Campus Bulletin: Current Students, Faculty and Staff, Parents, ObieSafe

COVID-19 Epidemiology Explained: The New Variants

February 8, 2021 3:15 PM

Eddie Gisemba, Director of Health Promotion for Students

Outside of the mobilization of the COVID-19 vaccines and continued surveillance of cases, the latest COVID-19 updates pertain to the new variants that we are starting to see. Three countries in particular have been identified as the starting locations for these variants: the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. All of them are believed to spread more easily and quickly then the initial ones. Naturally, this amplifies existing concern about the pandemic. For instance, will the public health policies put in place to control COVID-19 continue indefinitely? This week, let’s delve further into the implications of these new variants and what we can expect as a response.

First, it’ll be helpful to cover what a “new variant” of COVID-19 is. A new variant means other coronaviruses with different genetic makeup have been identified. The difference in genetics may explain why these new variants are spreading easier then the first ones we were seeing in 2019. Broadly speaking, we know now that this virus not only has the ability to mutate, but we know that it can do so a lot. We can expect to see new variants beyond these three. As concerning as this is, this happens in common viruses such as influenza.

Seasonal influenza mutates at an annual rate, and that’s why there’s a new flu shot each year. Scientists have learned a great deal about mutation trends for the virus. They can predict the changes and design a vaccine to distribute before the winter months begin. The virus that causes tetanus is another example. This virus does not mutate as quickly, and a tetanus vaccine booster shot is recommended every five years. Also, not all variants improve a pathogen’s ability to infect a host or cause a worse case of disease. The likely scenario is that even though more variants mean we won’t be able to eradicate the disease tomorrow, we’ll be able to control it moving forward since we’ve done similar before.

Another lingering question created by the new variants is whether or not the currently developed vaccines will be able to protect the public against them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies indicate that the antibodies created by the currently approved vaccines will work against these new variants. Even better, the approved vaccines have been remarkably effective in preventing infections among the vaccinated. This bodes well for when it will be made available to the general public.

Fortunately, surveillance domestically and abroad by the Biden administration for new variants was part of the $1.9 trillion plan. However, there are a few things that we need to learn about these new strains: how widely these new variants have spread, how the symptoms will differ, and how they will respond to existing therapies. Luckily, we knew that having new variants of COVID-19 was a possibility, and a plan was in place to address it.