Several new coronavirus variants have been identified in the United States in recent weeks, and scientists are grappling with whether these strains threaten the country — and, if so, how.
One thing experts agree on, though, is that the available vaccines have outperformed expectations — even when it comes to what are known as the "variants of concern."
"This virus is not invincible, and despite all these variants, the vaccines are working great," said Jeremy Kamil, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport. "That is really outstanding and people should be celebrating that."
While it's likely that other variants will continue to emerge as pockets of outbreaks simmer around the country, Kamil said that alone isn't cause for alarm. Rather than fret over each new strain that is identified, he said the most important thing Americans can do now is try to contain the virus by staying safe and getting vaccinated, particularly because the vaccines are so effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths.
"There are certain variants that are more transmissible, and we have strong data on that, but the thing people should take away from the variant story is just: Don't let your guard down," said Kamil, who co-led a research team that in February identified a previously undetected variant in Louisiana.
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But some states are letting their guard down, even as case rates in the U.S. remain stubbornly high despite a precipitous drop in recent weeks. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Sunday that cases have plateaued at a level that is "really very high." An average of 1,706 people have died each day in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an average of more than 59,000 cases were reported each day last week.
Meanwhile, some states including Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arizona, West Virginia and Connecticut have announced significant changes to pandemic restrictions related to masks and indoor capacity limits.
Scientists have been tracking three main "variants of concern": one that was first reported in the U.K., a second that is thought to have emerged in South Africa and a third that was first reported in Brazil. In recent weeks in the U.S., new "homegrown" variants have also been identified in New York and California, as well as Louisiana, though it's too soon to know what effect they may have on the trajectory of the pandemic in the country.
It's not unusual to see a pathogen change over time. When a virus circulates and evolves, it's expected that random mutations will occur, including some that could make the virus more contagious or even deadlier. And the longer the coronavirus is left to spread unfettered, the more opportunities it has to develop potentially worrisome mutations.
"When a pathogen jumps into humans, it's not perfectly formed for tearing through a human population, so we would expect to see evolution toward greater infectiousness," said Andrew Read, a professor of biology and entomology at Penn State University, who specializes in the evolutionary genetics of infectious diseases.
As such, people should redouble mitigation efforts, such as practicing social distancing and wearing a mask in public, to prevent an uptick in new infections as more transmissible variants emerge.
"It doesn't change what we should be doing anyway," Read said. "It's just a stronger argument for making sure the right restrictions are there at the right times."
And one important tool to fight the spread of variants are the vaccines, he added.
There are currently three vaccines that have been authorized for use in the U.S. — ones developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech that require two doses, and a single-dose shot developed by Johnson & Johnson, in partnership with Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Research is ongoing to examine how these vaccines perform against the known variants, but early results have been promising.
The pace of vaccinations in the U.S. has been on a steady incline, recently passing 2 million doses per day.
All three vaccines appear to offer strong protection against the U.K. variant. In early analyses, both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines were found to be less protective against the South African variant, although neutralizing antibodies, which can bind to viruses and block them from getting into cells, remained above protective levels for both.
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