<< Back

Fear the UK, South African COVID Variants? Why Vaccines Might Offer Enough Protection

March 10, 2021

Scientists are encouraging people to choose knowledge over fear as concerns swirl about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines on emerging virus variants around the world, some now reaching the United States.

Two reports in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed both a decrease in neutralizing antibody titers, signs of vaccine-induced protection in the body, against United Kingdom and South African variants, as well as news that the effectiveness of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine varies by geographic location.

But Dr. Sope Olugbile, a Hartford HealthCare physician/scientist and medical oncologist with extensive research experience in immunology and vaccine development, remains reassuring, encouraging people to view the data with caution.

“Interpreting results of neutralization assay is very tricky as it is just a laboratory test used as a correlate to assess vaccines’ capacity to prevent infection,” he began. “Even though it is a good tool to predict the potential overall effectiveness of vaccines, the results are not definitive when comparing one level of titer to another and may not be significant in real life situations.”

The studies, he noted, revealed antibodies generated by the mRNA vaccines were less effective in neutralizing the new COVID-19 variant compared to their effect on the original virus. Yet Dr. Olugbile said the exact amount of antibodies humans need to prevent infection against any variant remains unknown.

The researchers said the vaccines are 67 percent, or 1.5 to 6.4 times, less effective against the new variant. According to Dr. Olugbile’s explanation, even a reduction in neutralizing antibody titers might not make you more vulnerable to infection.

“The exact threshold for protection is unknown and it is possible that the quantity of antibodies induced by the vaccine may be good enough for protection,” he said.

As the rapid rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines continues, scientists across the globe are encouraging people to get vaccinated with approved vaccines to  eradicate the virus in the near future. The faster the majority of the world’s population is vaccinated, Dr. Olugbile said, the less likely it will be for the virus to keep spreading and creating emerging variants.

“We were able to completely eradicate polio and smallpox when almost everyone got vaccinated a few decades ago,” he said. “We can do the same for COVID-19 if we apply the same strategy and get everyone immunized as soon as possible.

“Yes, there are concerns about new variants and potentially lowered effectiveness of approved vaccines. However, the results are not definitive now and the precipitous decline in the number of new infections after mass vaccinations in Israel and the United Kingdom, as well American nursing homes, is very encouraging.”

For now, Dr. Olugbile said his best advice is to remain vigilant and cautious, get vaccinated and encourage others to do the same when possible, and hope for good outcomes soon.