Original article (in Croatian) was published on 01/12/2021
The website Provjeri.hr claims that virus mutations are a reaction to vaccination. This is a misinterpretation of the phenomenon of antimicrobial resistance.
People who have been vaccinated are to blame for the new mutations in the virus, claims the website Provjeri.hr.
“No, Minister Beros, the unvaccinated are not to blame for new mutations of the virus, but vaccinated people are to blame!” – this is the title of the article on this website (archived here).
The article unjustifiably claims that a new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, called omicron, emerged due to a vaccination campaign. The author of the article, under the pseudonym Conscious Pilat, claims that viruses mutate into new strains in order to avoid the protection provided by the vaccine. Here is what the article says:
“Minister Beroš, do you know what antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is?
Antimicrobial resistance or resistance to antibiotics occurs when bacteria adapt and begin to multiply in the presence of antibiotics, i.e., when bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, which should destroy them. In a broader sense, AMR also applies to other antimicrobial drugs (drugs that fight viruses, parasites and fungi), but the most important problem is the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. It is important to emphasize that AMR is a natural process of adaptation of microorganisms to environmental conditions, but this process is significantly accelerated with the wrong use of antibiotics.
The analogy with vaccines is obvious. The more and more indiscriminately vaccines are injected into the body, the more the virus for which it is intended mutates”.
Viruses rarely develop resistance to vaccines
The cited claim has no foundation in scientific knowledge. While it is true that antimicrobial resistance poses a significant threat to public health (the World Health Organization considers it one of the ten most significant threats facing humanity), it is not true that vaccines exacerbate this problem.
Scientific research shows that viruses rarely develop resistance to vaccines (1, 2, 3). Therefore, the problem of antimicrobial resistance is primarily related to bacteria, i.e., their ability to develop resistance to antibiotics used in treatment.
In early 2021, two researchers from the University of Oxford published a text on The Conversation website explaining why viruses find it difficult to develop resistance to vaccines.
They emphasize that it should be borne in mind that there are significant differences between antibiotics and vaccines. Vaccines are used preventively, i.e., given to healthy people, while antibiotics are used to treat pre-existing infections.
Also, the mechanisms of their action are different. Antibiotics most commonly act by inhibiting a specific enzyme or protein to prevent the pathogen from surviving or replicating. In other words, only one mutation is usually enough to create antibiotic resistance.
Vaccines have a different principle of operation. In addition to producing antibodies whose “job” is to attack virus cells, vaccines also “teach” our immune system how to behave when exposed to the virus we are vaccinated against. This is how the so-called cellular immunity, which is manifested by the production of T-cells that destroy virus-infected cells. In other words, to create resistance to the vaccine, the virus generally needs several different mutations.
Using vaccination against antimicrobial resistance
Not only does the vaccine, therefore, not contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, but it is considered a very useful tool to combat this phenomenon. A paper published in January 2020, in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, explicitly argues that vaccines can prevent the development and spread of bacterial and viral infections, and thus reduce the use of antibiotics and contribute to the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
An example of such a case can be found on the World Health Organization’s website.
When antibiotic-resistant strains of cholera and typhus spread in Zimbabwe in 2017 and 2018, local public health authorities embarked on an aggressive vaccination campaign.
“In the fight against antibiotic resistance, we must use all available tools. Vaccines are an effective tool for reducing the number of infectious diseases. They directly reduce the need for widespread use of antibiotics and therefore prevent the development of antibiotic resistance”, explained Dr. W Nyamayaro, leader of the local working group, to study the problem of antimicrobial resistance.
SARS-CoV-2 virus mutations
Mutations in viruses occur by replication, i.e., copying virus cells within our body. In this process, “errors” occur in rewriting the genetic code of the virus, which we call mutations. Most mutations do not affect the virus in any way, some mutations can make it weaker, but it can become more dangerous in some cases.
Numerous mutations have been detected in the SARS-CoV-2 virus since the beginning of the pandemic, but only two cases involved mutations that posed a greater threat to the virus. These strains of the virus are called alpha and delta. Recently, the omicron strain has also been a concern, although there is insufficient information about it.
So far, the dominant mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus – alpha and delta – illustrate that the mutations did not develop as a form of vaccine response.
The alpha variant in the United Kingdom appeared in late 2020 (before the start of the vaccination campaign) and was declared a worrying variant in December 2020. An alpha strain with an additional mutation was first recorded in late January 2021, and was declared a worrying variant in early February (when 15 percent of people in the UK were vaccinated with at least one dose).
The delta strain in India was first recorded in October 2020 (before the start of the vaccination campaign). It was declared a worrying variant in early May 2021 (when less than 10 percent of people in India were vaccinated with at least one dose).
It is also important to note that the available vaccines against Covid-19 continue to provide a certain level of protection against both strains. But while alpha strains offer good protection against infection and disease, delta strains have shown significantly lower protection against infection (but vaccines still protect very well from hospitalization and death).
The latest strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has worried the public worldwide is called omicron. It differs from previous strains by a large number of mutations, which is why it is feared that it could be resistant to vaccines currently in use.
However, we do not yet have precise data on omicron. It is not known whether this strain is more contagious or deadly than delta, how dangerous the symptoms it causes are, and it is unknown whether the vaccines will provide any protection against omicron. Answers to these questions are expected in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, it is only known that the virus was first recorded in South Africa, but it was also found in other countries. It is not known where it originated.
Experts believe that there is a significant possibility that omicron, due to the large number of mutations it contains, originated in the body of an immunocompromised person (for example, a person with AIDS). In such an organism, the virus can remain for a long time, which is why it gets more room for mutations; the more the virus replicates, the more often “errors” occur in the transcript of the genetic code.
In other words, in the case of omicron, the mutation is not likely to have occurred as a result of the vaccination campaign (especially since around 28% of people in South Africa are currently vaccinated with at least one dose; from a European perspective, this level of vaccination seems pitiful, although it is higher compared to the majority of African countries).