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For over a year, COVID-19 has made waves around the world, traveling across oceans and forcing lockdowns in major cities all over the globe. With the continued transmission of the virus, more doors are unlocked; a recent discovery of a possibly more transmissible strain of the virus means that we may face more public health obstacles moving forward.
In September of 2020, a new strain of the virus, named B.1.1.7, was detected in the United Kingdom. This strain had spread quickly throughout the U.K., spurring a number of lockdowns and travel bans in hopes of containing the virus. While mutations in viruses are generally common, B.1.1.7 shows itself to be different based on the fact that it contains more genetic changes than typically seen in less “significant” mutations. By December 2020, the new strain was discovered to have spread to the United States, including Colorado, Florida, and California, as well as over 30 other countries including Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Australia.
The genetic changes in B.1.1.7 seem to point to an increase in transmissibility. In other words, individuals are more easily and more likely to catch the virus and become infected if exposed, and likewise, transmit to more people, leading to a potentially exponential increase in COVID-19 cases. Currently, there is no evidence that B.1.1.7’s effects on the body are significantly different from the predominant strain; essentially, there is little difference in terms of severity of illness, deaths or reinfection.
Pfizer and Moderna, producers of the two currently authorized vaccines, are currently testing their vaccines’ effectiveness against the new strain. The vaccine has been tested and proven effective against other variations of the virus--scientists remain confident that current mutations of the virus will not be resistant against the vaccine. However, with the new strain’s potential to infect at higher rates, this means that vaccination rates may also need to increase in order to achieve herd immunity.
While B.1.1.7 is becoming more widespread, it is not the only variant of COVID-19; exactly how many variants exist, as well as what their effects are, however, remain unknown. The situation may change at anytime--therefore we must strengthen our efforts in preventing the spread.
The most effective protection against new strains is to continue what we have been doing--wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. Because COVID-19 may not present symptoms in infected individuals, and/or may still be transmissible before symptoms show, it is possible to spread the virus unknowingly; in order to prevent this, we must be more stringent about our sanitary and distancing practices.
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