COVID Variants: What are they and how concerned should we be?

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There was never really a question that we would see variants of the COVID-19 virus — it’s what viruses do, and the more cases you have, the greater likelihood there is of variants developing. Dr. John Brooks, an infectious disease specialist and our Chief Medical Officer, shared some information on what the variants are, what they mean for vaccine efficacy and what the future may hold.

What are variants and what do they do? Variants result for changes in the RNA of a virus. In the variants we’ve seen so far, primarily the UK variant (known as B117), the RNA change made the virus more infectious – it’s likely to enter the body more easily, it binds more easily or it replicates more readily. We’re also seeing variants out of South Africa and Brazil, but no known cases in Michigan. Scientists are evaluating the impact of the new variants, and so far, although the variant makes the virus spread more easily, we’re not seeing that it’s more deadly. 

How many variants are there, and are we seeing them in Michigan? As of today, we have seven documented variants in the United States, with B117 out of the UK the most prevalent and the only variant seen in Michigan to date. In fact, this past week, the St. Clair County Health Department shared that there is one known individual with the B117 variant, so it’s here. Scientists will continue to track, analyze and monitor the variants.

Do the vaccines work against these new variants? So far, yes. With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, there’s very little difference in efficacy with the B117 (UK) variant. With the South African variant, we do see a reduction in effectiveness, which is a concern for people who may not have a good response to the vaccine, including cancer patients and others who have a compromised immune system. But to be clear: The protection gained from the vaccine is still better than the natural immune response. Vaccination is the best way out of this pandemic: The fewer people who have the virus, the less likely variants will evolve.