Alpha: COVID-19’s first variant of concern
It’s natural for a virus that causes infectious diseases to mutate but it’s important to keep a close watch on how significant the mutations are. The COVID-19 virus, for example, has gone through several mutations but, back then, the differences were too subtle for people to worry about them. Just like how the flu regularly creates new strains, the mutations were easy to deal with and didn’t involve significant changes in symptoms, effects, and treatment.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that was first discovered in Wuhan, China isn’t the same one you found or will find in various countries around the world. There were already some parts that mutated and changed in the variant compared to the original virus. The more frequently a virus transfers from one person to another, the more likely it is to mutate.
What is the Alpha COVID variant?
The Alpha variant B.1.1.7 was first referred to as the COVID-19 UK variant because it was first discovered in Southeast England in September of 2020. However, the World Health Organization decided to rename it using a Greek name to make it simpler to identify and to remove any stigma it may cause to the United Kingdom.
The Alpha strain became a variant of concern by Public Health England three months after it first emerged. There were 17 mutations observed in the Alpha variant. It shared similar mutations with the B.1.351 Beta variant (first referred to as the South African variant).
Eight of those mutations in the spike protein caused a change in its outer appearance, making it easier to bind to human cell receptors. Because the strain bound faster and easier, it increased the risk for infection, especially in people with comorbidities.
Impact and severity of the Alpha COVID strain
The COVID-19 Alpha variant was spreading 70% faster than other variants, based on a presentation by Dr. Erik Volz from Imperial College London. The variant caused a new wave of infections in more than 50 countries. The highest number of COVID-19 cases were found in Denmark, France, Belgium, and the United States of America.
Reports mentioned that the Alpha variant was slightly more lethal than other circulating variants. There was a higher risk of death compared to others. It was a major scare for people around the world so restrictions were either maintained or increased in most countries to minimize the possibility of entry.
There were other factors responsible for the increased risk of death among COVID-19 patients. Studies suggested that patients infected with the variant may have been carriers of a higher viral load or might already have underlying illnesses that caused more severe complications, making the Alpha variant seem worse than it really was. Even with these possibilities, the Alpha strain was still considered a variant of concern.
Existence of the Alpha COVID-19 variant in the US
The first cases of the Alpha variant in the United States were found in Colorado in 2020. In early January of 2021, several more cases were reported in Ohio. At that time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 19 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in and around the state.
Travel between states was restricted to prevent the strain from spreading to other states. The symptoms were similar to those caused by the original strain, which include:
- Fever or chills
- Muscle or body aches
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of taste or smell
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Tiredness or fatigue
Vaccines vs the Alpha strain
Based on reports from scientists and health care providers, the vaccines were slightly less effective against the Alpha strain. Aside from being able to bind to human cell receptors better, the Alpha strain had E484K mutations that somehow made it capable of evading antibodies, thus, possibly decreasing effective immune responses. However, the reduction in efficacy wasn’t significant enough to make the vaccines worthless.
The COVID-19 vaccines, namely Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen, were designed to target different parts of the virus. As long as those same parts were hit, even if they had mutated, the vaccines should work, and they did.
Fortunately, the vaccines we have available then and today can be tweaked or updated easily to address future COVID-19 mutations. There’s no need for scientists to create a whole new vaccine. Also, individuals don’t have to get a new set of vaccine doses and, instead, can get extended or renewed protection from booster shots.
What’s being done about COVID strains
The CDC, along with public health officials and agencies, continue to closely monitor the SARS-CoV2 virus. Each new coronavirus variant discovered is being studied to identify their changes, how they could affect humans, and if vaccines need to be updated for effectiveness.
The CDC also regularly updates their website with new and updated information regarding the pandemic, clinical trials for vaccines, monoclonal antibody treatment, and the mutations of the virus we’re all battling against.
Your role in helping prevent transmission
The Alpha variant was quite concerning but we got through that viral scare together. There’s barely any case caused by that variant anymore but there are still new ones we have to be wary about. The most recent ones that caused significant surges in the number of cases are the Delta variant and Omicron variant, both of which have increased transmissibility.
In November 2021, CDC endorsed the recommendation of ACIP for children 5-11 years to be vaccinated as well. Aside from encouraging people to get vaccinated, authorities still encourage people to wear face masks and practice social distance especially in public places and crowded spaces. Even if a virus goes through another set of mutations, it won’t be able to spread if we follow basic health and safety protocols.
It’s always a good idea to wash your hands regularly and to disinfect with alcohol or sanitizer whenever possible. You’re encouraged to get tested in a nearby urgent care center if you think that you were exposed to an infected person or if you’re experiencing one or more COVID symptoms.
It can be quite frustrating and exhausting to follow such policies but patience and compliance are still crucial these days. With continuous vaccinations and testing in every state in the US, it won’t be long before herd immunity is achieved.