COVID-19

Hull biochemist answers biggest questions on COVID-19 vaccine and new virus strain

A biochemist and science communicator at the University of Hull has answered some of the biggest questions around COVID-19 vaccines and variants.

Professor Mark Lorch is a chemist, writer and science communicator. He started his research career working on protein folding and has since delved into many other aspects of biological chemistry ranging from how organisms' signalling molecules will be affected by ocean acidification to monitoring micro-pollutants in waterways.

Alongside his research, Mark is passionate about communicating science to as wide an audience as possible. He founded and directs the Hull Science Festival and leads on widening participation projects in the region.

mark-lorch

Professor Mark Lorch

He still finds time to contribute to various media outlets, and his prose regularly appears in the mainstream press, and he pops up regularly on broadcast media.

He has also provided science consultancy services to film and game production companies.

Here, Professor Lorch answers some of Hull Daily Mail’s top questions on COVID-19 vaccines, and the latest variant which has dominated media headlines in recent weeks.

 

  • Is there a concern the vaccines may be ineffective against the new variant?

There is no reason to suspect the vaccines will be any less effective again the new variant. The vaccines prepare your immune system to recognise the viral ‘spike protein.’ The variant has one small change in that protein, however your immune system can still easily recognise the rest of the spike protein. By comparison, when you wear a hat there is a noticeable change in your appearance, but that doesn’t stop your friends and family recognising you.

  • Can vaccines be tweaked as quickly as the virus mutates to remain effective?

Viruses mutate all the time, and when enough mutations occur their ‘appearance’ may be sufficiently different to evade the vaccine (in the same way that a hat, mask and glasses might be enough to disguise you from your friends). However, the technology used to make these vaccines means new variations can be prepared in just a few weeks. These new tweaked versions of the vaccine would not have to go through all the same trials as the original, so they could be deployed very quickly.

  • There are now three vaccines available. What are the differences and is any one better than the others?

All three vaccines are excellent. They all work in very similar ways; by introducing the viral spike protein to your immune system. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have almost exactly the same efficacy (about 95%) at preventing symptomatic COVID. The AstraZeneca vaccine is not quite so effective (about 70%), but nobody who received this vaccine in the trials suffered from a serious case of the disease. The AstraZeneca vaccine has a couple of advantages, it is about a 10th of the price of the Pfizer vaccine and it can be stored at 4oC making it easy to keep and transport.

  • Once someone is vaccinated should they continue to follow the rules? While they may be protected, could they still transmit the virus?

We know that the vaccines suppress symptomatic COVID, but we don’t know if vaccinated people can still become infected and transmit the virus. So it is vital that everyone (whether they have been vaccinated or not) carry on following the rules.

  • There is a lot of doom and gloom right now. When will the vaccines start to help turn things around?

The vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel. But vaccines in vials are no use at all, they have to make their way into arms! We’ll have turned this around when enough people (over 70% of the population) have received a vaccine. Only then will our communities start to have wide scale immunity, and the spread of the disease will be largely suppressed. For almost a year we’ve been protecting each other through masks and social distancing. We can look forward to socialising again soon, but only if we continue to protect ourselves and each other by getting the jabs.

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