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The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned at least three known variants of the coronavirus that cause the disease, but a new study from the National Institutes of Health offers some encouragement: Those who have been vaccinated or have had a previous infection have immune systems that can fend off these new strains.
The variants emerged in late 2020 in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, and each has a significantly higher amount of amino acid polymorphisms than the base virus -- meaning, in effect, that they're more virulent and can cause a more severe response.
Luckily, the South African strain is the only one to date that has made protein - and Adenovirus-based vaccines slightly less effective, and even then the vaccines were shown to still prevent further disease progression.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT
The findings support the idea that current vaccines now being distributed will be an important bulwark against further spread of the virus, and in combination with public hygiene and social distancing measures, will be an important tool in bringing the pandemic to its ultimate end.
The NIH arrived at this conclusion after examining blood samples from 30 people who had recovered from COVID-19 before the emergence of the variants. CD8+ T-cells, which factor into the human body's immune response, were able to recognize all three of the main alternative strains that have surfaced to date.
While the sample size was small and further, larger-scale studies will be needed, the data provides evidence that the T-cell response among immunized individuals are largely not affected by the mutations found in the virus variants and should also offer protection against further strains that may evolve.
The data, NIH said, highlights the potentially important role of a multi-epitope T-cell response in limiting viral transmission, and "partly mediate protection from disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 variants.
"It is important that vaccines used for widespread campaigns generate strong multivalent T-cell responses in addition to NAb and other humoral responses in order to optimize efficacy against the current SARS-CoV-2 and emerging strains," NIH wrote. "It will be important to continue to monitor the breadth, magnitude, and durability of the anti-SARS-CoV-2 T cell responses in recovered and vaccinated individuals as part of any assessment to determine if booster vaccinations are needed.
THE LARGER TREND
Medicare is now paying higher reimbursement rates for hospitals, physicians, pharmacies and others to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
Starting earlier this month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services increased the Medicare payment amount to $40 to administer each dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This represents an increase from approximately $28 to $40 to administer a single dose, and an increase from approximately $45 to $80 for the administration of vaccines requiring two doses.
The exact payment rate for administration of each dose of a COVID-19 vaccine will depend on the type of entity that furnishes the service and will be geographically adjusted based on where the service is furnished, CMS said.
Meanwhile, a new poll shows that 71% of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s are now ready to get vaccinated against COVID-19 when a dose becomes available to them, or had already gotten vaccinated by the time they were polled in late January. That's up from 58% in October.
Three groups of older adults with especially high risk of severe COVID-19 – Blacks, Hispanics and people in fair or poor health – had even bigger jumps in vaccine receptiveness between October and late January. The poll shows a 20 point jump in just four months in the percentage of Black respondents who said they would likely get vaccinated, and an 18 point jump for Hispanic older adults. The jump for white respondents in that time was 9 points.
In January, President Biden issued a number of executive orders aimed at ramping up production and supply, including invoking the Defense Production Act to secure supplies necessary for health workers responding to the pandemic.