Skip to main content

To scientists in Oregon, it was as unsettling a discovery as there has been in the last year: a homegrown version of a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant that first surfaced in Britain last year. Only this one came with a mutation that researchers are concerned may make vaccines far less effective.

This Oregon variant has some of the same characteristics as the variant identified in Britain – known as B.1.1.7 – but also contains a mutation seen in unique versions of the virus circulating in New York City, South Africa and Brazil.

The situation in Brazil is especially horrific. This week the country registered 2,286 deaths in a single day – the highest daily toll ever recorded there since the beginning of the pandemic. The Brazil variant has now surfaced in British Columbia, where virus numbers are once again on the rise, and daily new case counts are now routinely over 500.

This, in a province where the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said British Columbians could be in a post-pandemic world by the summer.

While I applaud the distinguished doctor’s optimism, and understand her desire to give people hope, I have difficulty imagining life returning to anything like pre-pandemic normal for a long, long time.

Not that I want to be a downer here – rather, my caution is based on the worry one detects in the voices of scientists who don’t like the look of the mutative forms of the COVID virus popping up around the world.

Researchers have been conducting trials to determine antibody responses to the three main variants circulating around the globe – those in Britain, Brazil and South Africa. The South African variant has proved to be most resistant to antibodies produced by the immune system.

However, a small number of B.1.1.7 variants have developed a mutation believed to have helped the SARS virus partially evade immunity. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have raised concerns about how well the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would protect a person carrying the British variant with the SARS-like mutation. They have so far determined that to avoid getting COVID-19, a person infected with this variant requires a 10-fold increase in antibody levels supplied by the Pfizer vaccine.

Another study has suggested that the South African variant may shrink antibody protection from the Pfizer vaccine by two-thirds, while laboratory studies have shown there to be a six-fold reduction in the protection offered by the Moderna vaccine to the disconcerting South African variant.

Are you depressed yet? No? Okay, let me help.

You may have read about the deadly impact of Brazil’s variant, known as P.1. It is believed to have had its origins in the Amazonian city of Manaus and been responsible for thousands of deaths and thousands more infections. Perhaps most worrying, it has the ability to infect people who had immunity from previous cases of COVID-19.

The concern about this variant reaches the top echelons of the scientific community.

“It’s right to be worried about P.1,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently told The New York Times.

Nuno Faria, a virologist at Imperial College London who helped lead much of the research into the Brazil variant, told the newspaper that he and his colleagues started a new genome sequencing effort in Manaus in search of the British variant. It was during this search they found a variant no one had seen before.

When discovered, Dr. Faria sent a text to a colleague that said: “I think I’m looking at something really strange and I’m quite worried about this.”

It’s a scene right out of Contagion.

Scientists have said that what has happened in Brazil should be a warning to the entire world. Led by a president who has consistently downplayed the threat of COVID-19, most people eschewed measures to protect themselves while the main virus – and then later an alarming variant – spread profusely. This is why public health officials are warning Americans not to let their guard down, or risk losing the gains the country has made in recent months against the spread of the disease.

None of this is to say we’re doomed. Drug giants are already working on new versions of their vaccines that will be more effective against some of these variants. I fervently believe that COVID and its mutative cousins will eventually be conquered.

But the final all-clear won’t be for quite some time. And while I’d love to believe otherwise, I think visions of a postpandemic summer are fanciful.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct