A New Strain of Coronavirus: What You Should Know
In Dec. 2020, a new strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was reported in the news media. The new strain’s existence raises questions: Is the coronavirus more contagious now? Will the vaccines still work? Are there new or different things you should do now to keep your family safe?
Stuart Ray, M.D., Vice Chair of Medicine for Data Integrity and Analytics, and Robert Bollinger, M.D., M.P.H., Raj and Kamla Gupta Professor of Infectious Diseases, are both experts in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They talk about what is known about this new strain, and answer potential questions and concerns you may have.
Why did the coronavirus change?
New strains of viruses occur when there is a change (mutation) to the virus’ genes. Ray says it is the nature of RNA viruses such as the coronavirus to evolve and change gradually. “Geographic separation tends to result in genetically distinct strains,” he says.
Mutations in viruses — including the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic — are neither new nor unexpected. Bollinger explains: “All viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a flu shot every year.
“We have already seen multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that are different from the version we first saw in China,” he says.
He notes that this particular strain was detected in southeastern England in September 2020. In December, it became the most common version of the coronavirus, accounting for about 60 percent of new COVID-19 cases. The new strain also appeared in Denmark, the Netherlands, and other European countries, and a similar variant emerged in South Africa.
The COVID-19 new strain: How is it different?
“There are about 23 genetic changes in this strain,” Bollinger says. “There’s some preliminary suggestion that it’s more [contagious], and, although that’s not proven, scientists are noticing a surge of cases in areas where the new strain is appearing, and there could be a connection.”
He notes that the mutations in the new strain seem to affect the coronavirus’s spike proteins, which cover the outer coating of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and give it its characteristic spiny appearance. These proteins help the virus attach to human cells in the nose and other areas and invade the body, causing COVID-19 illness.
“Researchers want to see whether the new strain is more ‘sticky,’ due to changes in the spike protein,” he says. “But at this point, that’s not proven, and further studies will reveal more about whether or not the new strain is more easily transmitted.”
Is the new strain of the coronavirus more dangerous?
Bollinger says that so far, the news is good. Although the mutated coronavirus may spread faster from person to person, it does not appear any more likely to cause severe disease or death: “We are not seeing any indication that the new strain is more virulent or dangerous in terms of causing more severe COVID-19 disease.”
He explains that for a virus to survive, it may be more advantageous for it to evolve so that it spreads more easily. On the other hand, viruses don’t get the chance to reproduce if they mutate to become deadly: “If we get too sick or die from a particular virus, we can’t transmit it,” he notes.
Is the new COVID-19 strain affecting children more frequently than earlier strains?
Ray says that although experts in areas where the new strain is appearing have found an increased number of cases in children, he notes that the data show that kids are being infected by old strains, as well as the new one. “There is no convincing evidence that this variant has special propensity to infect or cause disease in children. We need to be vigilant in monitoring such shifts, but we can only speculate at this point,” he says.
Will there be other new strains of the coronavirus?
Yes. As long as the coronavirus spreads through the population, mutations will continue to happen. Ray notes that in 2020, several mutations caught researchers’ attention and raised concern, but further study revealed no major changes in how the coronavirus behaves.
“New strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are detected every week,” Ray says. “Most come and go — some persist but don’t become more common; some increase in the population for a while, and then fizzle out. When a change in the infection pattern first pops up, it can be very hard to tell what’s driving the trend: changes to the virus, or changes in human behavior.”
COVID-19 VaccineGet information and updates from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Are there additional COVID-19 precautions for the new coronavirus strain?
Bollinger says that the new coronavirus strain doesn’t call for any new prevention strategies. “We need to continue doing what we’re doing,” he says.
Ray concurs: “There is no demonstration yet that these strains are biologically different in ways that would require any change in current recommendations meant to limit spread of COVID-19,” he says. “Nonetheless, we must continue to be vigilant for such phenomena.”
Ray stresses that human behavior is important. The more people who are infected, the more chances there are for a mutation to occur. Limiting the spread of the virus through maintaining COVID-19 safeguards (mask wearing, physical distancing and practicing hand hygiene) give the virus fewer chances to change.
“We need to re-emphasize basic public health measures, including masking, physical distancing, good ventilation indoors, and limiting gatherings of people in close proximity with poor ventilation. We give the virus an advantage to evolve when we congregate in more confined spaces,” he says.
Will the COVID-19 vaccine still work on the new strain?
Ray says, “There is no evidence at this point that immune responses driven by current vaccines would not work against this new strain.”
“We deal with mutations every year for flu virus, and will keep an eye on this one and track it,” says Bollinger. “If there would ever be a major mutation, the vaccine development process accommodates changes, if necessary, but we’re not at the point when we need to consider that,” he explains. “The antibodies created by the current vaccines should still work.”
Regarding new strains of the coronavirus, how concerned should we be?
“Most of the genetic changes we see in this virus are like the scars people accumulate over a lifetime — incidental marks of the road, most of which have no great significance or functional role,” Ray says.
“When the evidence is strong enough that a viral genetic change is causing a change in the behavior of the virus, we gain new insight regarding how this virus works.”
“As far as this latest strain is concerned, we don’t need to overreact,” Bollinger says. “But, as with any virus, changes are something to be watched, to ensure that testing and vaccines are still effective. The scientists will continue to examine new versions of this coronavirus’ genetic sequencing as it evolves.”