COVID-19 Variants Cause Concern as New Cases Emerge

March 31, 2021 by Reece Nations
People wear masks to protect against coronavirus as they pass a shop in London, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Wednesday a new study suggesting that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce transmission of COVID-19 categorically supports the government's strategy of taking more time between injections. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

ATLANTA – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is closely monitoring COVID-19 variants of concern as genetic mutations threaten to muddle the country’s progress in repelling the virus.

There are three known major variants of the virus that the CDC is eyeing — “B.117,” “B.1.351” and “P.1.” Currently, over 12,000 combined cases of COVID-19 variants have been reported in the United States, according to CDC data. 

The variants are caused by mutations in the virus genome that transform its characteristics and can lead to accelerated spreading of the disease, changes to the effectiveness of current vaccines, heightened severity in patients and different treatments to combat it. Vaccine producers like Moderna and Pfizer are actively experimenting with altered versions of their shots to target the variants. 

As vaccination campaigns accelerate across the country, some states are rolling back protective measures designed to dampen the spread of the virus, which has caused over 550,000 deaths and 30.4 million reported cases in the U.S. alone, according to the CDC’s COVID data tracker. 

More than 15 states have made vaccine appointments available to all residents age 16 and older, and almost every state has committed to making all adults eligible for appointments by the end of April. Still, variants of the virus threaten to derail the nation’s progress toward normalcy. 

Two-thirds of epidemiologists surveyed by The People’s Vaccine Alliance said that COVID-19 could continue to mutate in a way that renders the majority of first-generation vaccines ineffective within one year. Further, one-third of the disease specialists indicated the timeframe could be as short as nine months or less. 

The CDC defines a variant of concern as one that shows increased transmissibility, causes an increase in hospitalizations or deaths, indicates a reduction in the effectiveness of antibodies or vaccination, or reduces the effectiveness of treatments or diagnostic detection. 

So far, the states with the most reported variants of the disease are Florida with 2,415 combined cases, Michigan with 1,242 combined cases, California with 865 combined cases and Colorado with 488 combined cases. Cases of COVID-19 variants have been identified by the CDC in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases published a study this week that indicated white blood cell samples from 30 people who had contracted and recovered from COVID-19 remained effective at withstanding the new variants. While the study suggests the first-generation of vaccines are likely to stand up against the variants, NIAID said in a written statement larger studies examining the properties of the mutations are still necessary. 

But factors such as vaccine hesitancy and delayed vaccinations in children coupled with the emerging strains might endanger the possibility of reaching nationwide herd immunity. The threshold for herd immunity occurs at roughly 60-70% of a population obtaining immunity from the virus — either through vaccination or recovery. 

Notably, independent data scientist Youyang Gu changed the name of his COVID-19 forecasting model from “Path to Herd Immunity” to “Path to Normality” in February because of these factors. Although Gu’s amendment to the model reflects the troubling complexities of a pandemic that is still ongoing, signs for optimism persist as nearly 148 million total vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S.

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