The new coronavirus variant wasn't expected in N.L. That was part of the problem
Rod Russell, PhD, brings his expertise to audience questions about the B117 variant
Until Friday night, when Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald put Newfoundland and Labrador back into lockdown and confirmed the presence of a "variant of concern," many people here likely did not know much about the variant virus also known as B117.
Rod Russell, PhD, is a biomedical scientist and professor of immunology and infectious diseases in Memorial University's faculty of medicine. Speaking with Ramraajh Sharvendiran on The St. John's Morning Show, Russell fielded questions from listeners about the new strain, and the uncertainty that the next few weeks may bring.
Q: Given the news last week of a new COVID-19 variant and spread in the province, did this surprise you, or was this kind of expected?
Rod Russell: I don't think it was expected, because I think that's part of the problem. None of us expected the virus to come back. If anything, I think myself and many other people thought, "Hey, maybe we might be out of the woods here, and maybe we won't even see anything anymore until next year and hopefully vaccines will be around by then." But [last week] as the numbers went up so quickly each day, I had this "of-course-it's-the-variant" feeling, because it was so fast and very clearly different from what we experienced back when we had the outbreak in the spring and summer.
Q: What is the B117 variant, and how is it different from the coronavirus that we've gotten used to?
RR: This is the first of a number of variants that have popped up around the world, formerly known as the "U.K. strain," and we're trying not to use those terms anymore because you don't want to associate these things with places and people.
It's the first one that came up and its superpower is that it spreads faster. It's important for people to realize that your likelihood of getting infected on an individual basis is not that much higher with this virus if you're doing all the measures. It doesn't go through masks faster, it doesn't jump shorter distances or longer distances; what this virus does is it sticks better to cells.
When you get exposed to the virus you don't always get infected. There's always a chance that the virus won't set up shop. But what this virus has is one of its mutations basically makes it stick better to cells, and then the virus has a better chance of actually getting into a cell and replicating and making more of itself.
Q: So it's clingier?
RR: It's clingier, exactly.
Q: Is the new variant more deadly than the previous version that we've known?
RR: We had been saying no up until now, and the data suggested that it wasn't. People didn't seem to get sicker when they got this one; the issue was that it spread faster. That's a problem in itself, because if it spreads faster we know that two to three per cent of the people who get this infection get sick enough to die. So if you do the math, if more people get infected then more people are going to die.
It's a bigger problem, but on an individual level we didn't think it was more deadly. But, I've got to be honest, just in the last couple of days I've seen a couple of reports — just a couple — but I'm seeing numbers like 30 per cent more risk of severe illness. I even saw a mention of 70 per cent on national news last night. I don't know where that reference came from, but there's some retrospective analysis being done now, and they are starting to say that it might actually make you a bit sicker than the old one.
WATCH | Dr. Janice Fitzgerald underlines why she is so concerned about the B117 variant:
Q: If you have COVID-19, or if you have had the disease, do you have immunity from this new variant?
RR: My colleague, Dr. Michael Grant at MUN, has been very busy looking at antibody responses and T-cell responses in the people that have come forward from the original outbreak in Newfoundland, and everybody has immunity. The question is, do you have sterilizing immunity? Do you have enough antibodies, the right types of antibodies? And that's the kind of work we'll be doing in my lab. We don't know yet if having been infected means you're immune to it from a subsequent infection.
There's also mention now that some of these variants might even be able to infect you if you've had the vaccine, or if you've been infected before. So the safe answer is no, you may not be immune enough to not get infected again.
Q: Do we know if the vaccine, the one that's been already rolled out and still to come, is effective with the new variant of the virus?
RR: I'm seeing 70, 80, 90 per cent from the data around the world that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, at least, protect against the B117 variant that we have here. There's another variant that worries me a little bit more, the one that's called the "South African variant" — that one seems like the vaccines only have about a 60 per cent effective rate against that variant, but keep in mind, 60 per cent is basically where our flu vaccine normally is. That's still a pretty good rate because some immunity is better than no immunity.
Q: What are the chances that we're going to see other variants arrive in Newfoundland and Labrador?
RR: You really can't say. I said last week I didn't think this one will make it here, but it was already here when I said that. We don't know until we see it, and we can be hopeful but there's a chance. It just takes one person to slip through that has that infection, and then we have that here.
Q: Do you think that the two-week lockdown is going to be enough to get this current spread under control?
RR: I'm not a public health expert, but if you look at the numbers we've had so far — and these are snapshots, it's very early and our positivity rates depend on where they're actually testing and which groups are testing — but it's hard not to notice that we had a very quick ramp-up, and now we're down again yesterday.
We have to be optimistic, but it really depends on the numbers and what happens now, and how far the virus has gone around the province and how many more people are out there that could be infected that we don't know about.
Q: Once we're able to get this current spread under control, whether it's two weeks from now or longer, will we be able to go back to the way things were, or do we have to get used to the idea of this new reality with a more contagious variant?
RR: We're going to have to keep our foot on the gas now. I think we all were hopeful and optimistic and thought that maybe we wouldn't have to deal with this — but here's the wakeup call, here's a slap in the face. The virus was here worse than we thought, the community spread worse than we'd seen in the province before, and it just sends a message that we can't let our guard down because it'll take every opportunity to get in at us.
Q: Given that this is likely not the last variant of COVID-19, would it make sense to do randomized testing in order to hopefully catch other new variants early? And are results from randomized testing necessary in order to connect with the disease spread models?
RR: That's really a public health question and I'd rather not say too much about it because it's really not my expertise. What I will say is rapid testing of the public in low-risk groups has seemed to be effective in other places, but it's important to realize that during an outbreak like we had last week, I'm not sure randomized is the right word.
But rapid testing of the public is complicated. It's not so simple to say we'll just test everybody, because there's a sensitivity issue, there's a false positive issue, that's a false negative issue. I think there's a lot of discussion right now about how to use rapid testing to really benefit the situation, but I don't think rapid testing in the middle of an outbreak is really that useful.
Q: Is there any sign or indication that the B117 variant is mutating around the world?
RR: There is, yes. There's one study, I haven't checked the numbers in a couple of days, but even in the U.K. now, that variant has already been reported. Now, the last I checked it was only 11 cases, but it was reported that variant had then picked up one of the mutations associated with the South African strain. And it's one of the ones that affects whether or not the antibodies work well against the virus, so it could impact vaccine efficacy as well.
Watch | On Friday night, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald confirmed the discovery of a "variant of concern" and put N.L. into lockdown:
Q: Can we expect to see any other variants arriving in Newfoundland and Labrador?
RR: I don't think we can say that any specific virus is going to make it here unless somebody comes here with it and doesn't isolate or pay attention to the guidelines. So long as people are paying attention to the guidelines, any variation can get here, but then it might not get into the population if people are isolating and getting tested.