Evolving Pandemic: Digging deeper into new COVID-19 strains
ABC57 Investigates is digging deeper into the evolving pandemic and the new strains of COVID-19 hampering our recovery.
With every virus, including COVID-19, mutations are common, even expected. However, with a new, highly talked about COVID-19 strain quickly spreading across the world, many are worried what that means for recovery efforts.
“It is always helpful to assume, or to understand that nobody is safe,” Butler University Assistant Professor Ogbonnaya Omenka said. “Nowhere is safe.”
The coronavirus strain first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020 has been confirmed in Michiana and a South African variant has just recently been confirmed in the US.
“It’s important to just point out that this is also not a strange phenomenon,” Omenka said. “It happens every year with the flu virus.”
“Most of those mutations are trivial,” Boston College Faculty Member and Pediatrician Dr. Philip Landrigan said. “They have no particular impact on the behavior of the virus.”
There are two specific cases that would cause a mutation to have the potential of becoming a threat, according to Omenka.
“If a person contracts the virus and it is more deadly compared to the previous strain,” Omenka said. “If the severity of the disease increases, you know, such as maybe the symptoms or the health conditions.”
“With that said, one of the best strategies for stopping new strains is to get vaccines against the ones we already have, because the more virus that’s out there, the more it’s likely to mutate,” South Bend Clinic Dr. James Harris said.
As more coronavirus mutation cases are confirmed in the United States, people are worried about whether the new strain is more contagious, if it can make patients sicker and whether the current vaccines work against it.
“The new strain is definitely more contagious,” Landrigan said.
Not all experts are as certain. Omenka agreed that the trend does point in that direction.
“However, it is necessary to point out that this is only preliminary because for us to have a conclusive approach to this, we need to establish that it is the new strains that are responsible for the increase in cases,” Omenka said.
More research must be done to rule out a number of factors that could cause the new strains to be more infections, such as human behavior and choices or even a big change in the climate, according to Omenka.
“We still don’t really understand the original infection itself that well yet and so we know even less about the new strains, but I think what we do know is probably not any worse, just probably more contagious," Harris said.
“It does not appear to increase the risk of serious complications or the need for an ICU or the risk of death,” Landrigan said.
Even with no increase in serious complications, experts say there is reason to worry.
“The new strains of the virus are quite worrisome,” Harris said.
That is because experts just do not know enough about the mutations yet, according to Harris.
“What we do know is it’s going to be at least partially effective against the new strains,” Harris said.
“In fact, when vaccines for the flu are developed, they are or any other virus for that matter, they are developed with full consideration of the possibility of that target virus mutating or undergoing changes in their genetic composition,” Omenka said.
Now no vaccine is ever 100% and there is still much to learn, according to experts.
“But at the same time it needs humans,” Omenka said.
Time and humans is exactly what experts need to determine herd immunity.
“And what herd immunity means is that there are enough people immunized in the population so the virus no longer spreads,” Landrigan said.
There is no hard and fast number as to what percentage of the population needs to be immunized, according to Landrigan. With a disease as personal and contagious as the measles for example, Landrigan said we are in the ballpark of 95%. With COVID-19, the prediction falls just short of that of measles.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had to get up into the neighborhood of 85, 90%,” Landrigan said.
As for how long herd immunity would last, experts say it is just too soon to tell.
“The answer is nobody knows and we won’t know until time has passed and we see if the protection is lasting,” Landrigan said.
“But the more people that are vaccinated, the more protected the rest of the public is even if they don’t get the vaccine,” Harris said.
Experts advise people to continue with CDC precautions—wear a mask, keep your distance and hopefully there is an end in sight.
“This is not a time to panic or go into chaos, or to become distracted and think that the previous attempts are useless,” Omenka said. “In fact, more than ever, we need to actually fall back on the public health guidelines that we’ve always had.”
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