Air travel, hidden microchips and other things you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine

March 18, 2021
illustration of what a mutated coronavirus might look like
When viruses mutate it's often very subtle, but it's those subtleties that determine if a new variant will emerge. Photo provided by CDC/Illustration by MUSC

Vaccine vs. variants. 

It’s the marquee matchup we’re all watching. 

“This is most certainly a race,” said Danielle Scheurer, M.D., MUSC Health System chief quality officer. “Right now, the vaccines have a slight edge, but the more time the viruses have to mutate, the further out what we deem ‘normalcy’ becomes.” 

Headshot of Scheurer 
Danielle Scheurer, M.D.

Researchers have long understood that viruses mutate. So it’s no real surprise that this one does, too. But just what on Earth is going on to create a mutation, and taking it one step further, how does a virus do it? Does it happen in one single person and that person then becomes patient zero of a new variant? Or is it happening in thousands of people at the same time? Do these changes go on inside the body or outside, on surfaces?

For starters, mutations themselves aren’t inherently dangerous. But where it does become a little dicey, Scheurer said, is when these viruses are able to hang around in the body for extended periods of time. Researchers have found that people who have been infected with COVID-19 for any length of time might have as many as 1 billion copies of the infected virus inside them. 

“It’s simply a numbers thing,” Scheurer said. “The longer it’s in the body, the longer it has to replicate. The more times it replicates, the greater the likelihood of mutation.”

Researchers have found this out by sequencing infected patients over time. These mutations are often basic: we’re talking minute changes in amino acid positioning. What determines which version wins – the new mutated one or the original – has to do with how quickly and efficiently each can get into healthy cells. In some cases, the mutated form wins out and thus a new variant is born. And all of this can be happening at the same time inside different people’s bodies in completely different parts of the globe.

And so ends Virus Mutation 101. 

With the vaccine landscape changing almost daily, each week we are checking in with Scheurer to ask her the most pertinent questions that are hanging in the balance.

Q. Same thing I ask out of the gate every week: How were things last week?

A. OK. We’re still working our way through the 1a wait list. And we’re almost there. In a couple of days, we should be ready to open appointments back up. 

Q. Are we getting more doses delivered now?

A. I keep hearing from the federal government, more so than the state, that the flood gates are going to open. But each week, South Carolina receives about 120,000 doses. That’s remained fairly steady for a while. MUSC Health is getting around 10% to 15% of that, but those numbers are nowhere near where they need to be if we’re going to be able to keep pace with each new eligible group that’s added.

Q. Roughly how many doses has MUSC Health administered at this point? 

A. I’d say we’re right around 150,000. We’re averaging around 12,000 to 15,000 doses administered a week, but we could do way more if we just got the doses.

Q. President Biden said that by May 1, all Americans will be made eligible for the vaccine. Do you see a path to South Carolina being able to support that timeline? I know we’ll say “We’re open to everyone,” but will we really be able to accommodate that?

A. The math just doesn’t work out. Again, unless there is an explosive change in the next two to three weeks, as far as what we get, I don’t see that being possible. 

Q. It’s being reported that women are experiencing worse side effects from the vaccine than men. Is that something that’s being experienced here? Any idea why this might be the case?

A. You know, I’ve heard that, but we haven’t really seen that here. 

Q. One year into this mess, how would you assess where we are nationally, as well as globally, in our handling of the pandemic? 

A. If you just look at the development of the vaccine, it could not have been better. We are talking historic-level development speed. Vaccines normally take years to come to be, so to have one done in months is absolutely remarkable. So from that standpoint, I don’t think it could have been better. As for the distribution and administering of that vaccine, I think we’ve learned a great deal. But in the department of masking and social distancing, we definitely could have done better. That’s why it’s important to remain vigilant just a little longer. Because if we give up now on all the precautions we’ve put into place, we’re going to lose all the valuable ground we’ve gained. 

Q. What do you think will be the big thing we get back or start doing again that will make things feel as close to “normal” as possible again?

A. I think the minute we can safely hop on a plane or sit inside at a restaurant with our friends, yeah, then it will finally feel like we’ve gotten over the hump.

Q. Is it smart that a number of countries have paused the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine?

A. I thought it was sort of odd because of the reasoning. They’re saying it’s because of an increased likelihood of forming blood clots, but there’s no real evidence to support that. So if you can’t prove there’s a link, it seems premature. In fact, the W.H.O. is urging countries to continue using it, because they feel the benefits outweigh the risks. But the real issue is it’s almost completely ineffective against the South African variant. Then, you wonder how things are going to look going forward for Johnson & Johnson because their vaccine was less effective in South Africa in addition to being developed at a time when the variant was fairly rare. So if you redid their trial now, what would it look like? 

Q. Do you think things would be better in the U.S. if all vaccine rollout and administration was handled by the federal government rather than allowing decisions to made state by state?

A. I think so. It’s kind of crazy that a random geographic boundary can determine who is eligible to receive the vaccine and who isn’t. That just doesn’t make sense.

Q. Do you think we will be better prepared for the next pandemic, whenever that inevitably comes?

A. I think we’ll be way better prepared next time. We have learned so much from testing, contact tracing, rapid adoption of public health protocols. As far as masking and social distancing goes, we’ll do better next time around. I think people realize it’s not that hard, and if we just commit to doing it, we can shorten the time that it needs to happen. And I think we’ve learned that next time around, we don’t need to completely cut off all businesses. I think we’ve figured out how to run certain things safely, like schools and critical infrastructure, instead of just closing society across the board.  

Q. On a lighter note, what is your favorite conspiracy theory you’ve heard surrounding vaccines?

A. I think it has to be the microchip thing. It’s not even practical. I can’t even imagine how that would happen. I can see how there might be some paranoia around potential side effects, and those types of things, but the microchip thing is just ridiculous. (Laughs.) They already know where I shop, they don’t need a microchip for that.

**Have a question you'd like answered? Email it to donovanb@musc.edu with the subject line “Vaccine Q.”

About the Author

Bryce Donovan

Keywords: COVID-19, Features, Trending Topics