How vaccines, therapies are being developed to address new variants

Local research team working constantly to study variants like omicron

SAN ANTONIO - – It started with alpha, the original version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Then it mutated and created new and more successful variants we’ve come to know as beta, delta, and omicron.

Experts say Americans should expect to learn more of the Greek alphabet in the future, explaining that more variants are inevitable. It just depends on their severity.

“Only those changes that confer some sort of advantage to a variant will actually go out in the population. So Omicron was able to replicate very quickly, the United States became the predominant variant,” said Dr. Ricardo Carrion Jr., a professor and the director of Maximum Containment Contract Research at Texas Biomed in San Antonio.

Dr. Carrion has spent the last 20 years at Texas Biomed helping develop vaccines and therapies for deadly agents like Ebola, the Marburg virus, and the Anthrax plague.

When the pandemic hit, he quickly joined the battle against COVID-19 and even helped develop the Pfizer and Novavax vaccines.

Carrion said current COVID vaccines broadly cover the basic structure of SARS-CoV-2 and so far, that’s remained successful against all the variants – just to different degrees.

He said you’re less protected from the omicron variant without a vaccine boost, referencing studies on antibodies and protection against different variants.

The studies show people with just the standard two vaccines shots had antibodies that were 22 times less effective at neutralizing omicron than the delta variant.

“So we see that there’s some evasion occurring. As long as there’s virus circulating, there’s going to be a chance of a variant emerging,” he said.

That’s why teams like Carrion’s are working around the clock to update boosters and even create different types of vaccines, to prepare for the next variants that come our way.

“In the case of vaccines, it’s looking at slightly different types of immunogen, that part of the the vaccine that allows your body to respond. They’re looking at different areas that might be more protective against these variants that emerge,” he explained.

Variants like omicron have also changed the way researchers are developing therapies for people with COVID, instead of just targeting one specific part of the original version of the virus.

“Partners are looking at different areas of omicron and perhaps finding some that are what we call pan coronavirus type therapy. So you can look at all different coronavirus, and hopefully one will be able to help counteract any future unseen variant,” Carrion said.

The work is constant and will be for the foreseeable future.

His team normally has between eight and $12 million in contracts. Last year alone, during the pandemic, they had over $40 million.

Carrion said the way these viruses mutate shows the importance of vaccines and boosters, and he’ll continue to serve his community, country, and the world by doing his life-saving work.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

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