Just as we started to settle into the new normal of constant mask-wearing, long stretches of isolation, and way too many Zoom conferences, a new threat arrives… more infectious and possibly deadlier variants of COVID-19.
What are these new strains and where do they come from? How are they spread and are they deadlier than what we are battling? Are there more precautions we need to take to protect ourselves? What about vaccines, will they help? In this post, we will explore all of this, as well as what you can do to stay safe through an ever-evolving pandemic.
Where do variants come from?
It turns out “Coronavirus” is a large family of viruses named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces. Many of them affect humans with acute respiratory distress. Human Coronaviruses were first noticed in the mid-1960s by the Common Cold Research Unit in Wiltshire, UK. Later in 1968 as the technology became available for scientists to culture viruses in the lab it was possible to image them and they were remarked as having characteristic spikes in the shape of a corona - hence coronavirus.
A Coronavirus duplicates itself resulting in similar but not exact copies of the original. Once it has exhausted its resources (and our wellbeing) it launches itself towards other bodies with every suspicious sneeze, cough, and droplet. Our bodies are basically incubating stations as the virus proliferates. Through its interaction with our own genetic code those not-exact copies will contain errors. These errors are called mutations and viruses with these mutations are called variants. Many of the mutations aren’t functional and can sometimes damage the virus itself. But other times when the conditions are right each new body becomes a training ground as it gets smarter, stronger, and lasts longer.
There is a theory that patients with compromised immune systems could be a site where new variants are generated. These “long haul” cases might host the virus long enough and lack the antibodies to put up a strong enough defense thereby developing new strains. That being said, the largest contributor towards viral mutation is the sheer number of people infected. The more people are infected and the longer they are infected, the more opportunity the virus has to evolve. This is why it is imperative we understand the new variants, how they spread and how different they are from the original recipe.
Meet the new mutants
What makes the variants concerning is not where they come from, but the mutations they contain. Small changes in the structure of the virus, like say the alteration of a certain spike protein, can make the virus bind more easily to the host body. Currently, we are keeping an eye on three notable variants of COVID-19: The UK, South Africa, and Brazil variants.
- First identified in the United Kingdom with a large number of mutations in the fall of 2020.
- It is presumed to spread faster than other variants because it can bind to host cells easier.
- This variant was first noticed in the United States at the end of Dec. 2020.
- Currently, it is has been detected in 42 states and is presumed to be the dominant strain in the U.S. by March 2021 doubling every 10 days.
South Africa B.1.351
- First detected in South Africa in Oct. 2020
- This variant emerged independently and shares some mutations with the other variants.
- It spreads more easily and quickly than other variants.
- Clinical trials of vaccines are showing they offer less protection against B.1.351
- People who recover from other variants might not fend off B.1.351 because their antibodies won’t grab the viruses as tightly.
- Cases of this have been reported in the United States at the end of Jan 2021
- Discovered in late 2020 during a routine screening of some Brazilian travelers in Japan.
- The virus developed in Manaus after a rapid bloom of infections
- It spread very quickly and evaded herd immunity in Manaus.
- These mutations might make it difficult for the virus to be recognized by antibodies.
- It might develop immunity after infection by other variants.
- First confirmed case in the U.S Feb 2021. It is not the predominant variant in the U.S.
The overwhelming number of infections across the globe has set the stage for multiple variants to emerge from the initial outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes COVID-19. The main concern with these variants is how they might change the speed of infection, prolong the length of illness and help the virus stay alive outside of the body for longer. Bottom line if it spreads it gets stronger.
These variants are being tracked by scientists to determine how fast they spread. More study is needed to make accurate determinations.
Staying safe in the race between Variants and Vaccines
It’s inconvenient and frustrating, but even if you’re vaccinated you can still transmit the virus, including these new variants. Variants and vaccines are in a race where one seeks to slow infection and the other wants to proliferate like wildfire.
Lowering transmission is key. Fewer infections mean less opportunity for the virus to evolve and mutate. We achieve fewer infections by vaccinating as many people as we can swiftly while maintaining a strong prevention practice. Last year we rushed to flatten the curb of new infections, now we want to flatten the curb of new variants.
There is concern that the South Africa variant will reduce the efficacy of vaccinations. With the P.1 Brazil strain more studies are needed to understand how it makes itself unrecognizable by antibodies. Without an antibody response, we could become even more infectious because our body's defense system has no idea a dangerous new threat just moved in.
The good news is that vaccines are highly effective at reducing the severity of illness even among the variant strains. Also, vaccines can be updated and adjusted. We could be a booster away from highly effective protection.
Tips to double your prevention practice
Our challenge is to adapt and become resilient. Become smarter and double down on our commitment to keep ourselves and each other healthy.
Commit to washing your hands completely, with lots of soap and warm water. Too often we skimp on this because we’re feeling rushed or anxious about being in a public bathroom. Don’t skip it! Make it a self-care ritual and sing a short 20-30 second song!
If you don’t have access to a sink with soap you have the next best thing. Hand Sanitizer! Make sure to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Also, use enough of it to really coat all your hands and under your fingernails. Best to let it air dry.
Now that we’re on the topic of covering our hands with disinfectant it's a good time to bring up disinfecting your common surfaces. Surface transmission is rare and many professionals have said our zealous desire to disinfect everything might be overkill. But, it is still good practice and common courtesy if you live with others to clean and disinfect common areas. One big takeaway is that many of us aren’t leaving the cleaner on the surface long enough for the disinfectant to work. Bleach requires around 10 minutes of sit time to be completely effective. Also, there is a difference between disinfecting and sterilizing. Disinfecting is what we do when we wipe down our kitchen, sterling is what doctors do to tools before surgery.
What do you wear in surgery? A mask! You don’t have to be headed into the operating room to up your PPE game. Wearing a mask is one of the primary ways we keep ourselves safe from any virus. If these new variants are up to 50% more transmissible then we need to be doubly prepared, and double up on masks. Do a little research and make sure to keep it snug over your nose and mouth and learn the best fabric combos. Also, there’s no need to double up on a KN95 mask you just need to wear it correctly
The U.K variant is likely to become the dominant strain in the U.S by mid-March. Just in time for better weather and the urge to get out and spend time with your friends after a long, and possibly lonely winter. If this virus is indeed more contagious then you’re going to want to strategize how you socialize and increase or keep your distance from crowds, especially if indoors. Before accepting an invite to a friend's BBQ try normalizing asking “COVID Questions”. Sometimes this can feel confrontational or rude but it’s better to know if there really is enough space to keep 6ft distance.
COVID-19, like all viruses, mutate using our bodies as incubation stations. With every new infection, the virus uses our genetic code to alter its own before passing itself off via droplets. Variants are created by viral mutations which are small errors in the code. The largest factor in the creation of new variants is the massive amount of infections happening globally. To reduce the number of new infections and increase the likelihood the vaccines we have will be the best defense we have against it, we need to get vaccinated and fast! Until then we need to up our game with PPE, and take care of ourselves and our communities. Ultimately, we want to thank you for being brave amidst uncertainty and most certainly encourage you to stay home if you’re sick and get tested!