What do we know about other COVID variants?The delta variant is just the latest one to cause concern in the U.S. as it spreads across the globe. Earlier this year, more infectious variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil made headlines as they became more dominant in different parts of the world.
Each has its own set of mutations, but they all contain small changes to parts of the spike protein that helps the coronavirus attach to our cells.
“This is concerning, because it means the virus could spread more easily,” Dr. Rhoads says.It’s hard to measure exactly how much of an impact new variants initially have on the pandemic since many factors contribute to how quickly a virus spreads – including human behaviors.
But those concerns over the new delta variant are for good reason. The U.K. variant that alarmed experts in the U.S. at the beginning of the year, called B.1.1.7 or “alpha,” now accounts for nearly 70% of all U.S. cases. And the variant from Brazil, P.1, accounts for over 11% of all U.S. Cases. The CDC considers both “variants of concern,” notes Dr. Rhoads.
There is good news, though, as a study out of England showed that the Pfizer vaccine was still highly effective (88%) against symptomatic disease from the delta variant. “These new variants can also still be detected with our current tests, so that’s one thing that should be reassuring,” Dr. Rhoads adds.
What about the lambda variant?
With the delta variant emerging as a dominant variant of concern, the scientific community is working hard to track down the next variant that could possibly make COVID-19 even harder to beat. One variant of interest is the lambda variant (C.37). The earliest documented samples of this variant were recorded back in December of 2020 in Peru.
It has since been reported that this variant is more resistant to vaccines and highly infectious. The WHO made it a “variant of interest” on June 14 and it has been detected in 29 countries so far. However, there are still many unknowns when it comes to the lambda variant. Dr. Rhoads says this variant is on the radar, but it’s still too early to determine its impact.
Does the vaccine protect against variants?
In the end, the shape-shifting nature of the coronavirus (and all viruses) is something that experts across the world are keeping a close eye on, but it’s not something you should expect to change the course of the pandemic overnight.
However, the contagiousness of the newer variants is all the more reason to stay careful even as most states roll back social distancing guidelines. Only half of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated but, in many states, that number remains below 50%.
The CDC says the COVID-19 vaccines that are authorized for emergency use (Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) or fully approved (Pfizer/BioNTech) in the U.S. are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death even with the Delta variant. And while breakthrough infections will occur, the number of cases that result in serious illnesses, hospitalizations or death are very low.
“These new waves of infections show that the pandemic is not close to being over yet,” Dr. Rhoads says. “At this time, vaccination has proven to be our most effective tool, and vaccines are readily available for many children and adults in the U.S. Vaccinations are our best defense against these emerging mutations.”