"Unvaccinated people will develop a variant that evades vaccines"

Continuing the discussion from Coronavirus COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) Thread - 2021 Breaking News:

3 Principles Now Define the Pandemic

I have seen this issue put forth by dozens of posters. Now in The Atlantic.

Effectively, the unvaccinated are not only a danger to themselves, they are a danger to the vaccinated, because just one more person becoming infected has a chance to incubate the variant that will evade vaccines.

I am questioning the truth of this belief.

I will give an example. In five card stud poker, being dealt a royal flush is rare. But it can clearly happen. Play enough games, you’ll get dealt a royal flush. However, you will never get dealt five aces, unless you’re playing with a joker. Because there aren’t five aces in the deck. You will never get five aces dealt to you no matter how long you play.

My belief on the variants is if there is a path to mutation that allows it to evade vaccines, there’s been more than enough Covid out there already. Covid can be in animals, and if you are looking for some sort of Patient Zero that is going to mutate the SuperCovid, they could be in Bangladesh or Siberia or anywhere. They don’t need to be your dumb neighbor.

There was a case of a woman, I believe reported here, who somehow never cleared Covid, never became uninfected, and was tested, and found that in her own body she was testing for the popular variants that were in other countries.

So my belief about the variants is that there doesn’t need to be a Patient Zero, that they occur because they’re a common pathway for the virus to mutate. In other words, we’ve already had more than enough Covid out there for those to happen.

Eliminating Covid ala smallpox can’t happen. However, it’s possible that Covid has no pathway to mutating to evade our vaccines.

My conclusion is either such a mutation will happen and there’s virtually nothing we can do, or it will never happen. The “billionth roll of the dice” scenario that these posts and this article is based on is the least likely occurrence.

Not going to link to anything, just going to share what my current understand is right now based on 17 months of following COVID-19 about as closely as a layman can:

For a variant to SARS-CoV-2 “evade the vaccine” – especially the mRNA ones – the spike protein has to do the highly unlikely: change into another form that can still infect human cells in essentially the same way. The mRNA vaccines for sure (and the other vaccines?) work by training the immune system to identify the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and no other part of the virion. By contrast, natural immunity gained by those who’ve survived COVID does not necessarily (or ever?) key in on the spike protein – more commonly, it eventually learns to key in on some other part of the virion (proteins in the membrane, the RNA capsule, etc.).

So far, all SARS-CoV-2 strains/variants have the same spike protein (?). Other aspects of the virion can change variant to variant – the RNA capsule, the specific proteins that make up the membrane, and whatever else. But the spike protein is sacrosanct (?) – if the spike protein mutates, it’s a virtual certainty that the resulting virion can no longer infiltrate the ACE2 receptors that the current viruses feast upon.

There is a one-in-a-googleplex chance that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein can mutate into another equally (or worse!) infectious spike protein. But this gets into Jay_Z’s super-long-odds scenario – just because something is mathematically possible doesn’t mean it’s even as much as a long-term certainty.

There was strong evidence that this was false several months ago.

This analogy requires the first quoted statement to hold, which it doesn’t. No hand of five aces is necessary.

So you don’t believe that a greater number of carriers gives the virus a greater chance of mutation or am I misunderstanding something?

With more time under our belts, we also have some results that demonstrate the concern in the earlier linked Nature article as well as many papers outlining the issue.


I’m happy that I’m vaccinated and have far less concern at the moment that at any point in the last 18 months. I still want my neighbor to do their part for the sake of all of us.

That’s a relief - and what body of epidemiological research are you citing as your reference?

Is the situation any different with flu? Flu kills all ages, is constantly mutating, and lots of people forego the flu vaccine. It’s true COVID-19 is generally deadlier than the flu, but it seems like flu could come up with a much more lethal mutation as well.

And it does. Some flu strains are deadlier than others.

It’s possible that the the entire evolutionary landscape is already explored at a smaller viral population size, and that a larger viral reservoir in a partially-unvaccinated host population then makes no difference, that there are simply no rare combinations of mutations left to find.

But this would require some evidence. The only thing cited by OP is the recurrence of the same mutations in some cases. But this is contradicted by the fact that the Delta variant is only now spreading to Europe and the United States. If it were true that the viral population size has already been large enough to easily explore the entire evolutionary landscape, that would imply that the key mutations in the Delta variant should have arisen quickly and independently in numerous convergent evolutionary events in many parts of the world. But they did not.

I think it may be useful to define context here. When questions like the OP come up, what they really seem to be asking is, what are the odds that COVID will evade vaccines in a way that recycles the events of the past fourteen months every so often ad infinitum? Because at this point, I think people are resigned to variant mutations popping up if it’s at all possible, given the state of the world/country right now.

Problem is your assumption is that you know what’s in the deck, With COVID as the dealer we don’t know the deck. 5 aces may be possible, or not, a royal flush may be possible or not, a Picard straight house blue may be possible or not.

The claim is not that it is certain. It is that it is a risk, and that this risk increases with more people being infected.

Yes, it’s possible that there is no valid mechanism that would allow the virus to both evade the vaccines and still be dangerous. But we lack any data to show that. Thus we have to treat it as a possibility, and weigh the apparent risk based on what we do know.

That’s how it always works with incomplete information. @kanicbird’s analogy is apt: you can’t know the chances of a losing hand in a card game if you are not entirely sure which cards are in the deck.

The optimal choice at this time is to assume that a vaccine escape mutation is possible, and do what we can to stop it. If it turns out not to be possible, there is no harm. But that last thing we want to do is assume it isn’t possible and then have it actually happen.

That’s the same thing that people were doing when they refused to wear a mask. They assumed they wouldn’t get infected or at least wouldn’t die. They assumed that they wouldn’t spread the disease to others.

You assuming it would have already happened already based on your personal hunch may not be quite that bad, but it’s still unfounded.

I think this is why full vaccinations were required. You couldn’t enroll a child in school without vaccinations when I grew up in the late 60’s. They didn’t want infectious diseases hiding within our population. We almost eradicated TB and polio until AIDS gave it a vulnerable population to exploit.

I’m very worried the Anti-vaxxers will unleash a covid varient that’s unstoppable. If it’s not Covid it’ll be some other infectious disease.

That claim is certainly true. But i was also encouraged by the report of the person who had failed to clear out their covid infection for months and had developed most of the current variants of concern within their own body. Maybe covid’s deck doesn’t have a lot more cards. We don’t know that for certain, but it’s beginning to look possible.

Honest question. If it’s just a straight line extrapolation from Covid cases to variant production, why isn’t the USA the world leader in nasty variants? We have the most cases, we should be the perfect petri dish for nasty variants. Yet one of the leading variants is South African, which has 5% of the total cases of USA. Why isn’t there a New York variant, a Florida variant, a Texas variant?

Random chance is the driver here. Some guy in Dallas may have generated a variant that is less transmissible. You don’t know about it because he didn’t give it to his barber which then didn’t spread to 100 other people. Instead the barber caught the OG or another variant and led to a super spreader event.

We are really looking at only four variants of concern globally at this point. Statistically, that’s not enough to see why not a New York variant.

Known variants have mutations on the spike protein. That’s why there was worry about the vaccines possibly not being as effective against them, and in some cases, they aren’t.


Thanks for the links.

Vaccine-generated immunity is thought (if not proven?) to be more effective and longer-lasting than natural immunity gained from COVID infection. I’ve read more than once that the reason for the efficacy difference is as explained in my post #2 above – in short, that natural immunity often latches on to more-mutable parts of a virion. There is likely more to the story.

There was a variant first identified in NY that was being watched for a while. Maybe it turned out not to be a problem, or maybe it later mutated into delta or something.

I was thinking the same thing based on our discussion in an earlier thread. There seems to be only a limited set of mutations that make the variant both more transmissible and evade antibodies.

There was a California variant that drove the surge in that state a year ago. The New York variant drove its surge last November. So they’re happening.



Honest question. If it’s just a straight line extrapolation from Covid cases to variant production, why isn’t the USA the world leader in nasty variants? We have the most cases, we should be the perfect petri dish for nasty variants. Yet one of the leading variants is South African, which has 5% of the total cases of USA. Why isn’t there a New York variant, a Florida variant, a Texas variant?

The world outside the USA is bigger than the USA (USA=300m, rest of the wprld = 7 billion).

Therefore, variants are most likely to appear outside the USA.

Using the playing card anaolgy:

The USA has 5 cards
47 other countries have 1 card each.
Which individual country is most likely to have the Ace of Spades? USA
Is the Ace of Spades likely to be in the USA? No, only a 10% chance.