This is the third in a weekly Q and A column written by Dr. Lydia S. Segal in conjunction with Chaffee County Public Health. This column is focused on questions readers have about Covid-19. As Dr. Segal points out, ‘Everything I write today is valid for today. Covid-19 news and science are rapidly evolving, assume updates will be made.”
QUESTIONS: If you have a question you would like Dr. Segal to address in a future Q & A column please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Background: Variants are newer forms of a virus. And just like people that change, viruses evolve over time, this is normal. There is a lot of news about variants right now. In this week’s Q & A column variants will be reviewed.
QUESTION: What are these variants I keep hearing about?
ANSWER: Variants are like copies of your original house key but are ever so slightly different. There is that original key that works perfectly on the front door lock. But you have to get copies made and they are good copies but not perfect. So sometimes they work and sometimes you have to jiggle them to make them fit. And sometimes they don’t work at all. A variant is a copy of the original virus, sometimes referred to as the wildtype in scientific lingo, that still fits into the cell surface receptor (ie. door lock) but is not a perfect fit.
QUESTION: Are all variants bad? I thought that viruses evolve over time to be less lethal.
ANSWER: When a change happens in a virus, it may be good or bad. And it depends where on the virus the change happens as to whether its effects are more severe or not. In the case of the coronavirus, a variant may not make a noticeable change in the symptoms from the original virus or it may cause more severe symptoms or make it more transmissible.
QUESTION: What are the United Kingdom (UK), South Africa and Brazil variants? And now I hear there’s a California variant and maybe more?
ANSWER: The three main variants as of earlier this week are named both for the location they were initially located geographically and by where the change on their genetic code took place. So that number B.1.1.7 is relevant to researchers but folks in the UK only care if it is more transmissible or causing more severe cases of covid.
QUESTION: How many of these variants are in the USA? Are they testing for the variants?
ANSWER: All three of the aforementioned variants are in the USA. Since less than one percent of all positive coronavirus tests are sent on for what is termed genomic testing, we really don’t know the extent of any of these variants in the USA. And therefore we don’t know how much is in Chaffee County.
QUESTION: Will the vaccines work on the variants?
ANSWER: It is unknown as the mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer were tested in the spring and summer before the variants were likely in the USA. Early data yet to be peer-reviewed shows Pfizer and Moderna both appear to work against the UK variant. The three other vaccines yet to be approved in the USA (Astra Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax) also show early promise against the UK variant. It is too early to know any of vaccines’ effectiveness against the South African and Brazil variants, except for the poor showing by Astra Zeneca against the South African variant.
QUESTION: Does this mean we will need a booster shot as new variants emerge, just like flu shots?
ANSWER: Most likely boosters will be needed. It is too early to know when and against which variants.
QUESTION: Does this mean I will still need to wear a mask and social distance?
ANSWER: Yes it does mean masking and social distancing will continue.
QUESTION: Will the variants impact herd immunity?
ANSWER: For herd immunity to be reached, it is projected that 85% of the population will need to be vaccinated. At this point the earliest projections of that number are sometime in the summer. Because there are a lot of unknowns about the effectiveness of the vaccines against the variants, the projection for herd immunity may change.
QUESTION: Now that I understand about variants should I get the vaccine now or wait for another that will protect against the variants too?
ANSWER: Deaths related to covid-19 post full vaccination = ZERO, number of severely hospitalized patients post fully vaccinated = decreased by 95%. So even if the vaccines don’t work as well on the variants as they do on the wildtype, it seems worthwhile to get it.
INFORMATION: For more information about covid and the vaccines, eligibility, and appointments, see the links below. Pharmacies will be getting small shipments of vaccines in the near future. Information will be posted in this newspaper and on the county public health web pages.
Buena Vista resources for vaccines: Buena Vista Drug and Valley-Wide Health
LUNCH AND LEARN: via zoom hosted by the Chaffee County Public Health Nurses:
February 25th, noon
Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/85615095570
By Lydia S, Segal, MD, MPH
Dr. Segal is a board-certified family physician who is attempting to retire. She holds a Masters in Public Health, and co-teaches with members of the Pelvic Physical Therapy staff at HRRMC classes on men’s and women’s pelvic health. In her former life, she was a general assignment reporter. In her spare time she hikes, skis and cooks.