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WASHINGTON — A new strain of the coronavirus, known as B.1.526, is proliferating vigorously across New York City, after having originated in February in a part of upper Manhattan known as Washington Heights.
“I am concerned about its immune escape,” Dr. Eric Topol told Yahoo News, a reference to the strain’s heightened ability to evade the body’s antiviral armaments, including a vaccine. Vaccines remain broadly effective against the coronavirus, including B.1.526, but the emergence of new varieties will require constant vigilance from virologists.
The new variant’s arrival comes along exactly a year after New York City began reporting coronavirus cases. The city became the epicenter of the nation’s fight against the pandemic, and it has only recently begun to emerge from months of life under lockdown. Restaurants have been allowed to seat diners inside only since February.
“The variants are the X factor here,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, even as he warned that people should not attribute “mythological powers” to the new coronavirus variants. Public health officials have maintained that proper face coverings and social distancing remain effective in preventing transmission.
“There’s nothing different that we need people to do in New York,” said Dr. Jay Varma, an adviser to the mayor on the pandemic. For emphasis, he held up his face covering: a magenta cloth mask and, underneath it, an ordinary surgical mask. Public health officials now believe that double masking should be the norm.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, raised concerns about the new variant during a Monday briefing by the White House coronavirus task force. The Brooklyn-born immunologist said that the strain was “now gaining” and the Biden administration was taking it “very seriously.”
As the arrival of the new variant shows, the pandemic is far from over. Some half-dozen strains of the coronavirus are now spreading across the United States. Topol, a native of Queens, said that “far more worrisome” than B.1.526 is B.1.1.7, known as the British variant, because it appears to be much more transmissible than other strains.
The New York City variant is problematic because of a mutation known as E484K, which researchers have found allows it to evade antibodies and makes it more likely the virus will successfully infect people.
Still, vaccines appear to be broadly effective against the new variant. The New York variant, Penn State microbiologist Andrew Read told the New York Times, is “less well controlled by vaccine, but it’s not orders of magnitude down, which would terrify me.”
A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted to Yahoo News in an email that the New York strain is a “variant of interest,” but that the “overall prevalence of this variant in the U.S. is estimated to be less than 1%.”
In a city where more than 29,000 have died from COVID-19, any new variant of the virus is an unwelcome development, especially as New Yorkers are eager to reclaim their city in the warm-weather months.
“This is happening as we are attempting to open up,” noted U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. As the CDC has warned, opening up while new strains of the coronavirus are gaining force may ultimately prolong the pandemic.
“Fatigue is winning,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky cautioned on Wednesday.
Espaillat said on Tuesday that according to Columbia University virologist Dr. David Ho, who has been tracking the new variant, 26 percent of the coronavirus cases identified last week were of the B.1.526 variant. Throughout February, it represented 12 percent of cases.
“It’s really all over the city,” Espaillat told reporters. Ho later amended that assertion, telling Yahoo News that the New York City variant had, in fact, slipped the bounds of the five boroughs and was now spreading “along the Eastern Seaboard and to many other regions, including Chicago, Wyoming and Oregon. Several other countries as well.”
New York’s density presents a particular challenge, since the coronavirus spreads most easily in close quarters. Another challenge is its complex demography, requiring public health officials to be fluent in cultural and linguistic differences.
Espaillat’s district, for example, is a thriving community where Holocaust survivors, immigrants from the Dominican Republic and transplants from the Midwest may all find themselves in the same elevator. There are many essential workers, as well as the kinds of multigenerational households in which the virus is highly likely to spread.
Espaillat said he had written to the Biden administration asking for help in vaccinating the population. He said he wanted local physicians who had established relationships with residents to be given the authority to administer the vaccine. He has also asked the White House to “provide substantial amounts” of the antibody cocktail made by Regeneron to treat those severely sickened by the B.1.526 variant.
The status of Espaillat’s request was not clear as of Thursday morning.
For now, Washington Heights residents can get vaccinated at the Fort Washington Armory. “It is important that people vaccinate themselves immediately,” Espaillat said Tuesday.
City Councilman Mark Levine, who represents a swath of upper Manhattan, wondered why the city was lifting restrictions with the new variant looming.
“It’s not quite safe yet to reopen,” he said during Tuesday’s call with reporters.
Both he and Espaillat criticized the reopening of movie theaters as an especially misguided move. Levine thought that given the precarious situation, it was only right to “keep things really tight.”
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