A cell, in greenish brown, heavily infected with the coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2
A cell, in greenish brown, heavily infected with the coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Integrated Research Facility)
COVID 2021

Everything we’ve learned about COVID-19 variants that Santa Cruzans should know

As part of Lookout’s COVID 2021 initiative, we’re answering readers’ questions. These questions about variants of the virus are ones that UC Santa Cruz epidemiologist Marm Kilpatrick tackled at a Lookout community forum on Jan. 21.

How did COVID-19 variants come to be? Are any of them more serious than others — and can the existing vaccines stop them?

These are among the questions that surfaced during a special Lookout event on Thursday exploring all aspects of the pandemic. Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease expert at UC Santa Cruz answered these and related ones in detail. Here are some of his key responses, edited for clarity and brevity.

Ask Lookout

Lookout wants to help you navigate this extraordinary moment in time so at the bottom of this story, ask us anything related to COVID-19 or the vaccines that are rolling out to eliminate it and we’ll do our best to track down answers for you. For more coverage, visit our COVID 2021 section and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter.

Q: Is anyone in Santa Cruz County doing any testing or looking for some of these variants that are making news — the UK variant or the new California one? Is there any plan for UCSC to step in and help with that?

Marm Kilpatrick: There’s a new project and partnership, just starting up in the last couple of weeks, to try to do exactly that — to really track, what kinds of viruses we have in our community and how that’s changing going forward. So that’ll be a partnership between the University of California Santa Cruz, and all the partners in the county as well.

Please explain how variants came to be, and how concerned about them should we be?

The challenges with the variants are that this virus is like many other viruses — it is always mutating. So, this virus is always exploring different features and trying to do the best it can in infecting new people.

And so one of the challenges that scientists have had, is we’ve seen the virus evolve over the past entire year and there’s been many, many, many different mutations. But it’s been challenging sometimes to know whether the mutations have an actual impact on the actual functional traits of the virus itself — or just small changes that don’t make much difference.

As part of Lookout’s COVID 2021 initiative, we’re answering readers’ questions. These questions about the spread of the...

There’s been a few new variants that have been detected recently. There are some that people will have heard of, one that people have been calling the UK variant, or basically a version of the virus that was detected first in the United Kingdom. There’s also a variant that was first detected in South Africa, and another one that was also detected first in Brazil. And then there are actually a couple that have been first detected as you’ve said yourself in California and also in Ohio and a few parts of the U.S.

Some of them we have relatively high confidence that some of these mutations actually make a real difference, and other ones we’re still trying to understand exactly whether these new variants have different properties of the old virus.

And so I’ll briefly just make two quick comments: one is that the variant from the UK appears to be much more transmissible than the original strain that was spreading — about 50% more transmissible. And we’re still trying to estimate that more precisely. And then there are a couple of variants that appear to have some mutations that affect how well our immune system recognizes them.

Given the number of variants, can existing vaccines or previous infection guard against them?

Most scientists believe that vaccination and previous infection will still prevent either severe illness — or illness completely — from infection with these new variants, from what we’ve seen so far. The big caveat, of course, is that the virus is still always evolving and we’re always still trying to track this. So the scientists that have been working on these kinds of things, including myself, anticipate that the virus will evolve at some point that will require us to update our vaccines and make them a closer match to the new kinds of viruses.

And so these are the kinds of decisions and studies that are happening all the time right now, and all the vaccine manufacturers are trying to determine when they will need to update their vaccines to best match the viruses that are circulating to provide us with the most effective immune response when we get vaccinated.

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So is it important for everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible?

What I would like everyone to know most is we’re in a race between how fast we can get people vaccinated, and how fast the virus is getting between us.

Unfortunately there are a few things pushing that race in favor of the virus a little bit; these new variants might make the virus a little bit more transmissible and make the race even harder for us to win. And that means that we have to use our tools — which are basically our personal behavior. If we all provide each other with the support we need to make our interactions safe for the next few months, that can really save a lot of lives.

Have a question about the pandemic? Ask Lookout . . .