Last year Millersville University assistant professor of biology, Dr. Eric Ryndock was interviewed about coronavirus when the virus was in its early stages. Now, almost two years into the pandemic, he sat down to discuss current variants, vaccines and an outlook on where things are headed.
Ryndock, has been studying viruses since his undergraduate days at Millersville. A 2007 MU biology graduate Ryndock says he became interested in viruses after taking courses in microbiology, medical microbiology, immunology and virology. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Penn State University College of Medicine.
Besides the Delta variant, what new variants of COVID-19 are scientists aware of?
To clarify, a viral variant, is a virus that has a genome that contains one or more changes to its genetic code, which we call mutations. The World Health Organization started naming SARS-CoV-2 variants by assigning them letters from the Greek alphabet. This avoids using more confusing scientific classifications that describe their genetic changes and decreases stigmatizing labels that refer to the location where they were isolated. Currently circulating variants within the USA include: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon, Eta, Iota, Kappa, B.1.617.3 (this has not been recognized by the WHO), Zeta, and Mu. The most recent, Omicron, was recently discovered in South Africa, and is notable because it contains 32 mutations within the viral spike protein compared to Delta’s 9. It is not clear how these mutations will affect transmission or ability to cause disease. However, there is not a variant that is of more interest more than Delta, due to its increased infectivity and rate of hospitalization. Delta is continuing to change, with the latest version referred to as Delta-plus, which is 10% more infectious than the original Delta strain.
What makes the Delta variant so much more contagious than the current Alpha strain?
The delta variant is twice as contagious as the first detected SARS-CoV-2 and is now the cause of 99% of new COVID-19 cases. Some studies point to it causing an increase in disease, since it has been linked to an increased rate of hospitalizations. While there is not a general consensus yet on what exactly makes the Delta variant more infectious, it is suspected that the mutations found in the Delta variant allow the virus to bind and/or enter our cells at a higher efficiency.
What are your thoughts on the booster shot?
After receiving a vaccination, two processes occur in parallel within your immune system. One is the production of antibodies, which circulate through your blood and can neutralize virus if encountered again. These antibodies do not last forever and decrease in abundance over time. The second is the production of immune cells (primarily specific types of T-cells) that can kill virus-infected cells. Both processes are not as robust in older individuals or those with known issues that affect their immune systems. The CDC now recommends booster shots for all adults (6 months after the Pfizer or Moderna 2-dose series or 2 months after the initial J&J vaccine). Booster shots are commonly found in other vaccine series and not specific to SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.
Why is it still important for people to continue to wear masks and social distance?
Vaccines are not 100% protective, including those for SARS-CoV-2. Infections of vaccinated individuals are known as breakthrough infections and vary in incidence depending on the vaccine. Although you are less likely to infect others during a breakthrough infection than an unvaccinated individual, you still can. In light of this information, because hospitals are still struggling to manage their local caseloads, it is still important to wear masks and limit activities that could cause an infection, as this public health problem forces delays in critical non-COVID-19 patient care such as cancer therapy and surgeries.
If you’ve already had COVID, is it still necessary to get vaccinated?
While getting COVID will provide you with some level of protection against SARS-CoV-2, we don’t have as much information about the details regarding that level and duration of the protection. Therefore, it is still advised to receive a vaccine. You can find a vaccine location here.
What advice would you give to someone still unsure about getting vaccinated?
By all current standards, the vaccines that are available within the USA for SARS-CoV-2 are very safe. This includes all eligible age groups and individuals who plan to become or are currently pregnant. In some individuals, the virus can cause life-changing pathology, including death and the vaccines provide an extremely high prevention rate against these extreme events.
We ask that the campus community continue being vigilant with safety measures, including getting vaccinated, getting a booster shot, washing hands, getting a flu shot, etc. We encourage those vaccinated to get a booster shot over break if you are eligible. You can find a vaccine location here.
If you have COVID symptoms or have been exposed to someone who tested positive, students should call Health Services at 717-871-5250. Employees should contact their health care provider and also email Diane Copenhaver at Diane.Copenhaver@millersville.edu. For any other inquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.