As people wait to take the Binax rapid test at 24th St. Mission BART Station Plaza, they fill out online surveys that question travel and behavioral habits on their phones. Photo taken by Annika Hom on Jan. 10, 2021.

One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, a new variant seemingly mutates itself into existence every day. And the attention given to the worrying potential of the variants has grown in lockstep.

Bay Area has its own scary new virus variant: Why experts are so concerned,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote on Jan. 18. “Variant virus vs. vaccine: Why the scary new strain means we must move faster,” The Mercury News urged on the same day. 

“I call them ‘scariants,’” said Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory panel. “I think we scare the hell out of ourselves when we watch national television.”

Added UCSF’s Dr. Monica Gandhi, “It’s an overblown concern that the virus has somehow mutated to a variant that is so transmissible that it is overtaking the population. That is simply not occurring.”

In fact, experts say mounting evidence indicates that the threat posed by variants has been overhyped. While the current slate of variants includes some that are more transmissible or agile in evading the body’s immune response, vaccines are still able to beat them back or prevent hospitalization.

The biggest danger with a variant is that it achieves “immune escape,” a term for when an infectious agent evades the body’s immune defenses. The variants originating in South Africa and Brazil have shown the potential to reinfect those with immunity, but the defense mounted by vaccines appears to prevent severe disease and hospitalization in these cases.

“There is no ‘great escape,’ said Dr. Eric Topol, a clinical trial expert at Scripps Research in San Diego, at a Thursday talk on Covid, referring to the immune escape phenomenon. “And hopefully, we won’t see any great escape.” 

The Johnson & Johnson clinical trials showed that the vaccine has an efficacy rate of 85% against severe covid, across all variants. Less data is available on the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which went through clinical trials before the variants started to circulate. But, anecdotally, vaccinated people aren’t ending up in the hospital with a variant.

A recent paper from the University of California, San Diego, also finds that vaccines protect against infection from variants by generating strong T-cell immunity in addition to the antibodies produced by B cells. The latter offer short-term protection against infection as the body builds up T cells, which are the long-term virus fighters.  

“You’ll know a line has been crossed when people who have either been naturally infected or immunized are hospitalized when exposed to these variants,” said Offit. “That hasn’t really happened.”

Some of the variants also show potential for increased transmissibility, though those traits have not been enough to cause another surge in cases. 

One of these variants, which originated in California, has grown more prevalent in samples collected at the 24th Street Bart Plaza testing site. Data from the testing site also shows that the variant was slightly more transmissible than other strains, according to Dr. Diane Havlir, co-founder of the Unidos en Salud initiative and infectious disease expert at UCSF.

But transmission across the board is at a rate much lower than at the peak of the last surge, which is good news: “We have an opportunity with three vaccines and continued diligence to public health measures to get and stay ahead of the virus locally,” she wrote.

Offit added that the variants do “create some sense of a rush” to get more people fully vaccinated. The more people who are vaccinated, the less room there is for the virus to spread and further mutate.

“It makes it all the more important to get the vaccine out there quickly to stop the spread of these viruses, and the sooner we can do that, the better off we are,” he said.

It is also reassuring that cases have continued to drop despite the variants, and the variants are so far not dramatically changing the trajectory of the pandemic, Gandhi said. For example, in Florida, where the more-contagious B.1.1.7 variant has the highest share of cases among the states, cases are falling.

Perhaps the greatest threat is the chance that a more dangerous variant could emerge in the future, though as the vaccine rollout accelerates, the virus has fewer chances to mutate. 

Moreover, Gandhi said, the virus might be running out of ways to mutate. For instance, mutations that help the virus evade antibodies could also make it harder for the virus to bind to receptors that allow it to enter the body’s cells.

“Viruses cannot mutate indefinitely without mutating themselves out of existence,” she said.

And in the meantime, the experts said the same set of precautions still apply: wear a mask, maintain social distance and get vaccinated when it is your turn.


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Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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  1. I would like to thank Dr. Ghandi , Dr. Ofit , Dr. Zdogg and all who have been encouraging vaccines and presenting information gathered by their efforts. I would like to ask why there are studies out about Pfizer efficacy r/t variants, yet nothing published about Moderna efficacy r/ t variants. Those of us who received the Moderna would like more information as published about Pfizer. Thank you.

    1. Kathy, the recent real-world data from Israel describe Pfizer’s vaccine because Pfizer and Israel reached an agreement whereby Israel, in exchange for being guaranteed a steady supply of vaccine, would allow Pfizer access to health care data. Basically it was a trade between Israel and Pfizer, information access for guaranteed shots.

      I don’t know that Moderna has explored any similar deals which would produce large scale real-world information, but the mRNA technology behind the Moderna shot is similar to Pfizer’s, so it seems reasonable to assume the efficacy would be generally similar.

      “The research represents the first joint report by the health ministry and Pfizer since they reached an agreement earlier this year for Israel to share vaccination data in return for a steady supply of doses.

      The cooperation is part of a wider effort by Pfizer to track how its vaccine, named Comirnaty, works in large populations. The company told MIT Technology Review earlier this week that it is studying “the vaccine’s real-world effectiveness at several locations worldwide, including Israel,” and “particularly looking at real-world data from Israel to understand any potential impact of the vaccine to protect against covid-19 arising from emerging variants.” Pfizer’s vaccine, like one from Moderna, another mRNA vaccine authorized for use in the US and Europe, uses two injections of messenger RNA carrying information about the virus to train people’s immune system to recognize and combat the infection.”

  2. “Perhaps the greatest threat is the chance that a more dangerous variant could emerge in the future, though as the vaccine rollout accelerates, the virus has fewer chances to mutate.”

    This is a short-sighted, nationalistic view of the pandemic. The coronavirus knows no borders. The “vaccine apartheid” enforced by Big Pharma means that billions of people on the globe are unlikely to be vaccinated in the foreseeable future. That leaves the coronavirus free to roam around on large parts of the planet, and continue to mutate and evolve.

    1. Omfg that is not True at all, by the Summer most of Europe and North America will have had a chance to be inoculated. There are already plans to export Billions of doses to Africa, Asia , and South America once the most endangered groups are vaccinated in the West.

      1. “Billions of doses to Africa, Asia and Latin America?” What are you smoking, Joseph? And how did you come to the conclusion that “the most endangered groups” are in the “West?”

    2. Lol, just stay indoors, lock the door from the inside, and flush the key.

      I’ll take info from actual experts than the usual comment section know it all.

      1. It appears to me, Ken, that you are the one who imagines that it is possible to “lock the door” and act like the world ends at the USA border.

    1. The Pfizer vaccine in the trial had a decently high rate of MINOR side effects like fatigue, headache, muscle aches, low grade fever. I and a bunch of my colleagues (I work at a hospital) got the Pfizer vaccine and some of us were totally fine (mainly arm soreness for a day or two), and some came down with a little bit of a cold. Not dissimilar to getting the flu shot, and we’d all happily do it all over again!

    2. There was some really encouraging news about the Pfizer vaccine just in the last day or two; Israel has been tracking efficacy in the general population, providing much broader data than the initial studies as that country has vaccinated a large percentage of its people. The Pfizer vaccine has shown 94% effective prevention of even asymptomatic infection- 94% of people people seem protected against getting infected at all, which would imply they are also not capable of transmitting the disease. Further, the vaccine showed 97% effective prevention against symptomatic illness, hospitalization, or death, so the prevention against actual illness is at an even higher rate. This includes real-world exposure to the UK variant, which was widespread in Israel during the time of the study (the SA variant was not very prevalent in Israel at the time, so efficacy against that variant is not known to the same degree.)
      These are amazingly good real-world numbers.
      (I don’t know if links are allowed in these comments, if not, please delete this parenthetical with this reuters link:

    3. Side effects … you make me laugh…

      How can possibly ANYONE know about its side effects if it’s been around during half a year or so, whereas side effects could reveal themselves after SEVERAL years. Therefore, one should assume that there’ll be side effects.