Well, the new year has started off much as the old one ended, with one possible exception – and emergence of a new strain of the COVID-19 virus last December. Lots of questions have been raised as a result of this new strain of the virus. I found an article from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine that addresses many of the concerns that have been raised. Questions have been raised about such things as whether or not this new strain of the virus is more contagious. Will the newly developed vaccine still work on the new strain of the virus and are there different things people should do to keep their families safe?
Dr. Stuart Ray and Dr. Robert Bollinger of Jones Hopkins discuss what is known about the new strain and answer questions and concerns people may have. The first question is why the Coronavirus changed? Dr. Ray says, “It is the nature of …viruses such as the coronavirus to evolve and change gradually. Geographic separation tends to result in genetically distinct strains. Dr. Bollinger adds, “Mutations in viruses – including the coronavirus causing the…pandemic – are neither new nor unexpected. All viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a flu shot every year.”
This new strain appears to be more contagious, which means it will spread more quickly from person to person. Dr. Bollinger says, “There’s some preliminary suggestion that it’s more [contagious], and, although that’s not proven, scientists are noticing a surge of cases in areas where the new strain is appearing, and there could be a connection.” Since this article appeared there does seem to be a more rapid spreading of the new strain of virus which naturally poses the question of whether it is more dangerous or not. Dr. Bollinger says that so far, the news is good. Although the mutated coronavirus may spread faster from person to person, it does not appear any more likely to cause severe disease or death: “We are not seeing any indication that the new strain is more virulent or dangerous in terms of causing more severe COVID-19 disease,” he says.
Another concern is whether or not the new strain of virus will affect children more frequently than the previous strain. Dr. Ray says that although experts in areas where the new strain is appearing have found an increased number of cases in children, he notes that the data shows that kids are being infected by old strains, as well as the new one. “There is no convincing evidence that this variant has special propensity to infect or cause disease in children. We need to be vigilant in monitoring such shifts, but we can only speculate at this point,” he adds.
The fact that there has been a new strain of the coronavirus makes one wonder if there could be still more new strains or the virus. Dr. Ray says, “Yes. As long as the coronavirus spreads through the population, mutations will continue to happen… Several mutations caught researchers’ attention and raised concern, but further study revealed no major changes in how the coronavirus behaves.” Dr. Ray adds, “New strains of the…virus are detected every week. Most come and go—some persist but don’t become more common; some increase for a while, and then fizzle out. When a change in the infection pattern first pops up, it can be very hard to tell what’s driving the trend: changes to the virus, or changes in human behavior.”
Should people take additional precautions to avoid the new strain of the virus? Dr. Rays says, “The more people who are infected, the more chances there are for a mutation to occur. Limiting the spread of the virus through maintaining COVID-19 safeguards (mask wearing, physical distancing and practicing hand hygiene) give the virus fewer chances to change. We need to re-emphasize basic public health measures, including masking, physical distancing, good ventilation indoors, and limiting gatherings of people in close proximity with poor ventilation. We give the virus an advantage to evolve when we congregate in more confined spaces.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, will the new vaccine work on the new strain of virus? Dr. Ray said, “There is no evidence at this point that immune responses driven by current vaccines would not work against this new strain.” “We deal with mutations every year for flu virus, and will keep an eye on this one and track it,” Dr. Bollinger adds. “If there would ever be a major mutation, the vaccine development process accommodates changes, if necessary, but we’re not at the point when we need to consider that, the antibodies created by the current vaccines should still work.”
So, what’s the bottom line? It seems clear that this new strain of the coronavirus spreads more quickly, but isn’t any more dangerous than COVID-19 and that the vaccine we have will be just as effective against this new strain. Therefore, there is no reason for people to panic – just get the vaccination when your turn comes!
That’s —30— for this week.