By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy
Viruses mutate, and SARS CoV-2—more commonly known as COVID-19—is no exception to that rule. When a virus evolves and mutates from its predominant virus, all that we know about it changes as well. It may be too soon to glean what impact the variants could have on vaccine rollout and efficacy, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided the detailed evidence they’ve uncovered thus far.
Three new strains of COVID-19 have been identified presently in four countries: the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7), Japan and Brazil (P.1), and South Africa (B.1.351). These new variants have not been observed to be more deadly, nor have they made people sicker, but one thing they all have in common is that they are more contagious than COVID-19. Cases for these strains have been found in 33 countries, including the United States.
While the variants all differ slightly in their function, they all possess a specific mutation called D614G — a shared trait that allows these new strains to spread more quickly than the predominant virus. The strain found in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7, has an estimated 50 percent transmissibility rate, or how quickly it spreads from person to person. Considering ongoing efforts to release new vaccines for inclusion in a national rollout to curb this pandemic, a mutating virus presents unique challenges for an already overburdened healthcare system.
So, what does this mean for travel, testing, vaccines, and so on? The CDC has released a helpful questionnaire for individuals to consider before they pursue travel, requesting that people delay non-essential travel whenever possible. For those that plan to travel, the CDC has released guidance which states that individuals traveling via air into the United States must provide proof of a negative test result or documentation of recovery, before boarding their flight. Masks are required on all forms of public transportation, including planes. The CDC has issued travel notices regarding global travel and each country’s corresponding risk-level.
Scientists are continuously gathering data to determine how the variants will impact the efficacy of certain therapies, vaccines, and tests. Until further evidence suggests, states are reluctant to enforce stringent lockdown procedures. According to public health experts, the best way to rein in the transmission of these highly contagious variants and to ensure a successful vaccine rollout, is to practice physical distancing and double masking. Layering two masks, as double masking suggests, provide added layers of protection and a better-fitting face covering. Not all masks are equal. To learn more about how to maximize protection against the coronavirus with masks, click here.
As new information emerges, it is important to adjust our safety measures to successfully navigate an ever evolving situation. Consumers are understandably experiencing pandemic-fatigue. Rest assured that the fruits of our collective efforts are closer than they appear, if only we work together towards protecting ourselves and our communities from unnecessary transmission.