Pandemic could last longer if new variants begin to escape vaccine-induced immunity

NOW: Pandemic could last longer if new variants begin to escape vaccine-induced immunity

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Doctors say some of the new variants emerging are known to evade natural immunity after a COVID-19 infection, but things could get complicated if those variants would begin to evade stronger immunity from vaccines.

Doctors say if we start to see variants escape vaccines, it could increase the length of time we’re in a pandemic.

“Certainly one of the greatest concerns with the new variants is whether they could evade immunity,” said Dr. Ben Weston, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who also serves as medical director at Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Dr. Ben Weston says it’s still unclear whether the new variants originating in other countries could evade vaccine-induced immunity.

“Early evidence shows that there’s maybe a little bit of a drop in the efficacy or the effectiveness of those vaccines, but really very little,” said Dr. Weston.

He says the little drop in efficacy still makes current vaccines extremely effective, but doctors say if variants continue to mutate and dodge vaccine immunity, changes to the vaccine will have to be made.

“It certainly would, you know, increase the duration of the pandemic if we start to see variants now that escape all these vaccines,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer, UW Health. “That would require us to, you know, give a booster shot or have the vaccine kind of altered, tweaked to cover that variant or that variant could start to spread.”

Right now, Wisconsin’s seven-day average for percent positive tests sits at 3-percent, but Dr. Weston says low case trends may actually be a warning sign that a surge may be coming.

“We’ve seen throughout the pandemic that when things go very well institutionally and individually, we kind of pull back on restrictions,” Dr. Weston adds. “The trend’s going down, which is great, but what we’re not seeing is that perhaps one-percent, climbing up to two-percent of cases that’s the B.1.1.7 variant.”

It’s important to remember B.1.1.7, which originated in the U.K., is now in our area, including Milwaukee and Waukesha county. Doctors say the longer we have infections, the more chance COVID-19 has to mutate.

They say the new variants have become dominant in the countries they originated from.

“We’ve seen in every country that it’s gone to, it pretty much does in one to two months— then we would expect an increase in, potentially as other countries have seen, a dramatic increase,” said Dr. Weston.

“You wouldn’t have to have as much of it in a community if you had people who weren’t distancing, weren’t masking, it could much quickly lead to outbreaks,” Dr. Pothof says.

Doctors say luckily, we have two weapons to keep COVID-19 at bay, the first being the current vaccines, and the second is making sure we continue efforts to curb spread.

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