Variant B.1.351

Variant B.1.351 (also known as 501Y.V2; first discovered in South Africa)…

…is, yes, in the United States.

Importantly, it was discovered in two individuals who didn’t know each other AND hadn’t recently travelled. This tells us, epidemiologists, that it’s been spreading within the community (and we just didn’t know about it). We aren’t surprised. This also strongly suggests that others are infected with B.1.351 too. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people because B.1.351 isn’t easily detectable. PCR tests won’t tell us if someone has this new variant compared to an old variant. PCR tests CAN tell us this with B.1.1.7 (the variant first discovered in the U.K.)

Earlier this week, Moderna and Pfizer confirmed that their vaccines still work against this variant. However, it doesn’t work as well as against the old variants (about a 6-fold difference). Despite this reduction, neutralizing titer levels with B.1.351 remain above levels that are expected to be protective. Moderna is working on a booster that would work much better against this particular variant, just in case we need it down the road.

Today, Novavax also came out with important information about B.1.351…

  1. They released, for the first time, “real world” data about the vaccine effectiveness against B.1.351. This is opposed to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine petri dish studies (which are done in a controlled environment and sometimes don’t represent what happens in the real world with environmental exposures). The Novavax vaccine also works against B.1.351. Reduced efficacy, but still works.
  2. They are also changing up the vaccine formula just in case we need it down the road.
  3. Unfortunately, Novavax also found that prior “natural” COVID19 infection (with an old variant) does not always protect against B.1.351 (while the vaccine does)

So, what does this mean? Three things…

  1. Get vaccinated. Our best defense against B.1.351 or any other variant right now is a vaccination.
  2. We need to stop transmission (of B.1.351 and all other variants). And we need to stop it now. The more this virus jumps from one person to the next, the more opportunity this virus has to mutate. Our vaccines work for now, but that might not be the case in the next mutation or two or three or ten.
  3. There’s now some serious pressure on Johnson and Johnson to perform.

This is worrisome news, but we knew this was coming. Stay vigilant. And, honestly, I would be much more worried about what mutations we have not detected in the US. We rank 48th in the world on mutation surveillance.

Have I convinced you yet that it’s important to invest in public health before a pandemic hits?

Love, YLE

Data Sources:


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