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Q&A: 9Health expert talks effects of COVID-19 mutations on current vaccines

9Health Expert Dr. Payal Kohli gives insight to the mutations in the UK, and what that means for vaccines.

COLORADO, USA — With another mutation reported in the UK this week, 9Health Expert Dr. Payal Kohli explains what this means for vaccinations.

9NEWS: Should we be worried about COVID-19 mutations?

The short answer, not necessarily. 

Kohli:  Mutations are something that viruses naturally do. And mutations, most of them, don’t actually change the behavior of the virus. Remember this virus started in animals, and it mutated to make its way into human beings, so it’s capable of mutating, but again that’s a very expected thing. Nobody should be freaking out when they hear about this.

How often is the virus mutating?

Kohli: What scientists have said is that there has been an average of about two mutations a month, so we’ve accumulated about 25 or so mutations over the course of the last year.

What’s happening with the mutation in the UK?

A genetic variant of COVID-19 was reported in the UK on Dec. 14. About 1,000 people have been infected with it, but at this point, the virus does not seem to be behaving differently from other versions of the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

Can current vaccines protect from this new strain?

Scientists are still looking into this, but Dr. Kohli said that because of the specific type of mutation infecting people in the U.K., which only affects the tip of the COVID-19 spike proteins, current vaccines that are meant to target spike proteins should still be effective.

Kohli: Even if the [tip of the spike protein] changes, and the antibodies don’t recognize it anymore, there are other parts of the spike protein that the antibodies should exist for. If a lot of mutations happen and the whole spike changes.

Dr. Kohli said that’s when vaccines become less effective. That does not seem to have happened yet.

How sure our scientists that the vaccines in production now will be effective with all of the current strains of COVID-19?

Kohli: There’s nothing for sure yet. This vaccine is so brand new. We don’t know what types of neutralizing antibodies people are making. We really just only know that it prevents clinical infections, so certainly, that’s going to need a little bit more data. But, I think that we can feel pretty confident that the mutations that are occurring are not necessarily impacting the spread of the virus or necessarily causing big public health impacts.

Will the virus eventually mutate to the point that current vaccines won’t be effective, like how the flu virus operates?

Kohli: If the virus accumulates enough mutations, it’s entirely possible that we will need to adapt our vaccine. This is part of the reason why public health surveillance of the virus, the strains that are spreading of the virus, is so important and one of the reasons why people need to go and get tested.

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