Variants and Vaccines

October 28, 2021

Are vaccines effective against variants of the SARS CoV-2 virus? To discuss the emergence of Covid variants and understand the clinical processes associated with vaccine research and development, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai organized an online panel discussion on July 28, 2021. 

“More than 90% of global Covid cases are due to the alpha or the delta variant; the delta variant seems to be rapidly overtaking the alpha variant,” remarked Nischay Mishra, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University Medical Center, as he addressed the issue of the global increase in Covid cases. Professor Mishra spoke about the emergence of coronavirus variants and shed light on the currently known variants — alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and lambda (not a variant of concern) — their features, and their global prevalence. Hypothesizing that there could be a new variant of concern after the Delta variant, Professor Mishra stressed the need for getting vaccinated, maintaining social distancing, and masking in public places as the only plausible solutions to avoiding the next wave of Covid-19.

Speaking about the efficacy of vaccines in the face of variants, Professor Vincent Racaniello, Higgins Professor of Microbiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, attributed the rise in infections to the ‘fitness’ of the variant — its ability to reproduce in the host. He shared that booster doses were being considered seriously. Noting that vaccines were tested to prevent disease and not infection, he suggested that as immunity wanes over time for those vaccinated, the key would be to observe if fully vaccinated people develop more severe disease. If this occurs, we may need to change the vaccine to accommodate the circulating variant, which would be a new vaccine altogether and not just a booster dose. 

The swift spread of the Delta variant poses serious public health concerns, especially in countries such as India where a majority of people are still not vaccinated. Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, the third panelist of the session, presented data showing that while India lags in terms of the proportion of population covered by vaccinations, yet with more than 444 million  doses administered by July 2021, it remained only second to China in terms of number of doses implemented. Dr. Kang spoke of the longstanding structural problems in healthcare and the gender disparities in healthcare access in India, where 35 million more men had received vaccines. Data sharing, improved genome sequencing, increasing vaccine supply, curtailing overtreatment in patients of comorbidities, having defined treatment protocols, and improving the quality of clinical trials conducted in the country, were some of the strategies proposed by Dr. Kang to avoid a third wave.

The webinar received encouraging feedback from the international audience that comprised virologists, microbiologists, researchers, and health professionals. The panelists agreed that while vaccination remains a crucial component of overcoming the pandemic, following safety procedures and continued global surveillance and monitoring of the coronavirus and its mutations, are the only ways of defeating the SARS CoV-2 virus and its variants