Canada’s 3rd wave of COVID-19 is ‘killing faster and younger’ and fueled by new variants

toronto coronavirus
A cyclist wearing a face mask rides along a downtown street amid the coronavirus outbreak on May 19, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario.

  • Canada’s third coronavirus wave is affecting young people more severely than before.
  • Top health officials say the surge of infections are fueled by new COVID-19 variants.
  • The new wave is prompting lockdowns and new restrictions in several provinces.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Canada is battling a surge of coronavirus infections fueled by new variants which is sickening much younger adults than hospitals are accustomed to seeing.

On Saturday evening, the nation surpassed 1 million recorded coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic. The third wave of coronavirus has mainly struck the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, prompting all three to implement new restrictions to stop the spread.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, recently announced a 64% increase in new cases involving coronavirus variants – 90% of which involved the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom in September.

Ontario, in particular, has reported an influx of much younger patients in ICUs. Nearly half of the province’s COVID-19 ICU patients are under the age of 60, officials announced this week.

“It’s getting pretty alarming here. It’s spreading quickly, and it’s much faster than the last two waves,” Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency physician in Toronto, told CNN. “The people filling the ICU right now are all in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.”

Pirzada recently tweeted images of cloudy-looking lungs from ICU patients in their 30s.

“As the new variants spread, you will see that COVID-19 is killing faster and younger,” Adalsteinn Brown, a senior science advisor to the Ontario government, said in a press conference this week. “It’s spreading far more quickly than it was before and we cannot vaccinate quickly enough to break this third wave.”

Ontario has enacted a month-long “emergency brake” in response to the surge in infections. The new restrictions will shut down gyms, indoor dining, and personal care services, CBC News reported.

Quebec, meanwhile, has implemented a lockdown in three different cities, shutting down schools and non-essential businesses, and enacting a stricter curfew. British Columbia has also put a three-week ban on indoor dining, worship services, and indoor fitness activities.

Canada has had a remarkably slow vaccine rollout, mainly due to delays in importing doses. The country lacks the capacity to manufacture its own vaccines. As of April 1, just 1.75% of the population was fully vaccinated, and just 11.86% had received at least one dose, according to government data.

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The US could see a 4th coronavirus surge driven by new variants, CDC chief warns, as cases rise across more than half the country

Rochelle Walenski CDC
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

  • The US could see an “avoidable surge” in COVID-19 cases, CDC chief Rochelle Walensky said Monday.
  • Relaxing measures while variants are “spreading rapidly” is a “serious threat,” she said.
  • Her comments come as over half of US states have seen an increase in cases over the last two weeks.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Plateauing COVID-19 case rates, and the discovery of coronavirus variants in several states, could mean an “avoidable” fourth surge in COVID-19 cases is on the way in the US, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the US was at a “fork in the road” in the pandemic, as more people get vaccinated.

She noted several indicators pointed to a concerning trend, including:

  • The number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day is hovering at a high level of 50,000 to 60,000.
  • New hospital admissions have also plateaued at 4,500 to 5,000 admissions a day.
  • Deaths from COVID-19 are declining but remain high, and the rate of decline is slowing.
  • Some states and regions, such as the Northeast and the upper Midwest, are seeing “a significant rise in cases,” Walensky said.
  • Coronavirus variants are “spreading rapidly,” she said. The B.1.427 and B.1.429 variant, first identified in California, accounts for 52% of cases in California, 41% in Nevada, and 25% in Arizona, Walensky said.
  • The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, is estimated to be causing 9% of cases in New Jersey and 8% in Florida, she said.

“Taken together, these statistics should serve as a warning sign for the American people,” Walensky said.

Referring to the leveling of COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions seen in the past two weeks, she said she considered them “very concerning.”

She said there would be “another avoidable surge” without immediate action.

Experts have said the rise in cases is most likely due to the “tension” between the desire to open up the country and the risk associated with variants, as STAT reported Saturday.

According to John Hopkins University data, as of Sunday more than half of US states had experienced a growth in new cases in the past two weeks, while 24 states saw a decrease.

The US could be going the way of Europe, she said, where cases are surging after having plateaued, led by the B1.1.7 variant.

Walensky’s warning comes as the US ramps up its vaccination rollout.

Some 24.9% of the US population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 13.5% were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to CDC data.

President Joe Biden has said all US adults should be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, and some states are expected to start vaccinating all adults by April, Insider’s Aria Bendix reported earlier this month.

But experts warn that while vaccination rates rise, the virus can continue to circulate.

Uncontrolled spread of the virus “increases the risk that an even more dangerous variant may emerge,” Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, told CNN on Monday.

The B.1.1.7. variant is of particular concern, as it has been estimated that people infected with this strain are up to 64% more likely to die from COVID-19, Insider’s Aylin Woodward reported.

“I’m calling the American people to action, whether they’re vaccinated or not, to recommit to doing the right thing,” Walensky said on Monday.

“Take the steps we know work to stop COVID-19. Wear a well-fitting mask, socially distance, avoid crowds and travel, and be ready to roll up your sleeve to get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.”

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A new coronavirus variant found in France can hide from COVID-19 nasal-swab tests

France coronavirus restaurant
Waitress Josephine Madinier waits for take-away orders at Miss Banh-Mi restaurant in Paris on February 1, 2021.

  • France’s health ministry has identified a new coronavirus variant that can evade some tests.
  • So far, that variant doesn’t seem to be deadlier or more infectious than other strains.
  • The variant shares some mutations with another variant first found in California.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A region of France has been beset by a version of the coronavirus that can hide from standard tests.

The French ministry of health and social affairs announced Monday that among a cluster of 79 COVID-19 cases in Brittany, eight patients were infected with the new variant, but several of them tested negative.

Despite those negative tests, the patients showed typical COVID-19 symptoms.

The new variant does not yet have a alphanumeric designation. But it’s not the first variant that appears able to evade testing. Finnish researchers announced last month that they had identified a strain named Fin-796H with a mutation that made it difficult to detect with some nasal-swab tests, too.

An inability to accurately diagnose infected people could make it harder to curtail the virus’s spread at a time when cases across Europe are already spiking.

Confirming infections with the new variant is tricky

coronavirus test nasal swab
A nurse swabs a patient at a testing site for COVID-19 in Paris, France.

The standard molecular lab tests – known as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests – hunt for an infection in a swab from a patient’s nose, looking for the coronavirus’s genetic code.

But according to the French Health Directorate, genetic sequencing revealed that the variant found in Brittany has several mutations on its spike protein that help it evade detection by these diagnostic tests.

Health officials in Brittany eventually confirmed some of the cases caused by the new variant by either testing the patients’ blood for antibodies or collecting samples of phlegm the patients coughed up from inside their lungs and running those through a RT-PCR test.

But neither of those methods are the typical COVID-19 tests, which suggests the new variant could be circulating undetected in France and possibly beyond.

However, one European diagnostics company, the Novacyt Group, announced Thursday that its PCR tests can successfully detect the new variant.

The variant doesn’t appear to be deadlier or more infectious

France COVID vaccines
A woman is carried on a stretcher to the COVID-19 vaccination center at the South Ile-de-France Hospital Group in Paris on February 8, 2021.

All eight of the French patients infected with the new variant died of the virus, according to local outlet LaDepeche, but local health officials said that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more deadly than other strains.

There is no evidence yet that the strain is more transmissible than other versions of the virus. More studies are still needed to figure out whether it can evade vaccines or antibodies from prior coronavirus infections, the French health ministry said in a release.

The variant’s genetic profile shows it doesn’t share any key mutations with B.1.351 and P.1 – the variants first found in South Africa and Brazil, respectively – which are more contagious and can partially evade vaccines.

The variant from Brittany is in the same group of strains as a variant first spotted in Southern California, however. Variants in that group, named Clade 20C, are expected to make up one-fifth of the world’s coronavirus infections by April, according to Nextstrain, a genetic repository that tracks the coronavirus’s evolution over time.

coronavirus test
A medical worker performs a PCR test for COVID-19 on August 31, 2020 in Montreuil, France.

News of the variant in Brittany came amid France’s third peak of infections.

The average number of daily coronavirus cases there has doubled since mid-December, jumping from less than 15,000 to a near record-high of more than 38,000 on Wednesday. The increase prompted Prime Minister Jean Castex to announce new lockdowns for Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region on Thursday.

France has been under a nationwide curfew between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. for the last two months.

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People infected with the coronavirus variant found in the UK are up to 64% more likely to die than those with other strains

uk london ambulance coronavirus patient royal london hospital
Medical workers bring a patient out of an ambulance outside Royal London Hospital, in London, January 15, 2021.

The data is in: People infected with the coronavirus variant first discovered in the UK have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than those who get other versions of the virus.

New research published Monday in the journal Nature found that among cases involving the variant, known as B.1.1.7, patients had a 55% higher chance of death within four weeks following their positive test.

The study authors examined roughly 2.2 million people who tested positive in England between September and mid-February, then compared the number of deaths among those with B.1.1.7 to those who were infected with other strains.

After controlling for variables including a patient’s age, sex, ethnicity, and living arrangement, the researchers found that with the original virus, about six out of every 1,000 people in their 60s who test positive might be expected to die. But this number rises to about nine out of 1,000 with B.1.1.7.

“In spite of substantial advances in COVID-19 treatment, we have already seen more deaths in 2021 than we did over the first eight months of the pandemic in 2020. Our work helps to explain why,” Nick Davies, the lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a press release.

In January and February, 42,000 people in England died of COVID-19.

Mounting evidence shows the B.1.1.7 variant is more deadly

B.1.1.7 was discovered outside London in September, but initial evidence suggested the strain wasn’t more lethal. Then in January, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the variant was likely associated with higher mortality.

Research published last week in the journal BMJ confirmed that. It found B.1.1.7 to be deadlier than other strains – and even more deadly than the Nature study results suggest.

The BMJ researchers examined nearly 55,000 pairs of people in the UK. Within each pair, one person had tested positive for B.1.1.7 while the other had tested positive for a different coronavirus strain (including the variants from South Africa and Brazil). The members of each pair had similar ages, ethnicities, and geographic locations, and got their positive test results between October and February.

The study found the B.1.1.7 variant was 64% deadlier than the other strains within the four weeks following a positive test.

boris johnson coroanvirus variant
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Johnson’s January announcement was based on research collected by the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, which found that on average, people infected with B.1.1.7 in the UK had a 30% higher mortality rate than those with the original virus.

A follow-up analysis from Public Health England analyzed data collected between late November and early January, and found that B.1.1.7 was 65% deadlier than other strains. Researchers from the University of Exeter, meanwhile, looked at samples collected between October and late January and found that people infected with the variant were almost twice as likely to die.

Higher mortality could be related to higher viral loads

coronavirus london
A COVID-19 patient is wheeled into an ambulance in London.

The strain’s increased lethality could be chalked up to the fact that people infected with B.1.1.7 have higher viral loads on average, meaning they produce more viral particles when they’re infected. Higher viral loads, multiple studies show, are associated with a higher risk of death and more severe disease.

“That was the first thing that certainly came to my mind,” William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University, previously told Insider. “It would make very good sense.”

It’s also possible that the strain’s increased transmissibility simply gives the virus a better chance of infecting more people who are at higher risk of severe illness. A more transmissible strain means people are more likely to get infected if exposed; B.1.1.7 is between 50% and 70% more contagious than the original version of the virus.

This higher transmissibility could be due to several mutations in the genetic code for the virus’ spike protein, which it uses to invade cells. These tweaks may make it easier for the B.1.1.7 variant to spread.

“It may simply be a matter of a more contagious virus getting to more vulnerable people who are older or have underlying health problems like diabetes or lung disease,” Schaffner said.

Yet another possibility is that the variant’s increased transmissibility indirectly contributed to a higher mortality rate due to the stress it put on the UK’s healthcare system. The number of daily COVID-19 cases there skyrocketed in the four months following B.1.1.7’s discovery, jumping from 3,899 new cases on September 20 to more than 68,000 cases on January 8.

The spike in cases strained UK hospitals and healthcare resources, which may have hurt patient outcomes.

“If your cases get out of control, your deaths will get out of control as your health system comes under pressure,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, said in January.

Existing vaccines work against B.1.1.7

woman receiving covid vaccine
A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Wales.

B.1.1.7 has been found in 94 countries, including the US.

But in recent studies, both Pfizer and Moderna found that their shots held up well against the variant. Other vaccines, including those from Johnsen & Johnsen and AstraZeneca, protect people from B.1.1.7, too.

But these shots seem less effective overall against the variant first discovered in South Africa, B.1.351, and the strain found in Brazil, named P.1.

That’s likely because those two variants share a mutation that can prevent the antibodies generated in response to the original virus from recognizing them. This genetic tweak is mostly missing in B.1.1.7, though UK researchers did find 11 cases of B.1.1.7 with that mutation in a set of more than 200,000 samples.

Studies have not found either B.1.351 or P.1 to be more lethal than the original virus.

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Spring breakers spreading COVID-19 variants could ‘spell disaster’ for the country, expert warns

miami florida spring break
Spring breakers at Miami Beach, Florida in March 2016.

  • Spring breakers could increase the spread of the highly-transmissible B117 variant, CNN reported.
  • Global health expert Dr. Peter Hotez has warned that these vacations could “spell disaster” for the country.
  • Florida, a popular spring break location, has more cases of the B117 variant than any other sate.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Spring break, which begins for many colleges this month, could trigger the rampant spread of new COVID-19 variants across the US, a world-leading global health expert told CNN.

While CDC advice remains to stay at home and avoid travel, students opting to vacation at spring break hotspots might accelerate the transmission of highly contagious strains.

“It’s the perfect storm,” Dr. Peter Hotez, founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, told CNN.

Hotez said he is particularly concerned that college students heading to Florida’s beaches could result in a surge of cases of the B117 coronavirus variant, also known as the UK variant.

“You’ve got the B117 variant accelerating in Florida. You’ve got all these 20-year-old kids. None of them are going to have masks. They’re all going to be drinking. They’re having pretty close, intimate contact,” he told CNN. “And then, after that’s all done, they’re going to go back to their home states and spread the B117 variant.”

The B117 variant is believed to be up to 74% more contagious than the original virus. Florida, one of the most popular spring break locations, is currently the epicenter of the highly transmissible strain.

There are 642 cases of the variant in the Sunshine State, more than any other state in the nation, according to the CDC.

“Spring break in Florida could spell disaster for the country,’ Hotez told CNN. 

“This is not the time to have a superspreader event for that UK variant, which is what spring break in Florida would look like,” Hotez added. “This is not the time to be sending a bunch of 20-year-olds to Florida, then sending them back, disseminating it across the country.”

Mayor Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, Florida, shares these concerns. He told CNN that spring breakers congregating at bars, hotels, and restaurants “might become the kinds of super-spreaders that I think we saw a year ago.” 

Miami Beach has launched an ad campaign urging young people to vacation responsibly, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Bars, restaurants, and clubs will remain open because the city is unable to keep them closed due to a state executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the paper reported.

Gelber said that he would “love to have the governor’s voice urging people to be responsible.” But, he told CNN that this is not happening.

Gov. Ron DeSantis chose never to implement statewide mask mandates. Last year, Florida became of the biggest states to loosen COVID-19 restrictions when DeSantis reopened all restaurants, hotels, and bars at full capacity.

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States like Texas and Mississippi are lifting COVID-19 mask mandates, but with the pace of vaccinations and spread of variants, experts say it’s too soon

COVID Vaccine Line
People waiting in a Disneyland parking lot in Anaheim, California, to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

  • On Tuesday, Texas became the largest US state to lift its COVID-19 mask mandate.
  • But experts say the US is in a race against the clock to vaccinate before the variants spread.
  • While some restrictions can be eased as cases decrease, experts say masks should be the last to go.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

On Tuesday, Texas became the largest US state to lift its COVID-19 mask mandate, as a number of states have begun loosening restrictions.

Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan also announced easing some restrictions this week, while Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota ditched state-wide mask mandates earlier this year.

The drop in coronavirus cases has been cited in decisions to lift restrictions, and, indeed, most states are down from their fall and winter peaks. However, the nationwide decline in case counts seems to be stalling at numbers that public health officials have said are still too high, prompting warnings that it’s too soon to drop restrictions.

Infectious-disease experts told Insider that while the dropping case counts were promising, it’s too soon to make dramatic changes in restrictions, especially when it comes to masks.

“It’s completely too soon,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, told Insider.

“It goes against the grain of what President Biden is trying to do, which is a national strategy that we never had,” he said. “COVID doesn’t restrict itself by state borders.”

Chin-Hong said individual states’ lifting mask mandates echoed the situation in the US last year, when he said the lack of a national strategy hindered efforts to restrict coronavirus transmission.

Even as President Joe Biden’s administration has ramped up vaccinations, Chin-Hong said coronavirus variants were a big concern.

“The vaccine rollout is progressing everywhere, but it probably won’t be able to protect the population fast enough,” he said.

The experts Insider spoke with all said there were encouraging signs, but that the US was still in a race to vaccinate before virus variants spread more widely.

The uncertainty of the variants

Chin-Hong said some states lifting restrictions are dealing with virus variants, including the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant. Several cases of that variant have been discovered in Iowa as well as a growing number in Texas.

But he called those cases only “the tip of the iceberg,” given the limited work being done to identify the variants.

The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, is known to be more transmissible than the original strain. British scientists have also become increasingly convinced the variant could be deadlier as well.

The variant has been detected in 46 states, and Chin-Hong said it would most likely be the country’s dominant strain by the end of March. If states continue to lift restrictions like mask mandates, it will increase the likelihood for B.1.1.7 to spread.

In states that have dramatically lifted restrictions, which now includes Texas, Chin-Hong said the virus was “probably having a party right now.”

B.1.1.7 is just one of many coronavirus variants circulating in the US and it’s possible more will emerge, making it an evolving issue with lots of uncertainty.

“We’re entering a phase where it’s harder to know what the near-term future is like,” Andrew Noymer, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at Irvine, told Insider.

He said his expectations for what would happen throughout the pandemic – such as the summer and winter surges – had largely been accurate. But, he said, for the first time he felt as if he really didn’t know what the immediate future would look like regarding the pandemic.

Racing to vaccinate

Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, agreed it’s too soon to be lifting mask mandates.

“The thing is, we still have COVID circulating and don’t have the majority of people vaccinated,” she said, adding that while case numbers were lower than they were during the holiday surge, they’re still not at ideal levels in most places.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the US as of March 3. About 16% of Americans have received their first dose, while about 8% are fully vaccinated.

To reach herd immunity, an estimated 65% to 80% of a population needs to be immune.

The Biden administration is well on its way to achieving its goal of administering 100 million vaccine shots in its first 100 days, and it has plans to further ramp up vaccinations. The president said Tuesday the US will have enough vaccine doses for every US adult by the end of May.

But depending on distribution, it will take months for the doses to be administered.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is also Biden’s chief COVID-19 medical advisor, has said priority groups won’t finish getting vaccinated until sometime in April. And it could take until late summer for all eligible adults to receive their shot.

If the more-transmissible B.1.1.7 variant becomes the most common strain, that leaves a lot of time for it to circulate in environments with loosened restrictions.

“It is really a race against time,” Prins said.

Before dramatically lifting restrictions, she said, states should have a combination of low transmission as well as a high number of fully vaccinated people to reach a “balance where we feel like we’re not going to have widespread transmission.”

“We’ll get to that point,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”

‘Masks should be among the last to go’

Despite concerns over variants, Noymer of UC Irvine said it’s reasonable for states to reevaluate restrictions as case numbers drop.

“People are getting antsy,” Noymer told Insider. “What you don’t want to have is a situation in which people don’t want to follow any restrictions because they feel it’s all too strict.”

Noymer said loosening restrictions could even have an overall positive effect in some situations. For instance, he mentioned California, where an outdoor-dining ban in the fall sparked outrage and even prompted some restaurants and local jurisdictions to flout the rules.

Noymer considers this a significant problem because it risks some restrictions being viewed as meaningless.

Gov. Gavin Newsom reopened outdoor dining in California late last month, prompting some to wonder whether the decision came too soon. But Noymer said it just brought the restrictions closer in line with reality in some places, which can go a long way in maintaining the public’s trust.

“I’d like to have these orders still have some meaning when in the fall we might face a new wave with variants,” Noymer said.

But as far as what kinds of restrictions can safely be lifted, he said “masks should be among the last to go.”

He said relative to other aspects of life that had been disrupted by the pandemic, masks were a minor inconvenience relative to their public-health benefits.

“We know that masking is really important for prevention,” Prins said, adding that to keep case numbers from rising again it’s crucial for people to continue wearing masks and physical distancing until more Americans can be vaccinated.

Masks could be one of the last parts of the pandemic to go away, as Fauci recently said it’s possible Americans will be wearing masks into 2022, even after life begins to look a bit more “normal.”

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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California is now the 4th state to report cases of the more infectious coronavirus variant found in South Africa

San francisco vaccine line
Alameda County workers line up to receive coronavirus vaccines outside St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, California on January 8, 2021.

  • California is the latest state to report cases of the more transmissible coronavirus variant found in South Africa
  • The variant, first identified in in October, has been found in at least four US states.
  • The variant seems to partially evade immunity gained in response to vaccines or infection with the original virus.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Once South African scientists detected a more infectious coronavirus variant in early October, scientists knew it was only a matter of time before the strain reached the US.

At the end of January, the US reported its first two cases of the new variant, called B.1.351, in South Carolina. 

California became the latest state to report its own B.1.351 cases on Wednesday. At a press conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Stanford University had detected two cases in the San Francisco Bay Area: one in Alameda County and another Santa Clara County. He did not provide further details.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also identified six cases of B.1.351 in Maryland and one in Virginia.

The variant isn’t spreading as widely as B.1.1.7, another more infectious strain first identified in the UK in September. The CDC has reported more than 930 cases of B.1.1.7 across 34 states so far.

Coronavirus vaccines still appear to be highly effective against B.1.1.7, but scientists are more concerned about B.1.351 because preliminary research found it can partially evade the protection offered by current vaccines.

Moderna, for instance, exposed blood samples from people who’d received the company’s vaccine to B.1.351. They found those samples developed six times fewer virus-neutralizing antibodies than samples exposed to other variants. The company is now exploring the possibility of a booster shot that’s tailor-made to neutralize B.1.351.

Scientists also worry that people who already had COVID-19 could get reinfected with this more transmissible strain.

A race to keep B.1.351 from spreading

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

The US genetically sequences just 0.01% of its coronavirus cases – around three out of every 1,000 cases. That puts the country 33rd in the world for genetic sequencing, according to the latest data from GISAID, a global database that collects coronavirus genomes.

This sequencing deficit means new variants can easily spread undetected in the population. In all likelihood, B.1.351 entered the US long before South Carolina reported its first cases. Neither of those people had recently traveled, nor was there any personal connection between them.

Even people who previously got COVID-19 could be susceptible, evidence suggests. A recent study of Novavax’s vaccine candidate found that B.1.351 cases were just as common among people who’d previously recovered from infections with other strains as those who had not. 

“If it becomes dominant, the experience of our colleagues in South Africa indicates that even if you’ve been infected with the original virus, that there is a very high rate of re-infection,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN last week.

That possibility, combined with B.1.351’s increased transmissibility, could lead to another rise in coronavirus cases, scientists warn. The variant doesn’t appear to be deadlier than the original strain, though.

“When you have more contagious variants circulating and people now feeling free to do things that they weren’t able to do for a while, we do risk having another surge happen in the near future,” Anne Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, recently told Insider. “So we need to be watching it carefully.”

For now, scientists hope that vaccinations and other public-health measures will be enough to keep B.1.351 from becoming the dominant strain in the US. More genetic sequencing, they add, could prevent future variants from spreading.

“We’ve got to find ways to get in front of this as opposed to constantly chasing behind it without good surveillance,” Rimoin said. Otherwise, she added, “we’re destined to make the same mistakes.”

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The governor of Iowa lifted mask-wearing restrictions despite a new coronavirus variant in the state

kim reynolds iowa
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference on the state’s guidance for returning to school in response to the coronavirus outbreak on July 30, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

  • Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds rolled back several health restrictions in response to the pandemic.
  • Reynolds said on Friday that Iowans no longer need to wear masks in public, for example.
  • This update comes as Iowan health officials say they’ve detected new coronavirus variants.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday lifted several health restrictions intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

Reynolds rolled back health practices like mask-wearing and capacity limitations indoors, despite officials noting in early February that the state has seen three coronavirus mutations

Reynolds said Iowans no longer have to wear face coverings in public, according to the Omaha World-Herald. She also said businesses no longer have to cap the number of people entering their establishing and can drop social distance guidelines. 

Meanwhile, Iowa county officials continue to urge caution. 

“Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic,” Dr. Caitlin Pedati, an Iowa medical director and epidemiologist, said in a news release from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“Public health will continue to work with our partners at [the State Hygienic Lab] to monitor these trends and it is very important that we all keep practicing good public health protective measures,” Pedati said. 

The state’s health department’s website encourages people to wash their hands often, continue to social distance, and wear a mask around others.

Reynolds’ office did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.

Iowa has had at least 323,000 confirmed cases, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Of that, more than 5,000 people have died from the coronavirus. 

In the last week, Iowa almost topped its record-high number of deaths, according to Johns Hopkins data. Between December 6 and December 12 of last year, the state recorded 492 deaths from the coronavirus. Last week, the state hit 490 new deaths.

Reynolds’ updates to the state’s coronavirus health restrictions are in effect starting Sunday, the Omaha World-Herald reported. 

These new coronavirus variants can spread more easily and faster, according to the Iowa health department. Scientists are still trying to figure out whether the new variants lead to higher mortality rates.

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The US sequences 0.01% of its coronavirus cases – a glaring Achilles’ heel in the country’s pandemic response

covid testing college students
A college student in Chicago, Illinois gets tested for COVID-19.

Thousands of coronavirus strains circulate all the time.

Each version of the virus is separated by a handful of tiny changes in its genome. To keep tabs on these strains, and identify which ones may be better at infecting humans or evading vaccines, researchers must genetically sequence samples of the virus.

In the last five months, experts in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil have identified more transmissible variants that could exacerbate the pandemic.

But the US has limited capacity to spot variants on its own: The country genetically sequences less than 0.01% of its 26.5 million coronavirus cases – only three out of every 1,000.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that dismal track record is a “somewhat inexcusable deficiency.”

The UK does “many, many, many fold more sequenced surveillance than we do,” Fauci said during the Precision Medicine World Conference in January. “We really have got to build that up.”

The US is 30th in the world in genetic sequencing 

UK testing antibody
A UK paramedic holds a blood sample for a COVID-19 testing program in June 2020.

The UK sequences 45 out of every 1,000 coronavirus cases – about 15 times the number of cases that are sequenced in the US. These efforts likely helped UK researchers detect the more infectious B.1.1.7 strain outside London in September.

Studies have shown that B.1.1.7 is between 56% and 70% more contagious than its viral predecessors. UK officials said in January that people infected with B.1.1.7 may face a higher risk of death than those who get other strains, though more data is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

But even the UK’s sequencing efforts pale in comparison to those in Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand. These nations have sequenced 64%, 41%, and 35% of their coronavirus cases, respectively – the most of any countries so far, according to data from GISAID, a global database that collects coronavirus genomes.

The US ranks 30th on that list – behind countries like Canada, China, Papua New Guinea, and the Republic of Congo – an improvement from its 43rd ranking in December.

Jeff Zients, coordinator of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force, called the situation “totally unacceptable” during a White House briefing on January 27. More genetic sequencing, he said, “will allow us to spot variants early, which is the best way to deal with any potential variants.”

Indeed, knowing where a more transmissible variant is spreading could inform public health measures and travel bans, among other mitigation measures. A country lacking proper genetic surveillance has no way of knowing if a strain is spreading silently within its borders – and that “comes back to bite us,” Fauci said during the January conference.

Variants were circulating undetected in the US

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.

To identify which coronavirus strain has infected a patient, scientists need to map out roughly 30,000 genetic letters in a sample of the patient’s blood or saliva.

The process is time-consuming. Samples collected from patients aren’t always sent in for sequencing and a limited number of labs can complete the genetic analysis.

“Part of the challenge of recognizing these variants is a lack of public health laboratory infrastructure in order to do the surveillance,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told JAMA.

Nearly all of the US’s initial cases of B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 – another more infectious variant first found in South Africa – involved patients with no travel history. This suggests the strains have been spreading undetected for some time. 

The US didn’t report its first case involving B.1.1.7 until December 29, at least three weeks after the variant entered the country, according to some disease experts

The US’s first B.1.351 cases, reported last week in South Carolina, were detected by chance. Researchers had been testing random samples “in order to identify any instances of the variant viruses,” the state health department said in press release.

Preliminary research published last month suggests vaccines might not provide as much protection against B.1.351, and people who have already been infected with a different version of the virus could get reinfected with the new strain.

The more you look, the more you’ll find

fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Senate hearing in June.

According to Fauci, the CDC is working on partnering with the National Institutes of Health to improve the US’s sequencing infrastructure.

The agency launched a consortium in May called SPHERES to coordinate and standardize genomic sequencing in the US. But “poor funding, coordination, and capacity” has resulted in “patchy” data, according to a report from the National Academies of Science.

Fauci said SPHERES is working on consolidating all the sequencing data from independent US labs by “streaming it into one accessible database so that we can do much more than we’re doing.”

Coordinating sequencing efforts is crucial to improving the country’s pandemic response.

The more viral genomes countries sequence, “the more able we are to spot new lineages” like B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, according to Lucy van Dorp, a geneticist at the University of College London Genetics Institute.

This probably won’t be the last time we learn of a new, potentially more infectious strain, she told Insider.

“There may be other similar variants elsewhere which have not been detected in other regions of the world due to less intensive sequencing efforts,” she said. 

los angeles coronavirus testing
A long line for COVID-19 testing at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles, California on July 29, 2020.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said on Twitter last month that the US likely had its own “homegrown variants” circulating. 

California researchers confirmed Hotez’s prediction in a preliminary study published on January 20: Experts at Cedars-Sinai Medical detected a new variant called CAL.20C, which represented 24% of all coronavirus cases in Southern California in December.

There’s no indication that the variant is more transmissible yet, but the researchers said CAL.20C may have contributed to LA’s record case surge over the last few months.

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Pfizer’s CEO said the company is working on booster shots that could combat coronavirus variants

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

  • Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company is working on booster shots that protect against coronavirus variants.
  • South Africa and the UK have identified new strains of the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19. 
  • Moderna will also start testing booster shots to protect against the new strains.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Pharmaceutical giant and developer of the first COVID-19 vaccine Pfizer plans to make booster shots to protect against variant coronavirus strains.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company is working on a process to create booster shots for any coronavirus variant. Speaking at Bloomberg’s The Year Ahead conference, Bourla said Pfizer researchers had discussed how to protect against a variant strain when developing the COVID-19 vaccine.

South African researchers identified a coronavirus variant in late 2020, and the country’s top disease expert said the strain is 50% more contagious than the original. Preliminary research suggested existing vaccines provide less immunity to the South African variant.

Read more: Humana just launched its answer to the new crop of insurer start-ups in the red-hot health plan market for seniors.

The variant, known as 501Y.V2, has spread to more than a dozen countries, but researchers have not identified the South African strain in the US yet.

Experts are investigating two other variants, first identified in the UK and Brazil, which are also thought to be more contagious than the common strain in COVID-19 patients.

The variant identified in the UK has been reported in multiple US states, including California and New York. Minnesota yesterday became the first state to identify the highly transmissible strain from Brazil in residents.

Biotech firm Moderna announced a plan on Monday to start testing a booster shot to protect against the coronavirus variant found in South Africa. Both Moderna and Pfizer had led the development of the COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA technology.

Millions of people globally have received the Pfizer vaccine so far as COVID-19 cases continue to climb. The US experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases following the winter holiday season, and states have struggled to quickly administer vaccine shots.

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