Press-Telegram (Long Beach)
Virus variants threaten transition into recovery
U.K., South Africa, Brazil and now California mutations come as vaccinations continue apace
It seemed like everything was getting better — and then the mutants arrived.
Yes, the horror story that is our lives a year into the coronavirus pandemic had already challenged us with plenty of just-when-youlet-your-guard-down twists and turns. And here we are, with case rates and deaths plummeting, businesses reopening and millions of people getting vaccinated in every corner of the country. Things are looking up. But now health officials and infectious disease experts are keeping an eye on something that threatens all this progress: the COVID-19 mutations.
You’ve probably heard of these variants by now: the U.K., South Africa and Brazilian varieties. There’s even a California and New York version popping up now.
What are they? Will the vac
cines protect us from them? And how big of a threat are they to our recovery?
Those are the key questions as scientists and medical providers race to stop their spread and end the pandemic.
Like other viruses, the coronavirus has mutated over time. Its crownlike spikes can change as it spreads. That’s not at all unusual and it’s not always cause for alarm — in fact, tracking mutations helps scientists trace the spread of the virus from place to place. But several variants are causing concern across the U.S.
In general, “they spread faster, they are highly transmissible, they can cause more disease and they can evade the immune response,” said Melanie Ott, director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology in San Francisco.
That’s not necessarily true of every variant, and scientists themselves disagree over whether some of the new strains, such as one first detected in South Africa, make people more sick than the original.
“We don’t know yet,” said Benjamin Pinsky, medical director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Stanford.
Even the naming of the variants themselves is controversial and incredibly convoluted. Different researchers are using different names for the same virus. Some draw on the date a variant was first identified, while others have to do with which particular part of the virus has changed. All of it has led people to identify variants geographically. That in turn has raised concerns about residents of those places being unduly stigmatized, but so far there is no clear, standardized alternative.
The variants of concern in the U.S.: fall. It appears to be about 50% more infectious than the original virus, scientists say. In January, experts in the U.K. said it also appeared more deadly than the original strain. It was first detected in the U.S. in December 2020 and is now becoming widespread here. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been more than 2,600 cases reported across at least 47 states and Puerto Rico. California has recorded more than 200 cases. The CDC has said this could become the dominant variant in the U.S. this spring.
The good news: Researchers like Pinsky are less concerned about the U.K. variant than some others, because vaccines appear to be very effective at keeping people exposed to this variant from getting sick. produced by the body’s immune system, raising some concerns about whether this variant reduces the effectiveness of available coronavirus vaccines. For example, clinical trials overseas on vaccines from Novavax and AstraZeneca PLC showed they were less effective in South Africa than elsewhere.
The U.S. has recorded more than 68 cases of the South African variant in 17 states, including several cases in California. The CDC says there isn’t evidence to suggest the variant has any impact on disease severity, but South Africa’s health minister said it seemed to affect young people more than earlier versions of the coronavirus. (This observation also coincided with a large number of graduation parties where young people gathered.)