The new COVID-19 virus variant: What you need to know

graphic of SARS-CoV-2 virus 'morphing' into a new virus
As COVID-19 continues to surge globally, a new, more contagious form of the virus is widespread in more than 30 countries. (Image: AdobeStock/Illustration: Fawn Gracey, Boston Children's)

You’ve probably seen news reports about B.1.1.7, a newly discovered version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Now found in several countries, including the U.S., B.1.1.7 is quickly spreading around the world. Although B.1.1.7 seems to be more contagious, it doesn’t appear to lead to more serious illness. What else do we know about this new virus variant and what could it mean for your family? We asked two specialists in infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital to weigh in.

What are virus variants?

All viruses eventually mutate — or change their genetic code over time — due to random changes as the virus replicates. This is a normal, inevitable process resulting in different forms, or variants, of the virus.

When did the B.1.1.7 variant first surface?

John Brownstein headshot
Dr. John Brownstein

“We see virus variants emerge all the time,” says Dr. John Brownstein, Boston Children’s chief innovation officer. “Many variants of the COVID-19 virus are circulating throughout the world; most have just a few genetic changes that don’t dramatically change the virus’s behavior. This is normal and expected with any virus.”

The B.1.1.7 variant was first detected in the United Kingdom in late summer 2020 as part of routine surveillance of the virus variants within that country. It caught the attention of scientists in the U.K. only when they discovered it was causing most cases of COVID-19 there. So far, it has spread to more than 50 countries around the world.

In the U.S, the variant was first detected in late December in Colorado and has since has been found in many states. “We should assume that it has spread widely throughout the U.S,” says Dr. Thomas Sandora, hospital epidemiologist at Boston Children’s.

What’s different about this variant?

Thomas Sandora headshot
Dr. Thomas Sandora

Studies in the U.K. and elsewhere have shown that B.1.1.7. appears to be 56 percent more contagious than other COVID-19 virus variants.

“That means it can spread more easily and faster between people, but it’s not completely clear why yet,” says Dr. Sandora. It may be that the virus attaches more easily attaches to the cells it infects, but more research is needed to find the answer.

Does this new variant make you sicker?

The new variant does not appear to cause more severe illness or increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

“I am concerned, though, that since it spreads more easily, more people will become infected,” says Dr. Brownstein. “That would likely lead to more hospitalization and deaths, which highlights that we still need to take seriously public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.”

Is the new variant likely to trigger more serious illness in children, like MIS-C?

After COVID-19 infection, a small number of children develop a severe inflammatory illness called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), often weeks after initial exposure to the virus.  So far, B.1.1.7 does not appear more likely to trigger MIS-C, or other serious illness in children, compared with the older variants of the virus.

Studies in the U.K seem to show that B.1.1.7  is more common than the older COVID-19 variants in children and adolescents up to age 19. But the reasons are not known. The good news is that even in the U.K., children infected with the B.1.1.7 variant appear to have no or very mild symptoms. There does not seem to be any difference in the severity of the disease from B.1.1.7 and other COVID-19 virus variants.

Will the COVID-19 vaccines still be effective against this new variant?

“I think that most scientists and experts believe that this variant will be covered by the COVID-19 vaccines that are authorized and in late-stage clinical testing,” says Dr. Sandora. 

The COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use or in clinical testing were designed to prevent infection by the virus in a variety of different ways. That means that even if the virus evades detection by one part of the immune system, the vaccines can still mount a sufficiently strong response to stop someone from becoming ill with the virus.

“The B.1.1.7 variant hasn’t acquired enough mutations so that it could escape coverage by the vaccines,” adds Dr. Brownstein. “It would take a long time, maybe years, for the virus to build up enough mutations so that they would have an impact on the vaccines. So concerns about the existing vaccines are unfounded.”

A new study supports that. When scientists tested blood samples from people already vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine with B.1.1.7, they learned that the Pfizer vaccine prevented B.1.1.7 infection just as it prevents older variants of the virus.

It’s important to remember that neither of the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. — the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — promises to prevent infection with COVID-19. While that may be the case, more research is needed to see if they do prevent infection. We do know that the vaccines are about 95 percent effective at preventing illness with COVID-19. 

“There is no immediate concern over the existing vaccines,” says Dr. Brownstein. “We should be proceeding as we have been to make an impact with mass vaccination against COVID-19 over the coming months.”

Learn more about Boston Children’s Hospital’s response to COVID-19.

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