Lifting Covid-19 restrictions could create new vaccine-resistant strains, researchers warn

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Researchers from the University of East Anglia and Earlham Institute have warned that easing Covid-19 restrictions early could lead to vaccine-resistant virus strains and new variants forming due to low global inoculation rates.

The article, published by the University of East Anglia and Earlham Institute on Tuesday, argues that easing coronavirus restrictions may lead to more aggressive mutations developing that are resistant to vaccines. 

“Relaxing restrictions boosts transmission and allows the virus population to expand, which enhances its adaptive evolutionary potential and increases the risk of vaccine-resistant strains emerging by a process known as antigenic drift,” the researchers stated.

The scientists asserted that humanity is in an “arms race” against the coronavirus, which is fought with vaccines, technology and behavioral change. However, they warned that the virus can always adapt.

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The risk of new variants developing remains high given that the global vaccination rate is unequal, according to the scientists. Figures from Our World in Data suggest that under 14% of people globally are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

The researchers identified another obstacle that could lead to new variants, the fact that not all age groups are eligible for inoculation against the coronavirus. Several countries, like the UK, are yet to roll out a wide-scale vaccination campaign for minors. The researchers theorized that “new strains may evolve with higher transmissibility in children, and vaccinating children may become necessary to control the emergence of new variants.” 

Ireland is the latest European country to roll out vaccines for adolescents as young as 12, joining France and Denmark. 

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The study echoes the concerns from over 100 medical professionals, who co-signed a letter earlier in July to the UK government advising against easing England’s lockdown measures. The signatories argued that abandoning all Covid-19 restrictions abruptly in England “provides fertile grounds for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants” and that schools could become a hotbed for transmission.

A June study, published in the science journal ‘Nature’, found that the Delta variant, a mutant strain of the coronavirus, diminished the efficacy of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. The findings showed that one dose of either of the two barely produced any antibodies and was only about 10% effective. However, the vaccines were more effective against the older Alpha variant. Two doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer yielded a much higher efficacy against Delta at 60% and 88%, respectively. 

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