Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday a strain of COVID-19 that would be immune to current vaccines could be just a few mutations away.
Walensky revealed this concern about mutations during a press briefing, Business Insider reported.
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Already, the Delta variant of the virus has led to an increase in infection rates, particularly among the unvaccinated, according to University of Massachusetts Medical School. This variant was identified in India this winter and has proven to spread more easily and cause more severe infections than other variants, said the World Health Organization.
Existing vaccines are also less effective against the variant. For example, the Pfizer vaccine is around 88 percent effective against Delta and 95 percent effective against the initial dominant strain after two doses.
According to Business Insider, the seven-day average of new daily cases in the U.S. has quintupled from 11,887 on June 26 to 56,635 on Monday.
Announcements from the CDC Tuesday included information that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people infected with Delta carry greater amounts of virus compared to other versions of the novel coronavirus, said the outlet.
Therefore, vaccinated people could pass this strain of the virus along to others in a similar manner to unvaccinated people.
In addition to the Delta variant, the COVID-19 virus has developed “countless” variants over time, as all viruses change slightly as they “replicate inside an infected host,” Business Insider explained. Many variants are separated by just a few tiny changes in genetic code and don’t present much public health risk.
However, “the more people a virus infects, the more chances it has to mutate into a new, dangerous variant,” said Business Insider.
Future changes could make the delta variant stronger, leading to multiple variants combining to create stronger strains and cause changes to virus spike proteins.
“The reason a future variant could evade vaccines is that the shots all target the coronavirus’ spike protein, the sharp, crown-like bumps on the surface of the virus that help it invade our cells,” Business Insider explained. If vaccines can’t recognize these spike proteins in virus mutations, they won’t work.
Virologists call these mutated variants “escape mutants” and warn that increased infection could make them more likely to emerge.
As of this week, Walensky said getting a vaccine is a good way to prevent further spread.
“These vaccines operate really well in protecting us from severe disease and death,” she said.
Those worried about spreading the virus can also wear face masks.
After recommending in May that fully vaccinated individuals stop wearing masks in public places, the CDC backtracked Tuesday to say that even vaccinated people should wear masks when indoors in public places where there could be high transmission of COVID-19.