Coronavirus cases have dropped significantly. Federal health officials are backing the reopening of schools. And while the vaccine rollout continues to lag, more than 50 million doses have been administered across the nation.
But every time signs of hope appear in the pandemic, yet another mutation seems to emerge to dash the optimism.
Or in this case, seven mutations.
Researchers have discovered seven new coronavirus variants that recently originated in the United States, according to a study released Sunday. Even scarier? The strains all share the same worrisome mutation, which alters the spike proteins that cover the surface of the virus.
These spike proteins latch onto human cells, allowing the virus to invade and manufacture copies of itself. In other words, the mutation affects how it infects people.
“I do think there’s more and more signs pointing towards a reason for concern,” said Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
While much remains unknown, experts fear the new strains could be more transmissible, according to a report by The New York Times.
The new variants are not related to the strains first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa — and are now also spreading in the United States — that are more contagious and virulent.
But the new mutations seem to be evolving in an analogous way to each other, possibly an example of convergent evolution — when organisms develop similar traits as they adapt to similar environments. They could be evolving to improve their ability to infect.
“Most of the variants seem to increase the transmissibility of the virus,” said Stephanie Silvera, an infectious disease expert at Montclair University.
Keeping track all of the new variants — and understanding their significance — has become a complicated and disconcerting task. There’s B.1.1.7 (the U.K. strain). There’s 501.V2 (the South African strain). There’s P.1 (the Brazilian strain).
What concerns experts is not just the new variants’ potential to be more contagious and deadly, but also that they could threaten the efficacy of vaccines, even before most people are eligible to receive them. The Oxford–AstraZeneca’s vaccine has already been shown to be less effective against the South African strain.
The new U.S. variants have been discovered across the country, with some circulating since at least the fall.
They are named after birds: Robin 1 (found in 30 states, but mainly in the Midwest); Robin 2 (mainly in the Southeast); Pelican (found in at least 13 states); Yellowhammer (mainly in the Southeast); Bluebird (mainly in the Northeast); Quail (mainly in the Southwest and Northeast); and Mockingbird (mainly in the South and along the East Coast).
The new U.S. mutations target the 677th amino acid, one of the more than 1,200 molecular building blocks that make up spike proteins, folded chains studded along the surface of the virus that help it invade human cells.
“As we have been with COVID from the beginning, we’re building the airplane while we’re in flight,” Silvera said. “So we are learning about these variants as they’re developing, and research takes a certain amount of time to conduct if you’re going to do it well.”
The lack of genomic testing infrastructure in the U.S. only complicates matters. The nation sequences genomes from less than 1% of coronavirus test samples, according to The New York Times. The lack of genomic testing has prevented researchers from pinpointing where the mutations first arose and when.
Meanwhile, both Cennimo and Silvera are concerned so-called “COVID fatigue” and a desire to return to normal is causing the nation to let down its guard just as the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight.
Silvera said she’s been fielding many calls lately about the issue of reopening schools. It’s a difficult question.
“I’m concerned for a few reasons,” Silvera said. “One, we’re seeing an understandable push to reopen. But we’re pushing to reopen when we still do not have anywhere near herd immunity.”
She was referring to the percentage of the population needed to be inoculated — estimated to be 70% — to ultimately stop the spread of the disease and return the state to some semblance of normalcy.
“I think New Jersey’s between 10% and 11% of the population (that) has received the first dose of the vaccine,” she explained. “We need those numbers to be closer to 70%. And while we’re working towards that 70%, we need people to continue to, as I said, practice the public health measures that we know work, even after you’re vaccinated.”
New Jersey has reported 666,399 cases of the coronavirus and 22,466 deaths since March. It has distributed 1.4 million doses of the vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines last week calling for schools to reopen.
“But the reality is,” Silvera said, “they (schools) haven’t been the first to reopen. We’ve reopened a lot of other industries or settings. And so, opening schools safely also require that community transmission is low. So we can’t open schools safely if we still have numbers of new cases per day that are high and growing. And while those numbers are seeming to come down a bit, these new variants can very quickly change the direction of our epidemic curve. And it can quickly go back up.”
The new variants could require difficult conversations in the near future, especially as transmission rates remain high in New Jersey, she said.
“When we’re talking about what should reopen, I think at some point, we’re going to have to have the hard conversation about what are the priorities,” Silvera said. “Because if schools are prioritized, then we have to behave in all the other areas of our life in a way to keep community transmission low so that those schools can stay open safely.”
Cennimo admitted his optimism is waning.
He fears the country won’t reach herd immunity in the time needed to get the pandemic under control — due to the lagging vaccine rollout and an ongoing reluctance by many to follow social distancing and mask-wearing protocols.
“This was the perfect storm because we just — this was something that was dependent on the average American being smart and considerate,” Cennimo said. “And so we were lost from day one.”
The combination of people traveling, attending gatherings and refusing to wear masks coupled with the lagging vaccine rollout is indeed “a perfect storm,” he says, especially as new mutations seem to be discovered each week.
Cennimo is not the only expert growing concerned. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, didn’t hold back Sunday when discussing the threat posed by the U.K. variant.
“The fact is that the surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is going to happen in the next six to 14 weeks,” Osterholm said. “And if we see that happen, which my 45 years in the trenches tells me we will, we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country.”
“I see that hurricane five, category five or higher, 450 miles offshore,” he added.
So much for life returning to normal by the end of the summer.
“I think in the rush to be hopeful, we don’t want to also let down our guard and give the opportunity for this virus to mutate further,” Silvera said. “And what we know, just from virology and evolutionary biology, is that viruses are going to mutate in order to maintain the ability to find a host.
“So the fact that variants are becoming more transmissible is entirely predictable. And so we need to behave as if those areas — if they’re not already here, that they are coming.”
The picture is bleaker than most anticipated two months after the authorization of the first coronavirus vaccine.
Experts fear we are not even close to being out of the woods. The seven newly discovered variants are merely another reminder.
Spencer Kent may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.