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Rutgers experts discuss new coronavirus variant

The original coronavirus disease (COVID-19) strain, pictured above, is different from the new B.1.1.7 variant that spreads more rapidly, said Mary O’Dowd, executive director of Health Systems and Population Health Integration for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. – Photo by

With several new variants of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) emerging in recent months, concerns have arisen about the risks accompanying them. Rutgers experts discussed the implications of these variants for current risk management.

Among these new variants is B.1.1.7 from the United Kingdom, which spreads more easily and quickly than other known strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Donald Schaffner, a distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science, said that microorganisms such as the B.1.1.7 variant continually develop minor changes in their genetic code.

“There are (approximately) seventeen (mutations) in the B.1.1.7 (variant), which is a lot, but this is something that happens to any organism over time,” he said.

The variant seems to have changes that enable it to bind to or enter human cells more efficiently compared to other strains, which Schaffner said makes this strain concerning. While this can be seen in the laboratory, he said it is not fully clear how the transmissibility of the virus will occur outside of the lab.

“(B.1.1.7) does appear to be more contagious, so it spreads more rapidly,” said Mary O’Dowd, executive director of Health Systems and Population Health Integration for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. “The negative of that is that more people may get it, and then just because of the increased numbers of cases we will likely see more hospitalizations as a result.”

Despite some uncertainty surrounding the transmissibility of B.1.1.7, the variant appears to remain the same in terms of cases ranging in symptoms and severity, Schaffner said.

O’Dowd said there is no evidence of the variant being more deadly once infected, and the variant’s growing appearance being similar to the first variant indicates possibly fewer obstacles than predicted initially.

While it has not yet been studied whether the COVID-19 vaccine will be as effective at combating new variants, she said there is reason to be optimistic, considering the nature of the vaccine. 

“These types of RNA vaccines provide immunity to the spike protein on the virus,” O’Dowd said. “The spike protein is the part of the virus that connects with the cells in the human body, which is how you get infected. Think of it as puzzle pieces coming together.”

She said the mRNA vaccine, which is being used for COVID-19, gives the body immunity to multiple parts of the spike protein so that even if one part is mutated, the body will still have some immunity to the virus.

XinQi Dong, director of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, said the CDC is ramping up its genetic sequencing of COVID-19 cases with the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance program, which will allow them to get a better sense of B.1.1.7. 

He said that while the new variant has been confirmed in the U.S., it is not known just how prevalent it is. O’Dowd said B.1.1.7 has yet to be reported or confirmed in New Jersey, although the CDC has reported the variant to be detected in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland.

Experts said the best defense against new variants of COVID-19 is still social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing — the effectiveness of which O’Dowd said has been demonstrated with the low number of common flu cases this winter.

“We will no doubt see more cases of the new variant, and more mutations, too,” Dong said. “We need to keep working to understand the variants and mutations.”

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