On Tuesday, the state of Colorado recorded the first known United States case of the COVID-19 variant: B.1.1.7. The news followed almost a week after the United Kingdom identified a new, more-contagious coronavirus variant in England on December 23. And the discovery of B.1.1.7 has, understandably, stirred up a host of questions for the United States scientific community and everyday citizens alike.
Below, we break down what we know so far about B.1.1.7—including what a variant is, how it made its way to the U.S., whether or not scientists believe it will be resistant to the COVID-19 vaccine, and more.
1. First thing’s first: What’s a variant?
A “variant” of a virus occurs when its genetic structure changes as it fights to survive in an increasingly immune population, reports The New York Times. Variants are hardly uncommon when it comes to viruses (including the category of viruses we’re currently dealing with, coronaviruses). “Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and start infecting people,” says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
2. How did this particular variant, B.1.1.7, land in the United States?
The first U.S. Citizen with B.1.1.7 lives Elbert County, Colorado, is in his 20s, and has no known travel history. He has, however, been working at an assisted living facility where he could have contracted the variant of COVID-19. It’s not yet clear how the variant traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, but it has been on UK health officials’ radar since it first emerged in September 2020.
3. Is B.1.1.7 more dangerous than the original version of COVID-19?
While researchers believe the B.1.1.7 is about 70 percent more contagious than SARS-CoV-2 (the strain of coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19), they have no evidence to suggest that it will be more deadly than the disease that has now taken nearly 1.8 million lives. In fact, generally speaking, viruses that become more contagious diminish in severity and deadliness. As Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explained to the Science Media Centre, “As viruses are transmitted, those that allow for increased virological ‘success’ can be selected for, which changes the properties of the virus over time. This typically leads to more transmission and less virulence...”
4. Will the COVID-19 vaccine protect me from B.1.1.7?
Good news: Researchers have no reason to believe that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—designed to target COVID-19 specifically—won’t also work against the new variant. “You could imagine some modest hit to vaccine efficacy, which wouldn’t be good, but I don’t think it will break the vaccine,” Trevor Bedford, PhD, an associate professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told CNN. Just to make sure, though, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are both in the process of testing their vaccines’ efficacies when it comes to knocking out the new variant.
5. Could the variant mean lockdown lasts longer?
Again, there’s no clear answer here. BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin, MD, believes that the new, more contagious variant could mean we need to vaccinate more of the population to achieve herd immunity—and that could mean a longer wait for things to return to “normal.” “[On] the topic of herd immunity there is always the discussion about 60 to 70 percent” Dr. Sahin said at a news conference. “But if the virus becomes more efficient in infecting people, we might need even a high vaccination rate to ensure that normal life can continue without interruption.”
Wondering when there will be an end in sight? What an epidemiologist wants you to know:
This post will be updated as more information becomes available.
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