Vaccines do a good job of protecting us from coronavirus, but fear and confusion about the rise of variants have muddled the message. Here are answers to common questions.
By Tara Parker-Pope
The news about coronavirus variants can sound like a horror movie, with references to a “double-mutant” virus, “vaccine-evading” variants and even an “Eek” mutation. One headline warned ominously: “The devil is already here.”
While it’s true that the virus variants are a significant public health concern, the unrelenting focus on each new variant has created undue alarm and a false impression that vaccines don’t protect us against the various variants that continue to emerge.
“I use the term ‘scariants,’” said Dr. Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., referring to much of the media coverage of the variants. “Even my wife was saying, ‘What about this double mutant?’ It drives me nuts. People are scared unnecessarily. If you’re fully vaccinated, two weeks post dose, you shouldn’t have to worry about variants at all.”
Viruses are constantly changing, and new variants have been emerging and circulating around the world throughout the pandemic. Some mutations don’t matter, but others can make things much worse by creating a variant that spreads faster or makes people sicker. While the rise of more infectious variants has caused cases of Covid-19 to surge around the world, the risk is primarily to the unvaccinated, for whom there is great concern. While vaccination efforts are well underway in the United States and many other developed countries, huge swaths of the world’s population remain vulnerable, with some countries yet to report having administered a single dose.
But for the vaccinated, the outlook is much more hopeful. While it’s true that the vaccines have different success rates against different variants, the perception that they don’t work against variants at all is incorrect. In fact, the available vaccines have worked remarkably well so far, not just at preventing infection but, most important, at preventing serious illness and hospitalization, even as new variants circulate around the globe.
The variants are “all the more reason to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist. “The bottom line is the vaccines we are using very well protect against the most dominant variant we have right now, and to varying degrees protect against serious disease among several of the other variants.”
Part of the confusion stems from what vaccine efficacy really means and the use of terms like “vaccine evasion,” which sounds a lot scarier than it is. In addition, the fact that two vaccines have achieved about 95 percent efficacy has created unrealistic expectations about what it takes for a vaccine to perform well.
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