A new variant of COVID-19 first found in the United Kingdom has officially spread to the United States. The new strain has been found by researchers to be up to 70% more transmissible than previous strains. Additionally, new rapidly spreading strains have popped up in Brazil and South Africa, raising new questions and concerns amid increasing vaccine distribution. According to the Detroit Free Press, the U.K. strain could become the dominant strain in the U.S. as early as March.
The U.K. strain, though more transmissible, doesn’t necessarily appear much more deadly or significantly less effective against the vaccine than previous strains. However, scientists attest that more research needs to be done, and companies such as Moderna and Pfizer are already testing variations of their vaccine in case their current vaccine supply needs to be updated due to the newer strains. Some experts expect that the COVID-19 vaccine must continuously be adapted to fit new strains, similar to how annual flu vaccines must be altered frequently.
The new variations are also affecting the current vaccine rollout, increasing the urgency for as many people to get vaccinated as possible. Multiple companies have requested the FDA’S emergency authorization for new vaccines. Johnson & Johnson announced that they have filed for emergency authorization earlier this month and that they are prepared to distribute as soon as the vaccine is approved. The vaccine only requires one shot, which is significantly more convenient than its predecessors. The vaccine is 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe cases, and it was 85% effective for severe cases. The vaccine was tested amongst a diverse population, including people who have been infected with new strains of the vaccine.
The U.K. pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca (partnered with Oxford University) is rolling out another vaccine as well. The AstraZeneca vaccine was determined to be 82% effective after receiving both doses. A key strength of the AstraZeneca vaccine is that it does not require the extensive refrigeration and storage of other vaccines, making it significantly easier to distribute.
The main focus now for cities and states across the country is to vaccinate as many people as possible before the newer, more contagious strains become more prevalent. Michigan’s goal of vaccinating at least 70% of people ages 16 and older by August is moving slower than hoped for, particularly due to a lack of vaccine supplies. Governor Whitmer hopes the new administration will speed up vaccine supplies to match Michigan’s goal of 50,000 vaccinations a day. President Biden also has a goal of vaccinating 100 million people in the first 100 days of the administration, which would require a million people vaccinated every day up until April 30.
This also increases the need to maintain social distancing and masking protocols, even as vaccination efforts increase. As Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned earlier this year, “Viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate,” reminding many that simple prevention methods are still the most effective, especially when vaccines are still not widely available to the general public. One suggestion by the CDC is to wear masks with two layers, to clean masks often and to ensure that the mask fits properly.
Thorough measures like increased wastewater testing are considered crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19 on Hope College’s campus, and some students feel confident that Hope is taking proper precautionary measures. “I think they [Hope] are doing a pretty good job,” freshman Jennifer Almquist said. “I think the wastewater testing system should be good instead of just randomized testing, which would save more tests for symptomatic tests or others who may need it.” Additionally, continued practice of good hygiene, proper mask-wearing, and social distancing are the among the most important aspects of Hope’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy.
However, questions surrounding when vaccines will arrive for students on campus remain. “It would be nice if we had vaccines here by now, but there’s just not enough for that right now,” Almquist said. “And obviously other people need them first, but I wish the vaccine rollout system went more quickly.”