How contagious and deadly are the COVID-19 variants from Brazil, South Africa, UK?
The battle against COVID-19 has several fronts: prevention (with masks, distance, and hygiene); vaccination (in full swing); and scientific research. Research is crucial because the virus changes in order to survive and spread.
So far, three variants have emerged that are causing concern: British, South African and Brazilian. Are they more contagious? Do they result in death more than the first variant? Here are some rough answers while data are still being analyzed.
The so-called British variant has, according to the first studies, caused a very strong expansion in the United Kingdom. Scientists seem to agree that its contagiousness is between 30% and 50% higher.
Scientific opinion is divided on this issue. The British government says yes, the British variant is more lethal. The World Health Organization doubts it. On the one hand, it is clear that, by infecting a larger number of people, statistically there will be more fatalities. But there are researchers who claim that, on an individual level, the British variant of the coronavirus is hardly more lethal than the one that has been circulating throughout Europe.
In other words, the British variant is more dangerous at the collective level because of its high transmissibility, but science has not determined that at the individual level it is much more lethal.
In the midst of a vaccination campaign and without really meaningful and diverse samples to study, it is difficult to make a categorical statement. But, in theory, science assures us that the current vaccines immunize against the British variant.
Scholars do say that they are not sure about the vaccines' working against new variants of the British COVID-19. There may be "variant of the variant" that can fool the vaccine, UK authorities admitted in February 2021.
The characteristics of the Brazilian variant are more worrying. Based on research still at a very preliminary stage, this mutation is believed to be more contagious than the first COVID-19 - just like the British variant. However, it seems that this variant is also able to circumvent the immune system to a greater extent and thus cause greater lethality.
The major concern is that the Brazilian variant may circumvent existing vaccines. In that case, pharmaceutical companies have assured that it is relatively easy to "reprogram" the vaccine to be effective against new variants. But it does take some time and may slow down the end of the pandemic.
The South African variant would be similar to the Brazilian one. It may be more contagious and, although there are doubts, perhaps slightly more lethal than the original strain that spread across the globe in 2020. Another factor of concern is that, according to some studies, both the South African and Brazilian variants affect young people more.
Variants occur because the virus wants to improve its conditions and survive at all costs. This is why it seeks ways to circumvent immunization, to increase its host range (young people, children), to hide in our bodies.
However, scientists insist that, in general, viruses tend to attenuate themselves in order to cause only a mild illness and to be able to live in peace. They are organisms that do not want their host to die, so their evolution tends to be towards variants that are 'friendlier' towards their hosts than the initial virus.
One of the biggest dangers of the new variants is the possibility that they could cause re-infection. This would mean that all our efforts of immunization would have to start from scratch. Imperial College London warned about the ability of the new variants to re-infect.
No, it is still essential that we become as immune as possible to the virus. The higher our immunization, the lower the capacity of new variants to penetrate our populations.
Experts hope that if vaccination progresses and we approach what is called "herd immunity," the entry of new variants will be slowed down. In other words, the variants could still enter, but any person vaccinated or recovered from an earlier COVID-19 infection will probably not be re-infected or only have mild symptoms.
Again, this is all said with the utmost caution: COVID-19 still involves too many scientific mysteries and there are few absolute certainties.
In Europe, the US, and elsewhere, flights from the UK, Brazil and South Africa have been restricted. It is difficult in today's global world for new variants to remain in one place, but we must try everything to halt the pandemic.
For the time being, it will be necessary to continue to protect oneself from COVID-19 with preventive measures such as the use of face masks. In this respect, the idea that the FPP2 (the mask in the picture) is the most effective, and that this model should be used in closed spaces, is gaining more and more ground. In some parts of Germany this type of mask is already required for public transport, shops, and other areas.
The virus mutates and will continue to mutate. It's the law of life. The most optimistic scientific forecasts say that, little by little, we will learn to live with COVID-19. It will become a mild, flu-like illness, and the vaccine will have to be adapted from time to time. Let us hope that this will be the case and that, sooner or later, we will be able to return to normality.