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COVID-19 Variant Strains

by Caitlin Wilson

As the United States charges ahead attempting to vaccinate as many Americans as they can against COVID-19, new variants of the virus have begun appearing in parts of the country. In both New York and California, reports of new strains of the virus are being publicly announced. These new variants have not been thoroughly researched and picked apart enough to make any clear-cut statements about the possible effects they have on humans compared to the original virus. Scientists have worked around the clock to develop the vaccines being used for COVID-19, but with these new mutant strains, widespread vaccination could be delayed as the first generation of vaccines would most likely have little to no effect in helping protect the body from the virus. So, where did these variants come from?

Before we get into the consequences of the variants, let’s first discover where these strains developed. New variations of the virus emerge as a result of mutations. Sometimes, these mutations die off, while others thrive becoming prominent strains. The first major mutant of the virus, labeled B.1.1.7, was first identified in the fall of 2020 in southern England. This strain has become the dominant variant of the United Kingdom, and has even spread to more than 30 countries, including the United States. Additionally, variants in South Africa and Brazil have been reported, called B.1.351 and P.1 respectively. It is likely that these strains were present in the U.S. as early as December 2020.

There have already been some claims that compared to the original, the latest virus variants may be more contagious and deadly. Yet, it is important to note that these findings have not been verified as of now, and need more testing to prove or refute. This February, scientists released the findings of data following a British government warning, which stated that the fast-spreading SARS-CoV-2 variant prevalent in the UK, B.1.1.7, potentially increases the risk of morbidity from COVID-19 as equated to previous variants. Again, many scientists still suggest caution with the results of this study. They warn that the study is preliminary, like our understanding of the new variants, and does not fully support the idea that the variant is more deadly, but perhaps is spreading faster and infecting more at risk of serious illness.

In light of this fact, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson alluded to the idea that the chance of death among people infected with the variant UK virus was higher than the initial virus and was spreading more rapidly. Using preliminary data from several research groups, Johnson and the British government warned for extreme caution with regard to new strains. Moreover, on February 3rd, researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) published a more complete analysis of data compiled about the variants. The release suggested that the risk of dying could be as high as around 35% higher for those who have contracted B.1.1.7. This team of researchers also proposed that B.1.1.7 is increasingly serious compared to past variants. They stated that for every age group, ethnicity, and gender, the mutant strain is more deadly, but it does seem to especially target people of older age. Another detail to take into consideration is that the new strain could just be causing more severe disease, which may be resulting in more people winding up in hospitals around the country, yet once there, the patients’ risk of dying could be equivalent to previous strains.

Altogether, there is a consensus amongst researchers and scientists alike that more data

and observation are needed before we can fully grasp what’s going on with these new mutant strains. Nevertheless, this has not prevented the new strains from becoming just as formidable, if not more, than the original. According to the Washington Post, in California, the B.1.427/B.1429 variant is estimated to make up more than 50% of cases in 44 counties. Columbia University authors also published a paper noting an increase in the rate of B.126 detections. In 2 weeks of February alone, there was a rise of 12.3% in cases.

To counteract this and enable all Americans to more easily find out when and where they can get a vaccine, CDC is instituting a new website called VaccineFinder. Check here to discover if a provider is issuing vaccines at a location near you.


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