New COVID Strain: What to Know

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New COVID Strain: What to Know

People with diabetes have been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of ways. At the most basic level, they face a higher risk of poor outcomes if they develop the viral disease — including a higher risk of hospitalization and death. Many people with diabetes have also been devastated by the economic toll of the pandemic, experiencing a relatively high level of food and housing insecurity and reduced access to healthcare, as noted in a recent survey from the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

So the news of a new strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, widely reported by news media, may be of particular interest to people with diabetes. Here are some key facts about the new viral strain, as outlined in an article at USA Today.


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It’s more contagious than previous strains

The new viral strain, known as B.1.1.7, is believed to spread more quickly and easily than previously identified strains, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was first identified in September 2020 in southeastern England, and by November, it accounted for about 25% of all cases in London. That number was as high as 60% by the week of December 9.

Based on an analysis of its spread and the affected population, a study in Britain estimated that the new coronavirus strain is 40% to 70% more infectious than previously identified strains responsible for COVID-19.

Its spike protein is more effective

The new variant of the coronavirus is more infectious due to mutations that affect its spike protein — structures than protrude from the virus and help it attach to cells in the human body. This means that if you’re exposed to the virus, it’s more likely that these structures will take hold and cause an infection.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is constantly mutating, or changing, with a new change to its genetic material occurring about every two weeks, according to the CDC. Most of these changes don’t appear to affect how the virus has functioned, but that finally changed with mutations affecting the spike protein.

It’s not believed to be more deadly

So far, there is no indication that people who develop COVID-19 from the new strain are any more likely to develop severe illness or to die, according to the CDC.

Existing vaccines are likely to be effective against it

Right now, there isn’t much data on whether existing vaccines for COVID-19 — those already approved in the United States or in late stages of development — are effective at preventing infection with the new viral strain. But experts at the CDC believe that the latest mutations probably aren’t enough to render these vaccines ineffective.

That’s because even though the spike protein of the new strain is more effective at causing infection, it’s still quite similar in structure to the spike protein on previously identified strains. Vaccines for COVID-19 work by training your immune system to recognize and attack this spike protein, eliminating the virus before it can cause infection.

It’s been in the United States since at least late December

The new viral strain was first identified in the United States in a COVID-19 patient in Colorado on December 28, 2020. But since this patient reported no travel outside the community, this means the virus was most likely spreading within the local community — and possibly much wider — before this date.

The main problem with identifying the new strain is that it requires sequencing the genetic material of the virus. This sequencing has been performed in about 51,000 COVID-19 patients in the United States so far, out of over 20 million confirmed infections. This very small percentage of cases being sequenced — much less than 1% — means that the new strain may have avoided detection for some time, and may still be unrecognized but present in some areas of the country.

Right now, the new strain has been identified in Colorado, California, Florida, New York and Georgia.

It’s expected to be widespread weeks from now

No one should take solace in the fact that the new viral strain has only been identified in five U.S. states, according to the CDC. Like previous strains, it’s expected to spread steadily across the country, even though right now, it accounts for only about 1% of current infections.

The infectiousness of the new strain means that it’s expected to become the dominant strain by March 2021, according to some experts. By that time, they predict, it will account for the majority of new cases, and it will continue to claim a growing share of new cases as the pandemic rages on.

Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read “Coronavirus and Diabetes: A COVID-19 Update,” “Healthy Eating During Hard Times” and “COVID-19: Staying Safe at Work.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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