Countries across the globe have been seeing a steady decline in the rate of new, positive COVID-19 cases since early January, prompting many to believe the pandemic might finally be starting to take a turn for the best. However, the number of tests coming back positive for variants of COVID-19 now threatens a third wave of, what scientists warn, are more deadly and contagious forms of the already devastating virus.
The most dominant variant of COVID-19 called the B.1.1.7, first originated in the United Kingdom in late 2020. It is now confirmed in at least 79 countries, with the United States reporting 1,277 cases across 42 states. Other variants have emerged in nations around the world, including the South African B.1.351 variant, as well as the P.1 variant which was first detected in Brazil; both variants are now confirmed in the United States.
What are Variants?
To better understand the threat that these variants pose, it is important to first understand what exactly a ‘variant’ is. First, and most importantly, this is not something that scientists were blindsided by. As a virus spreads, it replicates itself, and as this replication happens, its genes undergo random “copying errors” called mutations. These errors often end in mutations that have no real effect on how the virus spreads. However, when a virus does mutate in such a way as the B.1.1.7 and others have, it can change the structure of the virus, making it easier to spread.
Despite this, it is important to note that this mutation is normal for a virus, even for ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses such as coronaviruses. In a joint article by Dr. Nathan D. Grubaugh (Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health), Mary E. Petrone (Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, Yale School of Public Health ), and Dr. Edward C. Holmes (Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, University of Sydney) published in Nature Microbiology back in February 2020, it was stated that “mutations are a natural part of the virus life cycle and rarely impact outbreaks dramatically.”
This is not to say that the variants that have been detected are not a serious threat, but rather that they should not cause panic. It is important to remember that these variants are still in the early stages of research, and scientists’ understanding of them is still progressing.
What are the Different Variants of COVID?
- B.1.1.7: Originally called ‘Variant of concern-202012/01′ (VOC-202012/01), is caused by 17 different mutations, many of which affect the spike protein which aids in the virus’ transmission. Recent studies, while still speculatory, suggest that the B.1.1.7 variant is much more contagious than its counterpart, with some estimates reaching as high as 70%. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have confirmed that the variant is, in fact, more contagious than COVID-19, it has yet to be determined if the variant is more deadly; although early studies have pointed towards no.
- B.1.531: First reported in South Africa in late October 2020, this variant mutated independently from B.1.1.7, but shares many similarities with the fast-spreading variant. It is now found in 35 countries, including the United States. While much is still unknown about the mutation, it is believed that it, too, is more contagious than COVID-19. However, studies are yet to confirm this theory as it is still too early to make such assumptions.
- P.1: First reported in Japan in January 2021 by travelers who had recently arrived from Brazil, this variant of COVID-19 poses new, still unknown threats to current vaccines. The mutation, while still not confirmed in a study, may affect the ability of antibodies to recognize it. It has currently spread to 13 countries including the United States.
Where are They?
- B.1.1.7: The most dominant variant of COVID-19 in the United States remains the UK variant, B.1.1.7, and is currently spread across 42 states with a total of 1,277 confirmed cases. Currently, the states with the most positive cases are as follows: Florida (416), California (186), New York (70), Michigan (67), Colorado (67), and Texas (60).
- 1.351: Less widespread than its closely related mutation, B.1.1.7, the variant was first detected in the United States in South Carolina on January 28, 2020, and has spread to ten states, with 19 total positive cases. The states with confirmed cases are as follows: Maryland (7), Virginia (2), South Carolina (2), California (2), Washington D.C. (1), Texas (1), North Carolina (1), Massachusetts (1), Illinois (1), and Connecticut (1).
- 1: Currently, variant P.1 has only been confirmed in two states, with Minnesota reporting two confirmed cases, and Oklahoma reporting only one.
All numbers are provided by the CDC, as of February 16, 2021. For a full list of cases by state, visit the CDC’s website.
Are the Vaccines Still Effective?
While research is still not conclusive, experts believe that the currently approved vaccines will protect individuals against both the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, “as it is unlikely a mutation would cause a virus to evade immunity introduced by a vaccine”, according to the CDC. Experts at the University of Maryland Medical System point out the top reasons why these current vaccines will still work: vaccines prevent hospitalization and death, help stop new variants from emerging, and can be updated to be more effective as new research emerges. They state that by vaccinating as many people as possible the spread of COVID-19 can be stopped, which will also prevent new variants from forming.
What Does This Mean?
In short, this information means that the pandemic is not over just yet. While cases of COVID-19 continue to fall, it is important to remember that there are still new cases emerging, many of which are these highly contagious variants. The CDC has not lifted any of its recommendations on mask-wearing or social distancing, and medical experts still recommended avoiding large crowds and gatherings. The best way to fight COVID-19 and its new mutations are to get vaccinated, and in the meantime, follow all CDC and local guidelines.
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