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