As the numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations begin to taper off after hitting record levels this month, experts warn that the emergence of new variants can change the trajectory of the disease. “There’s so much up in the air, and the new variants have thrown a huge monkey wrench into our ability to model things,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, a microbiologist and director of the University of Alabama School of Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases, according to NBC News.
While hospitalizations and the number of new cases have declined, the number of deaths is still rising, topping more than 400,000 fatalities in the U.S. this week. Experts are concerned that the mutations of COVID-19 will make the disease more transmissible and recent research bears this out.
In the U.K., a British study found that the variant is so contagious that drastic measures may have to be implemented to contain the spread of disease. This could include a massive lockdown in the U.K. closing schools and universities, as well as the need to “greatly accelerate vaccine rollout,” said the report stated.
According to The New York Times, Dr. Nicholas Davies, a prominent epidemiologist who led the study, said the findings of his team of scientists should serve as a caution to other countries.
“Given all the biological and epidemiological evidence that has come together in the past few weeks, I think the picture is getting more and more consistent with something pretty serious,” said Davies, according to NPR. He found that the U.K. version, which contains a mutation called N501Y, is approximately 50% more transmissible than the original virus.
According to the Times, Dr. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty member in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, who was not involved in the British study, said that the compelling evidence is definitely cause for concern as the mutation hits the U.S.
“The overall message of it is solid and consistent with what we’ve been seeing from other sources of information,” he said, adding that the increased transmission of new variants will impact the U.S. for the next few months.
Experts say that the current vaccines we have available from Pfizer and Moderna may be less effective against the latest variants, according to NBC News, and the slower we roll out vaccines worldwide, the more time mutations will have to develop.
Another reason experts are worried about the new mutations popping up across the country is that people who have already had COVID-19 could become reinfected.
“We know that you can become re-infected even with the same version of the virus,” said Ravinda Gupta of the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases. “The mutations could put even more of a dent in the barrier of resistance.”
Former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ali Mokdad, Ph.D., a professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington who helped develop one of the most popular models predicting the spread of the coronavirus, forecasts that deaths will peak in March.
“We have to do what we known is effective — social distancing and wearing a mask,” he said, according to NBC News. “We can’t celebrate prematurely because if everyone assumes the worst is behind us, that’s when we’ll see peaks again.”
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