Experts are worried COVID-19 "escape mutants" could undo all our vaccine progress

Conceptual paper illustration of human hands and coronavirus in a lab. Flat lay top-down composition...
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Many of us are all too eager for Hot Vax Summer, that supposed sunny, balmy paradise when the fully vaccinated among us can finally bask in some semblance of normal. But as Insider points out, much still hangs in the balance. Less than 10% of the global population has been vaccinated, the outlet notes, all while new, in some cases more contagious, variants continue to emerge. Some experts are concerned about the possibility of variants known as “escape mutants.” What are escape mutants, though, and how much do we need to worry about them?

Escape mutants are variants of SARS-CoV-2 that have acquired mutations that allow it to sneak past the immune defenses our bodies have built, whether the result of previous infection or vaccines, per The BMJ. Insider explains that our current conditions — many partially vaccinated people and communities with low immunity to the virus — are ideal for these mutants to surface. They weed out the variants most vulnerable to the vaccines, allowing those that can evade these agents to thrive.

“Full vaccine escape viruses, we're not necessarily that far away from them," Ravindra Gupta, a microbiology professor at the University of Cambridge who has conducted research on the E484K escape mutation, told Insider.

According to the CDC, this particular escape mutation — which modifies a region of the spike protein that the virus uses to enter our cells — has arisen in certain variants, such as those first detected in Brazil (P.1) and South Africa (B.1.351). The variant that some experts blame for the coronavirus surge currently devastating India (B.1.617) contains a mutation similar to E484K, The Scientist reports, but its effects on the virus’s ability to escape immunity remains unclear.

"Hopefully, we won't have to deal with escape mutants, but it's not something we can just dismiss offhand, because it could happen," James Hildreth, a virologist for the FDA, told Insider. "What's not known is whether, even as we sit here and speak, there's a person walking around where a combination of mutations has created within that person a variant that is going to spread quickly, and that the vaccines do not work against."

But while it’s important for us to stay vigilant and get vaccinated as soon as we're able to, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate cause for panic. Christian Drosten, the head virologist at the Charité – University Hospital Berlin said on his podcast in March that the next generation of vaccines require only “a slight update” to protect against “most of the immune escape mutants,” according to Deutsche Welle. GSK is already working on a vaccine that targets multiple variants, Insider reports, and Pfizer and Moderna are developing boosters. And currently available vaccines still protect us from the newer variants, the outlet notes, except for AstraZeneca’s, which seems less effective against the variant initially detected in South Africa.

We’re essentially engaged in an arms race with SARS-CoV-2. As The BMJ notes, the more the virus moves through the population, the more opportunities it has to mutate. To prevent full vaccine escape — when a mutant can circumvent even vaccination — we need to jab as many people as possible, as fast as possible, and engage in the usual preventative measures, Insider explains. Even those of us who are vaccinated still can’t completely let our guard down, especially in crowded public spaces.

It’s ok to soak in a little optimism — God knows we need it — but we still need to be cautious until we truly get this pandemic under control.