COVID-19 Variants: What You Need to Know
Late last month, Florida became the third state (after California and Texas) to surpass two million coronavirus cases, representing 9.3% of the state’s population. When it comes to variants of the COVID-19 virus, however, Florida leads the nation in the number of cases caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant.
Many of our patients have concerns about the variant and its impact on the efficacy of the vaccines. Our family practice doctors in Delray Beach want to bring you up to date on what we know about the COVID-19 variants.
The B.1.1.7 variant
All viruses mutate. As virus cells reproduce within a host, they make mistakes in replicating themselves. Some of these errors in replication give it an advantage that earlier generations of the virus didn’t have. In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 mutations, some of these advantages make it easier to spread itself throughout a population of potential hosts.
This is what has happened with the B.1.1.7 variant. It was originally identified in the U.K. last year and has since spread to other countries, including the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report two weeks ago showing that Florida had 2,330 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and was spreading rapidly. The next highest total was in Michigan, with 1,242 cases.
The B.1.1.7 variant is not only easier to transmit from person to person, but also appears to be more deadly. One study showed a 64% increased risk of death for people infected with this variant compared to the original virus. Another study showed a 61% higher risk of death.
“Of concern is that there [is] about a 50% increase in transmission with this particular variant that has been documented in the U.K. and there’s likely an increase in severity of disease if infected with this variant,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a White House coronavirus briefing last month.
Will the COVID-19 vaccines still work?
The good news is that all three vaccines that are approved for use in the U.S.—the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—appear to provide significant protection against the B.1.1.7 variant.
“Real-life use of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines indicate that while the B.1.1.7 variant can elude, somewhat, the immune response prompted by immunization, it’s not enough to make the vaccines any less effective in protecting people,” CNN recently reported. “That’s because the vaccines cause a broad immune response so that even if [immunity is] a little weakened, it’s still powerful enough to prevent serious disease and death.”
Less is known about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, although the Miami Herald reports that it is the only vaccine that has been tested against all the variants in a lab setting. “Clinical trials showed it was 72% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 among Americans,” the paper reported.
The lower efficacy rate, however, is likely due to the fact that Johnson & Johnson’s is the only vaccine that has been tested against any of the variants. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines so far have only been clinically tested against the original coronavirus, which may explain why their efficacy rates were better than Johnson & Johnson’s.
What about the other COVID-19 variants?
There are several other variants that have made their way to the U.S.
- 1.351 was originally detected in October 2020 in South Africa. Even though it emerged independently of B.1.1.7, the two viruses share some common mutations. This variant, however, does not seem to cause more severe disease. Its mutation may allow it to better evade antibodies produced by at least one of the approved vaccines (Astra-Zeneca).
- 1 was first found in travelers from Brazil to Japan during a routine screening. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. So this, too, may at least partly escape some vaccines and allow individuals to be reinfected.
Here in Florida, the CDC figures released two weeks ago showed 42 cases of P.1 (Brazil) variant in the state. It also showed 14 cases of the B.1.351 (South Africa) variant.
Nevertheless, the vaccine makers are working to adapt their current vaccine formulations to the emerging variants. They are also testing them to learn whether additional booster shots might provide better protection.
Stay safe for now
As cases continue to increase, CDC officials plead with people to keep up mitigation measures “just a little while longer.” This means until enough of the population has been vaccinated to halt the spread of the virus.
Opportunities to mutate further are why it’s important to keep people from becoming infected with the coronavirus. The more hosts it has, the more chances it has to evolve into an even deadlier form of the virus. Until enough of the population has received the vaccine, it’s crucial to maintain masking and social distancing.
Vaccinations nationwide are currently ahead of the Biden administration’s initial projections. We hope everyone will continue to be careful for just a few more weeks.