With the holidays in full swing, the last thing anyone wants is bad news about COVID. Unfortunately, we are not going to get our wish—but before you read on, know that there is reason to remain optimistic.
Here's the bad news: There is a new variant of COVID-19.
The new variant is called VUI 202012/01, or B.1.1.7. (Of note, you're likely seeing three different words being used about this right now: strain, variant and mutation. Cardiff University's Professor Tom Connor explained that "There is one strain of coronavirus. That is Sars-Cov-2. That is the single strain, and there are variants of that strain. These are variants." The Independent continued that a "mutation is the process by which a strain can take on new variants.")
This is scary, and we need to take this recent news extremely seriously, but there is good news, too.
Here is everything we know about the COVID variant so far:
What is the new COVID variant?
Viruses mutate all the time. The CDC says that the COVID virus mutates about once every two weeks. Most of those mutations are "silent" meaning that while the virus itself changes, the way it impacts people does not.
The variant getting our attention is called B.1.1.7—and we're paying attention because while other variants have been silent, this one seems to be more infectious, though not necessarily more deadly (more on that below).
Where is the new COVID variant appearing?
The COVID variant is currently showing up primarily in the United Kingdom, though cases have been reported in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. There have also been cases of a related variant of the virus in South Africa.
Is the COVID variant in the United States?
Not officially, or at least not that we know of. That said, only a small percentage of viruses in the United States have been sequenced, a process in which scientists look at the genome of a virus; only 51,100 of the 17 million cases of COVID in the U.S. have been sequenced. This means that this variant could be here, and we just don't know about it yet.
And in an interview on Good Morning America, Dr. Anthony Fauci urged Americans to "assume it's here already."
He said, "When you have this amount of spread within a place like the UK...you really need to assume that it's here already, and certainly is not the dominant strain, but I would not be surprised at all if it is already here."
Is the new COVID variant more dangerous than the original?
Right now, the new variant of COVID does not appear to be more dangerous, in terms of how the illness presents in people. People who have been infected with this new variant do not seem to be any sicker than those who get the original COVID virus. The CDC writes, "At this time, there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death."
That said, we have learned that there is a huge range in how COVID symptoms present in people—some get fatally ill while others are without symptoms entirely. We will need to continue to monitor this new variant to see what its impacts are.
Again, this is not the only mutation of the COVID virus—another version of this variant was found to lead to higher viral loads and that can make people sicker. So it possible that this variant will do the same. We just need to learn more.
Is the new COVID variant more contagious?
This is not the news you want to hear, but yes, scientists fear that the new variant is more contagious than the original. It is still new to us, so spikes in infection rates may be a coincidence. But the New York Times reported that "the epidemiological evidence gathered so far from England does seem to suggest that this variant is very good at spreading. In places where it has become more common, the overall number of coronavirus cases is spiking." They spoke with epidemiologist Neil Ferguson who "estimates that the variant has an increased transmission rate of 50 to 70 percent compared with other variants in the United Kingdom." That's a lot.
Jeremy Luban is a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and told NPR that "if a person sneezes on a bus, the new variant is more likely to infect other people than the previous form of the virus."
What do we know about the new COVID variant and children?
There is a possibility that the new COVD variant infects children more than the original virus does—though this has not yet been established as a fact. Right now we simply don't have enough data to know whether children are more at risk. Testing is currently underway, so we hope to know more soon.
What do we know about the new COVID variant and pregnancy?
Unfortunately, we don't have information on whether the new variant will impact pregnant people differently than the original virus. As the variant spreads and research continues, we will learn more.
Will the COVID vaccine work to protect from the new COVID variant?
Good news alert: Experts believe that the COVID vaccine will still be effective in protecting against the COVID variant. It is possible that the virus could mutate so much that the vaccine would stop working—but the chances of that happening are small.
Essentially, the vaccine "teaches" the immune system how to mount an attack against the virus, based on proteins on the outside of the virus—a new variant does not mean that that process will change.
BBC reports that "vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the [virus] has mutated, the vaccines should still work."
The (CDC) further explains that the "FDA-authorized vaccines are 'polyclonal,' producing antibodies that target several parts of the spike protein. The virus would likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection."
Could it happen? Yes, but at this time experts believe it's not likely.
Studies are already underway to examine the effectiveness of the vaccine on this new COVID variant. But again, scientists are hopeful.
How can I protect myself and my family from the COVID variant?
Experts believe that the same protective measures they have been recommending all along will continue to be effective when it comes to the new COVID variant. In the event that this new variant is in fact more contagious, those protective measures are even more important than ever. They include:
- Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others
- Wearing a mask when you are near other people outside of your household
- Avoiding social gatherings
- Cleaning your hands often with soap and water or 20 seconds, or with hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol
- Disinfecting frequently touched objects
- Monitoring your symptoms, avoiding proximity to others if you have symptoms, and promptly getting tested
This is the part where I try to make you feel better.
This is scary—we've been scared for the better part of a year, and now we have even more to worry about. You are exhausted. You are so over this pandemic—and now this.
I get it. Me too.
But listen to me: This is not the time to give in to those fears, to the fatigue. Look at everything you have done, learned, been through this year. You didn't think you could do any of that, but you did. You can do this, too.
We can see the light at the end of this tunnel.
In March of this year, could you imagine the possibility of a vaccine? Now, a mere 9 months later, not only do we have a vaccine, but hundreds of thousands of people have received it. We are winning. We are going to beat this, and we are going to end the pandemic.
Here's the thing, though: The answer is "we." Yes, helpers are working around the clock—scientists, nurses, doctors, essential workers and more who are dedicating their lives to make this better. But their efforts won't work unless we help them.
And, so. We keep going. We wear masks (above our noses). We cancel plans. We stay home. We stay calm. We stay vigilant. We stay on each others' sides. We keep fighting, together.