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Should I worry about this new variant of COVID-19?

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In the United Kingdom (UK), a new variant, known as B.1.1.7, has emerged with an unusually large number of mutations.  This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and southeast England. It has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States, and now here in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We do not know, however, how prevalent the variant is here, because the U.S. has not broadly and consistently tracked genomic sequences of COVID-19 infections to know how widespread it is.

Is the new variant more infectious?

Yes, according to a review of current evidence by the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG). Its December 18 2020 report said that the rate of transmission of the variant known as B.1.1.7 was 71% higher than for other variants.  This is very worrisome given our current surge-on-surge infection rates and overburdened hospital capacity.  There is much to be learned about why it is more transmissible, but for now it is critical that we all mask, social distance, test and be vaccinated as soon as it becomes available.

Does it cause more severe disease?

No. A report from Public Health England found that the new variant was not linked to higher rates of hospitalization or death.

Does it affect testing?

Potentially, but PCR testing has a safety net.  PCR testing relies on three different assays, one of which detects the S or spike protein of the virus.  Current testing may not pick up the new variant’s S protein but the other two back-up assays will still detect the virus reliably.  However, the reliability of rapid and lateral flow tests to detect the variant is not known.

Could the new variant lower the effectiveness of vaccines?

The overwhelming consensus among virology and vaccine scientists is that this is very unlikely.

Peter Openshaw, past president of the British Society for Immunology and professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London said, “We know that natural infection or vaccination will produce quite an array of antibody responses. Although it’s predicted that some of the mutations that are present in the new variant will affect some of the sites that are recognized by the antibodies, it does not seem likely that it will affect all of them.”

Sky Pittson, MD,  January 7, 2021