COVID-19 Vaccine Information

VACCINE SMARTS 


Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch.


Understanding COVID-19 variants

The development of SARS-CoV-2 variants isn’t a surprise. The shocking thing, based on what we thought we knew about coronaviruses, is the speed at which variants developed and spread. The question remains: Should we be worried?

All things that multiply by copying their genetic code, including humans, make mistakes from time to time. In other words, all of the copies of the genetic code may not be identical to the original. These mistakes or changes in the code are known as mutations.

Unlike the superpower-conferring mutations in movies, most mistakes are either neutral or harm the health of the organism. The mutations that improve the ability of the virus to spread from person to person become more common over time. Variants differ from the original virus by containing one or more of these mutations that help the virus spread.

When it comes to human health, the variants aren’t necessarily bad. Some variants are less likely to make people ill. The benefit to the virus is that the infected person is less likely to be lying in bed sick and is out and about, spreading the virus to others.

The outbreak of the original SARS-CoV-1 in 2003 was much easier to control because it made people so sick shortly after infection that most were hospitalized. Ill people were much easier to recognize, isolate from others and made contact tracing easier. On the other hand, some variants may cause worse illness.

The biggest problem is that variants can make COVID-19 tests inaccurate, render monoclonal antibody treatments less useful and reduce vaccine effectiveness. Fortunately, the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) against current variants appears to be unaffected or only mildly reduced. The picture may not be as bright for the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines when it comes to the South African variant. Time will tell.

There are two theories as to why the variants developed so quickly. The first is that the tremendous number of infections around the world made for a huge number of chances for mutations to occur. Remember, there is a chance of mutation each time the virus replicates.

The second theory holds that the virus multiplies for long periods in people with suppressed immune systems, allowing it to mutate and adapt. Such people may have suppressed immune systems because of anti-rejection drugs following organ transplantation or during chemotherapy for cancer treatments. A small number of studied immunosuppressed individuals that fought COVID-19 for months have been found to develop new viral mutations. Still, there is no evidence that the mutated viruses spread to others.

We can slow the development of variants by decreasing the number of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Masks and social distancing help. Vaccination remains the best option.

The good news is the current vaccines can be rapidly changed to address the variants. Similar to the flu vaccine, we may have an annual COVID-19 vaccine that contains one or more of the circulating variants. Studies are under way.

Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch. For questions about vaccines, email vaccine.smarts@utmb.edu.

COVID-19 General FAQs

FAQs

  • What is COVID-19

    Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The novel coronavirus, now known as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

    While COVID-19 causes only mild illness in some infected individuals, it may cause serious lower respiratory infection leading to hospitalization and even death.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers this factsheet highlighting important information you should know about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-10).

    Last modified on 3/16/2020

  • How do I help prevent the spread of COVID-19 if I am sick?
    • Stay home unless you need medical care
    • Separate yourself from other people and animals in your home
    • Call ahead before visiting a clinic
    • Wear a mask
    • Cover your coughs and sneezes
    • Clean your hands often
    • Avoid sharing personal household items
    • Clean all “high touch” surfaces every day
    • Monitor your symptoms

    Last modified on 3/10/2020

  • Can I get tested for the coronavirus? What’s the process?

    Patients with symptoms of respiratory illness, including cough, fever or shortness of breath, can schedule online or contact the UTMB Health Access Center at (800) 917-8906 to speak with our 24/7 nurse hotline.


    • Patients should follow recommendations for testing, self-isolation and management of symptoms.
    • Any patient experiencing a worsening of symptoms—particularly shortness of breath—a few days after first becoming ill should contact the Access Center IMMEDIATELY. To keep our patients and employees safe, UTMB tests our patients for COVID-19 in advance of any procedure or hospital admission.
    • To keep our patients and employees safe, UTMB tests our patients for COVID-19 in advance of any procedure or hospital admission.
    • You may also wish to check with your local county health officials for testing available through local government. In Galveston County, Health District testing information is online.

    Please note: Our process and procedures may be updated as the COVID-19 situation develops in our region.

    Last modified on 10/16/2020

  • How long does the virus remain active on inanimate objects, such as clothing, currency, coins, and hard surfaces such as countertops and door handles?

    This is one of the topics that remains under study; it's still not certain exactly how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces. According to the World Health Organization, studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days (at one point nine days was mentioned, which the latest studies suggest may be unlikely). Survival of the virus will vary under different conditions, including type of surface, temperature, humidity and moisture, exposure to sunlight, and other factors.

    If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with simple disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others. Wash your hands with soap and water or clean them with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose. 

    Last modified on 3/14/2020

  • How to protect yourself
    • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
    • Stay home when you are sick.
    • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

    If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

    Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

    Last modified on 3/5/2020

  • Can COVID-19 spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects?

    It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

    How easily a virus spreads from person-to-person can vary. Some viruses are highly contagious (spread easily), like measles, while other viruses do not spread as easily. Another factor is whether the spread is sustained, spreading continually without stopping.

    The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (“community spread”) in some affected geographic areas.

    Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

    Last modified on 3/16/2020

  • Can someone spread the virus without being sick?
    • People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest).
    • Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

    Last modified on 3/5/2020

  • If someone has minor symptoms and tests positive for COVID-19, can they be isolated at home instead of a hospital?

    At this time, patients testing positive for COVID-19 who have mild symptoms, are not over age 60 and do not have an underlying medical condition are advised to isolate at home. If a patient with COVID-19 is concerned, begins to experience shortness of breath, starts feeling worse a week or so into the illness, is over age 60 or has an underlying medical condition, they are strongly encouraged to call their doctor or the UTMB Access Center at (800) 917-8906 to speak with our 24/7 nurse hotline.

    Last modified on 3/16/2020