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Science and Innovations

COVID-19 Update With Dr. Paul Keim: Variants And Vaccines

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A massive vaccination effort against the coronavirus disease is underway worldwide. In Arizona, more than 2 million people have received at least one dose. It’s a race against emerging disease variants which in some cases reduce the effectiveness of vaccines or make the disease more deadly. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the latest science with Dr. Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University.

Melissa Sevigny: I actually wanted to start by playing a quote from an interview we did a year ago.

ARCHIVE TAPE: “I’m always the optimist, I still think it’s possible we can drive this virus into extinction.”

Melissa Sevigny: I wanted to ask, do you still feel that way?

Paul Keim: Yeah, I don’t think that’s possible anymore…. I think at this point the virus is too widely distributed, I think the most likely scenario is that as we develop immunity to the virus… that the severity of the disease is doing to decrease. Probably it’s going to be like the common cold, we’re going to be seeing this virus over and over again for the rest of our lives.

Melissa Sevigny: How concerned should we be about these new variants that we’re hearing about?

Paul Keim:  We have to watch them really closely… The one that emerged from the United Kingdom looks like it doesn’t really affect the vaccines, the vaccines still work pretty well. But it does transmit at a quite a bit higher rate than the previous one did, and it also can cause more severe disease. Now the problem with the South African emerged variant and the Brazilian emerged variant, it that it’s clear the vaccines aren’t quite as efficacious against them…  Still very good at preventing severe disease, but mild and moderate disease is much more common with the vaccines in combination with those two variants. So again it’s really important to get the numbers down low so that the risk of getting any virus is low. That’s where the vaccine and the public health measures that we’re using right now are still very important.

Melissa Sevigny: I’ve heard some people say, why bother get the vaccine if these new variants are going to change everything. How would you respond to that?

Paul Keim: They don’t change everything yet. What I call the “vaccine buster variant” hasn’t emerged yet. We’re worried about it, we’re watching for that one, but it’s not here yet, so we can still prevent this disease from spreading in our communities by getting vaccinated.

Melissa Sevigny: So how close do you think we are now to reaching herd immunity?

Paul Keim: We’ve got a ways to go. We know that over half of the population is still susceptible or naïve, having no immunity to the virus. In Arizona we’ve been at or above the natural average for getting people vaccinated… But we think somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the population needs to be immune for us to really kill this pandemic.

Melissa Sevigny: What would you say to folks that are still hesitant to get vaccinated?

Paul Keim: I appreciate it’s a very personal choice…. But I can tell you about a third of the people who have COVID, the disease, will end up with long term consequences. Studies are now coming out with this group of symptoms that we call the long haulers. In other words, they don’t have the disease for a week or two and it goes away, the symptoms persist for a very long time… So think about it, now you’ve got a choice between get a vaccine, where you’re going to have a sore arm, maybe mild flu symptoms, or one third of you who get the disease is going to end up with a chronic situation that’s not going away for months or even years. I’d say the vaccine is really important if you want to avoid those long-term consequences of the disease.

Melissa Sevigny: So you’re no longer optimistic about driving the disease to extinction but are there things you are optimistic about?

Paul Keim: Of course, I’m the eternal optimistic. The vaccine rollout, as much as we hear about the troubles of the rollout, it is spectacular. Literally 12 months after we started this process, we have tens of millions of people vaccinated… So we will slowly but surely build up herd immunity here, and we’ll start to drive these numbers down.

Melissa Sevigny: Paul Keim, thanks so much for speaking with me.

Paul Keim: You’re very welcome.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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