This week, The New York Times reported on a new COVID-19 strain, labeled B.1.526, that has sporadically been confirmed throughout the Northeast, prompting some uneasiness in health officials along the East Coast.
The new variant is believed to be potentially more contagious and may cause more severe infections, though some health officials have said it may not be as big of a threat as initially believed, despite reports from Columbia University Medical Center and California Institute of Technology researchers.
Bill Neidhardt, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, downplayed the variant.
“It’s great that Columbia and other academics are looking into COVID variants,” he posted on Twitter. “But please, please for the love of all that is holy share the data with public health officials before you publicize pre-writes that still have track changes with the NY Times. That’s all.”
Dr. Jay Varma, also on social media, added: “Plea to academics: please review high impact studies w/govt (sic) health depts (sic) before marketing it to media. We’re left to decipher science from journalist’s abstract while fielding calls from electeds, public, media how this changes policy. Pathogen porn isn’t helping public health.”
“Not all variants are of public health concern. Some variants are just that -- they're variants, they're just a little bit different. Some variants are variants of interest -- they have changes in their structure that might change the virus' property,” Varma, a senior health advisor to de Blasio’s office, said.
“Some some variants are variants of what we call public health concern -- they have these mutations and we have enough data to show that they change whether the virus is more infectious, whether it's more lethal, whether it can change immunity.”
When addressing the report from Columbia University, Varma added, "We need to just consider this a variant of interest -- something that is interesting that we need to follow and track. But it doesn't change anything about our public health concern. We need more data and studies to understand that.”
According to Dave Chokshi, the New York City Health Commissioner, there is currently no evidence to support the notion that the new variant could contribute to a spike in new COVID-19 cases.
“We also don't have any evidence that the variant is concentrated in any part of the city," Chokshi said. "The science around this is just less established compared to other variants like the U.K. variant, which we're closely tracking as well. As we get the information from these new studies, they remain quite exploratory with respect to the real-world effects -- and that's the most important thing from the public health perspective.”
Some noted that the studies from Columbia and Cal Tech have not been peer-reviewed, and are still subject to scrutiny.
“We definitely want all of our academic partners to be working closely with us,” Varma said, added, “sharing their data, sharing their findings, because this is a challenging battle and public health is a team activity.”
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