus is winning,” he notes, in the understatement of the year so far.

By all accounts, the two Covid-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States remain highly effective for now — immunity is not 100% but a high level of it appears to last at least eight months for most people, and perhaps longer, research suggests. But to save lives and to reduce the number of further mutations, urgent efforts are needed to staunch the spread, particularly of the worrisome emerging strains, also called variants, of the Covid-causing coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, sees the threat of vaccine-evading mutations as possible, though not necessarily imminent, but either way, she agrees urgent action is needed to help prevent such a scenario.

“It is definitely within the realm of possibility that we can develop more mutations and that can have downstream effects on the vaccines,” Kuppalli tells me. “We need to double down on our public health measures now, and we need to quickly roll out the vaccines that we have.”

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB