UNC professor studying virus’ mutations says vaccine boosters may be needed


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Although most people still haven’t gotten the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, scientists said one round of shots may not be enough to fully protect people if the virus continues to mutate. 

At Dr. Dirk Dittmer’s Lab at UNC, scientists study the genetic sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19 and monitor which strains are becoming more common.

While very effective against the original strain of coronavirus and the one that originated in the U.K., Dittmer, a professor of microbiology and immunology, said studies show current vaccines are not as effective against a strain of the virus that originated in South Africa.

Still, they do offer some protection. 

“There are reports the vaccines are not as effective, but there are equally as many reports that say the vaccines are effective enough,” Dittmer said.  

Because they don’t know for sure how much protection their vaccines will offer, vaccine makers are studying whether they can make their shots more effective against the variants. They’re looking at potentially adding a third shot of the same vaccine, or altering the vaccine to specifically target the South African variant.

“Vaccines are additive,” Dittmer said. “If you get one shot, it’s good. Two is better. Three is better yet, so I would expect people who have the current vaccine to respond better and more broadly, if and when there is a vaccine specific for the new variants,” Dittmer said.  

The head of Johnson & Johnson recently told CNBC he expects COVID-19 shots may be needed every year, similar to the flu vaccine.  

As long as the virus continues to mutate, Dittmer said it’s crucial to track those changes.

“At this point, it’s very similar actually to the situation with the seasonal flu. We make decisions on the flu vaccine we get in November somewhere in March or April, and so the more we can understand and predict which variants will be the dominant ones in the fall, the better it is for us to fine-tune the vaccines,” he said.  

It’s important to note that this virus is still very new and the are vaccines even newer. The current vaccines may offer enough protection that additional booster shots won’t be necessary, but vaccine makers want to be ready if they’re needed.  

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