Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at email@example.com with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions."
I'm hearing about virus variants that might be more easily transmitted. I'm worried one might be coming soon to my neck of the woods! What precautions should I be taking?
While COVID-19 has mutated in thousands of mostly harmless ways, the world is increasingly focused on one variant detected in England, dubbed B.1.1.7, and one found in South Africa, called 501.V2, because they seem to spread more easily than older strains. Although not believed to be any deadlier, B.1.1.7 has now become the dominant variant in some areas of England.
"It's not unusual for viruses to undergo mutations — and many may be completely harmless, and many may make it less deadly and less infectious," says Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, an assistant professor of medicine-infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
A dramatic rise in B.1.1.7 cases, especially in southeast London, made experts wonder if the new strain could be more infectious. While researchers are still trying to tease apart whether that's the case, or whether the rise could be attributed to a sociological change such as people mixing for the holidays, there are some biological reasons that make this strain easier to spread, Kulkarni says.
A top hypothesis that this strain is more infectious comes from a study looking at how much virus a person generates in the nose. The research found preliminary evidence that people infected with B.1.1.7 are more likely to have high levels of virus inside their upper respiratory tracts, so that when they cough, sneeze, talk or scream, they likely expel more virus into the air. More virus in the air likely means you infect more people around you.
Less is known about the South African strain, but at least one of its mutations appears to alter the spike protein. So stricter steps, such as lockdowns and border controls, may be necessary to curtail spread, say experts who live in current hot spots.
"Essentially, the measures that were implemented before that have kept transmission rates relatively stable are insufficient against this new variant," says virus expert Eleanor Gaunt of the University of Edinburgh.
In her home in Scotland, before B.1.1.7, people were advised to work from home if they could while schools, colleges and cafes remained open. "Even with social distancing, wearing masks and hand-washing — these were insufficient to quell this variant," she says. "Now we have a hard lockdown with all nonessential retail closed and schools closed — and we're still at risk of a collapse of the NHS [the country's publicly funded health care system]" because of the crush of patients.
And those of us in the 46 states (and many countries) where the new variant hasn't been confirmed aren't necessarily off the hook. After all, the U.K. found the variant because it was looking for it, says Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease expert and spokeswoman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America who witnesses hospital overload firsthand in Los Angeles County.
"I think we should assume it is everywhere," she says, pointing out that the U.S. lags behind in sequencing, ranking 43rd in the world at checking for new variants. "Now is the time to buckle down. There's going to come a point when we're left with no resources."
In lieu of government action, it may be best to avoid other people as much as possible, Gaunt says.
"One of the big problems is people thinking as individuals and not as a global population," she says. "The actions of one person have the potential for enormous impact on people they've never met. People need to be thinking that their actions can lead to the deaths of other people's grandparents. We need to be working together as a global population to do everything we can do as individuals."
So is there anything we can do differently to protect ourselves from B.1.1.7?
Yes and no, experts say. If you've been following the oft-repeated safety protocols to the letter, you might not have much adjusting to do. But this variant is a good wake-up call for the rest of us, experts say. Have you edged closer than 6 feet when you run into a neighbor on the sidewalk? Has that mask slipped below your nose? Are you singing two full rounds of happy birthday when you wash your hands — every time? Despite pandemic fatigue, this is not the time for slacking, the prevention specialists say.
This variant will likely find the cracks in our armor. It's more likely to infect those people who aren't following the guidelines.
"This is a really stark reminder that we must adhere to basic protection measures," Gaunt says.
So, here's a refresher on precautions to follow to a T (or beyond):
- Physically distance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 6 feet — and farther apart is always better, Gaunt adds. Socializing outside is not guaranteed to be risk-free, of course, "but it's a lot safer than indoors," she says.
- Mask up. Universal masking should be the norm indoors (except when you're at home with your household members, of course). If you're less than 6 feet apart outside, keep your mask on, experts say. If you're not sure? Err on the side of wearing it. And consider going a step further than you have before. Add another layer to the mask. Insert a filter. Get one that fits better. If people are breathing out more virus, why not ensure that your mask stops more of it from getting to your nose?
- Wash hands. You know the drill: Wet, lather, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, dry.
- Avoid crowds, indoors or out.
- Avoid other people indoors as much as possible. Before the new strain, Adam Squires, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Bath, recommended taking three of the following four measures before any encounter in an indoor situation: opening windows; masking up; keeping it less than 20 minutes; staying at least 6 feet apart. Now he suggests taking all four measures ... or, better yet, don't meet indoors at all. And if you can order your groceries online, do it, Gaunt says.
One new addition, Kulkarni adds: When it's your turn, get your vaccine as soon as you can.
"It's important to really follow through and be as much of a stickler as you can for the recommendations," Kulkarni says. "And if we learn more and more recommendations come out, keep an open mind; we may need to do something inherently different."
There is an upside. If we are actually able to adhere to strict protocols, we'd be rewarded with more than personal protection, Squires says. A virus mutates when its RNA is incorrectly copied in a host. So when there is less virus circulating, there is less opportunity for those mistakes — making it less likely to mutate further.
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. She's written about COVID-19 for Medscape, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Science News for Students and The Washington Post. More at sheilaeldred.pressfolios.com. On Twitter: @milepostmedia