By Aadit Jain (’23)
Over the past few months, new variants of the coronavirus, such as the Brazil variant (known as P.1), the UK variant (known as B.1.1.7), and the South Africa variant (known as B.1.351), have emerged and spread throughout the world. While these new strains are not expected to be more dangerous, they are more contagious. The UK variant of the coronavirus, for example, has already caused more than 2,000 infections in 45 states in the United States. In just a few months, the UK variant is expected to become the most widespread strand in the nation, and experts are also concerned about other variants.
Recently, a new COVID variant (known as B.1.526) has been found in New York and is quickly spreading. The new strain was found by researchers, who scan the virus for different mutations and study the genetic material of the coronavirus. In the New York area, they previously found recurring patterns, which were not previously identified, in the strain that was spreading. And now, two studies, one conducted by researchers at Caltech and another conducted by researchers at Columbia University, confirm that a new variant is indeed spreading through New York. Experts are encouraging everyone in the region to take proper precautions.
For some background information, viruses actually mutate over time as they spread. A mutation means that changes occur in the genetic code of the virus, causing an alteration of the original virus strain. While many mutations are insignificant, others can help the virus further survive, and they later become known as new variants. Scientists have now observed a number of mutations in the coronavirus, such as the N501Y mutation, the E484K mutation, and the S477N mutation, that have led to different strains spreading. Furthermore, BBC News reports that as a result of changes to their genetic code, some variants have “undergone changes to their spike protein – the part of the virus which attaches to human cells” (Roberts). From these findings, experts conclude that the new strains are more contagious, and proper precautions must be taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now, taking into account these facts, this question is on everyone’s mind: will the COVID vaccines protect against the new variants?
Fortunately, the current coronavirus vaccines are expected to still protect against the new variants. However, they may not do so as well. Pfizer and Moderna conducted studies on how effective their vaccines were against the new strains. Both concluded that while their vaccines did neutralize the virus, the response was not effective. They found that while the vaccines protect against severe illness, there is still a chance of suffering some symptoms if one is infected. Experts still encourage people to get vaccinated and stress the importance of taking proper precautions to slow the spread of the virus and the new variants.