For nearly one year now, COVID-19 has dominated our headlines. In 2020, news emerged of SARS-CoV-2, a virus causing a global pandemic. Now, in February 2021, there are 110 million diagnosed cases worldwide, with 2.44 million associated deaths. In America alone, the numbers are staggering: 27.9 million cases with an associated 493,000 deaths. Recently, the discussion about COVID-19 has centered around two particular points: the vaccines (and rollout) and the burgeoning COVID-19 variants. In Newswise, members of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), share a recently published editorial in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, which discusses the future of COVID-19 – and how these COVID-19 variants will play a role.
Currently, there are a number of COVID-19 variants which seem to have appeared. However, the authors share that many variants have overlapped, causing inconsistent and sometimes confusing names for each one. In fact, even large regulatory agencies have not yet named the variants, waiting to develop an appropriate response. The editorial even explains:
the World Health Organization (WHO) is working on a systematic nomenclature that does not require a geographic reference, since viral variants can spread rapidly and globally. This new variant (CAL.20C), [which derives from lineage B (B.1.429 and B.1.427)], is termed lineage 20C/S:452R in Nextstrain nomenclature, referring to the parent clade 20C and spike alteration 452R.
The particular variant in question is one found in California which made up 44% of all collected samples this past January. Additional COVID-19 variants include B.1.17, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom, and B.1.351, often called the South African strain. Some research suggests that these strains are increasing contagious and easy to transmit to others. This prompts a line of questioning from researchers and scientists:
Is it more readily transmitted; is it more virulent or pathogenic; and can it evade immunity induced by vaccination or prior infection?
Things to Think About
One of those questions sticks out in particular – whether COVID-19 variants can evade vaccination immunity. This comes in the midst of the nationwide vaccine rollout. COVID-19 uses a spike protein to enter and infect cells. Scientists are concerned that the new variants might be able to alter the protein or find a new way of transmission, thus evading protection conferred by the vaccines. For example, monoclonal antibodies (or laboratory-made antibodies designed to mimic our own immune response) are currently being used as COVID-19 treatments. However, B.1.351 seems to be resistant to these antibodies. Whether partially or fully is not yet known, but it does bring up more questions for the future. B.1.17 also has multiple mutations now, including those affecting the spike protein.
To adequately deal with COVID-19 variants, the authors explain that there must be continued recognition, evaluation, and tracking. Recognizing variants means performing testing and learning in real-time. The authors also express the need for a more comprehensive vaccine that covers multiple, if not all, COVID-19 variants.