As the coronavirus pandemic continues, mutated versions of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, have been occurring across the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist.” The CDC classifies COVID variants as either Variants of Interest (VOI), which contain genetic markers indicating a possibility for increased spread but whose spread remains limited; Variants of Concern (VOC), for which there is evidence of increased transmission, more severe disease, decreased ability to treat related illness, or a combination of the three; and Variants of High Consequence (VOHC), for which there is evidence of vaccine ineffectiveness, lack of successful treatments, and decreased ability to diagnose properly. As of April 10, 2021, the United States has seen no VOHCs but is managing the spread of five separate VOCs. Studies suggest that antibodies generated by currently approved vaccines are effective against these variants, although further research is imperative.
The first of these VOCs is the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the UK. Even though there is minimal difference in the neutralization of symptoms through Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) therapeutics and post-vaccination serums, transmission of this variant has increased by roughly 50 percent.There is also evidence that a higher percentage of B.1.1.7 cases are severe (all characteristics are in comparison with the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 from China).
The second VOC is the P.1 variant, which is thought to have originated in Japan or Brazil. The only known characteristics of this variant are that neutralizing symptoms with EUA therapeutics and post-vaccination serums is more difficult.
The third VOC is the B.1.351 variant, which originated in South Africa. This variant has a roughly 50 percent higher transmission rate and is moderately difficult to treat with EUA therapeutics and post-vaccination serums.
The fourth and fifth VOCs in the U.S., B.1.427 and B.1.429, both originated in the state of California. They both have a roughly 20 percent higher transmission rate, are moderately more difficult to treat with post-vaccination serums, and are significantly more difficult to treat with EUA therapeutics.
While the characteristics of these VOCs vary, their presence worldwide is impacting our ability to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 7, the CDC reported that the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant is now responsible for the majority of new COVID cases in the U.S. The B.1.1.7 variant has been found to be most prevalent in Michigan, Florida, Colorado, California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. Indeed, after weeks of declining case counts, the U.S. has seen a 19 percent increase in reported cases over the past fourteen days, according to the New York Times. Middlesex County, Massachusetts, where Concord Academy is located, has seen a 4 percent increase in reported cases over the past fourteen days. However, the New York Times also reported that death numbers have continued to fall, which may be a sign that vaccinations are protecting patients from severe outcomes. It cannot be denied that the U.S. is at a critical point in the fight against COVID as the vaccine rollout continues, the spread of variants increases, and many states move to reopen.CA students can help to limit variant spread by following social distancing protocols, double-masking as the CDC recommends, ensuring that indoor spaces are adequately ventilated, moving social interaction outdoors as much as possible, and getting the vaccine at their earliest opportunity. As of April 19, 2021, all Massachusetts residents aged sixteen or older are eligible for the COVID vaccine. Residents can use VaccineSignUp.mass.gov to find a vaccine appointment at one of seven major locations, to find an appointment at a local CVS, or other means of finding an appointment. It is extremely important that everyone does their part to minimize the spread of COVID so that the U.S. may successfully combat this pandemic.