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New Year, New Virus(es)

As the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are administered, we’re seeing additional variants (…yes, plural) of the novel coronavirus emerge and spread throughout the globe. Though only two variants have been identified at this time, we could soon be seeing even more in the near future. According to the CDC, the SARS-CoV-2 virus acquires one mutation to its genome every two weeks. These series of mutations cause the development of additional strains of the virus, which health experts are beginning to identify worldwide.

The first variant, “SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01” or “B.1.1.7.”, was first estimated to have appeared in the United Kingdom in September 2020. As of the beginning of the new year, the strain had been found in 33 countries, including the United States. Within the US, cases have been reported in California, Colorado, Florida, and, as of this week, New York and Pennsylvania.

The second variant, “501Y.V2.”, was first reported by South African officials on December 18, 2020. While this newest strain holds some of the same mutations as B.1.1.7, it is unrelated to the UK strain and appeared independently.

Though we are far from going back into the office from 9 – 5 and attending fan-filled concerts any time soon, medical professionals and scientists are working tirelessly to understand the virus and all its variants. Below we’ve laid out some of the information we do know so far.

The Good

  • While both variants, B.1.1.7. and 501Y.V2., are more contagious and are spreading more rapidly than the initial COVID-19 strain, experts state that the B.1.1.7. strain does not appear to be any deadlier than the initial strain.
  • The current COVID-19 vaccine is expected to work just as effectively on the B.1.1.7. strain. While some are hesitant to say the same about the 501Y.V2, Pfizer and BioNTech are now saying their vaccine may help with all variants of the virus.
  • Increased travel bans and early closure of borders come as an effort to isolate and stop the spread of the new strains to unaffected countries as they continue to battle the first virus outbreak.
  • The CDC has launched the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program to help increase the number of variants being characterized, as well as track their locations. The samples received will help to increase their strain library so additional tests and research can be performed.

The Bad

  • While there is no hard evidence to support that the impact of the new strains will be any worse than the original, the CDC warns that there may be potential consequences to the emerging variants. This includes the ability to spread faster, cause more severe disease, evade detection by diagnostic tests, decrease susceptibility to antibodies, and evade immunity.
  • Imperial College London released a study that the B.1.1.7. strain of virus may target younger people, particularly those under 20 years old.
  • As more variants emerge and more individuals are affected, our health systems risk staffing issues and limited patients beds. ICU capacity remains high due to the initial COVID-19 outbreak and the addition of the new variants may quickly overburden the system.

The Ugly

  • Despite efforts to get the vaccine quickly administered to as many people as possible, only about 30% of the 17 million doses distributed have been administered. That means only about 1.5%, or 5 million people, of the entire US population have received the vaccine.
  • With the new variants expected to affect younger people at a higher rate, schools may continue to hold off on opening classrooms back up to students. Not being able to physically attend school may lead to additional negative consequences down the line, as children rely on school to build social skills with others, as well as challenge and build their immune systems.
  • Several states are hitting their all-time high records of confirmed COVID cases and deaths with Christmas and New Year’s being the most likely case for the surge.