Evolution and the pandemic: How COVID could develop resistance to vaccines over time

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with coronavirus particles (purple). Credit: NIAID
A colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with coronavirus particles (purple). Credit: NIAID

With the emergence of what seem so far to be safe and effective vaccine candidates, it appears that humanity may be the winner again this time around, albeit with a dreadful loss of life.

But vaccines won’t put an end to the evolution of this coronavirus, as David A. Kennedy and Andrew F. Read of The Pennsylvania State University, specialists in viral resistance to vaccines, wrote in PLoS Biology recently. Instead, they could even drive new evolutionary change.

There is always the chance, though small, the authors write, that the virus could evolve resistance to a vaccine, what researchers call “viral escape.” They urge monitoring of vaccine effects and viral response, just in case.

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“Nothing that we’re saying is suggesting that we slow down development of vaccines,” Dr. Kennedy said. An effective vaccine is of utmost importance, he said, “But let’s make sure that it stays efficacious.”

Vaccine makers could use the results of nasal swabs taken from volunteers during trials to look for any genetic changes in the virus. Test results need not stop or slow down vaccine rollout, but if recipients of the vaccine had changes in the virus that those who received the placebo did not, that would indicate “the potential for resistance to evolve,” something researchers ought to keep monitoring.

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