The COVID Column: What Should We Know About the COVID-19 Variants?
by Finley Keene
Can you explain the new British variant of COVID-19 that is being reported in the news? Is it more deadly? Will the vaccine work on it?
COVID-19 still rules the day. Even with vaccines being produced and distributed in record time, the spread and mutation rates of the virus outpace our ability to immunize. Some of the new COVID-19 variants may make that job even more difficult. The U.K. variant, which was first reported in December 2020, is the one getting all the press. It appears to be 50-70% more infectious, so it’s worthwhile to pay attention to this variant. The most important things to know about COVID-19 variants is whether they are more infectious, whether they are more deadly (or more virulent in microbiologist-speak), and whether they will be able to evade prior infection or vaccine-mediated immunity.
Viruses mutate constantly, creating variants. Most mutations are of little significance, but occasionally they can be important. As of this writing, 18 different variants have been reported, and some of them may be particularly dangerous. Some of the dangerous variants include: P.1 and P.2 from Brazil, L425R from California, U.S., and B.1.351 from South Africa.
The one we are going to dive deeper into is called B.1.1.7 from the U.K. This variant has been shown to be particularly contagious. According to The New York Times, their study found that B.1.1.7 is an estimated 56 percent contagious, but the U.K. released that it was 70 percent more contagious, too. This means it doesn’t kill more often, but it infects more people per infected person. However, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the U.K., recently stated that B.1.1.7 might be up to 30% more deadly than the novel coronavirus. This is very worrying, but it is still too soon to know for sure; scientists are still waiting for more data. If this variant is less deadly, its ability to spread faster will lead to a flood of patients to hospitals, therefore crippling patient care and leading to more deaths. This is how variants can be misinterpreted as more “deadly.”
This variant was found by sequencing the genomes of a sample of COVID cases from the UK. Now, what makes a genome different from DNA? Well, DNA is the physical molecule and genomes are the specific sequences of these molecules. To make it more simple, let’s say DNA is a letter, and a genome is a novel. Humans have many billions of DNA “letters” in their genomes. Viral genomes are smaller, but still quite complex. The U.K. found B.1.1.7 by sampling 5% of their cases of COVID and analyzing their genomes. Why didn’t the U.S. sequence genomes as much as the U.K has? Well, humans have many billions of DNA letters in their genomes, and coronavirus has a lot less, somewhere around 2000 letters. However, the main problem with the lack of genome sequencing in the U.S. is the absence of a federal response from the last administration (Funny thing. As it turns out, government matters).
So one of the big issues to resolve is whether the current vaccines work on these variants. B.1.1.7 is already being studied and Moderna’s vaccine has proved effective against it. But it has proven less effective against the South African variant, B.1.351, which was just discovered in South Carolina on January 29th. The P.1 and 2 (Brazilian) variants were just found in Minnesota on January 26th, too. More worrying news came out on February 7th, when an article from the New York Times said that B.1.1.7 is spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. The even more worrying news is the vaccine might not work against those variants because scientists have only had limited time to study and test. The best and most accurate way to see if the vaccines are effective against the variants would be to take it from real cases and scenarios: what is the data for those who have been fully vaccinated and still get COVID? What percent of those cases are variants? Again, this is why genome sequencing is critical in combating all the variants of COVID-19 that are currently circulating in the U.S.
If 2020 has taught us anything about life in a pandemic, it is to get bored, eat Doritos, and play video games! Just kidding-- we have learned that!-- but that is not the lesson I am talking about. The lesson is that we learn new things every day, and the only way out of this is by trusting and using science.
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