February 02, 2021 - 3 min read
COVID-19 variants: early indicators
Breaking down the three new variants and the impact on vaccines
What we know now
While the nationwide roll out of COVID-19 vaccines brings hope for many Americans, the emergence of highly infectious new variant strains is deeply concerning. Here’s what we know now about three emerging variants.
All viruses mutate over time and COVID-19 is no exception. Most mutations, fortunately, have little to no impact on how a virus behaves and they disappear over time. Of the COVID-19 strains that have persisted, three have become the primary focus of health experts: B.1.1.7, P.1, and 1.351.
This variant was first discovered in the United Kingdom in September 2020 and has now been detected in over 70 countries. B.1.1.7, first detected in the U.S. in December, has now been reported in more than 300 cases according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While these numbers may seem low when compared to the total number of U.S. COVID-19 cases (nearly 26M), the CDC predicts it could become the dominant variant sometime in March. Officials warn the variant has many mutations and is rapidly spreading.
Last week marked the first U.S. report of the P.1 variant detected in a Minnesota resident who recently traveled to Brazil. where cases began surging weeks ago. Early research indicates mutations may allow the P.1 variant to avoid antibodies from therapeutics, vaccines, or prior infection, allowing for reinfection.
Sharing some mutations with the B.1.1.7 variant, variant 1.351 was first detected in South Africa in October 2020 and spread to Zambia by December. Though not yet detected in the U.S., dozens of countries have reported cases. In an attempt to slow spread of the variant,
President Biden announced travel restrictions impacting non-U.S. citizens who’ve recently visited South Africa, the U.K., and many European countries.
Impact on transmissions
An increase in transmission trajectory is feared in the months ahead as the three variants continue to spread. As with the original COVID-19 variant, adherence to public safety measures can help slow transmission rates.
Impact on illness
There’s no indication that the variants result in more severe illness or increased death rates. Researchers continue studying each variant to understand how its unique characteristics impact transmissibility and immunizations.
Impact on vaccinations
Available research indicates COVID-19 vaccines remain effective against the emerging variants though Moderna confirmed its vaccine is more effective against B.1.1.7. Pfizer is expected to release its research findings soon.
As infection numbers increase, a larger percent of the population will need to be vaccinated to reach population immunity (“herd immunity”) and interrupt spread. Seth Glickman, Chief Health Officer at Blue Shield of California, states “it's really important to get to this point where the vaccine is widely distributed. That will allow us to get to a point of herd immunity, where transmission really decreases dramatically.”
Rapidly spreading variants further increase pressure on vaccine distribution plans and an overburdened healthcare system. Our article, Why the vaccine roll-out is so complicated, details the factors slowing vaccine distribution efforts.
Maintaining compliance with mitigation measures, including limiting unnecessary travel, masking, and social distancing, remains key to protecting your employees, family, and friends.
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