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Can a Supplement Protect Me Against the New Coronavirus?

Doctors say there’s limited evidence on how any supplements may or may not affect coronavirus spread and the resulting disease. Here’s what we know right now.

We don’t know if taking vitamins or supplements will help your immune system fight off the new coronavirus or affect the severity of your symptoms if you contract it. But experts say some supplements may affect symptom severity when it comes to other viral infections.iStock(2)

Doctors and scientists still have many unanswered questions about the new coronavirus and how it affects our bodies once we are exposed. Washing hands frequently and social distancing are recommended to stop the spread of the virus. But many are asking, is there anything we can do to bolster our immune system’s defense to fight off the virus if we come in contact? Are there supplements that might help?

Again, when it comes to the new coronavirus, there’s no data right now to answer definitely how one supplement might help the immune system fight off the virus or not. But what microbiologists who do study the immune system know about our body’s defense is that ramping up our immune system to be on “high alert” or globally boosting it to fight off every and any germ that might be out there is actually a flawed concept, explains Michael N. Sternbach, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Our immune system is designed to recognize things that are foreign in our body and clear those foreign things out of our body, but those cells and responses are finely tuned, says Dr. Starnbach. “If the immune system were too active, it would attack our own tissues, which can happen in some autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease,” he says.

There’s really only evidence that supplements improve immune function in populations that are truly malnourished, which is rarely the case in the United States, according to Sternbach. “People can be more susceptible to diseases when they are severely malnourished, but it doesn’t mean that replenishing higher-than-necessary amounts of vitamins and nutrients in someone is going to make their immune system work that much better,” he says.

Evidence suggests some vitamins and supplements may reduce the likelihood of a respiratory virus or reduce the amount of time a person is sick with a virus, especially if a person is deficient in some way, according to Tod Cooperman, MD, the president and founder of Consumer.Lab.com, a provider of independent test results and information designed to help consumers and healthcare professionals identify the best quality health and nutrition products. Again, we don’t know whether the vitamins and supplements we have evidence for would yield the same effects against the novel coronavirus.

“Right now, if you’re concerned about catching the coronavirus or any other virus, taking a basic multivitamin every day is a safe way to ensure you’re not deficient in any area,” says Dr. Cooperman. “Eating well, getting good sleep, and exercising will also help keep you as healthy as possible and keep your immune system strong,” he says.

Based on research on the effects of zinc against other viruses, there’s some suggestion it may help lessen the severity of symptoms, so if you start to experience symptoms of a virus, including the new coronavirus, Cooperman suggests sucking on zinc lozenges to coat your throat. But right now, there’s no evidence to back that up.

Here’s more about what is known about specific vitamins and supplements that may affect viral infections.

So, What Do We Know About Supplements?

Again the available evidence suggests certain supplements may help when it comes to reducing infection or the duration of illness, says Yufang Lin, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the center for integrative medicine at the Lyndhurst Campus of the Cleveland Clinic Health System in Ohio. But little evidence suggests supplements actually help protect you against catching a pathogen in the first place. And there’s no evidence that any supplement is a silver bullet that’s going to globally boost your immune response to any and all threats.

And remember, the novel coronavirus is an entirely new threat. There isn’t any specific data yet on how particular vitamins or supplements may or may not thwart it, says Dr. Lin. (All the studies referenced below investigate how supplements work against other types of viruses.) “We really don’t know if they would provide support in fighting off COVID-19 [the disease spread by the novel coronavirus],” she says.

Here’s what we do know.

Elderberry There’s data that suggests elderberry (taken in teas, lozenges, gummies, or pills with the herb) can reduce flu virus production and help people recover from flu faster, Lin says. A study published in March 2019 in the Journal of Functional Foods found that compounds from elderberries can inhibit the virus’s entry and replication in human cells and help strengthen a person’s immune response to the virus. There is no really good data for the common cold and elderberry, Lin adds.

Zinc does have some data suggesting it can provide support for your immune system and may help you fight off infection in common colds faster, Lin says. A meta-analysis published in the journal JRSM Open in May 2017 found evidence that zinc lozenges can shorten the common cold’s duration by over 30 percent. The findings recommended that lozenges not contain citric acid or salt citrate. “[It’s an approach] that you can think about taking within the first few days of infection,” she adds.

Remember, zinc has not been tested specifically with the new coronavirus, but it has been tested with other viruses, he says. When it comes to other viruses, zinc lozenges work by inhibiting the viruses’ activity in the throat, when the infection is just starting to spread, lessening those symptoms. So taking those lozenges soon after you begin experiencing symptoms may help, Cooperman explains. “It’s fairly safe for a week or two. You want to suck on the lozenges, but not chew, so your throat is continually coated with zinc,” he says.

Make sure you follow the instructions on the package and that you’re not taking more than the recommended dose, Cooperman adds. 

Vitamin C is associated with some benefits for colds, Lin notes. (The common cold is a type of coronavirus.) A meta-analysis of 29 trials including 11,306 people looked at how taking at least 200 milligrams (mg) per day of vitamin C affected the risk and management of colds. The study, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, found that vitamin C didn’t reduce the incidence of colds in adults, but it did shorten the duration of colds, by 8 percent. A subgroup of studies in the Cochrane analysis looked at marathon runners, skiers and Army troops doing heavy exercise in very cold conditions and found that supplements of at least 200 mg of vitamin C every day appeared to cut the risk of getting a cold by 50 percent.

Lin recommends aiming to get the vitamin C you do need daily and focus on getting it from food sources, rather than supplements. “I would encourage eating vitamin C–rich vegetables to boost your levels of vitamin C,” she says. The recommended daily amount of vitamin C for adults is 75 to 90 milligrams (mg) a day, according to the National Institutes of Health. One orange contains about 75 mg, a green pepper contains about 60 mg, and a half cup of Brussels sprouts has almost 50 mg.

Taking very large doses of vitamin C isn’t recommended; once doses go above 400 mg, vitamin C is just excreted in the urine, according to the Harvard Health Letter

Vitamin D is important for maintaining a strong immune system, according to Cooperman. And low levels of vitamin D are associated with frequent colds and influenza, according to the National Institutes of Health. Because we get a lot of the vitamin D we need from sunshine, many people see their levels drop off during the winter months, says Cooperman. It’s not necessary to have your levels checked to safely take vitamin D; Cooperman recommends 600 to 800 IU or 15 to 20 micrograms if you decide to take supplements.

A meta-analysis of prospective trials published in the journal BMJ in 2017 found that vitamin D reduced the odds of developing a respiratory infection by 42 percent in people who were vitamin D deficient. Note Dosage matters. Taking a daily dose of D3 between 300 IU and 4,000 IU was more effective than taking a large monthly dose, according to the BMJ report.

In a randomized, double-blind placebo trial of 5,110 older adults who were vitamin D deficient (published in August 2019 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases), the data again showed that large doses may not be beneficial in preventing respiratory infection. Participants were given 200,000 IU at the start of the study followed by 100,000 IU monthly, with a mean follow-up of 1.6 years. Investigators found no reduction in the number of acute respiratory infections compared with placebo.

If you’re not deficient, vitamin D won’t really provide a lot of additional benefits, but if you are deficient, taking the supplement can strengthen immunity, says Cooperman.

Apple cider vinegar Though apple cider vinegar (ACV) does boast some other health benefits, there isn’t evidence to show that ACV affects the immune function or that taking it regularly improves your chances of fighting off viruses, Lin says.

Turmeric While there is some evidence turmeric may yield some health benefits, including helping manage high cholesterol, glucose control, and digestive issues, there isn’t specific evidence that it can help fight off a virus, says Lin. There is, however, evidence suggesting one of the active compounds in turmeric (curcumin) does act on immune function in some way, though how those effects may or may not benefit health is still unclear, according to a review published in the Journal of Clinical Immunology.

As always, let your doctor know about all supplements you are taking or plan to take, as they can pose unintended health risks for certain groups or interact with other medications you’re taking.

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Diet and Lifestyle

SUPPORTING EXAM STRESS and Kids going back to School.

stress

Tests and exams can be a challenging part of school life for children and young people and their parents or carers. But there are ways to ease the stress.

Watch for signs of stress

Children and young people who are stressed may:

  • worry a lot
  • feel tense
  • have headaches and stomach pains
  • not sleep well
  • be irritable
  • lose interest in food or eat more than normal
  • not enjoy activities they previously enjoyed
  • be negative and have a low mood
  • feel hopeless about the future

Having someone to talk to about their work can help. Support from a parent, tutor or study buddy can help young people share their worries and keep things in perspective.

Encourage your child to talk to a member of school staff who they feel is supportive. If you think your child is not coping, it may also be helpful for you to talk to their teachers.

Try to involve your child as much as possible.

Make sure your child eats well 

A balanced diet is vital for your child’s health, and can help them feel well during exam periods.

Some parents find high-fat, high-sugar and high-caffeine foods and drinks, such as energy drinks, cola, sweets, chocolate, burgers and chips, make their children hyperactive, irritable and moody.

Where possible, involve your child in shopping for food and encourage them to choose some healthy snacks.

Read more about healthy eating for teens.

Help your child get enough sleep 

Good sleep improves thinking and concentration. Most teenagers need 8 to 10 hours’ sleep a night. Learn more about how much sleep children need.

Allow half an hour or so for your child to wind down between studying, watching TV or using a computer and going to bed, to help them get a good night’s sleep.

Cramming all night before an exam is usually a bad idea. Sleep will benefit your child far more than a few hours of panicky last-minute study.

Be flexible during exams

Be flexible around exam time. When your child is revising all day, do not worry about household jobs left undone or untidy bedrooms.

Staying calm yourself can help. Remember, exams do not last forever.

The Family Lives website has more about coping with exam stress.

Help them study

Make sure your child has somewhere comfortable to study. Ask them how you can support them with their revision.

Help them come up with practical ideas that will help them revise, such as drawing up a revision schedule or getting hold of past papers for practice.

To motivate your child, encourage them to think about their goals in life and see how their revision and exams are related to them.

Talk about exam nerves

Remind your child that it’s normal to feel anxious. Nervousness is a natural reaction to exams. The key is to put these nerves to positive use.

If anxiety is getting in the way rather than helping, encourage your child to practise the activities they’ll be doing on the day of the exam. This will help it feel less scary.

For example, this may involve doing practice papers under exam conditions or seeing the exam hall beforehand. School staff should be able to help with this.

Help your child face their fears and see these activities through, rather than avoiding them.  

Encourage them to think about what they know and the time they’ve already put into studying to help them feel more confident.

Encourage exercise during exams

Exercise can help boost energy levels, clear the mind and relieve stress. It does not matter what it is – walking, cycling, swimming, football and dancing are all effective.

Activities that involve other people can be particularly helpful.

Support group Childline says many children who contact them feel that most pressure at exam time comes from their family.

Listen to your child, give them support and avoid criticism.

Before they go in for a test or exam, be reassuring and positive. Let them know that failing is not the end of the world. If things do not go well they may be able to take the exam again.

After each exam, encourage your child to talk it through with you. Discuss the parts that went well rather than focusing on the questions they found difficult. Then move on and focus on the next test, rather than dwelling on things that cannot be changed.

Make time for treats

With your child, think about rewards for doing revision and getting through each exam.

Rewards do not need to be big or expensive. They can include simple things like making their favourite meal or watching TV.

When the exams are over, help your child celebrate by organising an end-of-exams treat.

When to get help

Some young people feel much better when exams are over, but that’s not the case for all young people.

Get help if your child’s anxiety or low mood is severe, persists and interferes with their everyday life. Seeing a GP is a good place to start.

Some basic rules coming up to exam time

A quiet place to study – A suitable environment to study is important to help concentration levels.

A balanced diet – Good nutrition is essential at any time of year, but especially during exam time. Batch cook some healthy meals and stock up on nutritious snacks. Having some of the student’s favourite dinner to hand is important too.

Omega 3 is essential to fuel the hard-working brain at this time. Keep brain and vision in tip top shape by making sure to top up your good fats daily. Consider taking Cleanmarine® Krill Oil High Strength. It contains 590mg of concentrated, high strength Omega 3 Krill Oil. This concentrated formula of EPA, DHA, Astaxanthin and Choline provides the essential fatty acids required for the normal function of the heart, brain and vision. DHA contributes to the maintenance of normal brain function and vision, the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 250mg. Also eating 2 – 3 portions of oily fish a week will provides more essential fats for your body. Examples include salmon, mackerel and herring. Easy to cook in steam parcels in the oven with garlic, lemon and oil.

A good night’s sleep – Studying all night may seem like a good idea but if your child doesn’t get enough sleep, they are more likely to forget the information or under perform. When your mind is buzzing with exam questions, quotes and scientific theories, having something to help you switch off, relax and support deep sleep is a must. Try melissa-dreams which contains all-natural ingredients including the herbs lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and Chamomile in combination with selected B-vitamins, Magnesium and the amino acid L-theanine. Magnesium contributes to a reduction of tiredness and fatigue while vitamins B6 and B12 contribute to the normal function of the nervous system. With no drowsiness or side effects the next day, Melissa Dream helps you to wake up rested and full of energy.

Exercise – Even a 20-minute walk will help your child to relax and destress their mind, this will also help oxygenate the entire body.

Stress is the biggest obstacle to overcome. It’s so important to get enough B vitamins in foods like broccoli. Kale, spinach. Getting your 5-a-day is bound to be the least of your worries as exam time approaches; ironically this is when your nutritional and energy needs are at their highest. Make sure you keep your nutrient and energy levels up with One Nutrition® Organic Power Greens. This is a unique combination of nature’s finest green foods including kale, broccoli, spirulina, wheat grass and barley grass juice powders in a handy capsule or powder to add to your morning smoothie.

Take time out to do something you love such as walking your dog, reading a magazine, chat online to your best friend. Journaling is also therapeutic, to put your thoughts and feelings onto paper. Try family time such as playing a board game to distract your mind from the books for a while.

Don’t forget to celebrate – when the exams are over, go out and celebrate together, hopefully everything will be back to normal by then.

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Can vitamin D really prevent Covid-19? Here’s what the evidence says.


Vitamin D supplement sales have soared amid the pandemic as people try to curb their risk of contracting the novel coronavirus—but some experts are urging caution, noting that not enough research has been done to establish a definitive relationship between taking the supplement and fending off Covid-19.

What the research says about vitamin D and Covid-19

According to Sabyasachi Sen, a professor of endocrinology and medicine at George Washington University (GW), deficiencies of vitamin D are “not rare” and are especially common in older adults, obese people, and people with darker skin—some of the same populations most affected by Covid-19.

While vitamin D is known for protecting bone health, it also helps with the immune system, Sen said. It’s believed that vitamin D improves the function of certain cells, including T cells, which fight off pathogens and can assist in modulating inflammatory responses.

In addition, Sen continued, research has found vitamin D deficiencies have been associated with an increased risk of infection. “Now, what is unknown is whether it’s a cause and effect rather than an association,” he said.

According to the Washington Post, researchers studying the relationship between vitamin D and Covid-19 outcomes are interested in precisely that question: whether there’s a cause and effect relationship, or merely an association.

For example, one study, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at the health records of 489 people in Chicago and found patients with a vitamin D deficiency in the year prior to testing for Covid-19 were 77% more likely to test positive for the disease than those with normal vitamin D levels. Taking a converse approach, another study looked at a small group of Covid-19 patients in Italy who had been hospitalized with acute respiratory failure and found that 81% of them had a vitamin D deficiency.

Meanwhile, an experimental study in France at a nursing home with 66 people found that taking vitamin D supplements was “associated with less severe Covid-19 and a better survival rate.” Similarly, a study in South Korea of 200 people found that a deficiency of vitamin D could “decrease the immune defenses against Covid-19 and cause progression to severe disease.” And a small study in Spain involving 76 hospitalized Covid-19 patients found that those treated with calcifediol—an activated version of vitamin D, distinct from the over-the-counter supplement—seemed to curb the severity of the disease.

On the flipside, however, a recent paper considered by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in the United Kingdom looked at vitamin D levels from up to 14 years ago and didn’t find any correlation between vitamin D levels and Covid-19 mortality. And while the lead author of that study has in other papers called for further research on the link between vitamin D and Covid-19 outcomes, the researchers concluded, “For now, recommendations for vitamin D supplementation to lessen Covid-19 risks appear premature and, although they may cause little harm, they could provide false reassurance leading to changes in behaviour that increase risk of infections.”

Similarly, a double-blind randomized controlled trial of 240 patients in Brazil, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, found that one large dose of vitamin D didn’t reduce hospital stay length or mortality rates among patients with a severe case of Covid-19 compared with those in a placebo group.

Correlation—not necessarily causation

“We do know that people who have lower blood levels of vitamin D tend to have a higher risk of being infected with Covid-19 and having severe Covid-19 illness,” JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said. “But as we say in epidemiology, ‘Correlation doesn’t prove causation.’ We don’t know for sure that the low vitamin D level is causing an increased risk of Covid-19.”

According to Natasha Chida, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, people who have a vitamin D deficiency typically have other health factors that could affect how likely they are to develop a severe case of Covid-19—and people who do develop diseases such as Covid-19 often experience a drop in vitamin D levels.

“Unless you take into account all those factors and separate all those out and look at just vitamin D … it’s really hard to make any inferences about what vitamin D is doing here,” she said.

Chida added that there’s “some biologic plausibility” that vitamin D could help Covid-19 patients. “It’s just that despite years of research into the use of vitamin D in respiratory tract infections, there still hasn’t really been a clear, slam-dunk answer that there’s a benefit.”

Research into the relationship is ongoing, however. According to the Washington Times, about 70 clinical trials assessing vitamin D and Covid-19 have been filed in the U.S. National Library of Medicine database.

Should you take vitamin D supplements?

As of now, experts say people who know they have vitamin D deficiencies should continue their treatment, and those thinking about taking supplements should talk to their health care provider first, given there’s no firm evidence that vitamin D supplements curb people’s risk of infection or serious Covid-19 illness.

“People should be wary of taking mega doses of vitamins or unproven interventions specifically for Covid-19, because we don’t have good quality data yet to suggest that this is of any help,” Hana Akselrod, an infectious disease specialist at GW, said.

Instead of supplements, people can add more vitamin D to their lives by being outdoors for 15 or 20 minutes a day, Akselrod added. And some foods, such fatty fish or fortified dairy products, could also improve vitamin D levels, Manson said.

“There are all of the positive confluences around nutrition and outdoor exercise that aren’t just limited to the number of how many units of vitamin D you get every day,” Akselrod said. “And on top of that, people absolutely need to continue all the other safety precautions, like masking and safe distancing and avoiding gatherings, because we’re in the most dangerous phase of the pandemic yet”.

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COVID-19 will likely be with us forever. Here’s how we’ll live with it.

As COVID-19 continues to run its course, the likeliest long-term outcome is that the virus SARS-CoV-2 becomes endemic in large swaths of the world, constantly circulating among the human population but causing fewer cases of severe disease. Eventually—years or even decades in the future—COVID-19 could transition into a mild childhood illness, like the four endemic human coronaviruses that contribute to the common cold.

“My guess is, enough people will get it and enough people will get the vaccine to reduce person-to-person transmission,” says Paul Duplex, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research. “There will be pockets of people who won’t take [the vaccines], there will be localized outbreaks, but it will become one of the ‘regular’ coronaviruses.”

But this transition won’t happen overnight. Experts say that SARS-CoV-2’s exact post-pandemic trajectory will depend on three major factors: how long humans retain immunity to the virus, how quickly the virus evolves, and how widely older populations become immune during the pandemic itself.

Depending on how these three factors shake out, the world could be facing several years of a halting post-pandemic transition—one marked by continued viral evolution, localized outbreaks, and possibly multiple rounds of updated vaccinations.

“People have got to realize, this is not going to go away,” says Roy Anderson, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London. “We’re going to be able to manage it because of modern medicine and vaccines, but it’s not something that will just vanish out of the window.”

The long road to another common cold

One of the essential factors governing the future of COVID-19 is our immunity to the illness. Immunity to any pathogen, including SARS-CoV-2, isn’t binary like a light switch. Instead, it’s more like a dimmer switch: The human immune system can confer varying degrees of partial protection from a pathogen, which can stave off severe illness without necessarily preventing infection or transmission.

In general, the partial protection effect is one of the reasons why the four known endemic human coronaviruses—the ones that cause a common cold—have such mild symptoms. A 2013 study in BMC Infectious Diseases shows that on average, humans are first exposed to all four of these coronaviruses between the ages of three and five-part of the first wave of infections that young children experience.

These initial infections lay the foundation for the body’s future immune response. As new variants of the endemic coronaviruses naturally evolve, the immune system has a head start in fighting them off—not enough to eradicate the virus instantly, but enough to ensure that symptoms don’t progress much beyond the sniffles.

“The virus is also its own enemy. Every time it infects you, it tops up your immunity,” says Marc Veldhoen, an immunologist at the Portugal’s University of Lisbon.

Past studies make clear that partial immunity can keep people from getting seriously ill, even as coronaviruses successfully enter their systems. Long-term, the same is likely to be true for the new coronavirus. Emory University postdoctoral fellow Jennie Lavine modeled SARS-CoV-2’s post-pandemic trajectory based on the 2013 study’s data, and her results—published in Science on January 12—suggest that if SARS-CoV-2 behaves like other coronaviruses, it will likely morph into mild nuisance years to decades from now.

This transition from pandemic to minor ailment, however, depends on how the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 holds up over time. Researchers are actively examining the body’s “immunological memory” of the virus. A study published in Science on January 6 tracked the immune response of 188 COVID-19 patients for five to eight months post-infection, and while individuals are varied, about 95 percent of patients had measurable levels of immunity.

“Immunity is waning, but certainly not gone, and I think this is key,” says Lavine, who wasn’t involved with the study.

In fact, it’s even possible that one of the cold-causing coronaviruses sparked a serious outbreak in the 1800s before fading into the litany of mild, commonplace human pathogens. Based on the spread of its family tree, researchers estimated in 2005 that the endemic coronavirus OC43 entered humans sometime in the late 19th century, likely the early 1890s. The timing has led some researchers to speculate that the original version of OC43 may have caused the “Russian flu” pandemic of 1890, which was noted for its unusually high rate of neurological symptoms—a noted effect of COVID-19.

“There’s no hard proof, but there are a lot of indications that this wasn’t an influenza pandemic but a corona-pandemic,” Veldhoen says.

The crucible of evolution

Though the carnage of past coronaviruses has faded over time, the road to a relatively painless coexistence between humans and SARS-CoV-2 will likely be bumpy. In the medium-term future, the impact of the virus will depend largely on its evolution.

SARS-CoV-2 is spreading uncontrollably around the world, and with every new replication, there’s a chance for mutations that could help the virus more effectively infect human hosts.

The human immune system, while protecting many of us from a serious illness, is also acting as an evolutionary crucible, putting pressure on the virus that selects for mutations that make it bind more effectively to human cells. The coming months and years will reveal how well our immune systems can keep up with these changes.

New SARS-CoV-2 variants also make widespread vaccination and other transmission-blocking measures, such as face masks and distancing, more crucial than ever. The less the virus spreads, the fewer opportunities it has to evolve.

We’re going to be able to manage it because of modern medicine and vaccines, but it’s not something that will just vanish out of the window.

ROY ANDERSONIMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON

Current vaccines should still work well enough against emerging variants, such as the B.1.1.7 lineage first found in the United Kingdom, to prevent many cases of serious illness. Vaccines and natural infections create diverse swarms of antibodies that glom onto many different parts of SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, which means that a single mutation can’t make the virus invisible to the human immune system.

Mutations may produce future variants of SARS-CoV-2 that partially resist current vaccines, however. In a preprint posted on November 19 and updated on January 19, Duplex and his colleagues show that mutations that delete parts of the SARS-CoV-2 genome’s spike protein region prevent certain human antibodies from binding.

“What I’ve learned from our own work is how deviously beautiful evolution is,” Duplex says.

Other labs have found that mutations in 501Y.V2, the variant first found in South Africa, are especially effective at helping the virus elude antibodies. Out of 44 recovered COVID-19 patients in South Africa, blood extracts from 21 of the patients didn’t effectively neutralize the 501Y.V2 variant, according to another preprint published on January 19. Those 21 people had mild to moderate cases of COVID-19, however, so their antibody levels were lower, to begin with, perhaps explaining why their blood did not neutralize the 501Y.V2 variant.

So far, currently authorized vaccines—which spur the production of high levels of antibodies—seem to be effective against the most concerning variants. In a third preprint published on January 19, researchers showed that antibodies from 20 people who had received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines didn’t bind quite as well to viruses with the new mutations as they did to earlier variants—but they still bound, suggesting the vaccines will still protect against severe illness.

The new variants bring other threats as well. Some, such as B.1.1.7, appear to be more transmissible than earlier forms of SARS-CoV-2, and if left to spread uncontrollably, these variants could make many more people severely ill, which risks overwhelming healthcare systems around the world and even higher death tolls. Veldhoen adds that new variants also may pose a greater risk of reinfection to recovered COVID-19 patients.

Researchers are closely monitoring the new variants. If vaccines need to be updated in the future, Anderson says that it could be done quickly—in roughly six weeks for currently authorized mRNA vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. That timetable, though, doesn’t account for the regulatory approvals that updated vaccines would need to go through.

Anderson adds that depending on how the evolution of the virus progresses, lineages of SARS-CoV-2 may arise that are distinct enough that vaccines will need to be tailored to specific regions akin to vaccines for pneumococcus. To successfully guard against SARS-CoV-2 going forward, we will need a global monitoring network similar to the worldwide reference laboratories used to collect, sequence, and study variants of influenza.

“We’re going to have to live with it, we’re going to have to have constant vaccination, and we’re constantly going to have to have a very sophisticated molecular surveillance program to keep track of how the virus is evolving,” Anderson says.

The promise and challenge of widespread vaccination

Experts agree that transitioning beyond a pandemic depends on the prevalence of immunity, especially among older and more vulnerable populations. Younger people, especially children, will build up immunity to SARS-CoV-2 over a lifetime of exposure to the virus. Today’s adults have had no such luxury, leaving their immune systems naive and exposed.

The exact threshold for achieving population-wide immunity that slows down the virus’s spread will depend on how contagious future variants become. But so far, research of early variants of SARS-CoV-2 suggests at least 60 to 70 percent of the human population will need to become immune to end the pandemic phase.

This immunity can be achieved in one of two ways: large-scale vaccination, or recovery from natural infections. But achieving widespread immunity through uncontrolled spread comes at a terrible cost: hundreds of thousands more deaths and hospitalizations around the world. “If we don’t want to push forward vaccines and champion vaccines, we have to decide collectively how many old people we want to die—and I don’t want to be the one making that decision,” Duplex says.

Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious diseases expert at Columbia University, points out that the global push for vaccines also exposes existing inequities in global health. In a widely shared map from December, The Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that rich countries such as the U.S. will have widely accessible vaccines by early 2022, which may not happen for poorer countries in Africa and Asia until as late as 2023.

Efforts to vaccinate the developing world hinge, in part, on vaccines that can be stored with standard refrigeration, such as the vaccines under development by Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. (See the latest on COVID-19 vaccine development around the world.)

As of the week of January 18, according to a World Health Organization estimate, some 40 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered around the world, mostly in high-income countries. In Africa, only two countries, Seychelles and Guinea, have started providing vaccines. And in Guinea, a low-income country, only 25 people have received doses.

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