Why we should be worried about novel COVID-19 variants of global concern

By Martin Michaelis and Mark Wass.

The WHO has classified the COVID-19 variant B.1.617 from India as a “variant of global concern”. Although it is not yet clear how problematic this variant is, in particular with regard to its potential to overcome a pre-existing immune protection provided by vaccines or previous infections, this should be a wake-up call.

The changes seen in novel COVID-19 variants follow similar patterns. They make them less sensitive to neutralisation by antibodies from vaccinated individuals and COVID-19 survivors.

Until now, so-called ‘breakthrough’ infections that cause symptomatic disease in vaccinated individuals have been very rare and limited to individuals with immunodeficiencies. However, with increasing levels of immune protection provided by previous infections and vaccinations at a time when COVID-19 spread remains high in many regions, the emergence of variants that can readily infect vaccinated individuals appears inevitable.

Since new variants can only emerge when the virus infects people, low levels of virus spread are the best way to prevent new variants. However, this does not appear realistic at the moment.

Probably, new vaccines will have to protect us from novel COVID-19 variants in the future. This may mean that future COVID-19 waves are inevitable due to the time delay between the identification of a dangerous variant and the production and distribution of matched vaccines. New variants like the one of global concern from India pose a worldwide threat, independently of where they emerge. Hence, nobody is safe unless everybody is safe.