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COVID vaccine ‘still worth having’ for some protection against variants

A medical Laboratory scientist tests for coronavirus at the University of Washington Medicine virology lab on March 13, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

While there’s been a decrease in COVID-19 cases locally over the past few weeks, the main concern now seems to be focused on the potential for variants of the virus to spread in the community.

Dr. Keith Jerome, head of the University of Washington’s Virology Lab, told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross that we should expect to hear more news about variants in the coming weeks.

“There’s more and more effort going into looking for variants, so you’re going to hear more news about variants being found,” he said. “There’s some news out of Japan in the last day or so, as well as the Philippines recently, with new variants there.”

“This is what the virus does for a living — it mutates over time,” he added. “Every time it infects a person it has a chance of mutating and becoming something slightly different.”

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What we know, Dr. Jerome says, is the vaccines we have now do protect against variants in general.

“For some of the variants, the protection looks like it’s pretty close to as good as what it would be for what we’ll call the ‘regular coronavirus,’ the one we’ve been dealing with for the last few months,” he said. “The variant that we call B.1.1.7, that’s sometimes called the UK variant — we try not to use the term where they’re from, but it is easier and we all recognize that. This one, the vaccine seems to work very well against, and that’s the most common variant. That’s one we’ve started to see here in Washington.”

“A bit more concerning are variants like the B.1.351 that was identified in South Africa,” he continued. “There, the vaccine doesn’t work quite as well. … It works well, just not as well. And maybe one way to think about it is it works against that variant about as well as a really good annual flu vaccine.”

It still gives a lot of protection, he clarified, and protects well against severe disease.

“And certainly still worth having,” he added.

The other potentially good news is that the Pfizer vaccine doesn’t need to be refrigerated at as low of temperatures as was originally thought. It’s also thought that there’s a good amount of protection from just one dose.

“If you looked at the very early data, it sure looked like there was protection after the first dose, … and scientists have been able to look and really nail that down with much more confidence now that there is substantial protection from the first dose,” Dr. Jerome said. “It’s still not as good as getting two, but there was a nice study that just came out of Israel that said that a single dose of Pfizer, after about two weeks, will actually give you about 85% protection.”

“And with two doses, it’s 95 [percent]. But you can see that that’s pretty darn good,” he added. “And so I think what you’ll see is a little bit of relaxation that that second dose doesn’t need to be right, almost exactly at four weeks.”

The debate about whether it’d be better to have more people get the first shot rather than worrying about getting everyone two is still ongoing.

“I kind of think it’s probably a pretty good idea. If somebody does get held up a week or two or three for their second dose, it’s not ideal, but that second dose is still going to work for them,” Jerome said.

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As for the current bottleneck in the supply of doses, Dr. Jerome expects the frustration to continue for a few more months before it gets better.

“Most people would like to get their vaccine today if they could, and that’s not going to happen. But all the trends are in the right direction,” he said. “You may have seen Tony Fauci basically announcing that sort of the time, the date by which everybody who wants the vaccine should have access to it to has sort of moved forward another month. So definitely into late summer now, … probably July he’s talking about now.”

“And you’re seeing an increasing number of doses get out to people,” he added. “Still a lot of hiccups. Believe me, I’ve talked with a lot of folks who had a lot of personal frustration trying to get vaccines and then the snow storms, and there have been some canceled appointments, and it’s unfortunate. But hang in there, and these vaccines are going to be increasingly available.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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