The world is on edge over the emergence of three new strains of COVID-19, each of which shows signs of being more dangerous and damaging during an already devastating pandemic.
Scientists are closely watching new variants that have emerged in the United Kingdom, South African and Brazil — and have all now reached the US.
Viruses constantly make copies of themselves as they spread, sometimes creating mutations that die out — and other times, evolving into ones that give it an edge.
With these changes, they could become resistant to vaccines and other treatments.
The trio is being monitored to see how easily they spread, if they’re deadlier and whether vaccines and proven treatments are still effective against them.
“Not every mutation is created equal,” said Mary Petrone, an infectious disease expert at Yale University. “The virus is going to get lucky now and again.”
Here’s what we know about each new variant so far:
United Kingdom variant
This variant — which is also known as B117 — was first detected after an unexpected surge in COVID-19 cases in the UK in early December.
Scientists raised alarm about the new strain because it featured changes to the “spike” protein — the part of the virus that makes it infectious.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson later confirmed that those fears were correct — saying the new variant appeared to be at least 70 percent more transmissible.
The strain initially was not believed to cause worse sickness or death.
But British officials reversed course after new research indicated that it’s linked to slightly more fatalities in older adults.
The coronavirus death rate among 60-year-olds in the UK had been about 10 per 10,000. But with the new strain, there had been around 13 or 14 deaths in the same population, USA Today reported.
The newer variant also appears to be dominated by different symptoms than the ones associated with the original COVID-19 virus.
Patients with the strain are more likely to suffer from a sore throat, aching muscles and fatigue, according to the survey, released by Britain’s Office for National Statistics.
But so far, there’s no reason to panic about the available COVID-19 vaccines not working to protect against the UK strain.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said the vaccines should still be effective, though there might be a “very minor diminution” in protection.
“The cushion that you have of efficacy is so large that it’s not going to negatively impact,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said.
South African variant
This mutation, known as the 501Y.V2 variant, first alarmed experts when it quickly took over as the dominant strain of some regions of South Africa back in December.
The strain accounted for more than 90 percent of the new cases that month in the Eastern Cape province, and then spread to the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.
Experts believe that it’s about 50 percent more contagious, meaning it’s more effective at getting inside human cells.
The variant has a mutation called 484, which experts fear may somehow be able to get past antibodies to infect people who have already been sick from the virus, USA Today reported.
The mutation may mean that the strain is less susceptible to antibody drugs or plasma from COVID-19 survivors, both of which help people fight off the virus.
Experts are also concerned about how vaccines will perform with the variant.
A small, preliminary study found the Novavax vaccine was only 49.4 percent effective against the strain, though it’s 90 percent effective in general against the virus, the drugmaker said.
Biotech firm Moderna is developing a new COVID-19 vaccine booster after research showed that the shot’s neutralizing antibody response to the South African variant was six times weaker than with other strains.
The Brazil strain, known as the P.1 variant, was first identified in four travelers who were tested during a routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan.
Experts have said that it’s likely the variant is also more contagious than the original strain of coronavirus, although it has not been proven definitively because it has mutations similar to the British and South African strains.
The strain has rapidly become prevalent, though, in some regions of Brazil, accounting for about half of new infections in the Amazonian city of Manaus in December.
It’s unclear if the variant causes more severe illness, which would lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
But there are already concerns that like the South African variant, it may also be resistant to natural immunity — which would damper hopes of herd immunity.
In Manaus, a 29-year-old woman who caught the virus March later became infected with the newer variant in December, USA Today reported.
Fauci has said they’re already looking at ways to adjust vaccines and treatments to maintain their effectiveness with new strains.
“What we will do and are doing is making preparations for the possibility that… down the line, we may need to modify and upgrade the vaccines,” Fauci said.
With Post wires