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New coronavirus variants detected. What does that mean for our back-to-normal summer?

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Tuesday, June 1, 2021


Courtesy of Vanderbilt Unversity

Dr. William Schaffner: "If these India strains are covered by our vaccines, I think we will remain in pretty good shape."

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New highly contagious variants of the coronavirus, which has ravaged India, have been detected in Thailand and Vietnam. For insight on what that may mean for Floridians at the start of back-to-normal summer, VoxPopuli talked with William Schaffner, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

VoxPopuli: Dr. Schaffner, what can you tell us about the new India variants?

William Schaffner: We are constantly looking for variants around the world. There have been some variants in India that are spreading to Thailand and Vietnam, and they are likely to wind up on our shores, but it’s not certain they'll spread widely. That was the case with the South African variant. It’s here, but it can't compete as well with the strains that are active in the United States, so it counts for only a tiny fraction of the cases that we are seeing. So it depends on how competitive these new strains are with the ones that are already here. Meanwhile, laboratory studies are underway to see how good our vaccines are against these new strains.

VoxPopuli: Scientists have gotten samples of these new strains, and they're testing the vaccine against them?

WS: That's my understanding. If these India strains are covered by our vaccines, I think we will remain in pretty good shape. But that is the reason we have to keep monitoring which strains are causing disease in the United States. If we have an imported strain or a homegrown variant that is evading our vaccines, that would be one of the things that would determine whether we need a booster vaccine or whether we’d have to create a new vaccine against this new strain, and then vaccinate us all again against that strain.

VoxPopuli: Could the strains gain a foothold in areas where there are clusters of unvaccinated people?

WS: If you have clusters of people who are unvaccinated, those strains would spread.

VoxPopuli: Who monitors these emerging viruses?

WS:  The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], but they can't do everything, so the 50 state health departments are now monitoring, and the CDC has also let academic medical centers, such as our own, monitor too. So there's fairly extensive monitoring going on in every state through public health laboratories as well as major academic medical centers. Although we started late with this monitoring — the British were doing much more of that than we were — we’re pretty well caught up.

VoxPopuli: How is the monitoring done?

WS: You have a selection process, and there are a variety of ways of doing that. You look at second cases because those might be due to a variant. You look at vaccine-failure cases. You look at places where there's suddenly a cluster of infections — a nursing home, a meat-packing plant, a prison or jail, or any other social circumstances where a whole bunch of people have suddenly gotten infected — because you're looking for a new strain that might spread very rapidly. Then you look at every fifth case or every tenth case. You do some routine sampling and each laboratory has its own sampling scheme depending on its capacity for getting the samples and running specimens through the process in a timely fashion.

VoxPopuli: Are the new variants in Thailand and Vietnam more deadly?

WS: The issue with India, Thailand, and Vietnam is that those countries haven't vaccinated anywhere close to as comprehensively as we have. And the other thing is that therapy for newly diagnosed people, particularly older people, isn’t as readily available as it is here now.

VoxPopuli: So do these circulating variants mean anything for our back-to-normal summer?

WS: Not in any immediate sense, because the variants are not here. But we are monitoring which strains cause illness in every state. And if those variations suddenly find their way here and start to spread, we will detect that, and we'll make an estimation of how hazardous things are. And, of course, by that time, we’ll have a better sense from the laboratory about how good our vaccines are against these new strains.

VoxPopuli: Are the mRNA-developed Pfizer and Moderna vaccines protective against these new strains?

WS: That's the early data that I have heard. I don't know whether that's conclusive or not, but I have heard that. That is very reassuring.

VoxPopuli: It is very reassuring. What about the J&J vaccine?

WS: I have not heard one way or the other, and of course, that vaccine has been used much less frequently than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

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