COVID-19 variants and vaccine effectiveness — and our best path back to ‘normal’

COVID-19 variants and vaccine effectiveness — and our best path back to ‘normal’
Wednesday, April 21, 2021

As UNC Charlotte anticipates a full return to campus instruction and operations this fall, the University continues to monitor COVID-19’s presence on campus. To increase our ability to manage the presence of both COVID and its variant strains — and protect our families and community — faculty experts emphasize that vaccination for all who are eligible is the most effective action we can take.   

Since fall 2020, UNC Charlotte researchers Cynthia Gibas, Daniel Janies, Angelica Martins and Jessica Schlueter, along with Student Health Center medical director Robert Jones, have been part of a UNC Charlotte team leading the on-campus monitoring of wastewater as an early-warning system as to the presence of COVID-19 and analyzing laboratory tests from campus members suspected of having COVID or who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Now, they are involved in the sequencing of positive campus COVID-19 tests to monitor the presence of virus variants. UNC Charlotte is sharing the results of campus testing with the Mecklenburg County Health Department as well as contributing to national databases on variants to support local and national public health efforts

Here these experts discuss COVID-19 variants and reasons the University should continue its comprehensive mitigation efforts, pursue a goal of achieving a fully vaccinated campus and remain committed to established campus safety protocols. 

What are virus variants, and what causes them?

Gibas: The genetic materials in viruses are made up of a string of molecules called nucleotides, which produce a specific code that is characteristic of that virus. To make more viruses, a copy of the code must be created. Sometimes in making copies, slight changes or errors occur. These mutations create a slightly different version — or variant — of the original virus. Sometimes the variations have no impact on the virus. But sometimes they enable the variant to outcompete other versions of the same virus. For example, a variant emerged this past summer (the D614G mutation) and because the associated mutations helped the virus spread a little faster, virtually all the COVID viruses we sequence have this mutation, which is different from the original virus out of Wuhan, China.

Janies: Coronaviruses, like all viruses, mutate randomly. Some virus variants get lucky and become better at transmitting themselves. This is the reason it is really important for people to be vaccinated, under the consultation of their physicians, as soon as possible. Right now, variants are relatively rare in the United States, but they are so good at replicating that we must use our most effective tool — the vaccine — to stay ahead of them.

Are variants more dangerous or more of a concern than the original virus?

Gibas: Not always. But if you think about variants as being random, which means they can be unpredictable, a variant might enable the virus to spread more efficiently or enable it to evade vaccine antibodies or cause a higher fatality rate. As more people become infected, viruses have more chances to infect hosts and replicate. The more copies that are made of the virus, the more likely one of these mutations or variants will be problematic. This is why vaccination is so important in controlling variants. The more people who are vaccinated, the less the virus can spread and replicate. 

How prevalent are variants among the general population? 

Janies: There are a lot of variants out there, including a number of domestic variants that we are studying. Some resemble those that were originally identified in other parts of the world.  We can be sure that all the variants currently found in South Carolina that have been labeled as the “South African Variant” are not due to people who went on safari in South Africa. We are seeing components of these variants of concern appearing everywhere.

Schlueter: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking on a national level how each of these strains is increasing in frequency across the United States. So, the presence of variants is not uncommon, across the country or locally.

What is sequencing, and how is the University testing for variants on campus?

Schlueter: Sequencing is the lab process that extracts genetic material and reads the underlying code. Essentially, we isolate this material, amplify it, and run it through a sequencer. We’re making a lot of copies of the genome, and running it through a machine to see if it contains any tell-tale mutations that would indicate it is a variant of interest or concern. Over the course of two days, we can process 96 samples, which means our entire process — from sample collection to sequence data deposit — is about a week. This is three to four times faster than the average across the Carolinas. We can do this for clinical samples from humans as well as samples collected from campus wastewater.

Martins: Since the start, our protocol has been to keep and archive all positive COVID-19 samples taken on campus as we knew they would yield precious information from a public health perspective or in conducting research. Moving forward, we can streamline the process by preparing samples in the testing lab so they are ready for sequencing.

From a public health perspective, why is it important for University to conduct sequencing?

Martins: There is an opportunity to determine if a strain that is more contagious or proven to have a higher fatality rate may be present on campus. Also, it is important to review what is published about these variants to know if there is more we can do to slow their spread, beyond the considerable safety measures that we are taking.

Jones: It is important to understand the characteristics of each strain, including the homegrown ones. If those strains become more prevalent, we need to know how mutations change the properties and characteristics of the viruses. For example, the Brazil variant seems to have characteristics that help it evade the immune system, which helps to increase the rate of reinfection.

Will we need to change campus protocols to accommodate variants? 

Jones: The penetration of vaccinations we can achieve among our campus community will play a big part in determining that. As the spring semester ends, the number of individuals living on campus as well as interactions in classrooms will drop. So, even if a variant circulates in the broader community, it may not impact us now as it would with a fully populated campus, which we’re anticipating in the fall. In regard to our public health protocols, such as hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, we will keep those in place at least for as long as public health guidelines indicate they are necessary. 

Gibas: In terms of mitigation efforts, wastewater monitoring will continue to be an important method for residence halls and other campus locations. We test individual students only when it is necessary. If we see a dramatic change in the number of residence halls indicating COVID and that the virus is spreading across campus, that may require us to make some adjustments.

Janies: Right now, we have a window of opportunity to get ahead. The vaccination rollout across the United States continues to go well, and many of the variants of concern still are not dominant here. By contrast, Europe has not had an effective vaccine roll out, and as a result, they are going back into lockdowns. If we return in the fall at full density without enough of the campus community vaccinated, the University could experience a similar outcome. So, for students, faculty and staff, vaccinations will help us get back to normal.

What should we be aiming for in terms of vaccination rates on campus?

Martins: We recommend aiming for the campus to be fully vaccinated. That said, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor for the Biden administration and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the NIH, indicates an 85% vaccination rate should be the target.  

Gibas: We should note that recent published research demonstrated that the currently available vaccines are effective against current viral strains but efficacy ranges depending on the variant. If variants in Charlotte become problematic, we would likely need to revert to past practices to make sure we’re not breathing on one another. So, from a public health perspective, our emphasis is on increasing vaccinations. Even a less effective vaccine will keep you from becoming severely sick. 

Jones: It’s important to keep in mind that the more time the virus has to replicate, the more it can mutate. We do not know how long the vaccine will provide immunity, so if it’s discovered that a booster is needed to combat variants, we know the technology exists to produce it quickly. Overall, we’re at a critical juncture and the science is clear. Widespread vaccination is our best bet — as a campus community and as a society — to get and stay ahead of COVID-19 and its variants.