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Delta Virus Variant Poses New Challenges

Pfizer vaccine vials photo
Scott Pohl
Coronavirus vaccines like Pfizer's appear to protect against the new Delta variant.

The highly-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus has turned up in Michigan. It’s the latest hurdle to overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Michigan State University infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Gulick about the variant.

SCOTT POHL: Dr. Gulick, when you think about how the virus is mutating, how can we be sure that our vaccines will continue to work?

DR. PETER GULICK: You know, these vaccines have the capability of giving us good protection, but how long of a protection do they give us? Is it weeks, is it months, could it potentially be years? And they’re doing more and more studies with the mRNA vaccines, looking at the fact that there may be a durable response, where it may be a long term immunity just because of the fact that the vaccine also stimulates memory B cells, T cells, which could be around for months if not years, and could give us some more long term protection as well as a protection that might protect us against many of the variants, especially the ones that are out there right now. So, we're learning more and more about this as time goes on.

POHL: Can a person who's fully vaccinated pick up the Delta variant and pass it on to others, including those who haven't been vaccinated?

DR. GULICK: They've done studies earlier with the earlier COVID viruses, and they found that the chances of that happening are very, very slim. Now, I have to preface that and say that as far as I know, they haven't done that with the Delta virus. But, earlier viruses, they have checked for that, and once you're vaccinated, then the chance of infecting other people just because you're “carrying the virus” doesn't seem to be, you know, a large problem at this point.

POHL: Do you think the vaccine manufacturers will be able to stay ahead of these variations?

DR. GULICK: I think it's very promising, especially with the mRNA vaccines, because you have to remember how those vaccines are being developed. They take that piece of the virus, and the piece they take is obviously the spike protein, and then they incorporate it into the vaccine.

So, our body uses that mRNA to make more of the spike proteins that then the body recognizes and develops an immunity to, so they could easily take the spike protein from the Delta variant, the Alpha variant, the various variants, and make specific proteins that would mirror those specific variants, which would then give us more specific protection against all those. It can be done with just little modifications of the mRNA structure, so this new technique for making vaccines really offers us the ability to do that.

Remember that even with the vaccine we're getting now, it appears that because of the fact we do make memory B cells and T cells, those cells may be able to also protect us against some of the variants that we have currently out there. In the future, who knows, but at least the variants now may be covered pretty effectively just with the memory B cells we have.

POHL: Do you think these variations like the Delta mean we should continue masking and social distancing?

DR. GULICK: That's a great question as well, and I think we have to be very, very cautious because remember, just in the United States now, certain states that have done very well in vaccinating the majority of people in the state by certain states, like in the south for instance, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, for instance, Mississippi, there's less than 35% of the individuals in those states that are vaccinated. And so, there could be local outbreaks in those areas especially.

And then you have to remember the world itself. Many developing areas of the world have no vaccines whatsoever. So, these are hotspots to continue the perpetuation of not only the Delta variant, but even variants that may even develop after that. We have to kind of look at the whole picture, but I think being more cautious than less conscious, I think is important.

And, I think individuals that have never been vaccinated, individuals that may only have one dose of the vaccine, immunosuppressed patients that, in the United States, there's about 10-million of those individuals that may have had either transplants or maybe chemotherapy or maybe some type of immune modulator for inflammatory bowel disease.

Those immunosuppressed patients should probably be extra cautious with this new variant until we get ahold of it a little bit more and see how widespread it's going to be in the country and how widespread it's going to be even within the state of Michigan for that matter.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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