Health officials are urging Americans to not let their guards down against COVID-19 as researchers discover new variants that may already be more transmissible and could also be somewhat resistant to the vaccine.
“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Monday. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”
While experts have been following variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, they're also seeing red flags in other variants discovered closer to home in Brazil, New York and California.
In Monday’s briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci said a recent study found some COVID-19 treatments may not be as effective against the new variant discovered in New York.
“It’s a theoretical, but it can be a real issue,” the nation’s top infectious diseases expert said.
Here's what's known about the newer emerging variants and why health experts are worried about them:
The P.1 variant first identified in Brazil
A variant that originated in Brazil – called P.1 – was first reported in late January by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan after four travelers from Brazil were screened at an airport outside of Tokyo.
The variant has 17 unique mutations, including three in the virus’s spiked protein, according to the CDC. As of Sunday, the CDC reported 10 cases of the P.1 variant in five U.S. states: Alaska, Florida, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Maryland. The agency has designated it a "variant of concern."
A study published in January reported on a cluster of cases in Manaus, Brazil, the largest city in the Amazon region. It found the P.1 variant was identified in 42% of COVID-19 cases sequenced from late December.
Many of the cases occurred in people who already had recovered from the coronavirus, intensifying concerns about reinfection, said Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the College of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Florida, who is unaffiliated with the study.
“They had a high level of herd immunity there and what they found now is that they’re seeing new cases of COVID-19 and reinfections,” she said. Researchers discovered reinfection was caused primarily by the P.1 variant.
Last week was Brazil’s deadliest of the pandemic, with 8,244 deaths from the virus. Less than 4% of Brazil’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Almost 260,000 people have died from the disease.
“The return of the pandemic in several states is making their private and public assistance networks collapse and has brought imminent risk of spreading it to all regions of Brazil,” Brazil’s National Council of Health Secretaries said Monday, adding that the nation is experiencing its worst moment since the pandemic began.
The B.1.526 variant first identified in New York
Another mutated version of the coronavirus – called B.1.526 – popped up in New York City in late November and has since cropped up in neighboring states.
By Jan. 2021, the variant represented about 3% of samples analyzed by researchers, rising to 12.3% by mid-February, according to a study by scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons that has yet to be peer-reviewed.
More on COVID variants: Data suggests AstraZeneca's vaccine may not protect against variant discovered in South Africa
As of Feb. 25, more than 80 cases of the variant have been identified in patients across the tri-state area, including Connecticut and Westchester County, New York.
“It’s not just one cluster, which means the lineage is probably spreading widely through the region,” Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, study author and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said in a statement.
Experts say the impact of the new B.1.526 variant on transmissibility, disease severity, and risk of reinfection is not known. But the Columbia study shows the variant shares some concerning characteristics with the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil, which may be less responsive to some treatments and vaccines.
What do these variants have in common? The E484K mutation
Health experts speculate the COVID-19 vaccine may be less effective against these emerging variants because of a mutation to the coronavirus’s spike protein, called the E484K mutation, which is present in variants first identified in South Africa, Brazil and New York.
Another recent study that has yet to be peer-reviewed found antibodies from vaccinated people are less effective against the B.1.351 virus, the variant first identified in South Africa, because of this mutation.
Variants with the E484K mutation may also be the cause for the drop in effectiveness of certain monoclonal treatments. Researchers also say this mutation may cause reinfection in people who were had recovered from earlier variants of the coronavirus.
In the coming weeks, Columbia scientists plan to ramp up sequencing efforts to about 100 samples a day and culture live variant to learn more about its vulnerability to vaccines and potential COVID-19 treatments.
“The rise of these variants shows that we may be chasing after SARS-CoV-2 for some time,” study author Dr. David Ho, professor of medicine and director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, said in the Columbia statement. “Unfortunately, this pandemic may not go away so easily with the advent of the vaccine.”
The B.1.427/429 variant first identified in California
The variant that popped up in different regions of California – called B.1.427 or B.1.429 – does not contain the E484K mutation but researchers say it’s worth watching after a study suggested it’s associated with increased risk of severe disease and death.
University of California, San Francisco, researchers also found the variant was significantly associated with intensive care unit stay and mechanical ventilation, according to the preprint study that has yet to be peer-reviewed.
Study authors predicted the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant may have emerged in May 2020 and increased in prevalence until it made up more than half of COVID-19 cases throughout California by January.
The variant has been reported in 52 states but most of the cases are in California and Nevada, according to outbreak.info, a website that tracks epidemiological data around the world.
Instead of the E484K mutation, the new variant first identified in California contains three spike protein mutations: S13l, W152C and L452R.
“Prior studies have suggested that the L452R mutation may stabilize the interaction between the spike protein and the (host cell) and thereby increase infectivity,” study authors said. Its resistance against antibodies through natural infection or COVID-19 vaccines is still unknown.
There may be cause for concern regarding all the emerging variants, but there’s still hope with the COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. Karin Michels, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health, who is not affiliated with the UC, San Francisco study.
While one mutation may be less effective against the vaccine, it still provides some protection and prevents severe disease and death, she said.
“A little bit less effective is not not effective,” Michels said. “Once the virus changes so much that the vaccines are useless… that’s going to be the (real) problem.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID strain: What to know about Brazil, New York, California variants