What is the variant and where did it come from?
The new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 is a version of the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers in Kent, England, identified the mutation in September, and it began spreading more widely across the United Kingdom in November. The World Health Organization reported that the mutated virus has become the most common among COVID-19 patients in the U.K., accounting for about 50% of new cases diagnosed between October and Dec. 13.
The variant has been confirmed in more than a dozen countries, including Canada, China, France, Japan, and South Korea. Health authorities in South Africa have identified a separate strain of the coronavirus as well, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters Wednesday that it is unclear whether this strain has spread abroad.
Does it spread more easily?
Infectious disease experts advising the British government believe the new variant is between 50% and 74% more contagious than other strains. Peter Horby, chairman of the U.K.’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, warned the strain “demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”
Two cases of the mutated virus have already been confirmed in Southern California and Colorado. Neither patient had a history of traveling abroad where they could have contracted the virus variant, signaling that person-to-person transmission in the U.S. will spike.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert and top public health official guiding the U.S. through the pandemic, said Thursday that community transmission was “inevitable.”
“You’ll be hearing reports from other states and more cases in the state that is already reported. Unfortunately, that’s just the reality of the way these viruses spread,” Fauci said.
Is it more deadly?
Viruses mutate constantly, and it doesn’t always mean the strain will be more severe or deadlier than the more prolific strain. However, the high levels of transmissibility mean that containing the new outbreak may necessitate even more stringent control measures.
Despite the alarming rate at which this new strain is moving from place to place, epidemiologists at London’s Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases maintain that there is “no evidence that the new variant is associated with higher disease severity, but without strengthened controls, there is a clear risk that future epidemic waves may be larger – and hence associated with greater burden – than previous waves.”
Will coronavirus vaccines protect against it?
Scientists don’t know for sure yet, but there is no evidence that the vaccines currently in distribution in the U.S. won’t protect against this new strain. Surveillance of the genetic makeup of the strain is necessary, WHO said earlier this month, “to more fully understand the impact of specific mutation on viral properties and the effectiveness of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.”
Ugur Sahin, CEO of the firm BioNTech that co-developed the vaccine with Pfizer, said he is confident that the variant will not evade the shots. The virus variant is made up of 99% of the same proteins that the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA target. Because the vaccines teach the immune system to launch an attack against the proteins on the coronavirus, researchers at BioNTech and Pfizer have “scientific confidence” that the body’s immune response will vanquish this new mutation of the virus.
Still, a variant that proves more transmissible will reach more people who are vulnerable or frail, such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma and diabetes.