All viruses mutate, and most mutations have little consequence. But some variants in the genetic makeup can cause significant changes in viral behavior and in the ability of vaccines to protect against it. That is why scientists have been paying special attention to the variant identified first in Britain, and the variant spotted in South Africa, as well as a new one from Brazil.
The British variant spread with remarkable speed and is now dominant there, leading to a strict lockdown. The epidemiological evidence — the scope and speed of the spread — suggested that it was more transmissible, perhaps up to 50 percent more, than the original virus, though it is not yet known exactly how or why. At first, researchers said the variant did not appear to be more lethal or cause more serious illness. However, on Jan. 22, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the variant “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” based on a report that found “there is a realistic possibility” that infection with the new variant “is associated with an increased risk of death” compared with the original virus. The data is limited, but this could foreshadow trouble in the United States, where the new variant has a foothold. Also, a more transmissible virus could lead to a jump in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
On Monday, another concerning development was disclosed about the South African variant. Vaccine developer Moderna announced that its mRNA vaccine could successfully protect against the British variant but might have diminished impact on the South African one, though it would still offer protection. The company said “out of an abundance of caution” it was starting work on a booster candidate to use against the South African variant. The Moderna announcement points to what could be — but so far has not yet become — a serious threat to the vaccines, if the virus mutates to become evasive.
How to respond? The methods used so far — face masks, social distancing, lockdowns, good hygiene — all seem to mitigate the new variants. Hopefully, the vaccines also will work. But one missing piece is the equivalent of a tracking radar. Genetic sequencing technology has developed rapidly. It should be deployed into a massive cross-country genomic virus surveillance network for disease detection and risk assessment, and then incorporated into a global network that would provide timely alerts as the virus evolves. Such a network will be valuable not only during this pandemic but also to help spot future threats. Unfortunately, the United States is way behind other nations in this endeavor. The Biden administration, aware of the problem, should make it a highest priority.