by Anna Augart-Welwood
February 22, 2021
It has been almost a year since the coronavirus was officially declared to be a pandemic, and many people are growing tired of social distancing. However, new variants of the virus have been discovered, sparking concern among public health experts. These mutations can possibly affect how contagious the virus is and the severity of the symptoms.
Every year, vaccine makers release a different flu vaccine that targets the mutation that was most common the previous year. It is unclear whether the same will happen with COVID-19. While viruses are constantly evolving, the new strains of coronavirus are more concerning because the mutations improve the virus’ so-called “spike protein,” a protein that penetrates host cells and gives the coronavirus its spiky surface. If this protein continues to evolve, the virus may eventually be able to reinfect people who have previously contracted it or have been vaccinated against it. This is because antibodies have more trouble binding to certain spike proteins, causing the virus to stay in the body longer. Similarly, certain mutations fit better into cell receptors, much like a key and a lock, causing the virus to be more contagious. For example, the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom is thought to be up to 70% more contagious than the original strain.
Researchers are unsure whether the recent increase in variants is because the mutations are more contagious, or due to holiday travel and superspreader events. Recent evidence suggests that these new strains are more dangerous. For example, the B.1.1.7 variant is thought to be 50% deadlier than the original strain; that is, the symptoms it causes are thought to be more severe. Pfizer has stated that their vaccine will be slightly less effective against the B.1.351 variant found in South Africa. Moderna believes that their vaccine will be effective against the B.1.351 variant, but not as much against others, so they are working on a booster vaccine.
While this discovery seems discouraging, there are still ways you can continue to protect yourself. Many people have begun to wear two masks after Dr. Anthony Fauci advised this practice on the Today show. According to the CDC, wearing a cloth mask over a well-fitting surgical mask can reduce up to 95% of exposure from possible COVID-containing respiratory droplets. The CDC also recommends a method that includes tying knots in the ear loops of a surgical mask and then tucking in and flattening the extra material close to the face, which makes the mask better fitting. Regardless of these new masking techniques and vaccines, people need to be more careful than ever. This could include allowing fewer people in certain spaces, including schools, along with increased vigilance and strict social distancing. Joie Liu ‘23 agrees that people need to act with more caution, or even just the same amount as everyone had at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020.
Many people are feeling the pandemic fatigue that weighs us all down, and others have stopped following social distancing guidelines altogether. However, the vaccine is providing a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is important to remember not to lose hope. The best way to fight the virus is to continue social distancing and wearing your mask(s).
Brooks, John T., MD; Donald H. Beezhold, PhD; John D. Noti, PhD; Jayme P. Coyle, PhD; Raymond C. Derk, MS; Francoise M. Blachere, MS; and William G. Lindsley, PhD. “Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 10, 2021.
Crouch, Michelle. “Most Common Symptoms of the U.K. Coronavirus Variant.” AARP, January 29, 2021.
Nirappil, Fenit. “Time to double or upgrade masks as coronavirus variants emerge, experts say.” The Washington Post, January 28, 2021.
Reardon, Sara and Smith, Dominic. “A Visual Guide to the New Coronavirus Variants.” Scientific American, February 11, 2021.
“The Coronavirus is Mutating: What We Know About the New Variants.” Healthline.
Zimmer, Carl. “7 Virus Variants Found in U.S. Carrying the Same Mutation.” The New York Times, February 14, 2021.