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Here's What You Need to Know About New COVID Strains -- and How Today's Vaccines Are Holding Up

By Adria Cimino - Jan 29, 2021 at 8:40AM

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New strains represent a challenge now and into the future.

Everyone has been talking about the new coronavirus strains, in particular ones that originated in the U.K. and South Africa. The concern is whether the Pfizer (PFE 0.52%) and Moderna (MRNA 3.78%) vaccines can protect against these variants. In this Motley Fool Live video recorded on Jan. 22, 2021, healthcare and cannabis bureau chief Corinne Cardina and Fool.com contributor Adria Cimino discuss these new strains, whether today's vaccines can handle them, and what may happen down the road if the strains become more resistant.

Corinne Cardina: Speaking of big questions around the vaccines that we really need to answer still, there's a lot of concern, understandably, about the handful of new strains that are spreading. Many of these have been reported to be even more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain. Can you explain what we need to know about these new strains, how they came to be, and what we now know about how the existing vaccines will hold up against them?

Adria Cimino: Okay, sure. Well, first of all, there have been several strains or reports of strains that have come up. But really the ones that people are focusing on is the U.K. strain and the South African strain. Now, it's different from a mutation. Strain and variant are the same thing. Mutation is basically the change within the virus, the genetic changes that make a new strain or a new variant. That's what we're focused on. How do these come about? Well, researchers are saying that it comes from people who've had long cases of COVID where they've had COVID for a long time and the body just tries to fight it off and it gives the virus time to change and also to fight and to stay alive and to change. Then what happens is it gets transmitted to somebody else and there you have your new variant. That's what's happened. Now, both companies say that their vaccines will work against these new variants. Moderna's vaccine, for instance, encodes all of the amino acids in the spike protein. The spike protein, you've probably all seen a picture of it, it's that round thing with the spikes coming out of it. What that is, is what the coronavirus uses to infect. It attaches to cells and it infects. Basically, Moderna says that the new variant has a spike that is only slightly different. There is 1% difference between what Moderna produces -- the original spike -- and the new spike. They're saying that they expect it to protect. Pfizer also has had good news so far. It studied the UK's spike mutations in cell culture and said that it was able to neutralize it. Now, that doesn't mean that this could work in all future variants. Also Dr. Fauci gave a few words of warning yesterday saying the vaccines may not be as effective. Now this doesn't mean that they won't work. It just means that right now let's say they're about 95% effective, well, on these new strains or other new strains, even in the future, they could be a little bit less effective. This doesn't mean we shouldn't vaccinate. It means we should vaccinate because basically we need to get more and more people out there vaccinated so they won't get coronavirus and have long COVID and then disease and then have a new mutation, and new variants developing. That's really an important thing to get these vaccines out. Both companies also said that an update, if needed in the future, could be done. If indeed really in the future there was a strain that was very troublesome in the future, they could update their vaccines. Moderna even said that they would not need to do a very huge trial. It's not like it's starting over from zero. That's very good news. Of course, it still represents a challenge. If they had to do something like this, just think of, you know, the production of the vaccine, the time that would be needed, the logistics. It really wouldn't be good news if this happened right away.

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