Infectious diseases specialist weighs in on new COVID variant

The U.S. reports at least 122 cases of a new strain of the coronavirus, according to the CDC.

New coronavirus variant

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Reports of a new variant of the coronavirus has surfaced in the United Kingdom. Now confirmed cases of the U.K. strain are being seen in the United States. Louisiana received its first confirmed case of the variant earlier this month.

The coronavirus is mutating. About 20 states in the union are now seeing cases of these new strains that doctors and health experts say are more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus.

“This variant looks to be more transmissible. Fifty to 70 times more transmissible according to some reports,” said Dr. Fred Lopez, infectious diseases specialist at LSU Health Sciences Center.

He said this is what viruses do-- they mutate and change to survive. He said despite the ease of transmission from person to person, the new strains don’t appear to cause more severe illness in persons infected, but he said it’s still worrisome.

“We need to make sure that it’s not mutating to a degree where treatments, diagnostic testing, or even vaccine strategies become less effective.”

Dr. Lopez said right now the new vaccines should remain effective against the variants, which he said are stemming from places like the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, and even a few variants are coming out of California.

“Fortunately it doesn’t mutate as quickly as the flu virus so the flu virus will create more..will have more mutations occurring more at a greater frequency than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” he said.

But his concern with these new strains is whether they will invade antibody recognition or even the vaccine itself. He said that is something doctors just don’t have the answers to right now.

According to Dr. Lopez, the population needs 70 percent herd immunity to squash the pandemic, but with a more easily transmissible virus-- like the U.K. strain-- herd immunity may need to reach 80-85 percent to make an impact. This means medical professionals may need to administer higher levels of vaccination than originally thought.

“I think they [read: citizens] should be concerned, but they should be no more concerned than they were a month or two ago,” he said.

Throughout all of this, Dr. Lopez said the bright light is that flu cases have drastically diminished largely in part to people getting the flu shot this year, and because of the mitigation measure that help slow the spread of viruses like: handwashing, wearing a face mask and social distancing.

Dr. Lopez urges the community to continue to do these things to help slow the spread of illness.

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