How Bad Are All These New COVID Variants?

Viruses mutate; so everything is true. But now experts are worried about several of the thousands of variants of the coronavirus discovered around the world. Last month we wrote about the UK option ; now there are more of them, including in Los Angeles. There is no need to panic . But it’s good to be in the know.

One of the main reasons we see new options now, one year after the start of the pandemic, is that there are many more viruses than there were 12 months ago. The more viruses in the world, the more chances it has to mutate. And the more options there are, the more chances some of them will be bad news.

If we (as a global community) had done a better job of containing the virus in the first place, we might not have gotten to the point where there are many options, different enough to worry experts. But here we are.

Also, remember that options are only found if you are looking for them. The British variant B.1.1.7 was discovered in part because there are many so-called surveillance trials in the UK – precise monitoring of what types of coronaviruses exist. The US also has some of this, but much less. Option B.1.1.7 was probably already in other countries by the time it was discovered in the UK; they just haven’t found it yet.

What options do you need to know?

B.1.1.7 was discovered in November 2020 in the UK, where it has probably been circulating since September or earlier. This New York Times article has more details on the strain and its mutations. It seems to be 50% more prevalent than the typical COVID virus. It has several mutations, including eight in the spike protein.

(Spike protein – it is part of the virus that interacts with our cells when we develop antibodies to the spike protein, the antibodies can stop the virus from infecting us Vaccines mRNA include the genetic code of spike protein that is.. Allows us to cells to produce the protein, and then make antibodies to it .)

B.1.1.7 is more transmissible, but the disease it causes does not seem worse than usual.

B.1.351 was found in South Africa in samples dating from October 2020 and it also has mutations in the spike protein. It seems to be more transmissible than typical COVID, but does not change the severity of the disease. Both this variant and the UK variant have a mutation called N501Y. A recent study, published as a preprint , showed that the Pfizer vaccine does indeed protect against variants with this mutation.

The P.1 is a variant from Brazil, first discovered in December 2020. It also has mutations that seem dangerous, including in relation to the thorn protein. One of its mutations, E484K, can avoid antibodies; there is reason to suspect that people who have recovered from a previous case of COVID may be infected with these mutations.

CAL.20C is a variant that is becoming popular in Los Angeles . We don’t know much about this yet.

For all of these options, science is still very new. What we know about them is preliminary. None of these seem to cause more serious illness; most are likely susceptible to existing vaccines; and PCR tests seem to still be able to detect them.

They also often become the dominant strains in their place, but for some options there is a small problem with the chicken and the egg in determining whether they are responsible for spikes in the cases or not.

What’s going on now?

Two things. First, scientists are working to answer unanswered questions about these options.

For example, we need to find out if they are actually more transferable, and if so, by how much. We need to know if variants can elude our natural immunity (which would mean you can get the virus twice) and if they can elude immunity from the various vaccines and candidate vaccines that already exist. We need to know if any of the options are causing more severe disease or if there are any clinical differences. And we need to strengthen our surveillance in every country to be able to find new options as they emerge and observe where existing options prevail.

Over time, if it turns out that new options can bypass existing vaccines, the vaccines may need to be updated. We do this for the flu vaccine every year; we may have to do the same with the COVID vaccine.

But another point of action is simpler, albeit difficult: we need to do everything the same that we did to prevent, only to a greater extent. If the variant is more contagious, it is even more important to wear masks, stay at home, and take testing seriously. It’s extra, extra important to get the vaccines for people as quickly as possible. In this sense, even if the virus changes, our most important measures to combat it have not changed.

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