What colleges should know about the coronavirus variants

by Jeremy

Coronavirus cases are trending downward across the U.S., but the emergence of several concerning variant strains has dampened some of the optimism about where the pandemic is heading.

Public health officials keep a close eye on three separate variants, first discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. Early studies suggest these mutant strains could be more transmissible or render vaccines less effective.

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More recently, two notable variants popped up on opposite sides of the U.S. Researchers say a mutation first identified there last year is more transmissible in California. However, their study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet. Scientists also say in two separate studies, neither of which has been published in an academic journal, that a new variant in New York is spreading rapidly and may weaken the strength of vaccines.

Much remains unknown about the variants, though some of the early data is worrisome. Still, college leaders shouldn’t think their rise means the fight against coronavirus on campuses is unwinnable.

“Regardless of the variant, we know that masking works, we know that physical distancing works, we know that good hygiene works,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force. “We need to continue to focus on the things that work.”

Higher Ed Dive asked infectious disease and public health experts about how colleges should prepare for the variants and whether they should change their approach to the virus due to the new strains and the growing availability of vaccines.

Where do variants come from?

Some viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, frequently mutate. Many of these changes aren’t significant, or they make the pathogen unable to replicate, essentially killing off that line. But sometimes, they make the virus more transmissible or cause more severe diseases; scientists closely watch these variants.

“Every time it replicates, there is a chance for a mutation,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health. “If you’ve got a lot of replication going on because there are a lot of cases, then there is more opportunity.”

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