Carl J. Fichtenbaum, MD, UC Health infectious diseases physician and professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, gives his perspective on the virus variant and why this may not be an unexpected development.
“It’s not surprising at all that viruses mutate and change. This is nature. Nature is always changing, it’s always adapting to its environment,” Dr. Fichtenbaum said. “We change as human beings, so it’s not surprising that we’re going to see variations of the COVID-19 virus.”
Dr. Fichtenbaum explains that COVID-19 and other viruses adapt to pressures in their environment. The main pressure, in this case, is our immune systems, which kick into gear to attempt to prevent the virus from causing dangerous complications in our bodies.
COVID-19 appears to be more contagious than other viruses that we have faced, such as influenza (flu) or H1N1 (swine flu). Because it’s more contagious, it’s had the chance to infect more people, giving it more attempts at adapting to various immune systems.
How is the new strain different from COVID-19?
The distinguishable characteristic of this COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.7, is that it is even more contagious than its predecessor. This strain can more easily bind to the receptors on our cells to gain access inside and begin replicating, which is how we get sick.
What makes a virus, or new virus strain, more contagious?
A virus can be more contagious when it can more easily gain access inside our cells.
In a helpful analogy, Dr. Fichtenbaum explains that viruses act like oddly shaped keys, wherein the various receptors in our bodies act as the locks or keyholes where the virus must fit in order to gain access to our cells. Once the virus gains access, they begin multiplying as the infected cells.
“It makes it more likely, more able to bind onto our receptors. So, look at it this way: You have a key that is made by somebody, and the key has a little jagged edge, so you have to jiggle a little to get it in.
“This key (B.1.1.7 strain) is a lot smoother; it fits better, and it can get right into the cell more easily.”
Think of this virus variant as only needing half as many attempts at gaining access to our cells as the original strain. This means, for example, that if it takes 10 tries for COVID-19 to bind to a receptor in our body, it may take B.1.1.7 only five tries to accomplish this. This is much more efficient by definition and a main reason why the new strain would be more highly contagious.
Should I be worried about the new COVID-19 strain?
Many have asked how much of a threat this new variant is. How does it compare to the original COVID-19 strain?
First, it’s important to understand why the original strain of COVID-19 is a threat.
The main attribute that makes COVID-19 different from other viruses is just how easily it spreads. While some viruses may cause worse health problems once contracted, they may not be quite as skilled at spreading.
Since COVID-19 spreads so easily, it is able to gain access to the immune systems of individuals who are at higher risk, while those that experience few or no symptoms may unknowingly continue to spread it. B.1.1.7 is a strain of COVID-19 that has inherited and improved upon this defining trait: ease of spread.
But it’s also important to consider a few other factors when determining this new strain’s threat level: Whether the variant is more deadly or dangerous, and whether our current defenses will protect against disease. On these fronts, there is good news.
Is the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 more deadly?
Fortunately, there is no current evidence that this new strain is any deadlier than the original. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can let our guard down. It’s important to recognize that both COVID-19 and the B.1.1.7 strain can cause serious complications, lasting health impacts and sometimes death.
Is the B.1.1.7 strain still susceptible to the COVID-19 vaccine?
Yes. The vaccine will protect against disease from the new strain. The virus variant has a very similar structure to the original strain of COVID-19, so our immune response to COVID-19 will be effective in protecting against B.1.1.7.
The vaccine works by giving our cells instructions to create the spike protein that is on the outside of the COVID-19 virus. The body recognizes the spike protein and builds defenses This process provides a signal for our bodies to begin creating the proper immune system response that will be crucial at stopping the real virus in its tracks. Since B.1.1.7 is only a more efficient version of COVID-19 and not an entirely new virus, the protective antibody “bouncers” that result from the vaccine will recognize both COVID-19 and B.1.1.7 as unwelcome guests needing to be dealt with. Furthermore, researchers and vaccine developers are working to update vaccines much like how influenza vaccines are changed each year to ensure that we can stay ahead of the virus and protect ourselves despite these changing strains.
How do I prevent infection from the new COVID-19 strain?
The answer is simple: The same measures we’ve taken to protect against COVID-19 will protect us from the new strain. The safest way to prevent the spread is to wear a face mask any time we’re around people who don’t live with us, maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet and wash our hands. We’ve learned how to adapt to a life where we can live safely with the virus in our community.
Keep Calm, Stop the Spread
The news of a new strain of COVID-19 may cause anxiety and fear, given the widespread social and economic hardship the pandemic has caused over the past year. While you may have been waiting at your doorway to spring back to the streets, we advise moving forward with caution, new strain or not.
While the vaccine is becoming more widespread by the day, it’s important to remember that we will not end this pandemic overnight. The safest thing to do is to continue to wear masks, social distance and practice good hand hygiene.