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Scientists And Vaccine Manufacturers Scramble To Address Coronavirus Variants


You can think of the coronavirus pandemic right now as a race. On one side, the mutating virus - new worrisome strains keep popping up here in the U.S. and around the world. Some of those strains might eventually threaten the effectiveness of vaccines. On the other side are the humans - public health workers racing to get shots into people before the virus gets into people, scientists trying to figure out how to make sure the vaccines can protect against those new variants. So there is news on both sides of the race this week. And with me now to talk through it are NPR science correspondents Joe Palca and Rob Stein. Welcome to you both.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.


KELLY: Rob, I'm going to let you kick us off. The news this week has focused on new strains in California and in New York. And, of course, that adds to what we've been hearing for weeks about variants first seen in the U.K., in South Africa, elsewhere. What is going on here?

STEIN: Yeah, so there's a couple of things going on. First of all, scientists are starting to sequence the genetic code of the virus more. And the more they look, the more they're spotting variants that have mutated. Second of all, the more a virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate. And the virus is still spreading so much, especially in this country, that it has lots of chances to evolve new mutations that could make it more of a threat. But, you know, viruses mutate all the time. Just because they mutate doesn't mean they're necessarily more dangerous. Sometimes mutations make the virus more dangerous, but most of the time they don't. The key is to figure out which ones to worry about.

KELLY: Well, exactly (laughter). So help us there. Which ones should we be most worried about?

STEIN: Yeah, it is - so many numbers and names of variants coming out these days. It's hard to keep track. But there are three that scientists are still mostly worried about the most in this country. The first one was spotted for the first time in the U.K., and it's more contagious. There's also some evidence that it may make people sicker. And there's another that was first seen in South Africa that looks like it also spreads faster. And it appears more capable of evading the immune system, meaning some drugs don't work against it, people could get reinfected, and vaccines may not be as effective against it - ditto another one that was first spotted in Brazil.

But more recently, homegrown variants that - have been spotted in the U.S. that have raised some red flags. You know, one is spreading fast in California. It looks like it's probably more contagious, too, but probably not quite as contagious as the others. Another one was just spotted in New York City. It may be more of a worry than the California variant because it has the same immune system-evading mutation as the variants from South Africa and Brazil. It looks like it's spreading fast, too, but it's still unclear whether it's more contagious or not. I talked about this with Kristian Andersen at the Scripps Research Institute.

KRISTIAN ANDERSEN: We need to keep an eye on it. But we, of course, have variants already in this country that will become dominant within the next - just the next few weeks here in the United States.

KELLY: Just the next few weeks - Rob, what does that mean for the effort to try to contain the pandemic here?

STEIN: Yeah, so the big concern is they could trigger another surge. You know, the U.S. looks like it may finally have turned the corner on this terrible pandemic, but if one of those variants takes off, the virus could come roaring back again. And researchers are keeping a close eye on Florida and California because that's where the U.K. variant's been spotted the most, and so it could be the first place another surge starts. And so, like you said at the beginning, we're in this race to vaccinate as many people as possible to try to head something like that off.

KELLY: OK. Joe Palca, hop in and join us here. I want you to get us up to speed on the vaccines that are out, that are currently being rolled out. There's 50 million doses as of today, I was seeing, according to the White House. And the concern has been, are they going to work against these other variants? Can they be modified? How hard would that be? What do we know?

PALCA: Well, modifying them is not the big - it's not all that difficult now. These are - this is a new generation of vaccines. They were created from DNA sequence, which is picking the virus out, sequencing it and then creating a vaccine. They did that in six weeks. So the whole time frame has been collapsed enormously. It can be done fairly quickly. What we're not really sure yet - or what people aren't - scientists aren't really sure yet about is how effective these vaccines will be against these new viruses because they just haven't had a chance to study them that much.

KELLY: What about this news that Pfizer and Moderna are considering coming up with a booster shot? So you would get not just one, not two, but three doses of the current vaccines. How would that help?

PALCA: Yeah, well, the idea is that all of the vaccines seem to show some activity, at least in the lab, against the - all the vaccines against the virus. And if you can boost this activity, make it stronger, then even though it's not as effective, it will be effective enough, and it might prevent serious disease and death.

KELLY: Rob, beyond vaccines, what else do we have in the toolkit?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, one really important thing that should be being done is to ramp up sequencing, you know, big time, you know, to really know how common these variants are, how fast they're really spreading and to spot any new ones that evolve really quickly. The CDC's rushing to do that, but the country still isn't doing nearly enough.

But the most important thing to do is to slow the spread of the virus, to minimize the chances the more contagious variants will, you know, really take off or mutate into something even more dangerous. So it's crucial not to relax, to keep wearing those masks, keep our distancing from other people. You know, some states have started loosening restrictions, which is really worrying public health experts.

KELLY: And, Joe Palca, final word to you - how long would it take for these new vaccines to be approved?

PALCA: Well, they're not going to need the same, you know, tens of thousands of people to study. It's probably a matter of weeks or months, as opposed to many months. So we'll see.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR's Joe Palca and Rob Stein. Thanks to you both.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.