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In-Depth: Breaking down the COVID-19 variants

What's the difference between the variants?
There are emerging variants of COVID-19 – like in the U.K. and South Africa -  which the lab is now in the process of getting, to begin testing on those.
Posted at 6:06 AM, Feb 12, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The CDC has identified three variants of COVID-19 already in the United States.

The variants, officially called B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1, originally come from the UK, South Africa, and Brazil. But knowing their origin does little to tell people what it all means.

"It's evolution," says Dr. William Lee, the VP of Science at San Diego-based Helix.

Dr. Lee explains that a variant shows up when a virus has the chance to mutate inside a person's body. It's rare, but the more cases of a disease, the more it can happen.

As the world nears 108 million cases of COVID-19, that means 108 million chances for the virus to mutate. And it has.

"The reason why I think people are talking a lot about these more recent (variants) is because there is reason to believe that these have a clinical impact or potentially, you know, a public health impact," says Dr. Lee.

Data released Thursday by the CDC shows they have identified 981 cases of the UK Variant in 37 states, with California and Florida being the hardest hit.

The CDC has also found 13 cases of the South African variant across five states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed on Wednesday that two of those cases are in Northern California.

The CDC also identified three cases of the Brazilian variant in two states.

Along with San Diego's Illumina, the Scripps Research Institute, and several other labs, Dr. Lee's lab published a paper on Monday detailing some startling new information about the UK Variant in the United States.

They found it's 35-45% more contagious than the current dominant COVID-19 strain, and their paper suggests cases in the US could double every 10 days.

The paper also says it could become the dominant strain in the areas where it's found by early March.

Other research on the UK's variant says it may be more deadly, but that hasn't been confirmed.

Because the South African and Brazilian variants are so sparse, not a lot is known about them.

South African officials announced earlier that the variant from their country did not respond to the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier in the week. They have since stopped administering those shots.

The CDC says some studies show the Moderna vaccine could also be less effective against the South African variant, but more research is needed.

The Brazilian variant, P.1, has 17 different mutations. Early studies say those mutations may make it harder for antibodies to fight it off, whether they're made naturally within the body's immune system or gained through a vaccine.

But, like the information about the South African variant, it's too soon to know for sure.

Now that all three have been found in the U.S., the key to stopping them from spreading starts with tracking all cases. That will take genomic testing of all positive results.

"If you're not tracking exactly what's going on, you might start to see infections rise," says Alex Dickinson, the Chairman of San Diego-based ChromaCode. "But you wouldn't know why."

Dickinson's company is developing a rapid PCR test that would identify COVID in the body and identify what Variant a person has.

They still need FDA approval. But Dickinson says a rapid, dual-purpose test could help track the virus in real-time. It would also allow doctors to pair the proper treatment and vaccines to fight each variant.

"If you're not looking at that evolution, you can't ensure that the vaccines and the other treatments are keeping up," he says.

Until that kind of testing is in place, health experts say the best defense against the Variants is reinforcing the safety measures already in place to fight COVID-19. They advise people to wear masks, wash hands, social distance, and get the vaccine.

They say the more we do to stop the spread, the easier the variants will be to fight.

And fewer cases of COVID-19 also mean fewer chances for the disease to mutate again.