- The B.1.617 variant first tracked in India was labeled a “variant of concern” by the WHO.
- It appears to be more infectious than older versions of the coronavirus.
- But that doesn’t mean we are powerless. There is a lot of reason to hope vaccines will defeat variants.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
It’s a more sly, swift version of the coronavirus, and it is spreading fast.
The B.1.617 variant first tracked in India seems to be more infectious than the earliest version of the coronavirus identified in China at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Virus-watchers at the World Health Organization were concerned enough about it to label it a “variant of concern” last week, because they are worried about how easily it appears to spread from person to person.
But that doesn’t mean we’re in completely new territory.
“There’s nothing magical about these variants,” immunologist Gigi Gronvall from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told Insider, stressing that politicians should not be let off the hook for opening up society and holding large rallies long before enough people are vaccinated — giving the virus opportunity to spread.
“All of the measures that we all know that people have been following — to greater or lesser degrees — they will still be effective. Masks will still be effective, improving your air quality, social distancing, being outdoors as much as possible. All of these things will still help you, and reduce the likelihood of transmission.”
Gronvall cautioned against putting too much blame on new variants for any virus outbreaks flaming up around the world. Though B.1.617 appears at least somewhat more transmissible, “there is a political advantage to putting more blame on the virus than on the other steps that could have kept the virus under containment,” she said.
In addition, though we know B.1.617 is a good spreader, the little data we have so far suggests authorized COVID-19 vaccines can still stand up well to it, making it even more critical to get more vaccines dispatched around the world fast. It’s still unclear whether this variant (and its substrains) really do prompt more severe disease and death than other versions of this virus.
“We need much more information about this virus variant,” Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19 at the WHO said during a briefing last week.
Vaccines seem to stand up well to the variants we’ve seen so far
Some early laboratory studies (done only on blood samples taken from vaccinated people) are suggesting that this variant may diminish vaccine protection, to some extent.
However, other new studies are showing that vaccines still protect people well against infections with other variants (such as B.1.1.7, first identified in the UK, and B.1.351, spotted in South Africa). Crucially, the vaccines appear to continue protecting people from severe disease and death, even if they are infected with a variant.
“Your immune system is really complex,” Gronvall said. “It’s not just antibodies. You also have T-cells, you have all kinds of other cells that are there to turn on different kinds of armaments and chemical mediators that help you defeat the virus.”
Most importantly, scientists haven’t yet figured out exactly how to confirm whether a person has developed robust immunity to COVID-19 — either through prior infection or through vaccination. These markers are what immunologists call “correlates of immunity,” and they haven’t been determined for the novel coronavirus yet.
“What we’d like to know is: what can we measure and ascertain that a person is protected?” leading immunologist Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College, previously told Insider. “Is it a titer of antibodies? Is it a specific antibody directed against a certain epitope on one of the proteins? … We need to identify a correlate of immunity that we can measure.”
Scientists have yet to find any really scary ‘escape mutant’ variants that would set us back to square one
So far, no variants identified anywhere in the world have achieved the CDC’s most worrisome status, as variants of “high consequence.”
That designation is reserved for the kind of viral threat that really could set us back to square one — rendering the vaccines and tests futile, and/or leading to much more severe disease and death.
COVID-19 variants of high consequence cannot be ruled out, but scientists have not found any yet.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking the B.1.617 variant, but has not put it in their “variant of concern” category, like the WHO did.
Instead, the variant (and its three sublineages) are labeled as “variants of interest” for the US, ones that might make our vaccines less effective, and prompt more breakthrough infections.
“If people get vaccinated, if we can actually pull that off, then I think we’ll be in much, much better shape than we imagine,” Dr. Stanley Perlman, a leading virus expert on the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee who’s been studying coronaviruses for nearly four decades, previously told Insider.
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