Why do we have COVID-19 variants?
Viruses, more than anything—as it replicates, the possibility of mutations occurring is always there. COVID-19 has been replicating through millions of humans for months and months; the virus is obviously going to develop mutations. The original COVID-19 came from a bat population and was well-adapted for a bat population. As it's in humans, it is adapting at being more efficient in infecting humans.
What are the differences in the new variants?
The U.K. and South Africa have both developed variants where the virus is more easily transmitted—the virus is binding to cells better. It's not becoming more lethal. Most viruses don't want to kill you, but it is to its advantage to mutate to become more easily spread. The virus is just becoming more used to the human population. That was expected and is not anything out of the norm.
Do the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines work on the new strains?
The vaccines were developed and made against the original virus months ago. There's a spike protein on the surface of mRNA. That spike protein is a very big protein that basically contains amino acids, and the variants are changing a few amino acids, but the majority of the protein in the new strains is still identical to the vaccine. The U.K. variant is definitely here in the United States. Studies have been done, and all studies say the vaccine should work just as good [on the U.K. variant]. We don't need to worry about that one. There is more concern about the South African variant. There are studies done that suggest the vaccine will still work [against the South African variant] but will have reduced effectiveness than the original vaccine, which was 90% effective. With the new variant, it's about sixfold less efficient. It's not like it doesn't work at all; it's still protecting you from dying from the virus. It's just going to not be quite as effective. The vaccine is still very good; we just need to track these variants and identifying and modifying things.
How should we protect ourselves from the new variants?
All the same standards need to apply. These are more easily transmissible and people have been slacking off on washing their hands, wearing a mask and not gathering in large groups. There is hype out there that we should be double-masking, and, logically, yes: if people want to protect themselves more, they can wear two masks. Masks protect against droplets going out and coming in. The more layers there are, the fewer droplets can get in and out. We need to maintain our current precautions, and beyond that, as more of the vaccine is made available, we need to make sure we are getting it out there and getting vaccinated.
Are we going to eradicate COVID-19 with the vaccine?
Probably not. This has established itself. It will become something like normal seasonal flu. We will likely need to maintain a vaccine program. It won't be pandemic-level, but it will become part of something people are infected with year to year. It will be better than the pandemic level we see now.