Q&A: What should I know about the new COVID variant?

Q&A: What should I know about the new COVID variant?

NEW ORLEANS, LA. -- As you may have heard, the United Kingdom (UK) has reported a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in London and southeast England. This rapid increase in cases has been linked to a different version—or variant—of the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). 

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 start infecting people. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus. These studies, including genetic analyses of the virus, are helping us understand how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads and what happens to people who are infected with it.

Recent reports indicate that about 6 in 10 cases reported in London are caused by the new variant. Genetic analysis of the new variant shows changes to the spikes on the virus and to other parts of the virus. Initial studies suggest that the new variant may spread more easily from person to person. So far, scientists in the UK see no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease.

We caught up with Julio Figueroa, MD, physician lead for the infection prevention programs at LCMC Health and the chief of infectious diseases at LSU Health New Orleans to help answer some of our questions related to the new variant.

Has the new strain of COVID-19 affecting England been detected in the US?

To date, we do not have any evidence of this strain in the United States. However, there is no routine surveillance to detect new strains in many places.

What’s the difference between the new and old strains of the virus?

The new strain has mutations that appear to bind the cell receptor for the virus better than the reference strain. There is no evidence of worse infection with this strain so far. It might be more contagious however.

Do I have to take new or different precautions to protect myself against this new strain?

The same measures that protect you from getting COVID-19  in general should work with this strain. However, this strain may be able to take advantage of our small errors in our mask wearing, physical distancing, etc.

Is the vaccine effective against this new strain?

The current vaccines seem to prevent COVID-19 disease effectively. The current vaccine seems to work on all known strains of the virus thus far. Scientists are working with this strain and so far have found no reason to think that the vaccine should not work to prevent illness from this virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is monitoring the situation in the UK and communicating with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. CDC and state and local health departments are continually monitoring and studying the virus spreading in the United States to quickly detect any changes.

As new information becomes available, CDC will provide updates.