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COVID-19 Updates - Vaccines and Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants

2021 brings a mixture of hope and concern regarding COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published key updates and considerations on vaccines and emerging virus variants. The NCAA Sport Science Institute provides this summary to facilitate membership access to this information. These materials are intended as a resource for member schools to use in coordination with applicable government and related institutional policies and guidelines and should not be used as a substitute for medical or legal advice. This content should be considered current as of the date of initial publication and does not reflect all relevant information related to these topics. Accordingly, schools are encouraged to consult the CDC website and U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for more details and relevant updates.

Vaccine

Currently, two vaccines have been authorized and recommended to prevent COVID-19 in the United States, and we hope that two additional vaccines will be available soon. Because of infrastructure challenges and vaccine dose availability, the vaccine rollout in our country will occur slowly. It is likely to take time for those wanting the vaccine to receive the recommended doses. The CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices have published recommendations that suggest allocating available COVID-19 vaccine in phases:

  • 1a: Health care personnel and long-term care facility residents.
  • 1b: Front-line essential workers and people age 75 years and older.
  • 1c: People ages 65 through 74 years, people ages 16 through 64 years with underlying medical conditions and other essential workers.

Note that phases 1a, 1b and 1c are expected to roll out through the spring, and these phases do not include the majority of student-athletes because they do not have specified underlying medical conditions. 

Many officials and other athletic stakeholders will meet the above criteria and receive the vaccine during the first three phases of the rollout. Still, the CDC website states that we won’t know how the vaccines impact immunity until more data is available, and while experts learn more about the protection that vaccines provide, it will be important for everyone to continue using all the tools available to help stop COVID-19 spread, including recommended use of masks, distancing and hand hygiene.

Accordingly, for all Tier 1 individuals who are vaccinated, the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group continues to recommend no change in testing or risk mitigation considerations until we better understand COVID-19 transmission risk post-vaccination.

Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants

It is common for viruses to mutate, that is, to change their genetic material. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 acquires about one new mutation in its genome every two weeks. The CDC has confirmed identification of two recently emerged variant strains of SARS-CoV-2 that contain a series of mutations. Mutations become clinically relevant when they lead to a change in the viral protein’s function. The CDC website provides information about the potential consequences of these new mutations, which include:

  • Ability to spread more quickly in humans. 
  • Ability to cause either milder or more severe disease in humans.
  • Ability to evade detection by specific diagnostic tests.
  • Decreased susceptibility to therapeutic agents such as monoclonal antibodies.
  • Ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity.

Currently the two variants are being monitored closely. One variant has been described in the United Kingdom, and it has properties that allow the virus to spread more quickly in humans. A second variant has emerged in South Africa independent of the United Kingdom strain. While information about the characteristics of these variants is rapidly emerging, the CDC has not indicated at this time that either of these strains leads to more severe disease, evades detection by diagnostic tests, decreases susceptibility to therapeutic agents or evades vaccine-induced immunity.

The emergence of variant strains compels us to be even more vigilant regarding infection risk mitigation and testing. Although vaccines are now in sight, we must also be mindful of a more dangerous spread of COVID-19.