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COVID-19 variants and vaccines: Questions and answers with Ontario Tech’s Dr. Wally Bartfay

Dr. Wally Bartfay, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University.
Dr. Wally Bartfay, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University.

As COVID-19 virus variants emerge in different corners of the world and vaccination programs begin to expand in Ontario, what should the public expect to see unfold in health care in the near future?

Ontario Tech University researcher and public-health expert Dr. Wally Bartfay of the Faculty of Health Sciences shares observations and answers to a number of questions related to COVID-19 variants and vaccines:

Is the global response to new variants of the COVID-19 virus a battle against time? Are vaccination programs rolling out quickly enough?

“The concern is these new variants may decrease the effectiveness of current vaccines. Time is always a critical variable for dealing with viruses and global pandemic responses. Time is the worst enemy because viruses are constantly undergoing minor and more worrisome major mutations. The worry is any major alterations or changes to the so-called ‘spike proteins’, which contain the receptor-binding domain used by the virus to enter cells in the body. These make new mutations much more transmissible, and may also render current vaccines like Pfizer or Moderna less effective as they evolve over time.”  

How dangerous are coronavirus variants or mutations?

“The United Kingdom (U.K.) variant, for example, has caused more than 84,000 deaths since December in the U.K., and they are in their third wave of the pandemic now. Formally known as VOC 2020/12/01 (which stands for "Variant of Concern, Year 2020, Month 12, Variant 01), it is spreading to other countries and is approximately 70 per cent more transmissible in nature than the original coronavirus strain. Origins of the U.K. variant are not known, but they are believed to have emerged in patients with weaker immune systems who had long-running COVID-19 infections, giving the virus opportunities to mutate and evolve over time.”

Is there an analogy that demonstrates why coronavirus variants are so hard to contain?

“I like to use a ‘classroom’ analogy, where a teacher represents the vaccine and students in the class represent the virus in a jurisdiction (such as a country). The teacher (or vaccine) attempts to keep students at their desks as opposed to running around the class, or even leaving the class. Over time, the teacher (or vaccine) becomes less effective in keeping students (COVID-19 virus) in their seats. One gets up, then another, and they start to run away and eventually leave the classroom (country) and spread elsewhere. This is exactly what’s happening now with the U.K. variant showing up in different countries like South Africa, Brazil, South America, Japan and also in Ontario now (at least 14 cases of the U.K. variant identified in Ontario as of January 14).“

What is the ‘escape mutation’ of coronavirus all about?

“This one is a major health concern. The new so-called ‘escape mutation’ (known as E484K) was first noticed in November 2020 in South Africa and has spread to more than a dozen countries now. The E484K mutation could be ‘associated with escape from neutralizing antibodies’, meaning it could bypass the body’s natural defense memory that is responsible for the immune response and immunity against the COVID-19 disease altogether. Therefore, this could be the start of problems or lower effectiveness of spike-based vaccines like the mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.”

What other mutations do we know about?

“The South African variant (501Y.V2-Dec 18) mutation is in the spike protein itself. This mutation and others are also found in the U.K. strain, which could render current vaccines less effective. Variations are also showing up in Brazil and Japan. This mutation is altering amino acids in the receptor-binding domain. Other deletions have been reported to cause a false-negative result in the performance of diagnostic (DX) polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays that target the S-gene. However, most PCR assays worldwide use multiple targets, so the impact should be minor for the majority of DX tests. Also recently noted is the Columbus (Ohio) strain in the United States. We have the same concerns about this strain.”

Journalists interested in interviewing Dr. Wally Bartfay should contact:

Bryan Oliver
Communications and Marketing
Ontario Tech University
289.928.3653 (mobile)