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What Are COVID-19 Variants And How Can You Stay Safe As They Spread? A Doctor Answers 5 Questions

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What Are COVID-19 Variants And How Can You Stay Safe As They Spread? A Doctor Answers 5 Questions


With the delta variant making up over 93% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. at the end of July 2021, questions arise about how to stay protected against evolving forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Here, pediatrician and infectious disease specialist Dr. Lilly Cheng Immergluck of Morehouse School of Medicine answers some common questions about variants and what you can do to best protect yourself.

1. What are variants and how do they emerge?

Viruses mutate over time to adapt to their environment and improve their survival. Over the course of the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has mutated enough to change both its ability to spread through the population and its ability to infect people.

These new strains are called variants. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently classifies variants into three categories, listed in order of least to most concerning:

  • Variant of Interest (VOI): Have features that may reduce your immune system’s ability to prevent infection. For example, you might have heard of VOI eta, iota or kappa.

  • Variant of Concern (VOC): Are less responsive to treatments or vaccines and more likely to evade diagnostic detection. They tend to be more transmissible, or contagious, and result in more severe infections. Alpha and delta are VOCs, for instance.

  • Variant of High Consequence (VOHC): Are significantly less responsive to existing diagnostic, prevention and treatment options. They also result in more severe infections and hospitalizations. There have not been any VOHCs identified so far.

The World Health Organization uses similar classifications, but their definitions may differ from the CDC’s U.S.-based ones, as variant features and effects may differ by geographic location.

2. Are variants always more harmful?

A variant may be more or less dangerous than other strains depending on the mutations in its genetic code. Mutations can affect attributes like how contagious a viral variant is, how it interacts with the immune system or the severity of the symptoms it triggers.

For example, the alpha variant is more transmissible than the original form of SARS-CoV-2. Studies show it’s somewhere between 43% to 90% more contagious than the virus that was most common at the start of the pandemic. Alpha also is more likely to cause severe disease, as indicated by increased rates of hospitalization and death after infection.

Even more extreme, the delta variant is reported to be nearly twice as contagious as previous strains and may cause even more severe disease among those who are unvaccinated. The viral load of those infected with delta – meaning the amount of virus detected from the nasal passages of an infected person – is also reported to be over 1,000 times higher than in those infected with the original form of SARS-CoV-2. Recent evidence also suggests that both unvaccinated and vaccinated people carry similar viral loads, further contributing to the especially contagious nature of this variant.

3. Which variants are most common in the US?

Over the course of a few months, the delta variant has become the predominant strain in the U.S., accounting for the vast majority of COVID-19 cases at the end of July 2021.

But there are regional variations across the country. As of July 31, the CDC estimated that the alpha variant represented over 3% of cases identified in a region of eight states that includes Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, compared with less than 1% in the region that includes Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The CDC tracks variants in cooperation with state health departments and other public health agencies. COVID-19 infection samples from across the country are genetically sequenced each week to identify existing and new variants.

And new variants will likely continue to appear as the virus evolves. Delta plus, for instance, is a sub-lineage of delta. The effects of this subvariant are yet to be determined.

4. How are vaccines holding up against variants?

Researchers are working to figure out how effective the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for emergency use in the U.S. are at preventing infection from variants in “real-world” conditions where variant distribution and frequency constantly change. Several preliminary studies that have not yet been peer-reviewed suggest that these vaccines are still effective in preventing COVID-19-related serious infections and death.

No vaccine is perfect, however, and breakthrough COVID-19 infections are possible in those who are vaccinated. Older adults and those with immunocompromising conditions may be at increased risk to have these breakthrough infections.

 

Thankfully, fully vaccinated individuals generally experience milder COVID-19 infections. For example, a study analyzing COVID-19 cases in England estimated that two doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine are 93.7% effective in preventing symptomatic disease from the alpha variant and 88% effective from delta. A different study in Ontario, Canada, that is not yet peer-reviewed reported that the Moderna vaccine is 92% effective in preventing symptomatic disease from alpha.

5. How can I stay safe?

How cautious you should be depends on a number of individual and external factors.

One factor is whether you’re fully vaccinated. Nearly all – 99.5% – of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. over the past few months were among unvaccinated people.

The most recent CDC guidelines recommend that everyone wear a mask in areas of substantial or high transmission, regardless of whether or not they’re vaccinated. More caution should especially be taken if you aren’t fully vaccinated or have a weakened immune system.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]

Another factor to consider is the level of community transmission and the proportion of unvaccinated people in your local community. For example, someone who lives in an area that is below the national average for COVID-19 vaccinations may have a higher chance of encountering someone who is unvaccinated – and so more likely to spread the coronavirus – than someone in an area with higher vaccination rates.

Finally, there are still a significant number of people who are at high risk of COVID-19, including children. As of Aug. 3, 2021, only 29.1% of children ages 12 to 15, and 40.4% of those ages 16 and 17, had been fully vaccinated. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association note that 4,292,120 total child COVID-19 cases had been reported as of Aug. 5. Children make up 14.3% of reported COVID-19 cases. If your child is unvaccinated, the best way you can protect them and other unvaccinated members of your household is to get yourself vaccinated and have everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces.

Guidelines provided by public health agencies are simply that – general guidelines. They are not tailored to be prescriptive for each individual and their personal risk assessments.

Vaccines remain the best protection against every strain of the novel coronavirus. But masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces add extra layers of protection against breakthrough infections and lower your risk of inadvertently spreading the virus.

Lilly Cheng Immergluck, Professor of Microbiology, Biochemistry and Immunology, Morehouse School of Medicine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.





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Multi-State Listeria Outbreak Causes 1 Death, 1 ‘Fetal Loss’

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Multi-State Listeria Outbreak Causes 1 Death, 1 'Fetal Loss'


A Listeria outbreak has caused nearly two dozen illnesses, with most of the patients living in or having traveled to Florida. One person died while a pregnant patient experienced “fetal loss.”

A total of 23 people have been infected with the Listeria monocytogenes outbreak strain as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The illnesses were reported from 10 states. Twelve of the cases were reported in Florida, while eight of the patients who did not live in Florida also reported traveling to the state in the month before they got sick.

That said, “the significance of this is still under investigation,” the CDC noted.

Twenty-two (96%) of the patients had to be hospitalized, with one death reported from Illinois. Five of the patients also fell ill during their pregnancy. One of them experienced a “fetal loss.”

As the CDC explained, pregnant people and their newborns, older adults and those who have weakened immune systems are most at risk of getting sick with Listeria. In pregnant people, it may result in miscarriage, stillbirth or premature delivery even though the illness itself may only be mild. Their newborns may also experience a “life-threatening infection.”

While other people can be infected with Listeria as well, they “rarely become seriously ill.”

“The true number of sick people in an outbreak is likely higher than the number reported, and the outbreak may not be limited to the states with known illnesses,” the CDC explained. “In addition, recent illnesses may not yet be reported as it usually takes 3 to 4 weeks to determine if a sick person is part of an outbreak.”

Results of whole-genome sequencing suggest that the patients “likely got sick from the same food.” Authorities are still conducting investigations and interviews to determine what the patients may have eaten before they got sick.

“So far, a common food item has not been identified,” the CDC said.

As such, the agency is urging anyone who may have symptoms of Listeria to list the foods they remember eating in the month before they got sick to help “solve the outbreak.”

Symptoms of Listeriosis may be flu-like in pregnant people. In those who aren’t pregnant, the symptoms may include headache, fever, stiff neck, convulsions, loss of balance, confusion and muscle aches. They may also experience food poisoning symptoms such as diarrhea.

According to the CDC, symptoms of “severe illness” typically begin about two weeks after eating the contaminated food. But there are also cases in which the symptoms are reported “as early as the same day or as late as 70 days after.”

“If you are at higher risk for Listeria infection and have symptoms, especially if you recently traveled to Florida, talk to your healthcare provider,” the CDC noted.





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Who Should Get Vaccinated Against Monkeypox?

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Omicron And COVID Boosters: Everything You Need To Know


After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that the United States already recorded about 300 monkeypox cases, the U.S. government has decided to roll out vaccines to contain the situation as soon as possible. 

The Biden administration has already confirmed that it will roll out 296,000 doses of the only monkeypox vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, it’s unclear who should be getting the Jynneos vaccine doses amid the outbreak. 

Last month, the CDC issued a warning, saying members of the LGBTQ community have a higher risk of contracting the virus. The disease is technically not transmitted sexually, but initial reports on the outbreak found that gays and bisexual people accounted for most of the cases. 

Since the virus spreads via contact with body fluids and sores, it can be passed to other people through sexual intercourse, intimate contact and even shared beddings. This prompted the public health agency to issue safer sex guidelines earlier this month. 

The CDC encouraged the public not to kiss and have sex if their partner has monkeypox symptoms or recently developed unexplained rashes or sores. The agency also advised against sharing towels, fetish gear, sex toys and other personal items to avoid the spread of the disease. 

Health officials have warned that the main driver of the growing number of monkeypox cases is making close contact, especially sexual contact. They also singled out the people who should be getting jabbed with the monkeypox vaccine to prevent the outbreak from getting bigger. 

Per the CDC recommendations, the following should receive the Jynneos vaccine for monkeypox: people who have had close contact with a monkeypox patient, men who have sex with men, sexually active transgender people, health care workers who have come in contact with the virus and people who have traveled outside of the U.S. to places with confirmed monkeypox activity. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) noted that transgender people and gender-diverse people could be vulnerable in the context of the monkeypox outbreak, so they should get vaccinated. However, the organization pointed out that regardless of sexuality, everyone is at risk of contracting or passing on the virus. 

Since its detection outside Africa in May, the virus has already spread to 48 countries and infected over 3,500 people. In a new study published this week, scientists said the rapid transmission of the disease could be a product of the virus’ “accelerated evolution.”





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US Secures 105 Million Doses Of Pfizer Vaccine For Fall

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Third COVID-19 Vaccine Dose Protection Only Good For 3 Months?


The United States on Wednesday announced an agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech for 105 million doses of Covid vaccine for Americans this fall.

The $3.2 billion contract, signed between the companies and the US health and defense departments, includes vaccines for babies, young children, teens and adults, and may include Omicron-specific vaccines, which a panel of government experts recommended on Tuesday.

Delivery will begin in late summer and continue into the fourth quarter, the companies said. The contract gives the US the option to procure up to 300 million doses.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to doing everything we can to continue to make vaccines free and widely available to Americans – and this is an important first step to preparing us for the fall,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

President Joe Biden’s administration has asked Congress for $23.5 billion in additional Covid funding, but a bill has not yet been passed.

As a result, the federal government “was forced to reallocate $10 billion in existing funding, pulling billions of dollars from Covid-19 response efforts” the statement said, with the new vaccines procured through this reallocation.

White House officials have previously said that without new funding, future vaccines might only be given for free to those at highest risk.





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