Will COVID-19 variants be vaccine resistant?

How the COVID-19 variants threaten our re-opening and what it means for returning to work.

As vaccination campaigns continue successfully, it may seem reasonable to assume that we are on the road to recovery and that COVID-19 will soon be an issue of the past. However, like all viruses, the COVID-19 virus mutates, and this complicates matters. Some of these mutations (or variants) have shown increased resistance to the vaccine. Just two examples of this mutation are the P1 strain from Brazil, which has been shown to be six times more resistant to the antibodies generated through vaccine usage and the B117 strain from the UK, which has shown to be up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus.


Dr. Michael Osterholm is an epidemiologist serving on President Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisory board and is the Director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). He was one of the first US-based scientists ringing the alarm bells on the coronavirus, long before the public accepted the risk. In his recent CIDRAP podcasts, Dr, Osterholm paints a bleak scenario in which, by early Fall 2021, with most of North America and Europe vaccinated against current strains and widely re-opened, new variants may appear that are completely immune to existing vaccines. The result could be new waves of lockdowns and new struggles to create effective vaccines.


Additionally, the current trend of vaccine distribution shows that many countries are hoarding vaccines. Rich countries, which account for 14% of the world’s population, have purchased 53% of the world’s vaccines. Canada has secured enough doses to vaccinate each Canadian five times over while the entire African continent is allocated only 300 million doses for its 1.3 billion people.


And mass purchasing is not the only issue; so is overcharging. South Africa is being charged more than double of what the European nations pay for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Unfortunately, if vaccine usage is constrained, more people will be infected which gives COVID-19 more chances to mutate into more dangerous variants. By hoarding and overcharging for these vaccines, the West is contributing to global risk.


How do we reduce the risk of mutation?

Dr. Osterholm argues that, not only is there a strong ethical argument to ensure that citizens in developing nations get vaccinated, but it is also of utmost strategic global importance to do so. And Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, advises that curbing global infections is the only way to prevent new variations emerging.


To this end, China and Russia have been providing 800 million doses to 41 countries, China offering "free doses of their vaccines to 13 countries".


The West must also do more.


What does it mean for your business?

The vaccine does not mean the end of COVID-19. Any reopening or return-to-work planning must be done with an abundance of caution, especially considering the potential risks that come with the inevitable mutations.

Businesses must ensure they have implemented as many of the following measures as possible.

  • Develop clear outbreak protocols and communication strategies.

  • Follow masking guidelines to prevent infection including considering double masking as an additional protection.

  • Enforce physical distancing measures.

  • Conduct onsite rapid testing.

  • Reduce the chances of indoor aerosol spread by improving air filtration systems.

  • Implement rigorous sanitation procedures.

  • Stagger in-office shifts to prevent cross-contamination.

  • Continue work-from-home flexibility.

Our precautions need to be as stringent as ever. With many regions in a third wave and with the potential increased transmissibility of these variants, it becomes much more important to take necessary measures to protect people. This includes continuing with the health protocols we are currently following and increasing global vaccine equity.


Stay safe. Wear a mask. Maintain social distance. And get vaccinated as soon as possible.


Authors:

- Ahsan Zaman, Principal Consultant, Genesis Resiliency

- Younus Imam, Principal Consultant, Genesis Resiliency







Sources

Bhutto, Fatima (2021): “The world's richest countries are hoarding vaccines. This is morally indefensible” The Guardian, March 17, 2021. Web. “https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/17/rich-countries-hoarding-vaccines-us-eu-africa

CDC (2021): “About Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19," February 12, 2021. Web. “https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html

Duong, Diana (2021): “What’s important to know about the new COVID-19 variants?” CMAJ 193 (4) E141-E142 January 25, 2021. Web.

CIDRAP (2021): “Osterholm Update: Episode 47: Preparing for Act Three” March 11, 2021. Podcast.

CIDRAP (2021): “Osterholm Update: Episode 44: Hurricane Warning” February 18, 2021. Podcast.

CIDRAP (2021): “Osterholm Update: Episode 48: A Mended Heart” March 18, 2021. Podcast.