As millions more American receive the COVID-19 vaccine each day, the key question now in the now more than year-long battle against the novel coronavirus comes down to this:
Do the three approved vaccines being administered in the United States work against the new strains of the virus that have been confirmed, especially the highly contagious Brazil, United Kingdom, and South Africa variants?
As of now, the answer is unclear because the variants first surfaced in the United States either in late December 2020 or in January 2021.
"So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway."
The CDC says the studies are needed in order to understand:
- How widely these new variants have spread
- How the disease caused by these new variants differs from the disease caused by other variants that are currently circulating
- How these variants may affect existing therapies, vaccines, and tests
"Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time," said the CDC. "Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist.
The three strains are "variants of concern," because there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, and the potential for reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, according to the CDC.
Public health officials are studying these variants quickly to learn more to control their spread and understand whether they:
- Spread more easily from person-to-person
- Cause milder or more severe disease in people
- Are detected by currently available viral tests
- Respond to medicines currently being used to treat people for COVID-19
- Change the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines
Here's a look at each of them:
Brazil strain ( P.1 variant)
The P.1 variant was first detected in the United States at the end of January, and the CDC is currently reporting 48 cases nationwide.
It was first identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January 2021. The first US case was confirmed in late January.
Researchers at the University of Oxford recently released non-peer-reviewed data that indicates the P.1 variant may be less resistant to the current vaccines than originally thought.
UK strain (B.1.1.7 variant)
There have been 5,567 cases of the UK strain confirmed in the United States, according to the CDC, and it has spread to more than 50 countries.
The first case in the US was confirmed on Dec. 30, 2020.
It was first detected in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2020 and scientists say that it appears to be mutating again.
South Africa (B.1.351 strain)
The CDC says there have been 180 cases of the South African strain in the US, with the first reported at the end of January 2021.
It has been found in nearly two dozen countries.
Originally detected in early October 2020, B.1.351 shares some mutations with B.1.1.7 (the UK strain), said the CDC.
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