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Combating coronavirus variants in the race to herd immunity

Coronavirus variants could pose problems in the race to heard immunity. The FOCUS team talked with experts to break down the science.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the race against the virus health officials are concerned new strains could prolong the pandemic.  

"The virus does look to mutate and change its form in order to be more effective at spreading so that it can stay around," the Director of Public Health Informatics at the Regenstrief Institute, Dr. Brian Dixon explained. 

Viruses mutate to survive and so far several different strains or variants have been found.


"The original coronavirus strain is known as the 'wild type,'" UofL Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Mark Burns explained.

Then, there are two main categories of variants or strains.

First, there are "variants of interest", the B.1.427 and B.1.429 variants discovered in California and the B.1.526 variant discovered in New York City.

"We're kind of watching these just to see what they do," Dr. Mark Burns who has studied the coronavirus virus told our team. 

The second category, "variants of concern", the P.1 strain discovered in Brazi, the B.1.3.5 strain discovered in South Africa, and the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom.


"That particular variant is much more contagious than the original or the wild type was, and that's why that's really concerning," Dr. Burns said. 

The Center for Disease Control also said that the strain discovered in the United Kingdom is now dominant in the United States.

Credit: WHAS11, CDC DATA
The cases identified above are based on a sampling of SARS-CoV-2-positive specimens and do not represent the total number of B.1.1.7.

These variants alter the characteristics and cause the virus to act differently and could cause more severe disease, spreads more easily between humans, require different treatments, or change the effectiveness of current vaccines, according to the CDC.


"What they do is they take some positive tests for that week randomly and they test them for these specific genetic variants," Dr. Dixon explained. That process is called genotyping.

Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness says they send their samples to the state department of health and it takes around two weeks before a result comes back.

Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness told our team the percentage sent for additional testing is unknown but is estimated to be low for Jefferson County, Kentucky's most populous county. 

The FOCUS team reached out to the Kentucky Public Health Department multiple times to ask about their testing rates but never received a response.

Dr. Dixon said Indiana started testing just a handful of tests a week with the help of the CDC before increasing internal testing capacity as the Indiana State Department of Health gained the ability to identify genetic variants.

According to CDC data, as of March 27, Kentucky had only provided 326 samples to the CDC for genomic testing, the second-lowest sample size. About 18% were determined to be the strain first discovered in the United Kingdom.

In Indiana, about 24% of the 912 samples of positive tests were connected to the variant first found in the United Kingdom, according to CDC data as of March 27.


"Raising capacity is important because when we weren't testing for it very much, it could have been spreading, these variants could have been in our community and we didn't know about it," Dr. Dixon said.

Once a genetic variant is discovered health officials work with the person infected to get them isolated and do contract tracing to contain the spread.

"About 40% of people with COVID infection, don't have any symptoms," Dr. Dixon explained. "And so it's important to test people on a regular basis, so we can identify them as positive."


"While the vaccine may be less effective against these new strains they do still work and they are vital to creating herd immunity," Dr. Burns told us.

"We need to get enough people vaccinated before we get more mutations of the virus or more variants of the virus, and that way the virus won't have time to figure out how to get around the vaccine," he said. 

As the spread slows the virus has fewer chances to multiply and no place to mutate and that how we achieve herd immunity the experts told our team. 

"That's why we often describe it as a race between the variants that are more infectious, and the vaccines that are preventing infection and preventing severe symptoms from the disease, because that's going to help stamp it out," Dr. Dixon said.

"We can see this through. We're so close, we can see this through," Dr. Burns said.

Have a story tip? Contact the FOCUS Investigative team at FOCUS@whas11.com  

Contact reporter Dennis Ting at dting@whas11.com. Follow him on Twitter (@DennisJTing) and Facebook.