What New Strains Of COVID-19 Mean For The Future Of The Virus

Feb 16, 2021

Wisconsin has now seen two confirmed cases of a new variant of COVID-19 that has proven to be more transmissible. This strain of the virus is known for first being discovered in the United Kingdom.

Two other new strains have also made the news, one first discovered in South Africa and another discovered in Brazil.

Thomas Friedrich is a professor of pathobiological sciences and unit head of virology services at UW-Madison. He says the fact that COVID-19 has mutated from its original form is expected and that just because a virus mutates, does not mean it has gotten stronger.

“A lot of mutations kinda don’t seem to matter for the viruses function one way or another, and as the virus spreads we expect it to, sort of, build up an increasing number of mutations that we can use to distinguish viruses that are around today from ones that were around, say, at the start of the pandemic,” says Friedrich.

The mutations that concern scientists are the ones that allow the virus to do things like grow more quickly or become harder to detect. That is why health officials have been worried about the variant discovered in the U.K., also know as B117.

While it has been proven to spread faster, Friedrich says that there is not conclusive evidence that it is more deadly or leads to harsher outcomes.

“I think that we can expect that if that virus behaves like it did in the U.K. and in other countries in Europe that it’s going to outrace other viruses here in the U.S. also and that will affect how we think about reopening, especially returning to school, you know, our adherence to social distancing and masking and all of those things,” he says.

Another effect from mutations can be on vaccine efficacy, which has been seen in the variant discovered in South Africa, also known as 501Y.V2, and in Brazil a variant known as P2 has caused increased rates of reinfection in areas that already had large COVID-19 outbreaks.

But while these new effects concern scientists, Friedrich says measures like vaccines are not rendered useless by the new variants.

“This does not mean that vaccines are not effective at all, you know. There was one study that suggested about 70% vaccine effectiveness in a place where these vaccines were not common and then about 50% effectiveness in South Africa where they were common,” he says. “So that doesn’t mean that the vaccines don’t work at all, at even then, the vaccines were able to protect against hospitalizations and death.”

Friedrich says that could mean that COVID-19 ends up becoming like a seasonal flu where the vaccine needs to be updated in order to respond to new mutations.

In the short term, he says vaccinating as many people as possible while continuing measures like handwashing, masking and restricting of social gatherings will limit the spread of all new variants and help keep the virus under control.