It’s common for viruses to undergo mutation. The more often a virus can transfer from one person to another, the more likely it is to mutate.
The Coronavirus, which emerged from China in 2019, has undergone several changes. Some of those produced new COVID-19 variants, including variants of concern, which were somehow more transmissible. One of those was the Beta variant.
Although this COVID-19 variant spreads faster, there was no evidence that it was more life-threatening. But still, its quick transmissibility made the number of severe infections and fatalities rise to alarming numbers.
What is the Beta COVID variant?
The Beta variant, also known as B.1.351, is a mutated version of the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. It was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay as cases were confirmed in early October 2020. A vast majority of COVID-19 cases in Zambia were due to this new variant. In Zimbabwe, over 60% of COVID cases were caused by this new strain.
The first case of the Beta variant in the US was reported in January 2021. Although it emerged independently from the Alpha B.1.1.7 variant discovered in the United Kingdom, they share similar mutations.
Impact and severity of the Beta variant
Based on previous infections caused by the Beta strain, there was no evidence that it was more life-threatening than the other variants. However, just like the Alpha strain, the transmission of the virus was faster. Six weeks since the variant was discovered, there has been a spike in new cases in South Africa. And the number was far worse than it was in previous waves before it.
Existence of the COVID-19 variant in the US
In January 2021, a few cases of the new Coronavirus variant from South Africa were recorded in the United States. It was a big public health challenge. The country was still dealing with over 3,000 lives lost per day due to the first COVID variant.
More cases were identified in South Carolina, Maryland, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The infected individuals weren’t connected in any way. They also haven’t traveled before testing positive for the Beta variant.
Healthcare officials were concerned that there might be more infected people than identified, but these were yet to be reported. Contact tracing helped identify infected people and to isolate them as soon as possible to help prevent further spread.
Vaccines vs. the Beta COVID strain
People were greatly concerned about how easier and faster it was for the new strain from South Africa to spread. The data from early vaccine clinical trials suggests that the existing COVID-19 vaccines might not work well against it.
Some say the vaccines with Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) from the FDA would work, and some say not even a complete vaccine dose would be as protective. Back then, the same might be true with the antibodies created from a natural infection.
Pfizer says their vaccine could only stimulate low levels of neutralizing antibodies when used against the new variant. However, that amount of antibodies was still enough to protect an individual. The company also began testing on a redesigned booster shot to help the vaccine adjust whenever a new variant emerges.
Moderna also reported that there was indeed a reduction in the immune response. That was even when the vaccine was genetically engineered to imitate the Beta COVID-19 variant. But, the reduction wasn’t significant enough to make the COVID vaccine any less effective.
South African authorities have offered its Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to the African Union so that they can be distributed somewhere else. After they conducted a small-scale study, they were disappointed that the vaccine has limited efficacy against the new strain. Instead, they secured about nine million doses of Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccines.
What is being done about COVID strains?
The World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other public health agencies continue to monitor the Alpha, Beta, Omicron, and Delta variants. They are also exerting their best effort to characterize emerging variants. As they’re investigating the SARS-CoV-2 variant infections, they are communicating new information and updates to the public through their website.
In 2021, President Joe Biden promised to deliver 100 million injections during his first 100 days in office. He suggested that 1.5 million shots a day was possible and could help significantly in the fight against the Beta variant.
Your role in helping prevent transmission
Even with the presence of COVID vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, the pandemic is far from over. Although difficult, there are ways to stay safe and COVID-free. Never assume that you can only acquire the new Coronavirus strain if you travel. There may be a carrier nearby so always observe proper social distancing.
Avoid lingering in crowded places. Get tested regularly if you suspect that you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Always wash your hands and wear a protective face mask, even if you have already been vaccinated. Preventing the spread of the virus will also keep it from mutating further and creating even worse variants.