Why should I get the current COVID vaccine when there are already new variants of the virus? Will the current vaccine cover the evolving variants? Or should I wait until a ‘newer’ vaccine comes out? Do you anticipate that the COVID vaccine will change much over time, kind of like the flu vaccine changes from year to year?
Great questions! There has been a lot in the media about different variants of COVID and it is very important to have an understanding of how these variants affect the protection we get from the vaccine. To cut to the chase, only one of the variants (B.1.351, also known as the South Africa variant) has shown any significant reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccine. To date, only 312 cases of this variant have been reported in the United States. The other 30+ million cases are due to variants the vaccines appear to protect against well.
To explain a bit more, tests done in the lab are the fastest way for us to get a sense of whether a certain strain is “neutralized” by the antibodies a vaccinated person produces. This kind of testing has been done for both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines on all the variants of concern. The differences that have been seen in response to the UK variant (B.1.1.7) and the Brazil variant (P.1) are not large enough that they are likely to have a real-world effect on a vaccinated person’s protection.
Now, it’s also important to consider how variants come to be. They occur through mutations and each time the virus replicates itself, there is a chance for mutations to occur. When a single person is infected the virus replicates thousands of times and that is thousands of chances for mutations. Because of that, preventing infections is one of the best things we can do to prevent mutations. So it turns one of the best ways to prevent dangerous variants is to get vaccinated so there are less chances for variants to emerge!
To answer the last part of your question, coronaviruses mutate frequently but not near the way influenza does. Also, the spike protein that the vaccines teach our immune systems to recognize is very important for the virus to be able to infect us. If it mutates too much, it can simply become unable to infect us at all. So there’s a limit to the current coronavirus’ ability to mutate without completely losing the ability to infect. My best guess is that the need for repeat COVID vaccinations long-term are more likely to be because the immune protection wears off after a few years than because of new variants that the vaccine doesn’t protect against.
Finally, keep in mind that the original version of COVID is still plenty dangerous. The first step is to protect ourselves against it and that buys us time to deal with any variants that may arise. For the vast majority of adults, the risk of serious illness from COVID is dramatically higher than the risks of any of the vaccines available in the US.