An Ellis county resident contracted a variant of the COVID-19 virus that originated in the UK, officially labeled as variant B.1.1.7. This case was confirmed in early February by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and it is currently the only known public case of this variant in Kansas.
A deeper investigation is underway to determine who else may be infected as well as how this variant made its way to Kansas. As of now, no information has been released about the infected patient and little is known other than the general location where the variant was found.
Currently the UK variant has been spotted in at least 33 other states, with the most cases in California and Florida.
What is a virus variant?
A virus variant is a mutated version of an existing virus that may or may not have different characteristics than the original virus. Stanley Perlman, a physician and coronavirus researcher at the University of Iowa, told PBS that “mutations are common for viruses. Most of the time, these mutations don’t go anywhere because they don’t help the virus. In fact, some of them may kill the virus.”
Due to the high rate of infection of COVID-19, the virus has many opportunities to adapt to different hosts, which makes it prone to mutations. The UK mutation was identified in the fall of 2020 and has since spread around the world.
How is this variant different?
According to the CDC, the UK variant of the virus appears to be more contagious than the original strain that originated from Wuhan. This variant may be anywhere between 50% to 70% more contagious, leading some experts to believe this strain will be the predominant strain in the US by March 2021.
The CDC, as well as many other international agencies, are also investigating the lethality of this new variant. Early research suggests that the UK variant may be more lethal than the original strain, however there has not been enough time to confirm this correlation.
What does this mean for the future of COVID-19?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist in the US, recommends that citizens practice using a “double mask” technique to increase the effectiveness of traditional masks at blocking airborne particles. In addition, the White House urges that citizens continue to practice the policies and protocols already set-in place in hopes of slowing the spread of all COVID-19 strains. By strictly following the plans set in place last March, it will reduce the likeliness that new variants emerge.
How will this change the effectiveness of the vaccine?
Currently it is unknown how this specific variant is affected by any of the vaccines that are available to the public. On January 27, 2021 Pfizer announced that their vaccine is effective at protecting against 3 key mutations found in both the UK and South African variants of COVID-19. Though these results are promising, the tests do not have any human trial data yet.
During a White House briefing, Dr. Fauci told the nation that “there are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccine.” Bloomberg News has reported that many companies, such as Pfizer and Moderna, are also working on developing booster shots that could help improve immune functions of current vaccines to help against variants.