Viruses do what they do. That’s why we need to be ready.

covid-19 vaccine graphic, dr caitlin eccles-radtke, viruses do what they do, new flu vaccines every year, new strains of covid-19, helping the body develop immunity, getting people vaccinated

“Mutating viruses” sounds like a punk-rock band from the 1980s or the subject of a sci-fi movie. But it describes the very nature of viruses, also known as obligate intracellular parasites (which really does sound like an alien life form).

Viruses don’t thrive when they stay the same, so they will change to improve their chances of survival within their cellular host. This occurs with Influenza and that’s why we need new flu vaccines every year to cover new strains, and it’s why not surprisingly, we’re now seeing variants (mutated or new strains) of the COVID-19 virus popping up around the globe.

Is this concerning? It certainly is, according to infectious disease expert Caitlin Eccles-Radtke, MD.

“We’re watching several variants of COVID-19 to learn more about their characteristics, specifically, if the current vaccines available are sufficient in helping the body develop immunity,” she explains. “The different vaccine companies are studying their product’s responses to the new variants and while they are still very good, some are noting that their vaccines may have less efficacy against the South African variant strain B1.351. That said, it’s still important to get the vaccine as it will lessen the severity of disease from various strains of COVID-19 even if the vaccine doesn’t work perfectly against select strains. Vaccine manufacturing companies are also working on booster shots already to improve their vaccine efficacy.”

Other characteristics researchers are watching include whether it’s more contagious or deadly than the original COVID-19 virus, and if it is affecting different age groups or populations. “Scientific experts are noting that with the spread of the new variants, especially the UK variant B.1.1.7 which is significantly more contagious, it will become the dominant strain in the United States by March 2021 if we don’t continue to be careful with social distancing and masking,” Dr. Eccles-Radtke warns. “Right now we are in a race between getting people vaccinated to stop the spread of disease and the virus mutating and continuing to spread. We’d like to get a step or two ahead of any virus, but this one certainly took us by surprise and continues to keep us on edge as we watch how it’s changing.”

Hennepin Healthcare wants everyone to be as protected as possible against COVID-19 and its variants – and that means vaccinating those who are most vulnerable to complications of the virus. Vaccine supplies continue to be limited, but they are being distributed as soon as possible when they arrive. Visit the COVID-19 vaccine page for the latest updates while you continue to reduce your risk of infection by washing your hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing.

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