New variants of SARS-CoV-2 are an unexpected spanner in the works as countries around the world establish their vaccine distribution regimes. These new variants, which may be more contagious from early observations, pose new challenges in the global fight against Covid-19. SARS-CoV-2 variants cause problems for the afflicted countries and present dangers for all countries in the battle against Covid-19.
The United Kingdom variant was first detected in October 2020 from a sample taken the month before. The variant gained notoriety in the international media as cases surged in the UK from October to December. By mid-December, it was estimated that nearly 60 percent of Covid-19 infections in London were caused by the new variant, which the UK viral advisory board concluded was more transmissible than other variants.
Six thousand miles south, authorities in South Africa were discovering their own variant. On December 18, South African health officials announced a variant found the month before spreading through three provinces. The South African variant was also deemed more transmissible by health authorities in a similar light to the UK variant.
As of January 5th, the UK variant has been discovered in over thirty other countries and the South African variant in four. The rapid spread should be disturbing to those anticipating an end to the pandemic in the coming months. These variants appear rapidly transmissible. After a holiday period where millions of people flew commercially in America alone, these cases stemming from the variants will only accelerate throughout January.
Health authorities remain optimistic that the vaccines in distribution will still provide immunity for the UK variant, but we await proof that their optimism is justified. Vaccine distribution in the UK has already begun, and a resistant new variant would complicate that venture. The South African variant has not been studied as closely or as long as the UK variant, and some are cautious that the vaccines may not cover its mutated structure.
This is one of the dangers new variants prompts. Every transmission of the virus increases the chance of mutation, and with enough mutations, the virus may evade vaccines. If the UK and South Africa variants have mutated to become more transmissible, it seems equally possible that other variants could mutate their structure to avoid the vaccines that are currently being distributed worldwide. This is why a single country’s new variant affects all countries. With every mutation, the worldwide population faces the risk of ineffective vaccines.
There’s also a sizable chance that the UK and South Africa variants are not alone. There have been over 80 million recorded Covid-19 cases and likely millions more. It almost seems more likely that variants are lurking, waiting to be discovered. There may be variants in the United States. The UK found its variant through genome sequencing, which the US has not been doing as much. There could be a vaccine-evading super spreader somewhere in New York, California, or Texas. We should try to find them before they cause significant damage.
Ultimately, leaving any form of the virus in any country unaddressed could lead to serious outbreaks all over the world. Vaccines provide a chance to get most of the spread under control, but emerging variants make that plan a bit more difficult. If the UK, South African, or undiscovered variants of the virus become vaccine resistant, there need to be alternate plans in place. Research into these new variants should be held to the highest priority. We should also keep a close eye on new cases’ genomes to monitor for new emerging strains. We can beat this, but we need to keep working hard.