Will New COVID Variant in U.S. Affect Vaccines, Why Is It More Contagious?

A new variant of COVID believed to have first surfaced in the U.K. was discovered in Colorado on Tuesday, with health officials confirming a man in his 20s with no travel history had contracted the disease.

While much is still unknown about the new strain, analysis conducted by authorities in the U.K suggests it is up to 70 percent more transmissible than other variants, playing a significant role in a surge in cases across London and the south east of England.

According to the U.K. government, genetic evidence suggests the new variant emerged in September and circulated at low levels in the public until mid-November.

Officials say there is no evidence that it causes more severe disease or higher chance of death but noted "mortality is a lagging indicator" and investigations continue.

Now, scientists are studying whether this new variant, named VUI–202012/01, impacts the effectiveness of the multiple COVID vaccinations being rolled out around the world, including those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca.

Is the new variant resistant to the vaccines?

While the mutated strain, which has been dubbed B.1.1.7 by U.S. officials, is believed to spread faster than the previous novel coronavirus, experts say that studies are ongoing to determine if currently-authorized vaccines will be able to protect people.

But the vaccine-makers have appeared optimistic their preventative medications will be able to combat new variants, or be adapted to do so in a relatively short period of time by tinkering with sections of messenger RNA (mRNA) used in the vaccines.

"The beauty of the messenger RNA technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine, which completely mimics this new mutation," BioNTech boss Ugur Sahin said in a press briefing this month, pharmaceutical news outlet PMLiVE reported.

Unlike traditional vaccines that introduce a weakened form of the virus into the body to jump-start defense against infectious disease, mRNA vaccines don't use the live virus that causes COVID and so they do not carry any risk of COVID infection.

Instead, mRNA vaccines trigger an immune response by making cells make a harmless spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID, teaching the body to fight infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said.

AstraZeneca and Moderna made similar statements that their vaccines should be able to combat new strains of the virus—and some academics appeared to agree.

"What you can do is you can change the RNA of the vaccine to match the new mutation, and then make antibodies to the mutation as well, so they can do that. We do that with the flu vaccine every year," Stanford University epidemiologist Dr. Yvonne Maldonado told ABC7, noting there are many COVID variants in the wild.

The U.K. government has previously said online that there is "currently no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine would not protect people against the new variant."

Broadly, experts say existing health advice—social distancing, hand washing and face masks—remain some of the most effective ways to limit the chance of contracting the illness, which has been tied to more than 346,500 deaths in the U.S.

Adding to the list of unknowns is how widespread the new COVID variant has spread in Colorado, or other parts of the country. Colorado Politics reported on Tuesday that a second suspected case was identified in the state, but details were scant.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says investigations are ongoing to find out if the variant is linked to shifts in antibody responses or vaccine efficacy, confirming it has also been found in Australia, Denmark, Italy, Iceland and the Netherlands.

The CDC has warned in a fact sheet that "ongoing travel" between the U.K and the U.S. would "increase the likelihood of importation" of the new coronavirus variant and said it is possible the variant could be in the U.S. without having been detected.

"Scientists are working to learn more about this variant to better understand how easily it might be transmitted and whether currently authorized vaccines will protect people against it. At this time, there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death," it said, adding that facts are still "rapidly emerging."

The agency said there is "no evidence" vaccine effectiveness is impacted and said most experts "believe this is unlikely to occur" due to the nature of the drug makeups.

Despite the ongoing vaccine rollout, leading U.S. infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned the pandemic is likely to "get worse" because of holiday season. He previously advised against traveling for Christmas and to avoid large gatherings.

Why is the new variant more transmissible?

Much like the impact on approved vaccines, experts from the U.K's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) said earlier this month that the "underlying mechanism of increased transmissibility" of the new strain is unclear but there had been some indication that it could be more likely to infect children.

The U.K. government said: "We know that mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that makes it infectious, can change how the virus interacts with human cells. However, we do not yet know the mechanism for this increase in transmission.

"The evidence shows that infection rates in geographical areas where this particular variant has been circulating have increased faster than expected, and the modeling evidence has demonstrated that this variant has a higher transmission rate than other variants in current circulation." Scientists' investigations are ongoing.

Patients with the new variant may have higher loads of the virus in the blood, according to a study from PHE Public Health Laboratory Birmingham that details possible reasons for higher transmission that is yet to be peer-reviewed, The Guardian reported.

Dr. Michael Kidd, who led the team, said: "It does seem as though the patients with this variant have higher viral loads—then the obvious thing is it is easier for them to spread it to other people." He stressed the analysis was "preliminary and needs repeating."

Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine
A member of the medical staff prepares a dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the Notre-Dame hospital in Brussels on December 28, 2020. Scientists in the U.S. are currently investigating how a new variant will impact the approved vaccines. JOHANNA GERON/POOL/AFP/Getty