Now that the FDA has approved not one but two COVID-19 vaccines, and President-elect Joe Biden is just weeks away from being sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, there's plenty of reason to feel hopeful for the first time in over a year (or four). But recent reports of a new strain of COVID-19 are putting a damper on those glass-half-full sentiments, and causing even more fear, doubt, and uncertainty about the upcoming year and the world’s ability to get back to “normal.”
The new strain has been reportedly found in Britain and parts of South Africa, per the Associated Press, and has “shown to be 70 percent more contagious than other variants,” as reported by The New York Times. Viruses are known to evolve (it’s why new flu vaccines are administered every year, for example), though, and the good news is that, so far, experts do not believe this variant is deadlier than the COVID-19 strain currently found in the United States and elsewhere.
Still, the new variant is causing an increase in COVID-related restrictions around the world. On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced harsher lockdowns in London and southeast England, saying via Twitter, “Given the early evidence we have on the new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.” In a follow-up tweet, the Prime Minister said, “We are sacrificing our chance to see loved ones this Christmas, so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so we can see them at future Christmases.” (The decision was later criticized by lame duck President Donald Trump, who tweeted, “We don’t want to have lockdowns. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself!” To date, more than 318,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, which is a lot worse than some people not getting to go home for the holidays.)
This latest mutation is not the first to evolve from the original strain of COVID-19. As Dr. Maria Van Kerkove said on CNN’s New Day on Monday, “Viruses mutate — they change all the time. We have a strict process in place, working with colleagues in the UK and all over the world, to really evaluate what these mutations are and what they mean.” In April, as reported by the Associated Press, 6,000 cases of a coronavirus strain with two genetic mutations was discovered. Most of the cases were found in Denmark and the UK, and this particular strain was known to be twice as contagious as the original COVIDd-19. While the latest variant, which was first discovered in September, is still being studied, experts believe it has the two genetic mutations plus an additional “eight to the spike protein,” according to the Associated Press.
While the mutation is reportedly more contagious, experts do not believe that those who have already contracted Covid-19 could contract this new variant, nor do they believe that the latest Covid-19 vaccines will be ineffective in inoculating people from this recent mutation. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the US government’s vaccine distribution effort, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday’s State of the Union that the possibility that new strains would be resistant to the current vaccines is low. “This particular variant in the UK I think is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity,” Slaoui said.
Just as they did when COVID-19 first emerged and spread in the US, experts will continue to study the new variant and share information to best protect everyone from COVID-19 and its many variants. The good news, as of right now, is that what is proven to work best to prevent someone from contracting COVID-19 is believed to help people avoid getting sick with the new variant of the virus. “What we do know is that the interventions that work about preventing the spread for this variant also work for the viruses that are circulating around,” Van Kerkove said on CNN’s New Day. “This is physical distancing, this is making sure we avoid crowded spaces; we do things outdoors as opposed to indoors. And we look at ways that we can reduce our risk every single day.”