- Two new variants of the novel coronavirus have been identified, one in California and another in New York.
- Researchers suspect that the variants may be more infectious than previous ones, and there’s a chance that the California variant may be deadlier.
- Experts expect that current vaccines will still provide good protection against the variants.
New coronavirus variants are popping up.
A new variant called P.1, is behind the surge in cases in Brazil. There’s another, B.1.1.7, that’s spreading throughout the United Kingdom and now the U.S. as well. And the B.1.351 is dominating in South Africa.
The variants contain different mutations but are all thought to be more transmissible and could potentially increase the severity of disease.
Recent studies on the new variant detected in California suggest it may be more transmissible, better at replicating itself, and less recognizable to antibodies.
Overall, the research is in the early stages, and more data is needed to understand how the California and New York variants differ from the original coronavirus.
Here's what we know so far.
What to know about the variants
According to researchers in California studying new variants, CAL.20C has become the predominant variant in the state.
Like the variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, the CAL.20C variant has multiple mutations on the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that binds to cells.
Scientists suspect that those mutations make it more transmissible, meaning that it may be better at replicating itself in people’s bodies. They could even cause more severe illness, since more deaths were linked to the CAL.20C variant than the original variant.
The New York Times reported that upcoming research from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that people in households with someone with the CAL.20C variant infection had a 35 percent chance of getting sick.
People had a 26 percent chance of getting sick if someone in their house had an infection from another variant.
The UCSF research hasn't yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Like the CAL.20C variant, B.1.526 in New York may have mutations that help it somewhat evade monoclonal antibody therapies and vaccines.
Most cases have been detected in New York City and New Jersey, according to recent evidence.
Data on the variants are limited
Given the lack of data, it’s too soon to know if these variants are deadlier.
“Early data suggests that they may spread faster and cause more hospitalizations, but we need much more data to know if this is true,” said Dr. Chris Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland.
Mutations are a natural part of a virus’ life cycle and occur when a virus causes infections. Most mutations are useless or weaken the virus, but occasionally a mutation may benefit the virus.
“Variants arise in people, not the environment. Viruses are useless without a host cell,” Thompson explained.
If we can prevent infection — through vaccines, physical distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing — then we can prevent the rise of more variants, according to Thompson.
“It is too early to know what effect this will have on the pandemic, but one thing is absolutely clear: With more and more variants being identified and an unknown level of protection from the vaccine, we must remain vigilant in social distancing, hand-washing, wearing masks, getting tested, and staying home if you are sick,” he said.
How will the variants impact vaccine efficacy?
All our current vaccines are specifically designed to target the original form of the coronavirus that appeared in 2020.
While it would be ideal for a vaccine to be an exact match for a circulating virus, this is unlikely to happen due to the mutations in the emerging variants, according to Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor of biology at Texas A&M University.
The good news is that the vaccines don't have to be a perfect match against a virus to provide protection.
Each mutation alters a small part of the virus.
“These are the latest mutants, and [they] are a little different from what we have seen before,” explained Neuman. “But even the most genetically distant mutants we know are still 95 percent or more identical to the original version of the spike, meaning our immune systems have a really good shot at stopping the virus completely after vaccination.”
Eventually, scientists may need to update the vaccines to target emerging variants, Neuman said, “but for now, it is a race to get as many people protected as possible before the virus changes again.”
Recent data from Israel show that widespread vaccination reduces infections and transmission.
“As more people are vaccinated, fewer will become infected, and the virus will have nowhere left to go,” Neuman said. “That's how we win.”
The bottom line
Two new variants have been identified, one in California and another in New York. Researchers suspect the variants may be more infectious than previous ones, and there’s a chance the California variant may be deadlier.
The data are limited, and more evidence is needed to understand how the variants are different from the original coronavirus. Experts expect that the COVID-19 vaccines will still provide good protection against the variants.