With the news of new COVID-19 variants circulating the globe, the scientific community is left with questions about the future of the virus and what to expect. However, the mutations came as no surprise to health experts, as all viruses will naturally mutate often. Most mutations are harmless and do not have a significant or relevant impact on viral strains, but some can also cause a virus to improve its potential to infect people.
The new B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom has been discovered to be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain. This has caused a rising number of hospitalizations in southern England, as well as an infection spike among younger demographics, including those under 20. This strain has already been detected in several regions across the United States. Additionally, the B.1.351 lineage, first identified in South Africa, has been reported to be more contagious due to its larger viral load.
As viruses mutate, their chances of survival increases. Weaker but more diverse viruses have been proven to survive longer than a population of identical strains. More transmissible strains will also make the pandemic harder to maintain. These variants are not necessarily more severe, but their greater transmissibility will lead to more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
In reaction to this news, the general public is understandably concerned that these variants will not respond well to vaccines and other medications. Both of these new virus strains involve mutations in the spike protein, which is concerning since mRNA vaccines, the primary type of COVID vaccine in use, are targeted to immunize people from the COVID-19 spike protein. However, because the vaccine triggers a general immune response, experts believe that the body will be able to respond to most variants. “I think it’s highly unlikely that there’s going to be a variant that the vaccine completely doesn’t touch,” says Dr. Ellen F. Foxman, PhD, an immunologist from Yale Medicine Laboratory Medicine. The vaccines are still believed to be effective against the UK lineage, but the South African strain is more concerning among the health officials. Luckily, due to the nature of mRNA vaccine development, vaccines can quickly be remodeled to target different strains. To read more about the mRNA vaccines and their processes, see the “Vaccine Development” article for further information.
Although the virus may be changing, our precautionary steps to fighting the pandemic are the same: wearing a tightly sealed mask, washing hands, and social distancing. No matter the variant of COVID-19, being infected can be prevented by staying safe and using the aforementioned countermeasures.