The rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs worldwide has created a glimmer of hope on the horizon. If the majority of the population are vaccinated, a return to normal activities should be possible as herd immunity will limit the rampant spread of the virus.
However, in reality, re-opening business services, stores, and commercial travel requires a more cautious approach, even with the assurance of vaccines. Whilst the virus rapidly spreads across borders in 2020, it was also constantly mutating - a key survival mechanism that all types of viruses use. Now, there are new virulent strains of the virus in circulation, and it’s likely that additional variants may continue to emerge.
For business leaders, this means that the continued presence of the virus can’t be underplayed. In order to enable a return to business activities without risking further outbreaks, safety measures such as health screening, vaccination monitoring, rapid COVID-19 testing, and stringent disinfection protocols should be considered.
In this blog, we’ll cover the latest data available on the new COVID-19 variants, how well vaccination programs are faring, and the risk that new variants pose.
A Guide to the Different COVID-19 Variants
When a virus replicates itself in order to spread to new hosts, it often mutates in small ways. Over time, these mutations are significant enough to create an entirely new variant of the virus. This process is known as virus evolution. The mutations may help a virus spread more easily, or become more resilient to antibodies.
The more a virus is able to spread, the more chance it has to evolve into new variants. As COVID-19 was able to touch almost every corner of the globe in under a year, the evolution of new variants was highly likely. Thankfully, as a lot of countries conduct population screening, we’ve been able to detect and study new variants as they emerge.
At present the significant COVID-19 variants detected are as follows:
The B.1.1.7 variant was first detected in the United Kingdom (UK) in September 2020. This variant is more transmissible, increasing the chance of new infections, and presents a higher mortality rate. In fact, a recent study found this variant of COVID-19 increases the risk of death by 64%.
Since first detection, the B.1.1.7 variant has since spread to 114 countries, including the United States.
The B.1.351 emerged in October 2020 in South Africa. Although B.1.351 shares some of the same mutations as B.1.1.7, the South African variant emerged independently from the UK version.
As with the original virus, this variant poses the most risk to the elderly or those with existing health complications, but it is not thought to be more deadly. However, it also has higher transmission rates and is more resistant to current vaccines.
The B.1.351 variant has currently been reported in 68 countries.
The P1 variant emerged in northern Brazil towards the end of 2020. Initial research has already shown this variant to be highly transmittable, present more often in younger demographics, and, most concerningly, able to evade immune system responses built up from either prior infection or vaccination programs.
B 1.617. 2 (Delta)
This variant was first described in India, but has been spreading rapidly - and in some countries is now the predominant strain. In the USA its prevalence is rapidly increasing, and is likely going to be the predominant strain soon. It is partially resistant to neutralizing antibodies and shows evidence of higher transmissibility. Data from several studies show that it may evade vaccines partially and can lead to reinfections in vaccinated people, mostly with mild or moderate symptoms. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-info.html
What About Future Variants?
It’s likely that additional variants of COVID-19 will develop in the near future.
How Effective Are Vaccines Against COVID-19?
There are a number of vaccines available globally, including those manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, J&J, AstraZeneca, and Sinovac. The vaccines being used vary from country to country, depending on the decisions of local health authorities and the availability of doses.
In the United States, the FDA has approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and J&J vaccines under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). Although all versions are safe and effective, vaccine formulations were developed against the clock due to the severity of the global pandemic. As such, scientists and medical professionals continue to study their performance as they are put into use in the real world.
The published data has shown the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines prevent at least 90% of COVID-19 infections (at least severe disease, hospitalization and death) once a second dose has been administered. Before the second dose, the prevention rate averages at 85%. However, with recently emerging variants (e.g. Delta Variant) there is some data showing decreased efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine in preventing severe disease and death (63% in a study from Israel in July 2021), therefore suggesting either waning efficacy of the vaccination over time or resistance of the delta virus variant to the vaccine-induced antibodies.
The J&J vaccine prevents infections at an overall rate of 72%. Although lower than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the J&J vaccine prevents severe infections - the kind that is likely to cause hospitalization or death - at a rate of 86%. The J&J vaccine also works with a single dose, which could help to establish herd immunity at a faster rate.
For further information on the subject, Yale Medicine has published a detailed breakdown on COVID-19 vaccines, how they work, and their potential side effects.
Although the latest studies present promising results, the vaccines aren’t an excuse to relax just yet. None of the vaccines are 100% effective, and the vaccination process takes time to both administer and reach optimal levels of protection. Emerging variants are potentially partially resistant to the vaccines, so mild or moderate disease is still possible in vaccinated individuals. This poses a risk to businesses and individuals with regard to full re-opening of the economy and participating in public life.
This means that the risk of contracting the virus is still present. What’s more, new variants create additional complications. Let’s take a closer look at what new variants could mean for vaccination efforts.
Looming Variants May Cause Another Surge
As vaccines were developed to protect against the original novel coronavirus, it remains unknown how effective they are against the new variants.
A study from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases provided strong evidence that the coronavirus vaccines will stand up against the new variants, at least with regard to severe disease, hospitalization and death. That being said, the South African variant (B.1.351) has shown to be highly resistant to multiple versions of the current vaccine. Therefore, while vaccines provide some protection, the reduced level of efficacy means that the virus could still spread in the population and lead to at least mild/moderate disease.
The UK variant is also causing concern due to its ability to spread rapidly. Furthermore the contagious B.1.1.7 variant is thought to be responsible for over 20,000 COVID-19 infections in the US (up until April 2021). This means that variants like the B.1.1.7 could hinder vaccination efforts by creating new hotspots of infections.
If the virus continues to spread, it’s also very likely that other variants will continue to emerge. Until these variants appear, it’s impossible to know what mutations they will contain, and how effective current vaccines are against these new strains.
That being said, the good news is that the medical community is aware of this threat and will hopefully be able to adjust vaccine formulations against new variants as they emerge. COVID-19 booster vaccinations could well become a regular part of life, much like an annual flu shot, in order to provide continued protection against COVID-19 outbreaks.
In the meantime everyone has to be aware that vaccinations protect quite well against severe disease, hospitalization and death, even from the emerging variants, but do not protect as well against reinfection, and mild or moderate disease, which could sideline the health of individuals and impact the workforce as well as re-opening efforts.
Read our guide on COVID-19 population testing to stay vigilant against COVID-19 variants.
What’s Next in the Fight Against COVID-19?
It’s true that no vaccine is 100% effective. Furthermore, vaccines won’t be administered to every person globally. Therefore, as offices, stores, and public services resume operations, the presence of vaccination programs can’t be viewed as a silver bullet. The higher the risk of mild or moderate disease from emerging variants - even in the vaccinated population- , the greater the potential impact on the working population.
To look towards a return to work, business leaders need to consider local vaccination rates to assess the continued level of risk. With this data at hand, decisions can be made on how stringent safety protocols need to be.
Establishing sound health monitoring and management practices in the workplace offers a safer pathway back to the office. This will not only help protect employees who go back to work but also supports efforts to track and react to new variants of COVID-19 by providing vital population data.
Get in touch with us today to learn more about our COVID-19 health monitoring and management solutions including health screening, vaccination monitoring and testing.