New Strains of Coronavirus: What We Know

A new, more transmissible strain of the coronavirus, B.1.1.7, first emerged in the U.K. in September. Now, the B.1.1.7 variant has appeared in various states throughout the U.S.

Jan. 22, 2021 5   min read

New covid strain

New strains of the coronavirus have begun to emerge throughout the world. The first new strain, B.1.1.7, first emerged in the U.K. in September. Now, the B.1.1.7 variant has appeared in various states throughout the U.S. Variant 1.351 originated in South Africa in October and variant P.1 was first identified during testing in Japan.

“Viruses often change through mutation, so the presence of new strains isn’t a surprise,” explains Dr. Emil Lesho, epidemiologist at Rochester Regional Health. “Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear, while other times they emerge and persist. But there are some differences between the new strains and the original strain that we need to be mindful of.”

Dr. Lesho discusses the impact of the new variant, whether the vaccine is effective, and anything else we should about the new coronavirus strains.

What we know about B.1.1.7

B.1.1.7 has key gene changes to its spike protein that help the virus pass more easily from person to person. B.1.1.7 is estimated to be 50% more contagious than the original versions of the coronavirus, meaning it can spread more easily and quickly. First discovered in the U.K., it has since been detected in 36 countries, including the United States and Canada. As of January 13, 2021, 76 cases had been detected in the U.S. and more than 15,000 cases worldwide.

While there is no evidence that B.1.1.7 causes more severe illness or increased risk of death, modeling data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that B.1.1.7 has the potential to increase the U.S. pandemic trajectory in the coming months.

“It’s likely that B.1.1.7 will be the leading variant in the United States by as early as March, putting additional strain on healthcare resources. Taking measures now that can reduce transmission like getting vaccinated, staying physical distant, mask-wearing, hand-hygiene, and isolation and quarantine if you’re positive will be essential to lessen the impact of B.1.1.7.”

Researchers believe B.1.1.7 evolved from a single patient. People with weakened immune systems who are infected with coronavirus can remain infected with replicating coronaviruses for several months, which allows the virus to mutate many times over, resulting in variants like B.1.1.7 and others.

Are there other variants?

B.1.1.7 isn’t the only variant circulating worldwide:

  • 1.351 originated in South Africa in early October and has emerged independently from the variant detected in the U.K. Variant 1.351 shares some mutations with B.1.1.7 and there have been positive cases detected from this variant outside of South Africa, but so far none have been detected in the U.S. Dr. Anthony Fauci commented on the vaccine's effectiveness against the new strain from South Africa. "There is a very slight modest diminution in the efficacy of a vaccine against it but there is enough cushion with the vaccines we have that we still consider them to be effective against both the U.K. and South Africa strain."
  • P.1 emerged after it was identified in four travelers in Brazil who were tested during routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan. P.1 contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. It has not been detected in the U.S.

These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. Currently, there is no evidence that these variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death. 

Do the new vaccines protect against new strains?

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be effective against new coronavirus variants, according to a study by a group of researchers from Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch and published in the preprint database bioRxiv. The study was preliminary and has yet to be certified by peer reviews.

Moderna has announced that its vaccine protects against the new variants and that the broad range of potential neutralizing antibodies made possible by their vaccine “provides confidence that our vaccine will also be effective at inducing neutralizing antibodies against them.” Moderna plans to research a booster shot "out of an abundance of caution."

“Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated to produce the B.1.1.7 variant, the vaccines should still work,” Dr. Lesho said.

According to CDC modeling, vaccinations will be most effective when paired with stricter adherence to measures that stop the spread of the virus, such as hand-washing, wearing masks, and social distancing.

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