COVID-19 Variants and the Pandemic
February 17, 2021
While COVID-19 vaccines from developers including Pfizer-BionTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have been granted emergency use authorization in dozens of countries, new findings indicate that there are multiple new variants of the virus that may be more contagious. One variant, known as “B.1.1.7,” emerged in the United Kingdom and has spread to multiple countries, including Canada and the United States, where it was first detected in December, 2020. Variant 1.351 originated in South Africa and appeared in the U.S. in January, 2021; variant P.1, first found in four Brazilian travelers, was also detected in the U.S. in January.
Studies suggest that variant 1.351 does not yield worsened COVID-19 symptoms, though researchers believe variants B.1.1.7 and P.1 may spread at a faster rate. The UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reported on January 21 that B.1.1.7 “appears to have substantially increased transmissibility compared to other variants,” adding “there is a realistic possibility that infection with VOC [variant of concern] B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death.” Patrick Valence, chief scientific advisor to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, says the B.1.1.7 strain could be up to 70% more transmissible and 30% more fatal than the dominant COVID-19 strain.
In general, according to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 variants have been of recent concern because they may hinder the development of “natural or vaccine-induced” immunity to the virus, may necessitate new forms of testing capable of detecting the strains, and might cause different and potentially more severe symptoms in populations. Nevertheless, developers are working to ensure that their vaccines are effective against this mutating virus; Philip Krause, a World Health Organization (WHO) vaccinologist, noted variants do not appear to have rendered COVID-19 vaccine-resistant, but “the rapid evolution of these variants suggests that if it is possible for the virus to evolve into a vaccine-resistant phenotype, this may happen sooner than we like.” As the world continues battling the pandemic thirteen months since when COVID-19 was first reported to the WHO on December 31, 2019, scientists continue to prepare for the reality that the virus will likely mutate further in the coming months.