With vaccine distribution in full swing, it feels like the end is in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic. But public health officials are still concerned about one thing: A more contagious and deadly coronavirus variant is making its way across the United States.
Will this new variant cause another surge in cases? Are the vaccines effective against it? Let's find out.
A Growing Concern
The coronavirus variant in question, known as B.1.1.7, was first spotted in the UK a few months ago. In a recent White House update, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that this variant was not only more transmittable but potentially more deadly than the strain that caused the pandemic.
For the US, B.1.1.7 was first detected in Colorado near the end of 2020. "Since then, it has been detected in 50 jurisdictions in the United States, and likely accounts now for about 20 to 30% of the infections in this country. And that number is growing," explained Fauci.
B.1.1.7 is believed to be 50% more transmittable than the original pandemic strain, according to data from the UK. It's also more likely to cause severe cases of infection. To put this in perspective, Fauci discussed one study that concluded B.1.1.7 increased the risk of death by 64% compared to the older variant. A second study supported this figure with a calculated increase in risk of 61%.
There is a bright side to all of this troubling news, though — vaccines appear to work well against B.1.17. Beyond this, treatments like monoclonal antibodies also seem to combat this variant effectively. Per Fauci, this means we can counter this threat in two ways. First, we must get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. Second, we must continue to adhere to coronavirus protection protocols such as social distancing and wearing face masks.
Why the COVID-19 Vaccines Work Against B.1.1.7
"The vaccine remained effective against B.1.1.7 with a slight but significant decrease in neutralization that was more apparent in participants under 55 years of age," BioNTech explained in a report. "Thus, the vaccine provides a significant 'cushion' of protection against this variant."
Moderna's team ran similar tests and reported similar conclusions. Another study conducted by Ravindra Gupta of the University of Cambridge examined blood taken from older adults who had received the Pfizer/BioNtech's vaccine. Gupta and his team did witness a "small reduction in neutralization by sera from vaccines that was more marked following the first dose than the second dose," but this wasn't enough to warrant concern.
Are More Mutations On the Way?
While experts were happy with the results from the above-mentioned tests, they're still worried about potential future coronavirus mutations. For example, the B.1.351 variant first detected in South Africa and the P.1 variant found in Brazil both carry a mutation called E484K. This mutation does seem to evade the human body's immune response. Several experiments involving the B.1.351 and P.1 variants support this troubling finding.
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has not undergone as many experiments as the other vaccines in distribution, it was tested in the US after B.1.17 had already begun to spread. Similarly, it was also tested in South Africa after B.1.351 became the most common variant there and in Brazil after P.1 became more widespread. During these trials, scientists found that it did offer people protection against severe infection from these variants.
Viruses mutate all the time, and COVID-19 is no exception. While the world has made great strides in combatting the pandemic in recent months, we must not let our guard down. The end may be in sight, but to get there, we must all practice vigilance. Please get your vaccine as soon as you can. And continue to social distance, wear face masks, and sanitize your hands frequently.
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