Even though COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, it's more important than ever before for you to wear face mask protection — new coronavirus variants are starting to surface regularly.
The U.K. COVID-19 variant, which researchers have found to be more contagious than the original strain that caused the pandemic, has already found its way into the United States. And the South Africa variant has forced Moderna and Pfizer to reformulate their vaccines to ensure that they are still effective.
But for many experts, a new variant is the most concerning one. Called P.1, this variant first emerged from Manaus, Brazil in early December. By the middle of January, P.1 had catalyzed a massive resurgence across this city of 2 million people.
A COVID-19 Variant That's Already Hit Close to Home
Last Monday, medical experts confirmed that they had discovered the first case of P.1 in the U.S. By sequencing 50 nasal swabs from patients infected by COVID-19, Minnesota's Department of Health detected it in a person who had recently traveled to Brazil. And researchers are pulling no punches when it comes to warning about the potential devastation this variant could cause.
"If you were to ask me right now, what's most concerning of all the things that I've heard so far, it's the fact that they are reporting a sudden increase in cases in Manaus, Brazil," explained Dr. Jeremy Luban in an interview with NPR two weeks prior to P.1 arriving in the U.S. Luban is a virus expert and professor of molecular medicine biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts. "Manaus already had 75% of people infected [in the spring of last year]."
The fears surrounding P.1 comes from two factors. First, scientists don't yet understand why the virus has spread so rapidly in Brazil. Second, P.1 carries a dangerous set of mutations.
Let's look at the infection rate of the U.K. variant to put P.1 in perspective. This one took roughly three months to take over and continue the pandemic outbreak in England. In comparison, P.1 only took a month to dominate Manaus' outbreak.
To make matters worse, Manaus had already experience surges in COVID-19 cases around during the month of April 2020. One study concluded that this outbreak should have been enough to cause herd immunity in the local population, meaning the virus shouldn't be able to spread easily anymore. But ten months later, P.1 caused an even bigger surge.
Why Is P.1 So Contagious?
Is P.1 evading antibodies that formed against the previous coronavirus version to make reinfection easier? Is it just actually way more contagious? "While we don't *know* exactly why this variant has been so apparently successful in Brazil, none of the explanations on the table are good," Harvard University epidemiologist Bill Hanage recently wrote on Twitter.
Reinfections are a serious obstacle to ending this pandemic for various reasons. Like the South Africa variant, P.1 carries mutations on its surface that make it easier for antibodies to bind to it. Penny Moore is a virus expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa. Since the surfaces of these viruses are the main target of our immune systems, she thinks these mutations in P.1 could be "conferring immune escape." In other words, they are helping the virus escape recognition by the antibodies by acting as a type of invisibility cloak.
Moore and her team put this hypothesis to the test by checking if antibodies in the blood serum of 44 patients previously infected with COVID-19 would work against the South Africa variant. What they ended up finding was a startling drop-off in antibody sensitivity. Moore says, "In fact, it was really quite a dramatic drop-off in sensitivity. We saw that in half of the serum, the antibodies were significantly less effective against the new variant [from South Africa]."
While scientists have not yet tested P.1 in similar experiments, they already know that it contains two mutations that have been shown to reduce antibody binding.
A Dangerous Game of "Cat and Mouse"
Virus expert Ravi Gupta says that the COVID-19 variants have caused a precarious game of tag between the virus and vaccines. Basically, as the virus finds ways around the vaccine and our immune systems, manufacturers must reformulate the former. Or else many of us run the risk of getting infected twice.
In a way, this isn't all that different from the annual releases of new vaccines for influenza. Gupta imagines that we'll have to take a similar approach to the coronavirus. Different vaccines will be needed to target different parts of the virus. And it would be prudent for these vaccines to focus on parts of the virus that are difficult for it to change.
Gupta says that the battle between the coronavirus and humanity's vaccines will consume a great deal of time, money, and effort. And he doesn't believe that only one solution will solve this. "The coronavirus is going to cause a long-term disruption."
With all that said, it's more important than ever before for you to take proper coronavirus protection measures. Please continue to wear your face masks, social distance, and wash your hands frequently. Although we may all be separated, remember that we are all in this together.
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