UK’S ‘KENT’ VARIANT – B.1.1.7
UK health officials announced in December that a ‘variant of concern’ had emerged in the county of Kent.
The variant is known to scientists as B.1.1.7, a name derived from the location of its most significant mutations.
B117 appears to be more infectious than older ‘wild-type’ coronavirus variants.
Most estimates put it at about 70% more infectious, but some studies suggest it could be twice as infectious, while more moderate projections say its transmissibility is only about 56% higher.
B117 quickly became dominant in the UK, and now accounts for at least 90% of cases in the European country.
It has been detected in more than 70 countries, including the US, where the CDC estimates the variant makes up at least 44% of cases.
While its mutations seemed to quite clearly make the variant more infectious, it didn’t seem to change the odds of severe COVID-19 or death.
UK health officials say it may be 30 to 40% more deadly, based on how many people infected with it die. The mortality rate for people hospitalized with B.1.1.7. in the UK appears no different from that of older variants.
After reviewing the UK’s data, Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said it may indeed be deadlier.
However, he and UK officials still say other variants are more concerning because they may make vaccines less effective – which doesn’t seem to be the case with the UK variant.
SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT – B.1.351
A new variant was announced in South Africa on December 18.
It shares a mutation with the UK variant – in a location on its genome known as 501Y – but also has several other mutations.
The South African variant is estimated to be about 50 percent more contagious and is already dominant there.
It has spread to at least 20 countries, including the US, but the CDC estimates the variant makes up just 0.7% of cases.
In January, President Joe Biden invoked a travel ban on people coming from South Africa in an effort to stop importation of the new variant.
Dr Fauci says that the South African variant is the most concerning one because it might render vaccines less effective due to mutations that help it ‘hide’ from antibodies developed after vaccination or a previous bout of COVID-19.
BRAZIL’S VARIANT – P,1
The variant first caught international attention when four travelers arriving to Tokyo from Manaus, Brazil, tested positive on January 2.
The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.
Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, has been devastated by COVID-19. Hospitals are running out of oxygen and Brazilian officials have said it is in a state of crisis.
The new variant accounts for nearly half of all cases there and is thought to be more contagious and possibly make vaccines less effective.
It has spread to at least 15 countries, including the U.S., where it has become the second-most dominant variant, accounting for between 1% and 2% of all cases.