Many are expecting vaccinations, rising levels of immunity and warmer weather to help control the Covid-19 pandemic and make spring and summer more bearable. But new viral variants threaten these prospects. The U.S. is struggling to estimate how prevalent these strains are and how fast they’re spreading. The infrastructure for dealing with a pandemic is still incomplete a year into the crisis.
At issue are mutated strains: one identified in the U.K., another first spotted in South Africa, and a third strain in Brazil that is similar to the South African one. The mutations speckling these new strains appear to make the virus spread more easily. New waves have swamped places where these variants have become prevalent across Europe, Africa and Latin America.
There is new research that the U.K. variant may also cause more serious illness. The strain found in South Africa may have mutated parts of its protein structure to help it defeat some antibody drugs and could render vaccines less effective. A lot is unknown, but the variants pose a serious threat.
Americans are wondering: Are these new variants spreading around my city? The U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, has been discovered in as many as 20 U.S. cities, although many of the cases are localized in Florida and San Diego. The variant circulating in South Africa and Brazil hasn’t been detected in the U.S., but the search only started recently. It is almost certainly circulating somewhere.
Until recently, there wasn’t a systematic effort to look for these variants. Such an effort involves sampling positive Covid cases to determine their genetic makeup. Much of the sequencing in the U.S. is academic work and not devoted to public-health surveillance.