COVID-19 researchers encouraged by vaccine progress, while vigilant of variants

Managing the Pressure
State health officials report 450 new cases of coronavirus Thursday


Researchers have been quiet heroes amid this pandemic.

They do not herald their many successes with the COVID-19 vaccines. Instead, they choose to stay focused on protecting us all, and right now, they say there is a lot for us to be hopeful about despite the drawbacks COVID-19 have posed on their field.

“We’ve been able to do quite well,” said Bruce Zetter, the head researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of cancer biology at Harvard Medical School. “Most laboratories doing research, whether they’re in hospitals, universities or companies, I would say they lost maybe a third of their productivity over the past year [and still were able to produce a vaccine].”

Because of social distancing, many labs had to cut the number of people allowed inside of them, reducing productivity in a field that demanded a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.

In the past, it might have taken years for researchers to come up with one, but under intense pressure, they were able to create a vaccine to a novel virus that had not been seen before, and administer it, in under 11 months.

“A lot of people are working very hard to try and answer some of the questions that need to be answered,” said Dr. Brenda Hogue, a coronavirus researcher at Arizona State University.

We first caught up with Dr. Hogue in October and visited her lab in Tempe, Arizona, when Pfizer and Moderna announced COVID-19 vaccines were in the works.

Since that time, she says researchers in her laboratory have been invigorated by the progress that has been made in administering the vaccine while staying focused on future developments, such as mutations.

“There are a lot of good, interesting, and exciting questions to all be addressed,” said Hogue.

In recent months, new COVID-19 variants from South Africa, Brazil, and the United Kingdom have all been detected in populations. Researchers say the South African and U.K. variants, both of which contain a mutation called N501Y, are believed to make the virus more contagious than older variants.

The South African variant also contains a mutation that researchers say appears to make the virus better at evading antibodies produced by the body.

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