The CoVariants.org website is run by the Swiss virologist Dr. Emma Hodcroft cared for. The website catalogs the “interesting” variants – mainly those with significant changes in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein – as found in countries around the world. Hodcroft gives the data a fascinating display by turning the different variants of each nation into a graph that shows the change over time.
For example, here are the variants that have been found in the UK from the start of the pandemic to the present day.
COVID-19 variants in Great Britain (orange = older European variant, red – UKB1.1.7 variant)
In this infographic, the orange area represents the variant of COVID-19 that emerged from Europe in the early days of the pandemic and has become the most common version in most regions, including the US. This version is also dominant in the UK during much of the pandemic until variant B.1.1.7 appears in the fall – this is the dark red area in the graphic. The new variant replaces the old one with astonishing speed and gives good indications that variant B.1.1.7 is 50-70% more contagious than older variants. It’s flooding everything … until that little green wedge has appeared in the past few weeks. We’ll come back to that.
COVID-19 variants in Germany (red = B.1.1.7)
Across Europe, history seems very similar to that of the UK. There are a multitude of variants, many of which appear to be similar to the original variant. Then B.1.1.7 appears and blocks them all. Germany, for example, shows a number of variants, some of which are parts of the B.1.160 (or EU2) family. Then all that diversity will be buried under a sea of red when the British variant arrives.
COVID-19 variants in the United States
The story in the United States is a little more complicated. First, sampling for COVID-19 variants in the US was both late and inadequate. This purple variant, which dominates in the fall, is the native variant that was first established in California. The lighter color of lavender is an offshoot of this original variant now known as B. 1.526, which was first identified in New York. This version contains the E484 mutation, which makes it a worrying variant as this mutation is known to increase vaccine evasion and has been implicated in at least one case of reinfection.
If you’re wondering about the lighter variant shown in the US table above, this is the Brazil P.1 variant. It’s definitely a problem too … just not the focus of today’s worry festival.
At the very bottom of the right-hand side of the US map, so narrow it’s hard to see, is something that has just arrived in that county – a tiny piece of green. And now, as promised, here’s why this matters.
COVID-19 variants in India are green
In India the story looks like this: Shortly before the start of the pandemic, cases with the genetic signature of the European variant appear. For the most part, India is able to stem a sharp surge in cases by fall. At this point, the nation’s samples will be split roughly halfway between this variant and the British variant that appears in Indian samples in November. about a month after it first appeared in the UK
It wasn’t until the falls in India skyrocketed in the spring that it wasn’t the British variant that was selling the rest, but two new variants that were selling the British variant. These variants – the light and dark green above – are known as B.1.617. They are members of the “Pango Lineage ”of variants. Version B.1.617.2 (dark green above) contains both the spike protein alteration found in the California variant (purple in the US table) and a mutation called P681, which is poorly understood, but possibly makes antibodies more difficult to recognize and attack the virus.
Everything about the B.1.617.2 variant is currently hardly known, but one thing should be clear from the table above: It surpasses the B.1.1.7 variant. In samples taken in India at the beginning of the year, B.1.1.7 was ten times more common than the then recently discovered variant B.1.617. In the last week of the sampling, the two B.1.617 variants exceeded the cases based on B.1.1.7 by eight times.
All of this may sound like a gobbledygook of the highest order, and the various naming systems for viral clades don’t make it any less difficult to propagate. But think like this:
The original European variant, which swept across Italy, France and the northeastern US by the time the pandemic turned into a pandemic, was likely about 50% more contagious than the version that first appeared in the Wuhan district of China. The British variant, which has supplanted this European variant in many countries, shows that the British variant is about 50-70% more contagious than the European variant. Now these new variants outperform the British variant in India. This means that they are potentially significantly more contagious than the UK variant.
Of course, this could be a coincidence. In India there could be special circumstances that favored the B.1.617 variants. An example doesn’t make a trend.
This is where the little green wedge in the British table comes into play. This wedge represents the arrival of variant B.1.617.2 in Great Britain. This variant appeared in a few cases as early as the end of February. As of April 1, it accounted for only 1% of the cases studied in the UK. Just 10 days later it had risen to 8%.
Neither of these numbers is super-solid, as no nation is actually sampling at the rate required to accurately define the genetic mix of the COVID-19 variants present. This is especially true in India and the US, where the term “sucks” does not describe how bad the system was during the pandemic. But just to drive things home, let’s look at one more table.
COVID-19 variants in Singapore
Singapore is one of the places that has done excellently for the most part during the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, it battled a spike that killed 27 people. Since then, only four people have died in the nation in over a year. Much of this comes from Singapore’s traditional government, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” where the government doesn’t hesitate to tell you exactly how to live your life and “compliance is the most important guideline”.
However, the pattern of new cases in Singapore reflects what appears to be happening in several less clinically administered countries in the region: B.1.617.2 is fast becoming the dominant strain of COVID-19.
Earlier this month Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Science, announced that laboratory tests showed that the current generation of vaccines used in the United States – Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson – all “effective against the B. 1,617 variant. “But, said Collins, it was” a little less effective“Against this variant than others.
The concern here is that the variant that encroaches on India and causes deaths faster than humans were able to cremate people’s bodies, even though parks and parking lots have been turned into crematoriums, is significantly more contagious than even the highly contagious variant B .1.1.7. We don’t know how much more contagious we are. It’s also more evasive than other variants. Exactly how much we don’t know. It can also be more virulent, meaning more likely to cause serious illness or death. We do not know it.
We don’t know much about B.1.617. But we know there is a lot of it out there, the number of cases is increasing, and it would be a terrible starting point for a SARS-CoV-2 variant that checks every box for “worse”.
CDC is expected to declare mask-free for those vaccinated
Over the past week, the 7-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases in the US has hit its lowest level in 408 days, winding the terrible counter by April 1, 2020. New cases certainly play a role in one Announcement that could be made anytime during the next week.
The CDC is expected to announce this week that those who have been fully immunized against COVID-19 will no longer need to wear masks or practice social distancing in most locations, including indoors. However, everyone should continue to honor requests for masking by companies or other venues.
There’s no word yet on whether this could lead to relaxing mask guidelines on public transportation.
Updated CDC instructions