What You Need to Know
Viruses mutate—that’s just what they do. This phenomenon is why we have an annual flu shot—it mutates every year. Coronavirus is no different, with now thousands of variants that have already been identified.
But just as new vaccines start to roll out across the United States and elsewhere, new variants are also popping up. Three, in particular, have started circulating worldwide, emerging from within the UK, South Africa, and Brazil. So, will the vaccines recently developed still be effective on these variants and how can we stay safe?
First things first: What is a variant and how do they develop?
When someone gets infected with a virus, it multiplies within the body to create tens of thousands of copies of the virus. However, they are not perfect copies. Like a game of telephone, the process of replicating the genetic code randomly changes the sequence with each round.
Most of these random errors are inconsequential, having no real effect on the virus as a whole. But every so often, there will be a mutation in a key part of the virus that will allow it to be more competitive (i.e. virulent, contagious, etc.).
A variant is a version of the virus that has accumulated an assortment of these mutations. The vast majority of these variants are unremarkable. But sometimes, there will be a variant that has an evolutionary edge over other versions of the virus that allows it to become dominant. As of January 27, 2021, three variants are circulating globally that are concerning scientists—the UK, South Africa, and Brazil strains of the virus.
All three variants are alarming scientists since they all share mutations on the spike proteins that cover the outer coat of the coronavirus and give it its characteristic bumpy shape. This mutation allows coronavirus to bind tighter to human cells and makes these variants more transmissible.
Let’s talk about the Covid-19 variants
- The UK - First detected in September 2020, a new variant of Covid-19 called B.1.1.7 has been discovered, and it spreads much faster than the other variants of coronavirus.
- Where is it? The variant has been confirmed in the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Brussels, the Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Chile, Australia, China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, and others.
- How dangerous is it? This variant has many mutations that make it more transmissible than the original strain. Researchers estimate that the variant is up to 70 percent more contagious. The silver lining? This variant has not caused those infected to experience stronger or more severe symptoms, and there’s no evidence it increases the risk of death.
- South Africa - Originally discovered in October 2020, this variant of Covid-19 is known as B1.351. It shares some characteristics of the variant found in the UK, however, it emerged independently.
- Where is it? The variant has been identified in at least 2 dozen countries including Australia, Israel, the UK, Belgium, Botswana, and Zambia. This strain has not been detected in the US and travel from South Africa has been restricted due to concerns over this strain of the virus.
- How dangerous is it? Researchers in South Africa estimate that the South Africa variant seems to be 50% more transmissible compared to the original version of the virus.
Update 02/01/2021: The South African variant now has confirmed cases in the United States.
- Brazil - This variant, also known as P.1, was first discovered just outside Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan, among four travelers from Brazil.
- Where is it? The variant has been confirmed in Brazil, Peru, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
- As of January 25, 2021, the first case of this mutation has officially shown up in the United States within a single Minnesota resident. What’s special about this variant is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it contains mutations that “may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies.”
- How dangerous is it? The Brazil variant is widely believed to be more transmissible, with many concerned that it can evade an antibody response which would impact the efficacy of the vaccine.
The CDC also notes that these variants are known to spread faster and more readily. However, it’s not currently known how wide these variants may have already spread, how much each variant differs from one another, or how these variants will interact with existing vaccines and treatments.
Will Vaccines Still Be Effective?
At this point, scientists are still confident that the vaccines will be effective against the existing variants. While the antibody response may be limited, the benefits conferred can still dramatically decrease the number of hospitalizations that are occurring.
How to Protect Yourself from these Covid-19 variants
Ultimately, the same precautions apply as it is still too early to know how much these variants differ and what we’ll need to do to protect ourselves. But here are the basics.
Mask up. We’ve talked about this many times before; about the best masks to wear while working out, what’s the deal with masks with valves, even how to deal with Maskne. But the thing about masks is that they work. And it’s really simple how they work—preventing the airborne transmission of Covid-19 by relegating coughing, sneezing, and even normal breathing to just the mask wearer, blocking it from reaching others. And the same goes for other mask wearers around you.
Just how effective is it? One recent study examined deaths attributed to Covid-19 across 198 countries and concluded that those countries which normalize mask-wearing had a statistically significant drop in death rates. That’s nothing to balk at.
With these new variants, many doctors and public health officials are recommending the public consider the quality of their masks. The bandana or homemade mask does not confer the same protection as a laboratory-tested mask. “The existence of more-transmissible viruses emphasizes the importance of us upping our game and doing not more of the same but better of the same,” said Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wash often. This one is simple. The CDC recommends washing your hands often, and for at least 20 seconds each time. Especially after instances where you’ve been in the public, blowing your nose, sneezing, coughing, etc.
Continue practicing social distancing. The CDC recently published the results of a report which performed 1,000 simulations to quantify the efficacy of social distancing.
“We considered the effects of social distancing interventions over the first 100 days of the epidemic and assumed that the social distancing interventions started on day 50...We noted that reducing the contacts of adults >60 years of age averted only 18% of cases for the whole population, but averted 50% of cases for this age group. Also, this intervention reduced the overall number of hospitalizations by 30% and reduced deaths by 39% for the whole population, and hospitalizations and deaths by >49% for adults >60 years of age. Adding a social distancing intervention in children slowed the epidemic curve, and reduced the overall hospitalizations by >64%, and by >53% across all age groups.”
When it comes to social distancing, and unless they’re members of your household, be sure to avoid:
- Indoor gatherings
- Shared surfaces like swings or benches
- Contact sports
- Anything closer than 6 feet distance
If dining out, check your restaurant’s Covid-19 safety procedures. And avoid crowded public parks, pools, etc.
Remember that the more people mask up, the better chance we have at flattening the curve. And that doesn’t just mean that fewer people will end up in the hospital; fewer instances of Covid-19 and its variants mean we lessen the chance of it mutating before we can vaccinate against it. On top of that, it means keeping your loved ones safe, your community safe, and getting back to our pre-covid lives that much faster.