At the end of 2020, new strains of the coronavirus began cropping up around the world. Now well into the new year, those virus variants are making their way into the United States.
At least three worrisome coronavirus variants have been recently identified in several states -- including in Michigan.
The information surrounding the pandemic and its namesake disease is ever-changing, so we want to make sure you’re as up-to-speed as we are.
Here’s everything we know so far about the COVID-19 variants in Michigan and the U.S., and what impact they could have.
First, let’s start by explaining just what these variants are.
What is a coronavirus variant?
By nature, a virus -- especially a RNA virus like coronavirus -- constantly mutates as it infects people, as it makes copies of itself in the process. Occasionally, several individual mutations of the virus can either accumulate or occur at once -- giving rise to a new version of the virus that has new characteristics, which is called a variant.
The virus’ genetic code, the RNA, is comprised of 30,000 pieces. A mutation is a change to just one of the pieces of the RNA. Variants are made up of several individual mutations.
Some mutations can be harmful to a virus, causing it to die out. Others can offer an advantage and help it spread.
Several variants of the virus exist. It is important to keep a close eye on emerging variants, because they could pose a series of new challenges by changing the way they infect people, or potentially making existing vaccines and treatments less effective.
What variants do I need to know about?
There are a number of variants circulating around the world, but so far, scientists are concerned about three in particular: the U.K. variant (known as B117), the variant found in South Africa (known as B1351) and another variant found in Brazil (known as P1).
Experts believe that these virus variants spread more easily, making them more difficult to control.
The U.K. strain, for example, is better at latching on to the receptors in our nose, lungs and digestive tract. That means it may take less time or less exposure to become infected. It is estimated to be about 50 percent more contagious than the dominant COVID strain in the U.S. -- meaning each person is more likely to infect more people.
There is some new evidence that suggests these strains may also cause more severe disease, making them more deadly, but this research is still too fresh to draw any definitive conclusions. However, because the virus variants do spread more easily, they can trigger a rise in infections that would lead to an increase in COVID hospitalizations and ultimately deaths, regardless if the variants are technically more “deadly” or not.
Virus variants in the US
All three of these virus variants -- B117, B1351 and P1 -- have been reported in the U.S., and it is likely that more cases of COVID variants exist in the U.S. that have not been detected yet. Traditional COVID-19 tests don’t discern which strain of coronavirus someone may have, so it is not possible to determine if someone has contracted a virus variant without an extra step called genome sequencing. Not every test sample undergoes genome sequencing.
The U.K. B117 virus variant was first reported in the U.S. at the end of December in Colorado. More cases were then reported in California and heave been reported in a total of nearly 30 states since. Health experts warn that this variant will probably become the dominant source of infection in the U.S. by the end of March.
The B1351 virus variant is from South Africa and has samples dating back to October of 2020. This strain was first reported in the U.S. on Jan. 28 when it was identified in two people in South Carolina. Public health officials are concerned that this version spreads more easily and that vaccines could be less effective against it. This strain appears to be more problematic than the others.
The P1 virus variant from Brazil was first-ever identified in four travelers from Brazil who were tested at an airport outside Tokyo, Japan. The first known appearance of this strain in the U.S. was reported in Minnesota on Jan. 25. The infected individual reportedly recently visited Brazil, and fell ill during the first week of January. This virus strain contains a set of mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies, according to the CDC. This strain appears to share similar characteristics with the South Africa strain, according to health experts.
Virus variants’ impact on the US
Data is still being collected on these variants and just what impact they may have on the country’s and states’ coronavirus response plans.
At the end of January, much of the U.S. is finally seeing a slower rate of virus spread following months of rampant spread. States like New York, Illinois and Michigan are loosening COVID restrictions in response to slowing virus cases -- but the new virus variants could pose new risks, especially if people resume normal activities without taking precautions.
U.S. health experts are closely monitoring the spreading virus variants to learn more about how they’ll impact individuals and existing therapies and vaccines.
So far, the U.K. B117 strain appears to be the most common variant in the U.S. at this time. Health experts have previously said that existing therapies and vaccines are still effective against this strain, but that is still to be determined. Some preliminary research shows that existing vaccines are effective against the B117 variant -- though to a lesser degree -- but are less effective against the B1351 variant.
There is some evidence that some antibody treatments may be less effective against certain variants.
The U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says that COVID vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna can be easily adapted to target new virus variants. Fauci says that drugmakers are already developing a so-called “booster” shot that will specifically target the virus variant from South Africa.
Fauci says that the country’s focus is still on vaccinating everyone as quickly as possible. He says this is necessary to prevent further spread and infections, which is when the virus replicates itself and has the potential to mutate and create more variants.
Though some states are gradually reopening to the public, individuals are encouraged to continue taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, including: frequent hand washing, good hygiene, mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowds and gatherings -- especially with people outside of your immediate household. The CDC is encouraging people to either invest in higher quality masks or wear two masks at once during higher risk situations for more protection. The CDC issued a rule on Jan. 29 that requires face masks to be worn on airplanes and public transportation like buses and subways to help curb the spread of the virus beginning Feb. 1.
The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has climbed past 440,000 as of noon on Jan. 31, with the number of dead running at close to all-time highs at nearly 3,350 a day on average.
Virus variant in Michigan
Only the U.K. B117 variant has been identified in Michigan (so far). It is possible that other variants have entered the state, but have not yet been identified.
As of Feb. 12, at least 29 individuals have reportedly contracted the U.K. B117 strain in Michigan.
The state reported a total of 28 known cases of the B117 variant on Feb. 5. Known variant cases in Michigan were initially only reported in Washtenaw and Wayne counties, until the state’s 29th case was reported in Kent County on Feb. 7.
Two of the B117 cases in Wayne County are reportedly in Detroit, according to the city’s Mayor Mike Duggan.
On Jan. 16, Michigan’s first case of the virus variant was identified in a Washtenaw County woman who had just recently traveled to the U.K.
Several cases have been reported since, with most of them existing within the University of Michigan community. The outbreak within the school community has prompted Washtenaw County to ask all university students living on or near the Ann Arbor campus to stay home through Feb. 7 to help curb virus spread. All of the university’s athletic activities have been put on pause until Feb. 6 for the same reason. Officials said on Jan. 29 that 11 student athletes have tested positive for the virus in the past week, though it was not said if they contracted the variant or not. Still, some cases of the virus variant have been identified within the university’s athletic department.
Reopening Michigan vs. virus variants
Michigan officials have addressed the outbreak of the B117 virus variant in the state, saying they are concerned and are keeping a watchful eye.
The state is moving into a phase of reopening as virus cases and hospitalizations have been declining in recent weeks. Michigan officials said they hope the state won’t have to move backward in the reopening process due to the spread of the new COVID-19 variant, but they have to continue monitoring the numbers. They hope adding more restrictions won’t be necessary in response to the variants.
“We want to continue to reopen our economy and get back to a sense of normalcy,” said Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. “This means that we all have to think differently and more aggressively about preventing the spread.”
Khaldun says the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is trying to quickly identify new outbreaks involving the B117 variant. Officials are reaching out to contacts and making sure people who might have been infected quarantine immediately to prevent further spread.
Michigan restaurants are set to resume indoor dining on Feb. 1 for the first time since an MDHHS order went into effect in mid-November. The state hopes new restrictions, such as holding restaurants to a 25 percent capacity limit and installing a 10 p.m. curfew, can mitigate the risk associated with allowing people from different households to remove their masks in an indoor setting.
The best way the general public can respond to the emergence of more contagious virus variants is to continue taking precautions to prevent spread and infection.
With variants spreading more easily than we’ve been accustomed to throughout the past year, it’s more important than ever to continue limiting your exposure to people who live outside of your household, and to take steps to prevent virus spread. The CDC recommends wearing a mask any time you enter a public space. Individuals are also urged to avoid crowds and gatherings, practice social distancing and maintain proper hygiene.
With the virus variants in Michigan, the MDHHS is emphasizing the importance of getting tested for COVID-19.
“The new variant is present in Michigan and we are at risk of seeing more spread of COVID-19. Everyone should do their part to end this pandemic. Get tested if you have been exposed, have symptoms, or have recently traveled to an area with a new variant spreading,” Dr. Khaldun said. “Make sure you are following all quarantine and isolation guidance. And do your part to prevent the spread of this virus by continuing to wear your mask, avoid gatherings, socially distance, and washing your hands.”
The vaccines currently making rounds in Michigan and the rest of the country signifies that we’re at least one step closer to normalcy -- though it will be months before most adults in Michigan are able to receive a coronavirus vaccine. All around the world, vaccines are in high demand but limited supply. In most places, like Michigan, COVID vaccines are being distributed in phases, and populations of frontline workers and high risk individuals are among the first to receive them.
Once Michigan receives more doses of the vaccines, the state has set a goal to vaccinate 50,000 people per day.
So far, only two vaccines have been authorized for widespread use in the U.S. -- vaccines from drug companies Moderna and Pfizer. Two more vaccines are nearing the end of their trials and are almost ready for review, including Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine.
More coronavirus info
Questions about coronavirus? Ask Dr. McGeorge