In the last few months, I’ve learned about some new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in the United States. Scientists recently reported seven new distinct variants.
Alisa Chan, Host:
In the last few months, I’ve learned about some new variants of the coronavirus. They were first identified in other countries before being detected here in the United States, but viruses are also evolving here. As we heard earlier in this program, yesterday scientists reported seven new homemade variants. NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee has joined us to learn more about these strains.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, signature line: Hey, Ailsa.
Chan: So, as I understand, all these seven variants have similar mutations, right?
CHATTERJEE: That’s right. These variants have evolved independently in different parts of the country, but they all have similar mutations. And it is in the viral spike protein. Please remember. Peplomers help the virus infect host cells (in this case, human cells). And it acts like a harpoon, helping the virus attach to the surface of cells in our body, inject genetic material into the cells, and replicate to make more viruses.
Chan: But do scientists know what these mutations do? That is, do they make the virus more infectious or deadly?
CHATTERJEE: The easy answer is that we don’t know. I spoke with the lead author of the study, Jeremy Kamil of the Center for Health Sciences, Louisiana State University. And I asked him, should we be more worried about these new varieties? And this is what he said.
Jeremy Kamil: Never panic anyone. There is no reason to think it is more deadly. If there is a difference in transmission rates, it will probably be a small one that doesn’t really matter-it shouldn’t relate to the average member in general.
Chatterjee: Yeah. And as he says, he thinks this is just-as you know, these mutations are only part of the evolutionary process of the virus. And as it infects more humans, it will just keep changing. And while not all mutations are harmful to humans, other mutations can be harmful. And another researcher I wasn’t involved in this study said that mutations have some benefit to the virus, as these American variants evolve independently and still have similar mutations. He said it was likely to bring. But he says it’s too early to know these strains.
Chan: I see. At this time, there is no reason to believe that these strains may reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine. Yeah?
CHATTERJEE: That’s right. The researchers I talked to aren’t too worried about it, but they’re worried that variants will continue to emerge nationwide and the United States will be coordinated nationwide to track the virus. It means that you need to make an effort. Dr. Jeremy Luban is enrolled in the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. He wasn’t involved in the new research, but told me that other countries do a much better job in tracking viruses.
JEREMY LUBAN: For example, in the United Kingdom, very extensive research has been conducted as the virus spreads throughout the population. I think about 10% of all infectious diseases in the UK are actually sequenced and evaluated.
CHATTERJEE: On the other hand, he says, the United States is only scrambling to catch up where it needs to better monitor the virus.
Chan: So if we have more viruses (phs), which are more dangerous variants, we want to know as soon as possible, right?
CHATTERJEE: That’s right. As you know, he was talking about England. New data from that country suggests that the variants first identified there can not only spread faster, but can also make people sick. Therefore, it is important to maintain the sequence. It also helps vaccine companies fine-tune their vaccines as needed to maintain their effectiveness against the new strains they care about.
Chan: That’s Rhitu Chatterjee from NPR.
Thank you, Ritu.
CHATTERJEE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on the deadline in a hurry. Verb8tm, Inc., NPR Contractor, created using a proprietary transfer process developed by NPR. This text may not be in final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR programming is audio recording.
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