Department of Health is on the Lookout for COVID-19 Variants

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The Virgin Islands Department of Health is actively monitoring new COVID-19 variants that are being detected around the globe, including in the United States, the department reported Tuesday in a news release.

Like many viruses, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has evolved, the department explained. Viruses go through mutations as time goes on and these mutations are called strains or variants. In the past year, there have been thousands of documented mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The latest variant is thought to be 50 percent more contagious than the strain that originated in Wuhan, China, a year ago, spawning a worldwide pandemic.

As viruses circulate in the community, small changes in their genetic makeup happen to help them remain infectious and viable. These mutations have continuously occurred since the beginning of the emergence of the infection, the department said. Most mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus have no impact on the function of the virus.

However, some mutations will lead to higher rates and possibly reinfections. The COVID-19 vaccines are effective against all of the mutated strains of the SARS-CoV-2 that have been sequenced so far since they produce widely neutralizing antibodies.

B117 is one of those variant strains that has hit parts of the United Kingdom. Scientists suspect that the new mutant variant has affected most of the United States, and the V.I. Department of Health is bracing for its possible arrival in the territory.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here is what scientists are working to understand better:
– How widely these new variants have spread.
– How the new variants differ.
– How the disease caused by these new variants differs from the disease caused by other variants that are currently circulating.

To control the spread, scientists want to better understand how the new variants:
– Spread more easily from person-to-person.
– Cause milder or more severe diseases in people.
– Are detected by currently available viral tests.
– Respond to medicines currently being used to treat people for COVID-19.
– Change the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. There is no evidence that this is occurring, and most experts believe this is unlikely to occur because of the nature of the immune response to the virus.

There are no confirmed cases of any new variants of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The news of new variants popping up in the mainland U.S. comes amid the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination plan and possibly threatens the goal of herd immunity. This reinforces the need for mass vaccination and basic precautionary measures to be maintained. Strong mitigation for prevention of transmission needs to be continued to prevent the emergence of additional variants. This includes vaccinations, mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand and environmental sanitization.