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Will COVID-19 variants mean people already vaccinated need another shot?

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Posted at 8:06 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 20:55:27-05

Each week, more and more Tri-Staters receive doses of coronavirus vaccine as part of a months-long rollout process that already has seen its fair share of obstacles, from supply outpaced by demand to severe winter weather delaying deliveries and disrupting appointments -- and now -- to the arrival of a new variant of the virus.

On Monday, Hamilton County health officials announced the more aggressive and more contagious COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 -- commonly referred to as the "UK variant," due to its initial detection in the United Kingdom -- had emerged in the region. Last month, a diagnostics lab in Northern Kentucky detected the variant.

Ambulatory pharmacy manager for St. Elizabeth Healthcare Suzi Francis said initial research indicates the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines -- the two currently available to the general public -- should be effective in at least mitigating symptoms of the variant strain if not preventing sickness entirely.

"What we know is the vaccine does seem to be effective against the UK variant," Francis said.

But, like most other health experts, Francis said that, especially when dealing with variants of a virus, a vaccine does not provide a pass from other health safety measures.

"We do want to maintain all of those: social distancing and masking and hand washing and those things until we make sure we shut down the replication of variants," she said.

Dr. O'Dell Owens, CEO of Hamilton County-based Interact for Health, agreed that those who have received the two-shot vaccine regimen from either Pfizer or Moderna should be safe from serious illness, even if they are exposed to the COVID variant.

He said things get a little trickier as the months pass after that initial shot and the virus continues to mutate. That's when people who are already vaccinated might need a booster.

"The longer you do not inoculate, the greater there will be more mutations, and therefore, the more mutations, that's going to begin to have an impact on the current vaccines," Owens said. "But that can easily be solved by adding a booster."

Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, professor of infectious diseases at UC Health, has played a role in developing the COVID-19 vaccines being administered today. He compared the protein spikes that surround coronavirus particles to keys that allow them to infiltrate a host's cells and replicate. The COVID variants have slightly altered keys.

When it comes to the UK variant, Fichtenbaum doesn't think we'll need a supplemental booster.

"(The vaccine) does seem to recognize the key for the UK variant," he told WCPO. "I think we are going to be OK with this, and there's no reason for me to suspect that the UK variant, which may be spreading across our country, is going to be much different than the original strain in terms of vaccines and their effectiveness."

That said, he couldn't be so sure when speculating on other COVID-19 variants, like that which has emerged in South Africa, or other future variants.

With the emergence of these strains have come new recommendations to double up on masks -- even for those who have received the vaccine.

"People are now saying you should probably double-mask: a surgical mask first, fitted tightly against your face, followed by a cloth mask," Owens said. "I think that's how you deal with variants right now because, even though you've been vaccinated, you still can get a COVID infection. You're not going to get the disease, meaning that you're not going to end up in the hospital and you're not going to die."

More than speculating about future boosters to the vaccine, Fichtenbaum thinks the focus should be "to get everybody to wear a mask correctly," but he also said he worries new double-masking recommendations could backfire.

"We see many people who have a mask around their chin, a mask around their mouth but not their nose. So whether you have double-masking or single-masking, if it's not on your face and appropriately applied, I think that's the problem," he said. "The more we make it complicated -- is it one or two? -- then I think it becomes harder for people, and we've made this pandemic harder since the start: hard to get tested, hard to figure out what masks to wear, hard to figure out where to get the vaccine.

"We don't need any more hard. We need easy."

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Senior Reporter Larry Seward is focusing his reporting on the COVID-19 vaccine to bring you answers and information. Contact Larry at 513-667-4804 or larry.seward@wcpo.com.