NOTE: The following information was published Jan. 22, 2021. For current COVID-19 information, visit LVHN.org/COVID-19.
Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed that B.1.1.7, the new variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom, is in Pennsylvania. While this strain is new, we do have some data about it. Here are the five things that everyone should know.
1. It’s more contagious than the original strain.
Data suggests that B.1.1.7 is about 50 percent more contagious than the original strain. “The infectiousness of B.1.1.7 is concerning,” says Timothy Friel, MD, Chair, Department of Medicine. “It’s important to keep in mind that we’re comparing it to the original strain of the coronavirus, which is very infectious and has a significantly higher mortality rate than many other viruses we’re used to, like influenza.”
A variant contains a series of changes called mutations. For B.1.1.7, there were 23 changes in the strain. Other variants also are emerging, like one recently discovered in South Africa that also is thought to spread more quickly than the original strain.
2. Risk for complications to the infection is similar to the original strain.
If you become infected with B.1.1.7, your risk for complications remains the same. “Clinically it is not behaving differently,” says Friel. “B.1.1.7 does not have a higher mortality rate or symptom rate and the range of symptoms seems to be the same as the more common version of the virus that has been circulating since early 2020.” The standard COVID-19 therapies and medications being used in the hospital setting also seem to be equally effective in helping people with B.1.1.7 recover. That being said, if more people become sick because of the infectiousness of this virus, more people will be hospitalized.
3. It is probably more widespread than we realize.
The nose swab PCR test is the most common and effective form of COVID-19 testing available. While the PCR swab test can detect if you are sick with COVID-19, it does not indicate which strain you are infected with. So how did we discover that B.1.1.7 was in Pennsylvania? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts random testing with sequencing to look for specific mutations. Since that level of testing is not done on a widespread level yet, it is very possible that the variant is more prevalent than we realize.
4. Vaccines provide protection against B.1.1.7.
“This isn’t all doom and gloom,” says Friel. “We know ways to help reduce the spread.” Both COVID-19 vaccines that have received Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are effective at providing protection against the original strain of coronavirus. Results of more recent studies suggest that they will also provide protection against B.1.1.7. The vaccines are scientifically proven to be safe and effective.
5. Keep practicing COVID-19 safety measures.
You’ve heard it a million times by now – wash your hands, wear a mask and social distance. These are some of the best tools we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those tenets hold true with the variants.