With new COVID-19 variant confirmed in Maryland, how effective will current vaccines be?

Maryland confirmed that a variant of COVID-19 first identified in South Africa that has proven to be somewhat resistant to current vaccines was found in a sample taken near Baltimore.

So what does that mean for the efficacy of current vaccines that are currently being administered in the D.C. area?

Johns Hopkins vaccine expert, Dr. William John Moss, told WTOP Saturday that it was “concerning” to see the variant in Maryland, especially since the person who provided the sample had no recent travel history.

Moss is the executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center and a professor in epidemiology. He said the United States needs to do a better job of surveillance when it comes to tracking the virus and its mutations since it is essential to know how widespread the variant is.

When asked whether public health protocols that have been in effect for the last 10 months need to be updated, Moss said the key is to stay vigilant and keep doing what we’ve already been doing in terms of masking and hand-washing.

“We need to be more careful because we have a more transmissible variant in our communities,” he said.

Moss said while the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer show reduced efficacy against the variant, they still should protect most people. There is a possibility that the public may need a booster shot in the future.

“What I’m particularly concerned about is as more people develop immunity from vaccination, will the virus be able to evolve from that protection conferred by vaccines? We’ll just have to be very diligent in our surveillance systems,” he said.

Moss said another concern is lab tests done on the vaccines when the South African variant was not widespread. There have not been many encounters between the vaccines and the variant outside of lab work. 

Newer vaccines that do not use the groundbreaking mRNA technology have shown not to be as effective against the variant. While they do confer some level of protection, Moss said the lower levels are “somewhat worrisome.” It includes vaccines produced by Johnson & Johnson and Novavax.

However, Moss said modern vaccine technology would allow drug companies to easily modify the vaccines to confront the variant.

“It’s fairly straightforward to modify the vaccine,” Moss said. “The companies are already doing that; they’re already looking into ways to modify their vaccines to target it again the South African variant.”

His largest concern is whether treatments, such as the monoclonal antibodies given to former President Donald Trump, will need to be modified.

“The vaccines induce kind of a broad response,” he said. The treatments are very targeted “[so] we could see a fairly marked decrease in [their] efficacy.”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report. 

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for USATODAY.com, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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