New coronavirus variants explained

As COVID-19 vaccines rollout around the world, scientists continue to research and monitor emerging variants of coronavirus. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

By Grace Rodgers 
Medill Reports

Virus mutations are a natural occurrence during an epidemic or pandemic. However, some new coronavirus variants have raised concern amongst scientists because of the number and type of mutations they contain, leading to questions on what role these new variants play in the transmissibility of coronavirus.

While COVID-19 cases remain high across the United States, the number of hospitalizations and new cases has steadily declined since mid-January, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker. However, as long as the coronavirus continues to infect the U.S. population, new variants are likely to occur.

“That’s the nature of viruses. They keep making mutations,” said Dr. Suo, a biomedical sciences professor at Florida State University.

Mutations occur during a cell’s replication process when a random error changes the genetic makeup of a virus. Most mutations are defective and won’t spread. But occasionally, a series of mutations will produce a variant that helps the virus infect other cells and replicate. Scientists track mutations as they pass through the viral family tree, otherwise known as a lineage.

The B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 lineage have raised the most concern amongst scientists because of the large number of mutations detected in each lineage. All three lineages also carry a mutation that affects the receptor binding domain, a key part of the virus that allows it to bind and gain entry into host cells. Preliminary research suggests a mutation here allows the virus to be more transmissible.

Scientists have also voiced concern that the new variants may impact the effectiveness of current FDA-approved vaccines in the United States.

“Although current Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are as effective against the U.K. variant — and perhaps Brazilian variant — as against the original COVID-19 virus, some evidence suggests that these vaccines are less effective against the South African variant,” said Dr. Suo.

Still, vaccines remain an essential part of the long-term solution to the pandemic. They may have to be adjusted or people may have to receive booster shots to keep up with new variants.

Nevertheless, people can still do their part to stop the spread of the virus in order to prevent new variants of coronavirus from emerging, according to Dr. Wesley Long, a pathology and genomic medicine professor at Houston Methodist, Weill Cornell Medical College.

“Wear your mask, social distance, avoid crowds, avoid large gatherings, and get vaccinated as soon as you’re eligible because if we don’t have transmission, we won’t have these new variants arising.”

Grace Rodgers is health, environment and science reporters at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @gracelizrodgers.