Whew! We made it through Christmas!

2020 has been the longest, yet shortest year ever.

And whether or not you caught “de ‘Rona”, this virus has impacted your life in more ways than you could’ve imagined.

Nevertheless, December started by giving you a reason to be hopeful. And while welcoming two groundbreaking vaccines with arms outstretched, you made up your mind to start making life plans again.

But just as you start preparing your vision board and listing your New Year’s resolutions, the news of a new variant strain hits.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the virus that causes the disease commonly called COVID-19. Reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that this virus is responsible for over 1.7 million deaths in more than 222 countries (retrieved from WHO Dec 25).

These numbers alone are enough to give you heartburn and talks about new strains only add fuel to the fire.

So, what is this variant strain and what does it mean for COVID-19? 

Here we will discuss the concerns and implications surrounding this strain.

What is a SARS-CoV-2 Variant?

Just like the viruses responsible for influenza (the flu), SARS-CoV-2 has been constantly mutating. These mutations lead to multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Scientists determined that SARS-CoV-2 acquired about one new mutation in its genome every two weeks. However, many of these variants were silent (causing no change in the virus itself), and did not require worry… until now.

After an unexpected surge in cases in the South-Eastern part of England, the UK detected a new variant that sparked concern. Now referred to as SARS-CoV-2 VUI 2020 12/01 (Variant Under Investigation year 2020), this variant was found responsible for 50% of the cases in South East England between 5 October and 13 December 2020.

Why is this bugger so special?

There are a few reasons for this.

SARS-CoV-2 VUI 2020 12/01 has 14 mutations in its sequence. Some of these mutations occur in crucial parts of the virus’s genetic material. One mutation of concern has affected the diagnostic polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays for the virus. Thus, causing some laboratories to experience difficulty detecting the virus.

Discussion of reinfection already exists in large countries. This variant can increase the risk of re-infection as the antibodies produced from the initial infection may not be able to fight off the new variant. Studies are being conducted to determine the risk of reinfection.

There are also concerns that the variant is more contagious than other circulating viruses. And a range between 40% and 70% increase in transmissibility was reported.

Even though it has been confirmed to be more contagious, there is no proof that the variant causes worsening of the disease or different symptoms. (We understand that this news cannot be seen as a consolation because the existing disease already proved itself destructive.)

Where is this variant found?

The news of the VUI 2020 12/01 variant came from the United Kingdom, but this bugger has been around. It was also identified in Australia, Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands thus far, and this list is expected to grow.

Will the vaccine cover this variant?

The short answer is… it is too soon to tell.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is urgently investigating whether this variant can impact vaccine performance. Three weeks into vaccinations is too soon to definitively determine any information.

However, the available vaccines are designed to produce antibodies that target several parts of the virus. Therefore, the variant would need to have multiple mutations specifically placed to be able to dodge the immunity produced by the vaccine. This suggests that the vaccines are likely to extend their coverage to this new strain.

Note that the public health guidelines to reduce spread (you know… masks, distance, sanitization, handwashing; the things we should have been doing since March) are still important for all persons vaccinated or not.

Are there any other strains we should know about?

The sad news is… yes.

On December 18, 2020, the South African government announced a new bugger causing havoc in their territories.

And you guessed it… this one has different mutations and is therefore not the same as the UK strain.

So how can we prevent the spread to the Caribbean?

Well, there’s good news and bad news.

First, the good news.

You already know what to do. Slowing the spread of these variants means using the same basic principles we should have been using for the last 9 months:

  • Frequent handwashing
  • Mask wearing
  • Maintaining distance
  • Sanitizing surfaces especially after direct contact with ill people
  • Avoiding contact with others when ill
  • Limiting travel
  • Testing at the first sight of symptoms

But here’s the bad news.

The VUI 2020 12/01 variant may already have spread to other countries without detection. Ongoing travel from the United Kingdom coupled with infrequent virus sequencing makes this a possibility. 

With the stir surrounding these variants, WHO is advising countries to step up the routine sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 where possible so that variants of concern can be found. 

So, while we wait for confirmation, we can focus on the good news and continue to incorporate these practices into our daily lives.

Wrapping up

Further investigation determined that the variant is commonly seen in people under 60 years of age. This evidence suggests that the persons who are responsible for the spread may be less vigilant about public health precautions to slow the spread of this virus.

Remember: You are your brother’s keeper.

So following the public health guidelines closely by wearing a mask, hand washing, and avoiding contact with ill persons is the most valuable thing we can do to protect ourselves and our family.

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