Vulnerability to different mutations of COVID-19 varies person to person, study finds

Thursday, October 5, 2023
RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge, a new study is giving insight into how COVID-19 surveillance programs can be used to design more effective annual vaccine boosters.

"Now that there have been many variants of the Coronavirus that have emerged and circulated in the human population, we're able to look at how those variants differ from one another in terms of how the immune system sees them," Duke Health's Dr. Montefiori said.

Montefiori, who's a corresponding author, said 'antigenic cartography' has been used as a tool to help scientists identify what strains should be in seasonal flu vaccines. By using the same method, Montefiori said it can help decide how to update the COVID-19 vaccine every year.

The study finds people differ in how vulnerable they are to different mutations in emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2.

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"People who were exposed to the very first Omicron variant as the first exposure to the Coronavirus, they mostly reacted to Omicron variants and not to the earlier variants," Montefiori said. "Vice versa, people who were exposed to the earlier variants tended to react mostly with those and poorly against Omicron."

Montefiori said the more variants a person is exposed to, either through infection or vaccination, the more likely you'll have better protection.

"When you boost with updated variant vaccines, you get, additional improvement of immunity to those later variants," Montefiori said.

The study comes as North Carolina has seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as of Sept. 30. But as the virus continues to change, Montefiori hopes the research will put us ahead of the game.

"We can't predict what new escape mutations this virus is going to develop," Montefiori said. "But it's likely that whatever new variant emerges, it is going to retain the escape mutations that earlier variants acquired ... so by understanding those, we can fashion a booster that will at least cover those changes that the next variant is likely to also have so we can improve immunity to that part of a new variant."
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