4 coronavirus variants can make people sicker or spread faster, including the variant first found in India. Here’s why experts are so concerned about mutant strains.

people wearing masks coronavirus US
People wearing masks in Del Mar, California.

  • There are four coronavirus variants that experts around the world are particularly worried about.
  • These variants were first identified in South Africa, the UK, Brazil, and India respectively.
  • Others coronavirus variants have concerning features, but it’s not yet clear they’re more dangerous.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Several coronavirus variants have evolved mutations that mean they spread more easily, make people sicker, escape immune responses, evade tests, or render treatments ineffective.

These are called “variants of concern” by the World Health Organization, and there are four that have spread to the US, including the variant first found in India.

There are various other variants that may have troubling features, which experts are looking into. These are called “variants under investigation.”

They differ from the original virus strain in a number of key ways.

Variants of concern

B.1.1.7, first found in the UK

coronavirus hospital UK
A nurse works on a patient in the ICU in London hospital, UK on January 7, 2020.

B.1.1.7 was first detected in two people in south-east England. It was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 14.

It has been identified in 123 countries worldwide, including the US, where there are more than 20,000 reported cases, according to the CDC. It became the most common variant in the US on April 7. Tennessee has the highest proportion of B.1.1.7 cases of any state, accounting for 73% of sequenced cases.

B.1.1.7 is between 30% to 50% better at spreading from person to person than other coronavirus variants, according to UK scientists.

B.1.1.7 could be more deadly, but we don’t know for sure

B.1.1.7 could be more deadly. The UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) reported a model on January 21 that showed someone infected with B.1.1.7 is 30% to 40% more likely to die than someone with a different variant.

Community-based studies in England, Scotland and Denmark showed that infection with B.1.1.7 in the community causes a higher risk of severe disease requiring hospital treatment and death.

But there is a lot of uncertainty around the numbers. Two studies published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases and the Lancet Public Health on April 13 indicated that B.1.1.7 was more infectious, but didn’t cause worse illness in hospitalized patients.

COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca all appear to protect against B.1.1.7.

B.1.351, first identified in South Africa

COVID-19, South Africa
Health worker Vuyiseka Mathambo takes a nasal swab from a patient to test for COVID-19 at a Masiphumelele community centre in Cape Town, South Africa on July 23, 2020.

B.1.351 was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020. It was reported to the WHO on December 18.

It has been found in 84 countries, including the US, where there are 453 cases reported across 36 states and jurisdictions according to the CDC

B.1.351 is thought to be 50% more contagious than the original strain, according to South African health officials.

It’s not thought to be more deadly. But there is evidence from South Africa that when hospitals came under pressure because of the variant’s spread, the risk of death increased.

B.1.351 may evade the body’s immune response

The variant may evade the body’s immune response, data suggests. Antibodies work best when they attach snugly to the virus and stop it from entering our cells. The B.1.351 variant has mutations called E484K and K417N at the site where antibodies latch on. In early lab tests, antibodies produced by Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines couldn’t attach as well to B.1.351, compared to the original coronavirus.

In a real-world Qatari study reported on May 6, Pfizer’s vaccine was 75% effective at preventing infection of varying severity caused by the variant first found in South Africa, called B.1.351, after two doses.

And another real-world study from Israel published on April 10 suggested that Pfizer’s vaccine provided less protection against B.1.351 than the original coronavirus. But it was focused on those who have already tested positive for the virus, not total infection rates, so we can’t draw firm conclusions.

Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was 64% effective at preventing COVID-19 in trials in South Africa, where 95% infections are caused by B.1.351, and 72% effective in the US, where B.1.351 accounts for less than 1% of sequenced coronavirus tests.

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine didn’t prevent mild to moderate disease caused by B.1.351 in a trial, and we don’t yet know if AstraZeneca’s shot still protects against severe illness caused by the variant.

It is unlikely that vaccines will become completely useless against the variant. Existing vaccines could be updated and tailored to a new variant within weeks or months, or you may require a booster shot.

P.1, first identified in Brazil, which is twice as contagious

brazil coronavirus
A COVID-19 patient is rushed into a hospital in Brasilia, Brazil on January 11, 2021.

The variant found in Brazil was first detected in four people in Japan, who had traveled from Brazil on January 2. It was identified by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases on January 6, and reported to the WHO that weekend.

It has been found in 45 countries worldwide, including the US, where there have been 497 cases in 31 states, according to the CDC

P.1 is twice as contagious as the original coronavirus – it was initially detected in Amazonas, north-west Brazil, on December 4, and by January 21, 91% of people with COVID-19 in the region were infected with P.1, according to the WHO.

P.1 has similar E484K and K417T mutations as B.1.351, which means it can evade antibody responses.

This could be the reason P.1 reinfects people who have already caught coronavirus – a study published April 14 showed that previous coronavirus infection only offered between 54% and 79% of the protection for P.1 than for other virus strains.

P.1’s mutations could also mean that vaccines work less well.

COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca work against P.1. Moderna’s hasn’t been tested. Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was 68% effective in trials in Brazil, where the variant is the most common strain, compared with its 72% efficacy in the US, where P.1 at the time accounted for 0.1% of sequenced coronavirus tests.

B.1.617, first identified in India

india coronavirus
Mumbai Police personnel are tested for the coronavirus on October 15, 2020.

The variant first found in India, B.1.617, is in fact three distinct viruses. Collectively, they have spread to more than 17 countries, according to the WHO. All three have been detected in the US, according to GISAID.

The WHO and UK have designated it a “variant of concern” because it’s more infectious than the original virus.

B.1.617 remains a “variant of interest,” according to the CDC.

Its mutations include:

  • L52R: May make the virus more infectious or it may avoid the antibody response.
  • P6814: May make it more infectious.
  • E848Q: May help the virus avoid the antibody response.

No studies to date have found that any of the variants first found in India are deadlier than earlier versions of the virus, or that it can evade vaccines.

Variants under investigation

B.1.427/B.1.429, first identified in California

pfizer covid 19 vaccine distribution
Medical assistant April Massaro gives a first dose of Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Alice Fallago at Desert Valley Hospital on Thursday, December 17, 2020 in Victorville, California.

The variant first found in California consists of two slightly different mutated forms of the virus, called B.1.427 and B.1.429. It is also called CAL.20C, using another naming system. It was first found in California in July and has now been detected across the US and elsewhere, including in Australia, Denmark, Mexico, and Taiwan, according to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID).

B.1.427/B1.429 are estimated to be about 20% more infectious than the original coronavirus. This is likely because of a mutation called L452R mutation, which in early lab studies was shown to help the virus infect cells.

COVID-19 vaccines haven’t yet been tested against this variant specifically. But early lab experiments showed that antibodies produced by previous COVID-19 infections worked only half as well against the variant as they did with the original coronavirus strain.

The CDC considers B.1.426/B1.429 a “variant of concern”, which means the CDC experts consider that there’s enough evidence that its mutations change its behavior. It remains a “variant under investigation” according to the WHO.

Read more: COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: AstraZeneca’s shot proves safe and effective, and is headed to the FDA

B.1.526/ B.1.525, first identified in New York

covid scientist lab coronavirus testing samples
Scientists work in a lab testing COVID-19 samples at New York City’s health department, April 23, 2020.

These two variants were detected in New York in late 2020. They are “variants of interest” because they have mutations that could evade antibody responses. B.1.525 accounts for less than 0.5% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US, according to the CDC.

B.1.526, first identified in New York

These two variants were detected in New York in late 2020. They are “variants of interest” because they have mutations that may evade antibody responses. B.1.526 accounts for under 9% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US, according to the CDC.

P.2, first identified in Brazil

P.2 was first detected in Brazil in April 2020. It’s a “variant of interest” because it has the E484K mutation that may mean it evades antibody responses. Less than 0.2% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US are P.2, according to the CDC.

P.3, first identified in the Philippines

P.3 was first detected in the Philippines in February. P.3 has the E484K mutation that may mean it evades the immune response. P.3 hasn’t yet been detected in the US.

B.1.525, first found in UK and Nigeria

B.1.525 was first found in the UK and Nigeria in December 2020. It has the E484K mutation that may mean it evades the antibody response. Less than 0.5% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US, according to the CDC.

B.1.617, first found in France

B.1.617 was first found in France in January. It hasn’t been detected in any other countries. It may have mutations that mean it can evade tests.

Human behavior can help stop them spreading

AOC Elbow bump Houston Food Bank February 20201.JPG
Ocasio-Cortez elbow bumps a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank.

The WHO has said that everyone should double down on precautions that stop the spread of variants, such as social distancing, hand-washing, mask wearing, and avoiding crowds.

“Human behavior has a very large effect on transmission – probably much larger than any biological differences in SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, told Insider.

Read the original article on Business Insider

3 coronavirus variants can make people sicker or spread faster – and experts are monitoring others, including one spreading in India

people wearing masks coronavirus US
People wearing masks in Del Mar, California.

  • There are three coronavirus variants that experts around the world are worried about.
  • These include variants first identified in South Africa, the UK, and Brazil.
  • Others variants, like one first found in India, have concerning features, but it’s not yet clear they’re more dangerous.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Several coronavirus variants have evolved mutations that mean they spread more easily, make people sicker, escape immune responses, evade tests, or render treatments ineffective.

These are called “variants of concern” by the World Health Organization, and there are three that have spread to the US.

There are various other variants that may have troubling features, which experts are looking into. These are called “variants under investigation,” and include a variant first identified in India.

They differ from the original virus strain in a number of key ways.

Variants of concern

B.1.1.7, first found in the UK

coronavirus hospital UK
A nurse works on a patient in the ICU in London hospital, UK on January 7, 2020.

B.1.1.7 was first detected in two people in south-east England. It was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 14.

It has been identified in 114 countries worldwide, including the US, where there are more than 20,000 reported cases, according to the CDC. It became the most common variant in the US on April 7. Michigan has the highest proportion of B.1.1.7 cases of any state, accounting for just under 70% of sequenced cases.

B.1.1.7 is between 30% to 50% better at spreading from person to person than other coronavirus variants, according to UK scientists.

B.1.1.7 could be more deadly, but we don’t know for sure

B.1.1.7 could be more deadly. The UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) reported a model on January 21 that showed someone infected with B.1.1.7 is 30% to 40% more likely to die than someone with a different variant.

Community-based studies in England, Scotland and Denmark showed that infection with B.1.1.7 in the community causes a higher risk of severe disease requiring hospital treatment and death.

But there is a lot of uncertainty around the numbers. Two studies published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases and the Lancet Public Health on April 13 indicated that B.1.1.7 was more infectious, but didn’t cause worse illness in hospitalized patients.

COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca all appear to protect against B.1.1.7.

B.1.351, first identified in South Africa

COVID-19, South Africa
Health worker Vuyiseka Mathambo takes a nasal swab from a patient to test for COVID-19 at a Masiphumelele community centre in Cape Town, South Africa on July 23, 2020.

B.1.351 was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020. It was reported to the WHO on December 18.

It has been found in 81 countries, including the US, where there are 453 cases reported across 36 states and jurisdictions according to the CDC

B.1.351 is thought to be 50% more contagious than the original strain, according to South African health officials.

It’s not thought to be more deadly. But there is evidence from South Africa that when hospitals came under pressure because of the variant’s spread, the risk of death increased.

B.1.351 may evade the body’s immune response

The variant may evade the body’s immune response, data suggests. Antibodies work best when they attach snugly to the virus and stop it from entering our cells. The B.1.351 variant has mutations called E484K and K417N at the site where antibodies latch on. In early lab tests, antibodies produced by Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines couldn’t attach as well to B.1.351, compared to the original coronavirus.

We don’t know yet whether this impacts the vaccines’ effectiveness in real-life. A real-world study from Israel published on April 10 suggested that Pfizer’s vaccine provided less protection against B.1.351 than the original coronavirus. But it was focused on those who have already tested positive for the virus, not total infection rates, so we can’t draw firm conclusions. Pfizer has published some data suggesting its vaccine may help protect people against this variant.

Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was 64% effective at preventing COVID-19 in trials in South Africa, where 95% infections are caused by B.1.351, and 72% effective in the US, where B.1.351 accounts for less than 1% of sequenced coronavirus tests.

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine didn’t prevent mild to moderate disease caused by B.1.351 in a trial, and we don’t yet know if AstraZeneca’s shot still protects against severe illness caused by the variant.

It is unlikely that vaccines will become completely useless against the variant. Existing vaccines could be updated and tailored to a new variant within weeks or months, or you may require a booster shot.

P.1, first identified in Brazil, which is twice as contagious

brazil coronavirus
A COVID-19 patient is rushed into a hospital in Brasilia, Brazil on January 11, 2021.

The variant found in Brazil was first detected in four people in Japan, who had traveled from Brazil on January 2. It was identified by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases on January 6, and reported to the WHO that weekend.

It has been found in 40 countries worldwide, including the US, where there have been 497 cases, according to the CDC

P.1 is twice as contagious as the original coronavirus – it was initially detected in Amazonas, north-west Brazil, on December 4, and by January 21, 91% of people with COVID-19 in the region were infected with P.1, according to the WHO.

P.1 has similar E484K and K417T mutations as B.1.351, which means it can evade antibody responses.

This could be the reason P.1 reinfects people who have already caught coronavirus – a study published April 14 showed that previous coronavirus infection only offered between 54% and 79% of the protection for P.1 than for other virus strains.

P.1’s mutations could also mean that vaccines work less well.

COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca work against P.1. Moderna’s hasn’t been tested. Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was 68% effective in trials in Brazil, where the variant is the most common strain, compared with its 72% efficacy in the US, where P.1 at the time accounted for 0.1% of sequenced coronavirus tests.

Variants under investigation

B.1.427/B.1.429, first identified in California

pfizer covid 19 vaccine distribution
Medical assistant April Massaro gives a first dose of Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Alice Fallago at Desert Valley Hospital on Thursday, December 17, 2020 in Victorville, California.

The variant first found in California consists of two slightly different mutated forms of the virus, called B.1.427 and B.1.429. It is also called CAL.20C, using another naming system. It was first found in California in July and has now been detected across the US and elsewhere, including in Australia, Denmark, Mexico, and Taiwan, according to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID).

B.1.427/B1.429 are estimated to be 20% more infectious than the original coronavirus – they have become the most common coronavirus variants in California, accounting for just under 40% of sequenced cases, according to the CDC. This is likely because of a mutation called L452R mutation, which in early lab studies was shown to help the virus infect cells.

COVID-19 vaccines haven’t yet been tested against this variant specifically. But early lab experiments showed that antibodies produced by previous COVID-19 infections worked only half as well against the variant as they did with the original coronavirus strain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers B.1.426/B1.429 a “variant of concern”, which means the CDC thinks there’s enough evidence that its mutations change its behavior. But it remains a “variant under investigation” according to the WHO, which means the WHO’s experts haven’t got enough evidence that it’s more deadly, more infectious or evades the immune response.

Read more: COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: AstraZeneca’s shot proves safe and effective, and is headed to the FDA

B.1.526/ B.1.525, first identified in New York

covid scientist lab coronavirus testing samples
Scientists work in a lab testing COVID-19 samples at New York City’s health department, April 23, 2020.

These two variants were detected in New York in late 2020. They are “variants of interest” because they have mutations that could evade antibody responses. B.1.525 accounts for 0.5% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US, according to the CDC.

B.1.617, first identified in India

india coronavirus
Mumbai Police personnel are tested for the coronavirus on October 15, 2020.

The variant first found in India, B.1.617 is in fact three distinct viruses. Collectively, they have spread to 17 countries, according to the WHO. All three have been detected in the US, according to GISAID.

B.1.617 is not yet a “variant of interest”, according to the CDC. But the WHO and UK have designated it a “variant under investigation” because it has some potentially worrying mutations.

These mutations could:

  • Make the virus more infectious or it may avoid the antibody response.
  • Make it more infectious.
  • Help the virus avoid the antibody response.

No studies to date have found that any of the variants first found in India are deadlier than earlier versions of the virus, or that it can evade vaccines.

B.1.526, first identified in New York

These two variants were detected in New York in late 2020. They are “variants of interest” because they have mutations that may evade antibody responses. B.1.526 accounts for under 10% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US, according to the CDC.

P.2, first identified in Brazil

P.2 was first detected in Brazil in April 2020. It’s a “variant of interest” because it has the E484K mutation that may mean it evades antibody responses. Less than 1% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US are P.2, according to the CDC.

P.3, first identified in the Philippines

P.3 was first detected in the Philippines in February. P.3 has the E484K mutation that may mean it evades the immune response. P.3 hasn’t yet been detected in the US.

B.1.525, first found in UK and Nigeria

B.1.525 was first found in the UK and Nigeria in December 2020. It has the E484K mutation that may mean it evades the antibody response. Less than 1% of sequenced coronavirus tests in the US, according to the CDC.

B.1.617, first found in France

B.1.617 was first found in France in January. It hasn’t been detected in any other countries. It may have mutations that mean it can evade tests.

Human behavior can help stop them spreading

AOC Elbow bump Houston Food Bank February 20201.JPG
Ocasio-Cortez elbow bumps a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank.

The WHO has said that everyone should double down on precautions that stop the spread of variants, such as social distancing, hand-washing, mask wearing, and avoiding crowds.

“Human behavior has a very large effect on transmission – probably much larger than any biological differences in SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, told Insider.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine was 89.7% effective in a large trial, and worked against the contagious virus variant first found in the UK

coronavirus vaccine UK
Kate Bingham, Chair of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, after starting her Novavax trial at the Royal Free Hospital, north London on October 13, 2020.

  • Novavax’s vaccine was 89.7% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in a late-stage trial.
  • Novavax said the vaccine was 86.3% effective against B.1.1.7, the variant first found in the UK.
  • US biotech Novavax’s COVID-19 shot has not yet been approved by regulators.

Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine was 89.7% effective at preventing COVID-19 with symptoms in a trial of more than 15,000 people, the US biotech announced Thursday.

The shot held up against the highly contagious coronavirus variant circulating in the UK and the US, called B.1.1.7, Novavax said. The vaccine worked 86.3% of the time against this particular variant, Novavax said in a press release.

The shot was 96.4% effective against the original virus strain, it said.

The company said that its vaccine was 48.6% effective in a smaller trial of around 2,600 participants in South Africa, where another variant, called B.1.351, is circulating. Its efficacy was slightly higher in those who were HIV-negative, at 55.4%.

There is some evidence that B.1.351, which is circulating in 48 countries and 23 states in the US, can partially evade antibodies.

The company said that the shot provided 100% protection across both trials against severe disease, including all hospitalization and death. But the numbers were small – there were five people with severe disease in the group that received a placebo instead of the vaccine.

“Importantly, both studies confirmed efficacy against the variant strains,” Stanley Erck, chief executive officer at Novavax, said.

Read more: COVID Vaccine Tracker: J&J’s shot joins Moderna and Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novavax up next

There are more than 113,000 reported cases of B.1.1.7 in the UK, and more than 3,700 reported cases in the US, where it has been detected in all 50 states, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC has predicted that the variant will become the most common coronavirus variant in the US by the end of March.

There are currently 108 reported cases in the US of B.1.351, the variant first detected in South Africa, according to the CDC.

The trial results were announced in a press release, and are yet to be scrutinized by experts or published in a medical journal.

Novavax’s vaccine combines an engineered form of the virus with a plant-based ingredient to generate an immune response. The vaccine can be stored at normal temperatures.

The shot is yet to receive a regulatory greenlight. The company said in the press release Thursday that it expected the data from the UK and South Africa trials to underpin its submission to regulators worldwide.

Erck has said before that the company would probably file for approval in the UK first, in about April, before submitting data to the US Food and Drug Administration as soon as May. Novavax’s US trial is ongoing.

Novavax has said previously that it hopes to produce its shot at a rate of 2 billion doses a year by the middle of 2021, though it’s not clear how many shots the company could actually make this year.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Top disease expert says US in the ‘eye of the hurricane’ as COVID cases decline amid growing concern over spread of UK variant

Michael Osterholm
Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, during an appearance on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

  • Michael Osterholm, a top disease expert, said Sunday the US is the “eye of the hurricane.”  
  • New daily cases have fallen from their peak earlier this year, but there’s still cause for concern.
  • Several states have scaled back restrictions, but experts warn such actions are premature.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and member of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, warned Sunday about the current state of the pandemic in the US despite a continued decline in new cases.

“We are in the eye of the hurricane right now,” he said during an appearance on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “It appears that things are going very well – you even see blue skies. We’ve been through a terrible terrible year.”

According to data analyzed by Johns Hopkins University, the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 diagnosed each day has fallen to less than 70,000 new cases each day – down from a peak earlier this year where new daily cases surpassed 200,00.

Vaccinations have also been accelerated as supply has increased following the emergency authorization of the single-shot Johnson & Johson vaccine in late February. Biden said on March 6 all adult Americans could be vaccinated by the middle of May.

But Osterholm said there was reason for concern over the spread of the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom and has since “wreaked havoc” on Europe.

About a month ago, 1 to 4% of COVID-19 cases diagnosed in the US were of the B.1.1.7 variant, Osterholm said. But today, about 30 to 40% of new cases were the variant. When cases of B.1.1.7 have reached about 50% of the cases in Europe, the virus begins to “surge,” he added, warning of a possible spike in the US.

“Many of these countries have been in lockdown now for two months just to try to control this virus,” Osterholm said of European countries hit hard by the variant.

The warnings come amid relaxed public health measures that health officials have warned are premature. States across the US have begun to once again scale back measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. Several states including Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota, have rescinded mask mandates.

Experts have also warned that spring break vacationers could spread the highly contagious variant in the coming weeks, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to discourage travel.

Read the original article on Business Insider

9 key questions answered about the worrying coronavirus variants spreading around the world, including whether vaccines block them, how contagious they are, and when they reached the US

double mask
Brendan Williams, president of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, puts on a surgical mask while carrying another mask.

  • Experts worldwide are urgently studying three coronavirus variants to understand what risks they pose.
  • One variant first identified in the UK, one in South Africa, and one in Brazil are probably more contagious than the original virus.
  • They have caused cases to surge and the three nations to lock down. Here are nine key questions about the variants, answered.

Experts are urgently investigating three different coronavirus variants – found in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil – that have caused explosive outbreaks and are spreading around the world.

Often, small genetic changes that a virus makes when it replicates, called mutations, don’t affect its behavior. But these three coronavirus variants, each evolved separately, appear to have developed similar characteristics that affect how they spread.

Here’s what we know so far

All the variants contain mutations in the code for their spike protein, the part of the virus that it uses to infect cells. Alterations in this area could enable the virus to infect cells more easily, and the spike protein is the target for COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson&Johnson and AstraZeneca.

With information frequently changing, we’ve compiled a list of everything we know so far about the variants, answering nine key questions, such as whether vaccines work on them and whether they’ve spread to the US.

Read more: What it actually means that a new coronavirus strain is more transmissible – and how that changes your chances of getting sick

The variants were first detected in the UK, South Africa, and Japan 

  • UK – B.1.1.7

B.1.1.7 was first detected in two people in south-east England. It was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 14.

B.1.17 has been identified in 82 countries worldwide, including the US.

  • South Africa – 501.Y.V2

501.Y.V2 was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020. It was reported to the WHO on December 18.

The UK identified two cases of 501.Y.V2 on December 22, in people who had come into contact with someone who had traveled from South Africa.

501.Y.V2 has been found in 40 countries globally, including the US.

  • Brazil -P.1

The variant found in Brazil was first detected in four people in Japan, who had traveled from Brazil on January 2. It was identified by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases on January 6, and reported to the WHO that weekend.

It has been found in 28 countries worldwide, including the US.

The variants are more contagious

The B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the UK, is thought to be 30% to 50% more contagious than other forms of the virus, according to Public Health England estimates. This means it is 30-50% better at spreading from person to person than other coronavirus variants.

501.Y.V2, the variant found in South Africa, is thought to be 50% more contagious than other variants, because it has spread 50% faster, becoming the most common strain in people with COVID-19 in coastal regions of South Africa.

P.1, found in Brazil, is probably more contagious –it was initially detected in Amazonas, north-west Brazil, on December 4 and by January 21, 91% of people with COVID-19 in the region were infected with P.1, according to the World Health Organization

It’s not known precisely why the variants are more contagious

Research is ongoing, but working theories are that both variants have changes in the spike protein, meaning they can potentially infect cells more easily.  The swabs of people infected with B.1.1.7 and 501.Y.V2 also appear to have more viral particles than the original virus, known as a higher viral load. The more viral particles an infected person expels, the more likely they are to infect others.

The variant first found in South Africa – 501.Y.V2 – has been shown in early lab studies to sometimes avoid antibodies, produced by the body to fight off infection. If this happens in humans, it could mean it infects people more easily and could increase the likelihood of catching coronavirus more than once.

Mutations called E484K and K417T could be responsible for this – the variant found in Brazil have them too. B.1.1.7, the variant first found in the UK, doesn’t have this particular mutation.

pfizer covid 19 vaccine distribution
Medical assistant April Massaro gives a first dose of Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Alice Fallago at Desert Valley Hospital on Thursday, December 17, 2020 in Victorville, California.

They could be more deadly

The variants first found in the UK and South Africa at present do not seem to cause more severe disease, the WHO said on January 11. However, a more contagious variant could cause more deaths, because more people get sick.  

It is unclear whether or not P.1. is more deadly. This is “under investigation”, according to the WHO on February 21.

Adam Kucharski, an associate professor at the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has explained to Insider why the ability to spread more easily could make the variant more dangerous than a deadlier strain.

There is evidence from South Africa that when hospitals became under pressure, the risk of death increased.

The UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) reported a model on January 21 that showed someone infected with B.1.1.7 is 30 to 40 per cent more likely to die than someone with a different variant, but there is a lot of uncertainty around the numbers.

Human behavior can help stop them spreading

The WHO has said that because the variants are more contagious, everyone should double down on precautions that stop their spread, such as social distancing, hand-washing, mask wearing, and avoiding crowds.

“Human behavior has a very large effect on transmission – probably much larger than any biological differences in SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, previously told Insider.

Vaccines will probably work

It is too soon to know for sure, but it appears unlikely that the mutations will render vaccines totally useless. 

The vaccines available all target the coronavirus spike protein. The spike protein has multiple sites that all cause different immune responses in the body. Mutations could affect some of the sites, but are unlikely to affect all of them.

Pfizer said January 29 that its vaccine should work against some particular mutations that the variants found in South Africa and the UK have, after it tested its vaccine on lab-made variants. Further lab studies on February 18 have shown that Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine worked less well against lab-made viruses that mimicked the variant in South Africa.  The lab-made variants were not the exact variants found in the UK or South Africa.  

Moderna ran similar tests, and announced January 25 that its vaccine held up well against the mutations found in B.1.1.7, but less well against the mutations found in 501.Y.V2, the variant found in South Africa. Again it used lab-made variants.

The one dose COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson&Johnson was less effective in clinical trials in South Africa, where 95% infections are caused by 501.Y.V2. 

Existing vaccines could also be updated and tailored to a new variant within weeks or months. Or you may require a booster shot.

Moderna said January 25 that it will develop a new version of its COVID-19 shot to fight 501.Y.V2, the variant found in South Africa. Pfizer said January 26 that it is already working on booster shots that protect against coronavirus variants. 

  • B.1.1.7 – first found in UK

Experts think the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca will protect people against the B.1.1.7 variant found in the UK. The vaccines haven’t been tested against real-life coronavirus B.1.1.7 variants yet.

  • 501.Y.V2 – first found in South Africa

Studies suggest that the variant can escape some antibodies in the lab – researchers don’t yet know how, or if, this will affect how well vaccines work in people. 

The vaccines haven’t been tested against real-life coronavirus 501.Y.V2 variants yet.

Tulio de Oliveira, who is leading South Africa’s scientific effort to understand the variant, told the Financial Times that his group thinks a vaccine could be a little less effective, but is optimistic. “Between all the varieties of vaccines that are coming to the market, we still have strong belief that some of them will be very effective,” de Oliveira said.

Read more: What’s coming next for COVID-19 vaccines? Here’s the latest on 11 leading programs.

The variants could affect more young people 

Experts have said that the B.1.1.7 variant could affect kids more than previous variants, but evidence is still emerging. 

Public health experts in the Western Cape, South Africa have said that the proportion of young people who have been hospitalized and died from COVID-19 in South Africa has remained the same, but there are more young people in hospital, because more people overall are sick.

COVID-19 treatments could still work

There is no evidence currently to suggest the B.1.1.7 mutations mean that COVID-19 treatments are less effective against this variant.

Scientists think that a mutation found in the variant first identified in South Africa could mean that certain antibody drugs do not work as well.

But dexamethasone, a steroid, would probably still work just as well.

All three variants have been identified in the US

In the US, 2400 cases of B.1.1.7 –  the variant first found in the UK – have been identified, according to the CDC. The variant has been found in 46 US states, including New York, Florida, and California. 

The variant identified in South Africa, 501Y.V2, was first detected in the US on January 28.

There is are ten known cases of P.1 in the US, the variant found in Brazil first identified in Japan. It was first detected in Minnesota on January 24. The Minnesota resident who got infected with P.1 had recently traveled to Brazil, the Minnesota Department of Health said.

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San Diego man tests positive for new, more contagious UK variant of COVID-19

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Demonstrators protest during a “Freedom Rally” against Stay-At-Home Directives on April 18, 2020 in San Diego, California.

  • A variant of the coronavirus first detected in the UK has now been found in Southern California, officials said Wednesday.
  • A 30-year-old San Diego man was confirmed this morning to have the new variant, which is believed to be more contagious.
  • “Because there is no travel history, we do not believe this is an isolated case in San Diego County,” San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said at a press conference.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A new, likely more contagious variant of the coronavirus is spreading among the community in Southern California amid a surge in COVID-19 that has overwhelmed local hospitals.

At a press conference on Wednesday, San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said a 30-year-old man had tested positive on December 29 for the variant, first known to have spread in the United Kingdom.

The man has not been to the UK, he noted.

“Because there is no travel history, we do not believe this is an isolated case in San Diego County,” Fletcher said.

The new variant is believed to be far more contagious than what has previously spread across the United States. It is not, however, seen as more dangerous to those infected, nor is it believed to be resistant to vaccination.

According to San Diego County public health officials, the man infected with the UK variant, known as B117, became symptomatic on December 27.

“We confirmed it at 3 a.m. this morning,” Dr. Kristian Andersen, a professor at the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, said at the press conference.

“It was only a question of when,” Anderson said of the first known case of the UK variant in California. While not yet as prevalent as other variants of the virus, “We know there are more,” he said. “We don’t know how many.”

The news comes as San Diego hospitals are reporting that they are running out of space in their morgues to hold those dying from COVID-19. Hospitals in nearby Los Angeles, meanwhile, are running out of oxygen to treat those in their over-capacity ICUs.

The first known US case of the variant was detected on Tuesday, a 20-something man in Colorado also testing positive despite no history of recent travel to the UK.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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