New Covid Variants in Ann Arbor: What to Know

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All 23 cases of the Covid variant in Washtenaw County have been linked to the University of Michigan (photo from Pixabay free use).

COVID-19 has once again presented new concerns to the people of Ann Arbor as a new strain has been reported in Washtenaw County.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, three new variants of the virus have been discovered. One of these new variants has been confirmed in Washtenaw County, with a reported total of 23 cases.

This particular strain, identified as B.1.1.7, was first discovered in the UK in the fall 2020. The other strains, labeled P.1 and B.1.351, have not been identified in Michigan, but are present in the United States.

Elaine Mitchell, Pioneer’s Health Sciences teacher, said that most viruses mutate in order to preserve their ability to infect people, especially once people have started fighting it off. 

“As a virus is spreading, it will mutate itself as virulent or as strong as it was before,” said Mitchell. “It makes it more infectious once the person has started to develop a tolerance. It’s really normal for viruses to change. They mutate. Almost all of them do.”

According to the Washtenaw County Health Department, all of the reported cases so far have been linked to the University of Michigan. 

Not all subsequent cases are connected to this first case, but all remain associated with the university community,” said the health department’s website. The University of Michigan is working with the County to monitor the transmission of the virus and limit its spread.

The Washtenaw  County Health Department’s Communications and Health Promotion Administrator Susan Ringler Cerniglia said that with the presence of the new variant in Washtenaw County, it is important to maintain COVID-19 safety practices.

“The concern has been primarily that it has been more likely to spread more easily. Anytime we have something that spreads more easily, that can happen faster, it can impact more people,” Cerniglia said. “That is a concern because it means you have less time to respond, and that potentially you’re impacting more people. On the bright side, as far as we know at this point, the strategies we are using and have in place to prevent the spread are also effective against the variants, so that means the things that are already recommended are already in place.”

The companies that have created the COVID vaccines are still researching the effectiveness of their vaccines on the new variants. “We look forward to beginning the clinical study of our variant booster. Leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are moving quickly to test updates to the vaccines that address emerging variants of the virus in the clinic. Moderna is committed to making as many updates to our vaccine as necessary until the pandemic is under control,” said Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, in a press release on Feb 24.

Currently, it appears that the vaccines will protect against the variants, at least to an extent. Research for confirmations is still being conducted.

“As far as we know at this point, it’s likely to be effective against the variants,” said Washtenaw County’s Cerniglia.

Mitchell said that the process of the vaccination should prove successful, even against COVID-19’s variants.

“The way vaccines in general work against a virus [is that] they trick your body into thinking you’ve been exposed to a disease and then your body makes antibodies,” she said. “They remember that disease, so next time you’re exposed, they attack it before it can get in, before it can make you sick. With the variants so far, they’ve said maybe they’re a little less effective, but still effective against it.”

Cerniglia said that the new variants are not a cause for greater fear.

“Even though, of course, there’s concern for the potential of these to spread faster, or with some of the other variants, to cause more severe illness, those issues are being investigated,” she said. “The important thing for people to remember is that we do have strategies in place that do work to prevent transmission.”