Montgomery doctor explains new UK COVID-19 variant found in Alabama

Updated: Jan. 27, 2021 at 10:25 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama state health officials confirmed Wednesday that a more highly transmissible COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom has now been confirmed in three Alabamians.

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, two are from Montgomery County and the other is from Jefferson County. Two are children under 19 and one is an adult.

Dozens of countries, including the United States, have seen infections from the U.K. variant of the virus.

ADPH said they are closely monitoring the emergence of the U.K. variant, which has been detected in at least 24 other states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina and at least 293 cases in the U.S.

Thousands of variants of the coronavirus have been identified up to this point, but according to doctors, the variants found in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil are proving to be more contagious than what’s been spreading over the past year.

According to Dr. Stephen Chandler, a microbiologist and otolaryngologist in Montgomery, it is not surprising that we are seeing new variants of the coronavirus.

“It would be surprising if it didn’t vary,” Chandler said. “We expect viruses to vary and to change over time.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a model forecast in early January that indicated that the U.K. variant could become the dominant strain in the United States by some point in March.

Now, there is growing concern that vaccines may become less effective against the new strains. Some of the mutations have sparked particular concern because they affect the spikes on the virus, which is what the vaccines target.

There is, however, good news to report. The ADPH and Chandler said the U.K. variant is more contagious but currently has not been linked to worse outcomes of the disease.

“It may be more infective, easier to spread, but the consequence of the infection doesn’t seem to be any more serious than the original virus,” Chandler said.

Also, it is still being studied, but right now, the CDC has indicated that the the current vaccines will offer protection against these new variants.

“The vaccines seem to continue to serve their purpose, even against the new variants,” Chandler said.

This is why doctors are still pushing for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, especially those in high-risk groups.

“Delaying getting the vaccine allows more time for this virus to develop and to mutate into potentially more severe versions of itself,” Chandler said.

Dr. Don Williamson with the Alabama Hospital Association says the state is seeing a 30% decline in hospitalizations and 40% decline in new COVID-19 cases. However, the real game changer that could undo all the benefits of the current vaccine is if we see rapid transmission of the variant virus.

“If the new variant becomes dominate that one person doesn’t give ten people the virus, they give 15 or 17 people the virus,” Williamson said. “The more people who get infected those are more people to infect other people and we could be right back to where we were.”

So if there is mass spread of the new variant, Chandler believes that at some point modification to the vaccine might be required to reflect viral mutation.

“It’s very likely at some point that there will be a sufficient number of mutations in a given clade, or any given strain, that it would find itself outside the ability of the current vaccine,” Chandler said. “There is a possibility, we hope that is not the case, but it’s possible that could happen.”

Chandler said that pharmaceutical companies are testing new variants against their vaccines and spinning up new trials right now.

“The people that are responsible for looking forward and manufacturing novel vaccines are extremely well aware of this, and they’ve known about this and they’re working towards that,” Chandler said.

Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech can update their vaccines quickly because of their mRNA technology, which can be reprogrammed to target new variants, Chandler said.

Moving forward, Chandler said, maintaining a social distance, wearing masks, and hand washing are even more critical in the face of more contagious variants. Continuing to follow these health protocols will both keep you from becoming ill and make it harder for the virus to mutate.

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