CDC: The coronavirus could be 'just a few mutations' away from evading vaccines
CDC director Rochelle Walensky Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
The coronavirus is "only a few potential mutations" away from circumventing current COVID-19 vaccines, the CDC said.
Coronavirus cases have risen in the US, fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant.
The more transmission, the more opportunities for the virus to replicate and acquire dangerous mutations.
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The coronavirus could be just a few mutations away from bypassing existing COVID-19 vaccines, said the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"These vaccines protect us really well against serious illness and death, but the big concern is that the next variant that might emerge - possibly just a few mutations away - could potentially bypass our vaccines," CDC director Rochelle Walensky said on Tuesday's press briefing .
However, she added that "fortunately we are not there at the moment" as the current COVID-19 vaccines are "really good at protecting against serious illness and death".
Coronavirus cases fueled by the highly transmittable Delta variant have increased in the US and around the world - mostly among those who are not vaccinated. Over the past month, the seven-day average of new daily cases in the US has increased fivefold, from 11,887 on June 26 to 56,635 on Monday.
The CDC announced Tuesday that people infected with Delta - vaccinated or unvaccinated - have higher viral loads (meaning they carry larger amounts of virus) compared to other versions of the coronavirus. This means that even vaccinated people could pass the virus on to others in a similar way to unvaccinated people.
More transmission means more mutations
Byron Saunders holds his wife Joyce's hand as she receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 13, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. Jason Redmond / AFP / Getty Images
All viruses change over time as they replicate in an infected host. Countless versions of the coronavirus are circulating, each separated from one another by a handful of tiny changes in their genetic code. Many of these have no real public health implications, but the more people a virus infects, the more likely it is to mutate into a new, dangerous variant.
"The biggest concern right now is just the sheer number of people who have the virus, and therefore the sheer number of variants that are being created," Andrew Read, who studies infectious disease development at Pennsylvania State University, told Insider . "Some of those could be the jackpots that are even fitter than Delta."
Seven-year-old Jacquie Carney runs to hug her grandma Donna Vidrine upon arrival in Los Angeles, November 23, 2020. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images
No variant of coronavirus discovered to date is more worrying than Delta, which was first identified in India this winter. World Health Organization officials recently dubbed Delta the "fittest" variant because it can spread more easily and lead to more severe cases and an increased risk of hospitalization than other variants like Alpha, the variant discovered in the UK.
Additionally, new research suggests that a single dose of vaccine may not withstand Delta as well as it would against other strains of coronavirus. Recent analysis by Public Health England found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were 88% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 from Delta, while a single vaccination was only 33% effective. That compares to 95% effectiveness against the original strain, with 52% after a shot.
Although Delta is already the most transmissible variant, Read said it could still acquire combinations of mutations that would spread it even better - what he called the "Delta-plus" variant.
It is also possible that two separate variants - Delta and Alpha, for example - combine their mutations to create an even more contagious strain.
People go for a walk in Burlington, Vermont on June 28, 2021. Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images
The reason a future variant might bypass vaccines is because the shots all target the coronavirus 'spike protein, the sharp, crown-like bumps on the virus' surface that help it enter our cells. If several, groundbreaking mutations change the properties of this protein, the antibodies induced by the vaccines may not be able to recognize or properly fight the new variant.
Virologists call variations of a virus that slip past the immune system that we have built up "escape mutants". If the virus continues to spread and mutate rapidly, such escape mutants could be around the corner, Ravindra Gupta, a professor of microbiology at the University of Cambridge, previously told Insider.
"Whole vaccines escape viruses, we are not necessarily that far from them," he said.
Hilary Brueck contributed to the reporting.
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