There is no scientific evidence that the UK variant of COVID-19 impacts disease severity, Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman said Wednesday. The existing vaccines are effective against it. But the variant is still a concern because it appears to be more infectious than the original strain of the virus.
Kesterman and Dr. Jennifer Forrester, an infectious disease expert at UC Health, discussed the variant's infection rate and how it responds to vaccines on Wednesday, days after Hamilton County Public Health announced the variant had been detected in the county.
What is the UK variant of COVID-19?
The UK variant, officially labeled B.1.1.7 lineage, is a mutation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Forrester said. SARS-CoV-2 is a type of coronavirus, a group of viruses that have a microscopic "crown" of spike proteins. These proteins enable the virus to attach to and infect human cells. The UK variant and the variant that emerged in South Africa have mutations in their spike proteins.
How did this variant develop?
“All the attention on these variants make them seem completely alien, but really when viruses multiply, or copy themselves, they make a lot of mistakes," Forrester said. "Scientifically, these mistakes are called mutations, and this happens all the time. This is what all viruses do … as a virus spreads and they’re allowed to copy more and more, or make more mistakes, statistically, eventually, some of these virus mutations, like the ones we’re concerned about, allow the virus to do its job better, to increase its survival."
Why is the variant a concern?
Although there is no clear evidence that the UK variant causes more severe disease, the variant concerns health officials because it appears to be more infectious, according to Forrester. This makes the virus dangerous simply based on the numbers: The more people infected, the higher the chance that one of those people could become seriously ill or die.
Does the vaccine still work against the variant?
Forrester said the vaccines that are currently available protect against all known variants, but some vaccines may be mildly less effective than they were against the original strain.
How did we found out the variant is in Hamilton County?
The variant was detected using routine surveillance tests, which the Ohio Department of Health sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Kesterman.
Where has the variant been detected in Greater Cincinnati?
There have been 11 known cases in six counties across Ohio, including Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Lorain, Median, Portage and Ross counties. A Covington, Kentucky lab also detected the variant last month.
What about other variants?
In addition to the UK variant, the following variants have been detected in the U.S., according to the CDC:
- Variant B.1.351, which emerged in South Africa in early October 2020
- Variant P.1, which emerged in Brazil in in early January
Neither of these variants has been detected locally yet. Forrester said there will be more mutations and likely more variants as the virus spreads from person to person. That's why it is imperative that people continue to wear a mask, socially distance, practice good hand-washing and stay at home when they’re sick.
“If the virus can’t find another person to infect, then those mutations and variants can’t spread," Forrester said. "So until the vaccines are more widely available, we really can’t let our guards down just yet,”