Why the COVID vaccine effort may be too late

The three concerning virus mutation types

Mutations in viruses happen frequently and most are of no significance to humans. However there are three types we need to care about, as they will affect the spread and effects of the disease:

  1. Transmissibility

Mutations are happening more frequently

Mutations are happening much more now than earlier in the pandemic. Virus mutations occur randomly when there is an error in the replication process. Most errors make no difference to the way the virus works. Some cause the virus to be inactivated entirely. However, some cause the concerning mutations listed above. The more replicating that is going on, the more chance there is of a concerning mutation. More replicating occurs when more people are infected — and infected for longer before being cured or dying — which is right where we are in January 2021 with millions of people worldwide infected.

New vaccines might not help us

If a vaccine resistant strain does occur, thanks to the wonders of modern vaccine development, a new effective version can be produced in as little as 6 weeks. Rolling it out though is not so quick. In the many months it will take to vaccinate enough of the world population to suppress a given strain, there is plenty of time for a new strain to emerge resistant to that vaccine. We could end up with an endless whack-a-mole situation.

Some optimism

There are some causes for hope. The work of the Gates Foundation and GAVI to spread the vaccines we have rapidly worldwide offers the hope that we might vaccinate the world before a vaccine resistant strain can emerge. We might also be lucky; COVID might not be able to mutate enough to resist our defences and still remain lethal or spread. But current evidence seems to suggest we have some serious headwinds.

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Mike David Smith

Mike David Smith

Doctor working in North East England with a keen interest in technology