Previous: The Scientist Who Mapped the Seafloor: Marie Tharp | Great Minds
Next: Earth Has Another Magnetic Field



View count:476,938
Last sync:2022-10-28 16:15
Scientists have learned more about the UK and South American variant of the COVID-19 virus, and how they might be affected by vaccines. The news isn't good, but behind the scary headlines is important research that can help us be better equipped to continue fighting the virus.

CoVID-19 News & Updates playlist:

Hosted by: Hank Green

SciShow has a spinoff podcast! It's called SciShow Tangents. Check it out at

Support SciShow by becoming a patron on Patreon:
Huge thanks go to the following Patreon supporters for helping us keep SciShow free for everyone forever:

Silas Emrys, Jb Taishoff, Bd_Tmprd, Harrison Mills, Jeffrey Mckishen, James Knight, Christoph Schwanke, Jacob, Matt Curls, Sam Buck, Christopher R Boucher, Eric Jensen, Lehel Kovacs, Adam Brainard, Greg, Ash, Sam Lutfi, Piya Shedden, KatieMarie Magnone, Scott Satovsky Jr, charles george, Alex Hackman, Chris Peters, Kevin Bealer
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?
Highlighted research:
Other Sources:
Other Coverage:
This episode was recorded on January 26th 2021.

If we have newer episodes about variants of the COVID-19 virus or the pandemic in general, you’ll find them in the playlist linked in the description. ♪♪♪. A couple weeks ago, we told you about two newer, faster-spreading variants of the COVID-19 virus.

Well, scientists have been hard at work, and we now know a bit more about them. The news isn’t good. But behind the scary headlines are some caveats and clarifications that help shed light on what we actually know.

First up: On January 22, the U. K. government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, or NERVTAG, for short, released a preliminary report suggesting one of the new variants is more deadly. The report examined multiple independent analyses of COVID-19 cases and deaths from research universities in the UK as well as Public Health England.

All were looking at the B.1.1.7 variant, or what some have called “the U. K. variant.” It was first detected in the U. K. last September, but has since spread to at least 60 countries and 24 U.

S. states. Models also suggest it will become the dominant variant in the U. S. by this March, thanks to its increased transmissibility.

Now, at first glance, B.1.1.7 didn’t seem to be making people sicker. But these new analyses independently looked at. COVID-19 cases from November 2020 to early January 2021.

And all of them found that people who had B.1.1.7 were more likely to die, about 35% more likely, no matter what age they were. So NERVTAG concluded that there is quote, “a realistic possibility,” that this variant is associated with an increased risk of death. That said, there are some limitations to the report.

Perhaps the most glaring is that, altogether, the studies examined only 8% of the total COVID-related deaths that occurred during that time period. That’s a small sample, so it may not be representative of the greater UK population, let alone the world. Also, the delay that occurs between when a person’s infected, when they’re tested, and when we know what happens to them makes it difficult to analyze data and draw firm conclusions quickly.

And the U. K. has seen big spikes in COVID-19 cases this winter, partly due to the extra-infectious B.1.1.7. So, many experts are emphasizing that we need more research before we can determine whether or not there really is a higher mortality rate associated with B.1.1.7.

And on the plus side, another preliminary report issued the same week suggested that the BioNTech vaccine does provide protection against this variant. That is very good news! But… speaking of the vaccines, there’s a bit of bad news there, too.

Two recent preprints suggest that some other variants might make our current vaccines somewhat less effective. Now, both of these studies are small and have yet to be peer-reviewed. It’s been common during the pandemic to release preliminary studies to rapidly share information, but it means these papers haven't been through an important part of the scientific process, and any findings should be considered cautiously.

And the ultimate takeaway is that health experts still say the vaccines will work and are, of course, worth getting. What these studies suggest is that mutations on these variants may present challenges sooner than many scientists anticipated. Plus, it’s possible that people who were infected with the earlier versions of the virus can be reinfected with a new variant.

The first preprint, uploaded on January 19th, looked at B.1.351, another extra-infectious variant of the virus that was first detected in South Africa. You might have also heard this called “the South African variant.” Specifically, the researchers wanted to see whether a person’s immune response to COVID-19 would also protect people against this new version of the virus. So, they took blood serum samples from 44 people who had been infected with previously circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Unfortunately, 21 of those weren’t able to stop B.1.351. That suggests people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 could still be infected by this variant and others similar to it, like the one emerging from Brazil. The blood samples that did succeed had more antibodies in them.

This could suggest that people with milder infections are particularly at risk of reinfection, as people tend to produce more antibodies after they’ve been really sick with something. On the upside, when people get two doses of the BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, their bodies produce more neutralizing antibodies than people who’ve been naturally infected. So vaccines might be more protective than mild infections.

However the second preprint, also uploaded on January 19, suggests there are also limits there, because not all neutralizing antibodies are the same. For that study, researchers pulled neutralizing antibodies from 20 people who’d received both doses of either the Moderna or BioNTech vaccines. They then tested how effective their antibodies were against mutations to the virus seen in the variants from South Africa and Brazil.

And some antibodies were just as effective against these mutations. But some were only one-third as effective. So, while the vaccines are about 95 percent effective against the original SARS-CoV-2, they likely aren’t as robust against the new variants.

Even still, experts stress that these vaccines are worth getting! Remember, the U. S.

F. D. A. said that they'd consider authorizing any vaccine that showed at least a 50% reduction in cases, because that's enough to make a really big difference.

And the researchers were clear to note that the vaccines are still expected to provide higher levels of protection than that, especially against severe sickness. But the data suggest they may not keep people from having mild or asymptomatic cases. So, while they’ll keep people from dying, they could do less than we’d all like to slow the spread of the virus itself.

Luckily, if necessary, the vaccines can be updated to handle new variants in a matter of weeks. In fact, on January 25, Moderna announced it’s developing another vaccine that could be used as a booster shot to protect against the variant from South Africa. Most importantly, health experts say that the faster we vaccinate people while the vaccines are still highly effective, and the better we stick to distancing guidelines and other health recommendations, the sooner we can end this pandemic.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow News! We’re here every Friday with an update on what’s going on in the world of science. So if you have new or lingering questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, let us know in the comments.

We’d love to know what you’re most curious or confused about! Every other day of the week, we cover less time-sensitive topics in biology, chemistry, physics, and more. So if science is your jam, you might consider clicking that subscribe button and even, maybe ringing the notification bell!

Is that a thing people do? ♪♪♪.