A Race Against Time?
Experts participating in a recent Texas A&M University-hosted virtual discussion unanimously agreed that the world might be in a race against time against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, change constantly, resulting in new variants over time. They can acquire different characteristics, like the potential to increase transmissibility, cause more severe illness, avoid detection and evade immune response. This could also change the effectiveness of available COVID-19 vaccines.
“Because it’s the job of public health to help limit the spread of infectious diseases through the population, these potential changes in the variants worry us a lot,” said Dr. Jennifer Shuford, chief state epidemiologist for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
More than 200 people tuned into the April 22 discussion, which was moderated by Allison Ficht, senior associate vice president for research.
The experts provided insight on the state of COVID-19 variants in Texas and the United States, how the virus is changing, and the effectiveness of currently available vaccines. In Texas, Shuford said data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in March, B117 – which was first detected in the United Kingdom – made up 45 percent of all variants. She said experts anticipate the number is now closer to 50 percent.
The infections are occurring in Texas in people who have not traveled, making it plain to public health officials that the variants are circulating in communities across the state, Shuford said. Because of this, the state health department is prioritizing its sequencing surveillance, and getting reports from across the state to gain a better view of emerging and circulating variants.
In Texas, the UK variant accounted for 1,714 of 1,905 variant cases reported to DSHS as of April 16. Authorized vaccines appear to be effective against B117, she said, but this may not be the case for all variants.
The vaccines that started development in early 2020 were based on the original Wuhan strain, before variants emerged. Alan D. T. Barrett, director of the Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said of the 14 vaccines that have been approved around the world, only four have data from small clinical trials showing their ability to protect against different variants.
More research needed to understand their effectiveness, Barrett said, adding that clinical trials now underway focus on the South Africa variant in particular, and booster doses are being evaluated as well.
By stopping transmission through vaccination, variants are stopped from developing, said Benjamin Neuman, professor of biology and chief virologist at Texas A&M’s Global Health Research Complex. Neuman and researchers at the GHRC recently announced the discovery of a new variant at the College Station campus.
“It is starting with all of the adaptations that you would find in the UK variant. These are the ones that presumably make the UK variant grow to higher levels in people and generally spread faster than any of the other variants,” Neuman said.
The full significance of this variant is currently unclear, he said, but it shares mutations similar to other variants of concern associated with resistance to antibodies.
Barrett said the fact that the virus is showing the same mutations in multiple areas gives him some optimism, saying “it’s just trying to evolve so it can infect people, not kill them, and maintain its host.”
“I’m hoping the virus will actually settle down and get to a sequence that it’s happy with, and then we can make vaccine that will work against all the different variants,” he said.
Barrett said there is evidence indicating that people who are not vaccinated are the ones spreading the virus because they don’t have much of an immune response, if any, when they are infected.
“I do feel the more people get vaccinated, the more we can get rid of the variants,” Barrett said.
Other panelists included Dr. Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, and Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president of global biologics research and development for Zoetis, Inc.
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