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With new variants spreading, how effective will vaccines be in the months to come?

As concerns continue to grow about coronavirus variants in the U.S. and globally, the British authorities on Tuesday said they believe a version of the U.K. variant may stunt the effect of some vaccines. Paul Turner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the Yale School of Medicine and a specialist on how genes mutate, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the efficacy of vaccines.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Concerns are growing about variants of the coronavirus and how effective vaccines will be in the months to come.

    British authorities today said they believe a variant first identified in the United Kingdom may indeed stunt the effect of some vaccines.

    Paul Turner is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the Yale School of Medicine and a specialist in how genes mutate. And he joins me now.

    Dr. Turner, thank you so much for being with us.

    How concerned should people be right now about these variants?

  • Prof. Paul Turner:

    Well, I guess this is what we have expected to occur.

    Viruses are often quite good at mutating, evolving. So, there is some reason for concern. We would want to know that the vaccines that we're producing are going to be effective against the major variants of the virus. And if we have new variants with greater transmissibility, that certainly stresses our health care systems.

    But we also want to know, are these variants able to escape our medicines more effectively? Can they escape the vaccines that we're producing?

    So, this is a worrisome thing that we should be monitoring.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do we know right now about whether the vaccines that are out there, the Pfizer, the Moderna, that have been approved in the U.S. for emergency use, whether they protect enough against the new variants?

  • Paul Turner:

    Well, the data are still rolling in. And I think people are anxious to answer those questions more conclusively.

    Some of the data show there is this measurable efficacy for the vaccines in dealing with these new strains, but not as much efficacy as the standard strains that we have been dealing with so far. So, this has to be figured out explicitly.

    There are more data coming in. I'm as anxious as anybody, but this is something we don't quite know yet, but we need to do the rigorous studies to figure it out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the report that I just cited from British authorities today about the U.K. variant, of course, has people concerned.

    One — I know one aspect of this is, it's been reported that at least the vaccines protect against severe cases and protect against ultimately death. So, there's still some good protection they're providing. I mean, can we at least be confident of that?

  • Paul Turner:

    Yes, we will have to see, but I think we can be confident that, if these vaccines are quite good at dealing with the most horrible outcomes, the deaths, then this is something that could transcend and work also against these new variants.

    This seems likely that we're mostly dealing with greater transmissibility, which is a very big deal. You will have more people getting sick, more people ultimately potentially dying. But the vaccine rollouts that are happening in earnest in this country and elsewhere, this is what we have to do is really push back on the pandemic quickly with the current vaccine, overall minimizing, as much as we can, those who are infected.

    And this is definitely the way that we can do what we can do at this point, as we gather more data about the new variants.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Turner, what about the possibility or likelihood of reinfection on the part of people who've already had COVID or tested positive? Could they — are they still susceptible to this — to one of the new variants?

  • Paul Turner:

    Unfortunately, this is a very real possibility, is that individuals who have been sick with COVID, they may be reinfected by these new variants that are different enough that human immune systems, even when dealing with the so-called classic version of the virus, now these provide a different possibility entering the human body, and a likelihood, perhaps, that they would escape immune detection and the ability to fight it off.

    So, yes, this is another reason that the new variants are worrisome, is that if you consider all the people who have been infected already might be susceptible to reinfection by these new variants, then this is something we have to really monitor, we have to get on top of the data and figure out whether that is generally the case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sounds like all this is an argument for people not in any way to let down their guard for the foreseeable future.

  • Paul Turner:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, this is really one of the major messages. We knew eventually we would see mutational changes, evolutionary changes in the viruses. And what people have to do is, as you said, we have to keep wearing masks, social distancing. People are getting quite fatigued of this.

    But if we are really going to do our jobs as individuals to help as much as we can, then we really have to heed the guidelines of the professionals who are suggesting the way that we can alter our behavior in simple ways and help get through this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Paul Turner at Yale University, we thank you very much.

  • Paul Turner:

    Thank you very much for having me.

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