Your Questions On COVID Variants, Answered47:27

A Tropical Medicine University virology lab researcher works to develop a test that will detect the P.1 variant of the new coronavirus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 4, 2021. The variant, which was first found in Manaus, Brazil, appears to be more contagious than other COVID-19 strains. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
A Tropical Medicine University virology lab researcher works to develop a test that will detect the P.1 variant of the new coronavirus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 4, 2021. The variant, which was first found in Manaus, Brazil, appears to be more contagious than other COVID-19 strains. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Variants. They're all over the news. We push beyond the headlines and answer everything you want to know about COVID variants.


Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Kent State University. (@aetiology)

Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., virologist at Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. (@angie_rasmussen)

Mary Jo Ondrechen, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. (@MJchemist)

Also Featured

Terrence McCoy, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, covering Brazil. (@terrence_mccoy)

Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute. (@WillemAHanekom)

Interview Highlights

There are three particular variants that are of chief concern in the United States now, right? 

Angela Rasmussen: “There are actually more now, and we've been hearing about them. But I think the three that you're referring to are B.1.1.7. That is the variant that was first discovered in the U.K. late last year. That is thought to be the most prevalent variant that's currently circulating in the U.S. right now. B.1.1.7 is thought to be more transmissible. It's also thought to be more pathogenic. It will increase your risk of being hospitalized or potentially dying if you are infected with it. And so that's what we're chiefly worried about right now. There's also the B.1.351 variant first discovered in South Africa and the P.1 variant, and actually the P.2 variant, which is a descendant of the P.1 variant that was first discovered in Brazil.

"There are cases of B.1.351 and P.1 in the United States. They are not as prevalent as B.1.1.7. These are variants that are thought to potentially have some capacity for evading some antibody responses. And then there is the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant. That's the so-called California variant that was detected in California. And then the B.1.526 variant, which was first detected in New York City. And locally, those variants have become prevalent in those areas. ... It's really unknown what their significance is, but they are thought to also potentially be capable of some immune evasion and may also be more transmissible.”

Do the vaccines work against the variants?

Angela Rasmussen: "The short answer is, yes, they do. ... I also this past week received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and a lot of people were concerned because part of the Johnson & Johnson trials were conducted in South Africa where the B.1.351 variant is circulating commonly. What that study found was that efficacy overall was a little bit reduced when that variant was present. But overall, the vaccine remains very, very protective against severe disease, hospitalization and death. Really in the trials, it was 100% effective against those more severe negative outcomes.

"And we've seen similar data come in for all of the other vaccines that are currently authorized in the U.S., Pfizer and Moderna also work against the variants. It's also important to note that there really isn't that reduction, even slight reduction in overall efficacy for the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the U.K. that is now considered the dominant variant in the U.S. So people can rest assured, even though they may have seen some lab results that suggest that some antibodies are less capable of neutralizing these viruses, in the real world, the vaccines work against the variants.”

Does the vaccine prevent or reduce transmissibility of the variants?

Angela Rasmussen: “Yes, they do, and we actually have some new data that suggests that's the case. So we don't really measure transmissibility when looking at vaccine effectiveness or efficacy in a clinical trial. And these clinical trials were done looking at disease severity rather than infection just because that's a much quicker way of conducting those clinical trials. And we obviously needed to conduct them as quickly as possible. So the trials themselves looked at the vaccine's ability to protect against symptomatic disease.

"But a paper came out in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC last week that showed that the single dose, the first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, reduces your risk of contracting an infection with SARS-CoV-2 by 80%. And two weeks after the second shot, that risk is reduced by 90%. So the vaccines are very, very effective at preventing infection. If you're not getting infected with the virus, you're not going to be able to transmit it to anybody else. So based on that study, it looks like these vaccines, at least the mRNA vaccines are very protective against infection as well as disease, and therefore should reduce transmission at the population-level.”

For adults who are fully vaccinated and want to return to meeting together, indoors, unmasked, does the presence of these variants make that activity more unsafe?

Tara C. Smith: “It's not really that much more unsafe than what we've already seen. So the CDC has already put out guidelines looking at gathering of individuals who are fully vaccinated with each other. Generally, they recommend it's limited to just a few households. So, again, if you're having a large group of individuals, the more people you bring in, that does increase your risk. But as long as everyone is fully vaccinated, the risk is still very low."

If you've had COVID, does COVID-induced immunity include immunity to the variants?

Tara C. Smith: “Immunity is based on recognition of this spike protein. And even with a variants, as was discussed, even if you have a few different amino acids within that spike protein of the variant, your body is still going to recognize most of that protein, and respond to that. And most of the antibodies are going to work. So even with a natural infection, if you're exposed then to a variant, you still should have pretty good protection from that. But again, it depends on how distant your infection was. You will probably be better protected if you had an infection a month ago vs. a year ago.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: "More Contagious Virus Variant Is Now Dominant in U.S., C.D.C. Chief Says" — "A highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that was first identified in Britain has become the most common source of new infections in the United States, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. The worrisome development comes as officials and scientists warn of a possible fourth surge of infections."

The Atlantic: "We Now Can See a Virus Mutate Like Never Before" — "The first genome for the virus causing a mysterious illness we had not yet named COVID-19 was shared by scientists on January 10, 2020. That single genome alerted the world to the danger of a novel coronavirus."

Politico: "The big hole in America's plan to fight Covid-19 variants" — "The global scramble to produce enough Covid-19 vaccine for 7 billion people is about to get even tougher, as drugmakers and countries ready a second round of shots to combat the growing threat of virus variants."

Washington Post: "Rise of coronavirus variants will define the next phase of the pandemic in the U.S." — "Variants of the coronavirus are increasingly defining the next phase of the pandemic in the United States, taking hold in ever-greater numbers and eliciting pleas for a change in strategy against the outbreak, according to government officials and experts tracking developments."

This program aired on April 9, 2021.


Grace Tatter Twitter Associate Producer, On Point
Grace Tatter is an associate producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.