New York Covid variant reports divide officials and health experts

Lauren Aratani
·6 min read

Reports of a new variant of coronavirus in New York City have circulated this week, causing a rift between health experts and city officials who questioned how concerned people should be when data is limited.

Two separate studies in pre-print stages, meaning they have not been peer-reviewed, were released this week pointing to a coronavirus variant, named B.1.526, spotted in parts of New York City starting in November.

One report, from Columbia University, analyzed 1,142 samples from patients at Columbia’s medical center taken between November and mid-February. By mid-February, 12% of positive tests analyzed contained a mutation, of which a variant can have many different kinds, that could affect protection from the vaccine or antibody treatments.

Another report, by researchers at the California institute of Technology, also found evidence of the variant when using a software tool to scan genome sequences of the virus made public by Gisaid, a global health initiative.

After the B.1.526 variant was first reported by the New York Times and CNN, city officials got defensive, saying the studies proved further research was needed, not that there was a cause for panic.

“Plea to academics: please review high impact studies w/govt health depts before marketing it to [the] media,” wrote Dr Jay Varma, a senior adviser for public health to Mayor Bill De Blasio. “We’re left to decipher science from journalist’s abstract while fielding calls from electeds, public, media how this changes policy. Pathogen porn isn’t helping public health.”

In response, Dr David Ho, a lead researcher in the Columbia study, told a local news station: “It’s odd that we are being criticized for doing good science to alert the city what’s going on. City officials were notified couple of weeks ago.”

The tension between the New York researchers and city officials is tied to the fact that surveillance of Covid variants just started to increase in the US. Without enough surveillance and research, the uncertainty about which variants should be causes for concern can become fodder for such public health debates.

Viruses are constantly mutating, and most mutations have little effect on the virus’s lethality or severity.

Related: Covid 'angels': the volunteers helping at-risk strangers get vaccinated

But variants can be a sign of trouble, particularly if they make Covid-19 spread more easily among humans or if they bypass protections offered by vaccinations and treatment. Easier spread of the virus slows progress toward herd immunity, while a reduction in vaccine efficacy may mean manufacturers need to tweak or add booster shots to their existing vaccines.

The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) is monitoring the spread of three variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

B.1.1.7, the variant identified in the UK, is known to be more contagious but does not affect the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine. The variants seen in South Africa and Brazil, named B.1.351 and P.1, respectively, are both thought to be more contagious as well as having the E484K mutation, which may affect the vaccines’ ability to fight the virus.

When new variants of a virus affect a vaccine’s efficacy does not mean vaccine manufacturers need to start from scratch, rather they might just need to tweak their product. The Food and Drug Administration said that it will quickly analyze coronavirus vaccine boosters and will not require them to go through lengthy clinical trials, allowing for a faster release of any boosters against variants should they be needed. Moderna announced Wednesday that a tweaked version of its vaccine, meant to cover the strain from South Africa, is ready for its first human study. Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have said they are working on tweaking their vaccines or making boosters.

While the three variants being tracked by the CDC have shown cause for concern, the variant found in New York City, along with the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant being studied in California, have only just been uncovered. Public health experts say more research is needed to determine whether these variants are indeed “variants of concern”, which the World Health Organization defines as variants with the greatest public health implications that require attention and resources, versus “variants of interest”, which call for sensitive surveillance by researchers.

Public health experts largely agree that because there is so little data on the variants that have originated in the US so far, they are considered “variants of interest” that would benefit from closer research and monitoring.

“If you look at when the UK was putting out their information about B.1.17 … there was an enormous amount of data from their working group of independent scientists that advises the government, laying out all the data supporting the idea that this variant was more transmissible,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah.

“The amount of information that is available for the California and New York variants pales in comparison to the amount of supporting data that was presented for the UK variant.”

That research is just showing new variants appearing in the US is probably no coincidence: the US has been behind on genomic surveillance, which means the country is just amping up its efforts to track variants that are appearing in samples from Covid-positive patients.

“We simply do not have the kind of robust surveillance capabilities that we need to track outbreaks and mutations,” reads President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to address the pandemic. The CDC is in discussion with at least 13 labs as it looks to expand its surveillance of the virus’s variants, Politico reported last week.

When asked about the variant found in New York, Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said: “We’re always concerned about variants,” but he emphasized that the vaccines being distributed are “still good against severe disease” and that public health measures will continue to be effective against curbing the spread of the virus.

“[Variants] are coming up, but [for] the major spread in the country now, the vaccine is good against it,” Fauci said.

As more good vaccine news comes out, including an FDA advisory panel’s recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for emergency use, public health experts have emphasized that, while public health measures like masking and social distancing are still important, there is cause for hope, even with news of variants.

“The virus is not going to disappear, certainly not overnight, but they are going to turn the virus into a nuisance once we get very high vaccine coverage,” Goldstein said. “This is the first point in the pandemic where I think people should feel optimistic about the future moving forward.”