Just as you're starting to feel a little more hopeful about the pandemic, thanks to the approval and rollout of two vaccines, there's a new boogeyman in town. Well, three to be exact. We're talking about the new variants of the novel coronavirus that emerged from the UK (the B.1.1.7 variant), South Africa (the B.1.351 variant) and Brazil (the B.126.96.36.199 or P.1 variant).
A variant means that the virus has mutated, or changed. This may then affect how contagious the virus is or its severity. Some variants simply disappear while others go on to infect the population.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are multiple novel coronavirus variants circulating the world. These three are of particular concern, though, because of reports that they may be more contagious. They contain a specific mutation called N501Y that may allow the virus to replicate more quickly in cells in the respiratory tract.
Preliminary data from the UK that is still under peer-review (a necessary process to validate the methods used in the research) estimates that the B.1.1.7 variant is 56 percent more contagious compared to prior variants of the coronavirus.
That differs from the original estimate from the UK that said it was 70 percent more contagious, but the truth is, we just don't know yet, Patricia Couto, MD, an infectious disease physician with Orlando Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The estimates are based on mathematical models, which have limitations, and the reality is that these variants haven't been around long enough, so more data is needed to know if they are more contagious.
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"The thing about variants is that they're really to be expected. All viruses change," Dr. Couto says.
As they replicate in the body, the virus makes more "virus babies," she says, which can cause replication mistakes in its genetic material. Often, this doesn't go anywhere, but sometimes these changes make the virus more easily transmissible from person to person.
In the coronavirus, there may be a small change in one of its spike proteins (the little hooks it has around its surface), allowing it to better latch into the proteins or receptors of the person to infect them, Dr. Couto explains.
While the CDC notes that it does not appear that these variants are more deadly or cause more severe illness, they could still cause more death if they're able to infect more people, Dr. Couto says.
"The problem is in the number of people who get infected," she says.
So, Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Work Against the Variants?
In short, the vaccine provides protection against all three variants, so you shouldn't skip it. Here's a deeper look.
The B.1.1.7 Variant (UK)
The CDC says there's no evidence that the B.1.1.7. variant will affect how well the vaccine works. In fact, data suggests the vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech will be effective against the N501Y mutation, reports the AP. And a January 2020 preprint study on bioRxiv found that this is indeed the case for the B.1.1.7 variant.
Both studies still need to go through peer-review, but it's reassuring preliminary news.
The B.1.351 Variant (South Africa)
This variant has multiple mutations to the spike protein, including N501Y but also E484K, according to the CDC, which may affect vaccine efficacy.
The Moderna vaccine still protects against this variant, although it is slightly less effective, according to the company. Pfizer has not yet reported data on this variant, but the nation's top infectious disease official, Anthony Fauci, MD, has said both vaccines produce immune protection against B.1.351.
"There is a very slight, modest diminution in the efficacy of a vaccine against it, but there's enough cushion with the vaccines that we have that we still consider them to be effective," he said on the "Today" show on January 25.
The vaccine from AstraZeneca-Oxford (which has not been approved in the U.S.) did not protect against mild or moderate illness caused by the B.1.351 variant in South African clinical trials, The New York Times reported February 7. The vaccine may protect against more severe cases, but as with the other variants and vaccines, more research is needed as the virus continues to evolve.
The P.1 Variant (Brazil)
The P.1 variant is similar to the B.1.351 variant in that it contains both the E484K and N501Y mutations, per the CDC. That's why experts think the vaccine will be slightly less effective against it but still protective.
But again, it's something we need more time to really know. And scientists are on it.
"The newly identified UK variant and South African variant are being tested now with serum from vaccinated patients to determine if there's any loss in virus inhibition compared to previous isolates of SARS-CoV-2," Matthew Frieman, PhD, of the department of microbiology and immunology at The University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells LIVESTRONG.com. But, "the sequence of the variants does not suggest they would escape inhibition by the vaccines."
Translation: It appears that the vaccines will still protect you, something that Viviana Simon, MD, PhD, professor of microbiology, medicine and infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, echoes.
The vaccines work by stimulating your immune system to make antibodies against different sections of the spike protein, she explains. And basically, it seems like the spikes in the variants haven't mutated quite enough to escape these antibodies.
Out of "an abundance of caution," Moderna announced January 25 that it will test an additional booster dose of its vaccine to see if it offers any additional protection against emerging variants.
How Do the Variants Affect COVID Testing?
The mutations could affect the results of some COVID-19 tests, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Tests that look for the virus' genetic material that's been altered by the mutation could produce a false negative result (that's when you're infected, but the test says you're not).
The risk of a false negative is low, according to the FDA, but it could potentially occur with the Accula SARS-Cov-2 Test, the TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit and the Linea COVID-19 Assay Kit.
If your doctor uses one of these tests but still suspects you have COVID-19 based on your symptoms and COVID data for your area, he or she may decide to have you take a different test just to be sure.
A variant that's potentially more contagious means it's even more important to keep up all those smart public health practices, like masking up, washing your hands, limiting indoor social gatherings, maintaining social distance and getting the vaccine when you're eligible to do so.
"With the number of cases we're seeing now, I think every opportunity to close a door is a good opportunity. Try to hang in there as much as you can and close all the roads for the virus to walk from one person to the other," Dr. Couto says. "The more people doing that at the same time, the greater the chance we have to slow it down."
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants”
- CMMID Repository: “Estimated transmissibility and severity of novel SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern 202012/01 in England”
- Reuters: “FACTBOX-UK says new coronavirus variant up to 70% more transmissible”
- AP: “Pfizer study suggests vaccine works against virus variant”
- Food and Drug Administration: "Genetic Variants of SARS-CoV-2 May Lead to False Negative Results with Molecular Tests for Detection of SARS-CoV-2 - Letter to Clinical Laboratory Staff and Health Care Providers"
- bioRxiv: "Neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7 pseudovirus by BNT162b2 vaccine-elicited human sera"
- Moderna: "Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Retains Neutralizing Activity Against Emerging Variants First Identified in the U.K. and the Republic of South Africa"
- The New York Times: "AstraZeneca’s Vaccine Does Not Work Well Against Virus Variant in South Africa"