Multiple COVID-19 variants have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic, but scientists are primarily concerned with three variants. Evidence suggests that these new variants spread more quickly than others within the United States.
There’s one from the UK (B.1.1.7), which is more contagious and already circulating in the United States. Earlier this week officials detected the first confirmed case of the Brazil variant (P.1) in Minnesota. And today, the first identified South African variant (B.1.351) was found in South Carolina.
Are the new variants more contagious?
There is some data that suggests that the B.1.1.7 variant from the UK is more transmissible. One theory is that the B.1.1.7 variant is stickier. It requires a smaller amount of virus and adheres better to your cells. Another theory is that it causes people to maintain more particles in their noses and throats. That means more virus is expelled when people talk, cough, or sneeze and will spread faster. Some experts say the British variant will probably become the dominant source of infection in the United States by March.
The concern with the Brazilian P.1 is twofold: Scientists don’t understand why the variant has spread so explosively in Brazil, and the variant carries a particularly dangerous set of mutations. P.1 has two mutations that scientists have already shown reduce antibody binding.
Some tests suggest the South African and Brazilian variants may be less susceptible to antibody drugs or antibody-rich blood from COVID-19 survivors, both of which help people fight off the virus.
Do we need to protect ourselves more from the new variants?
Higher transmission could mean more cases, which can increase the risk for individuals. It may be necessary to re-implement closures and restrictions to flatten the curve if it starts to rise.
We need to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks, frequent hand washing, and disinfection surfaces to protect yourself and your family.
Will the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines still work with the new variants?
From looking at the mutations in the spike, or S, the protein of the new UK variant, it seems the virus should still be susceptible to the antibodies induced by the vaccine.
A study found that the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine works against mutations found in the UK and South Africa variants. Moderna says its COVID-19 vaccine continues to protect against the U.K. and one first seen in South Africa.
Influenza mutates at a faster rate than SARS-CoV-2, and it seems to handle more mutations in its genes, which makes it more likely to evolve resistance to preexisting antibodies. We don’t yet know how well the SARS-CoV-2 S protein can tolerate mutations, so it’s difficult to predict if it will eventually behave like influenza and force us to update the COVID-19 vaccine. Fortunately, the technology used to make the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines is easy to update for a new lineage or strain of S protein
Both Pfizer and Moderna are developing booster shots so that their COVID-19 vaccines can protect against the new variants.