A supremely contagious strain of COVID-19 was discovered in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced January 4. The strain, known as the SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7, originated in the United Kingdom between late summer and early fall of last year. It was first reported in the U.S. in Colorado and, as of Monday, it has been identified in at least four U.S. states, with the latest case occurring in Saratoga Springs, NY.
This new variant is reportedly 70% more contagious than others. Reassuringly, the vaccine will likely protect against B.1.1.7, and so far, it doesn't appear to be causing more severe symptoms than the previous strain, explains Leonard R. Krilov, MD, the chief of pediatric infectious disease at NYU Langone Hospital, Long Island. As we know, however, the virus hits some harder than others.
All viruses mutate, and most COVID-19 mutations don't make a big difference in how the virus presents or behaves — but some, like this one, do. It's kind of like a typo, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project. Most are harmless enough (like accidentally typing "happend" for "happened"), but some can totally change the meaning of a sentence ("pubic" for "public").
NEW: The Wadsworth Lab has confirmed New York State’s first case of the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) of the virus that causes COVID.— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) January 4, 2021
An individual from Saratoga County, New York, tested positive for the strain. The individual had no known travel history.
The mutation that created B.1.1.7 affected the coronavirus’s spike protein, which is located on the outer surface of the virus and which functions like a key: It lets the virus attach to and get into our cells where the virus replicates, making us sick. Spike proteins are actually what the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines help the body target — they're that important, says Bruce Farber, MD, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center and chief of epidemiology at Northwell Health. The PCR test works by detected coronavirus spike proteins, he adds.
The fact that B.1.1.7 is more contagious indicates that this variant, with its mutated spike proteins, may be better at attaching itself to our nasal and pharyngeal tissue and cells, says Dr. Farber.
Although the spike protein has mutated enough to make this strain especially contagious, experts believe that it hasn't been altered enough to render the current vaccines, treatments, and tests useless. The COVID-19 tests, for example, will still be able to identify the variant. “It’s like when someone gets a haircut — you still can recognize them, but they look a little different,” says Malaty Rivera.
The novel coronavirus has mutated before, and it will almost certainly mutate again. Dr. Farber notes that the virus mutated early on the pandemic, from a strain called D614 to a variant called D614G. He says D614G has replaced D614 all over the world.
Currently, experts are also looking at another variant of the virus that’s present in South Africa, 501.V2. This mutation (also located in the spike protein) may be more significant than the UK’s B.1.1.7 and therefore is the most worrying to experts. "This strain has fewer mutations than B.1.1.7 — three compared to 17," says Nate Favini, MD, the medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice. "Scientists believe that the vaccine will probably still be protective against B.1.1.7, but are less certain about 501.V2 because there are meaningful changes to the shape of the spike protein in this variant."
As for the UK variant, “we know that the virus mutates one to two times a month, so it's not a surprise,” Andrew Badley, MD, the head of Mayo Clinic’s COVID Task Force, told Refinery29 in an official statement on behalf of Mayo Clinic. “But Mayo is somewhat concerned as there are upwards of 20 potential and separate mutations involved here. Each mutation carries the possibility of impacting the six developmental phases in the virus lifecycle. The ones we know about can increase the ease of virus entry into cells and may help evade antibodies.”
Because the B.1.17 variant is so infectious, Dr. Farber predicts it will quickly spread in the U.S. “I think it’s going to most likely spread over the entire country and world over the next several months,” he says. In fact, the variant is likely already much more prevalent than currently reported, says Paul Pottinger, MD, a professor specializing in infectious disease at the University of Washington School of Medicine. That's largely because current COVID-19 tests can't tell you your specific strain, and for now, the RNA sequencing required to identify variants is done somewhat rarely by specialized labs. Malaty Rivera says the U.S. is behind countries such as the UK when it comes to coronavirus genomic sequencing, largely because the country is overwhelmed with cases.
"We should assume that this is late news," Dr. Pottinger says. "People shouldn’t just assume that only one state or the other has the mutation, people should assume and operate as though it's here today."
You don't necessarily need to change your behavior, but it's essential to recommit to the same measures that public health agencies have been recommending since last year: Avoid public spaces unless absolutely necessary, socially distance when you do have to be out, wear a face mask, self-quarantine if you feel at all unwell. “This is not a good time to be expanding your pod," notes Malaty Rivera.
The ray of light at the end of the tunnel is the vaccine, which has been shown to be safe and effective and which most everyone should be able to receive by the end of the year. Even if you've already had COVID-19, it's a good idea to get immunized because will give you a stronger and longer immunity to COVID-19, Dr. Pottinger says. In the meantime, though, hunker down and mask up.
"Should people panic about the mutation? The truth is, the time for panic has come and gone a long time ago," Dr. Pottinger says. "We need to handle this the same way we should have always handled this disease. The [mutation itself] is not an emergency, but a reminder that what we do really matters. Our own personal decisions matter for everybody else.”