Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Why we shouldn’t yet be worried about the latest new Covid variant

Another day, another variant. While the reaction to Omicron was immediate and one laced with genuine fear and concern, the emergence of a new strain in southeastern France has been met with a shrug of the shoulders by many scientists.

On paper, B.1.640.2 looks problematic. Like Omicron, it has multiple mutations, 46 in total, many of which are located in its spike protein - the part of the virus responsible for gaining entry to human cells.

In reality, this is a variant that predates Omicron yet has failed to take off globally in the same way.

It appears to have first popped up on scientists’ radars in early November, when the first sequenced case of B.1.640.2 was uploaded from Paris to a global variant database called Gisaid.

The first sequence of Omicron was uploaded three weeks later, on 22 November, and in the time that followed has spread rapidly across the world, reaching all six continents by the turn of the new year.

In contrast, B.1.640.2 appears to have been limited to minor clusters here and there, as seen in southeastern France where 12 people were infected with the variant, according to a non peer-reviewed study released before Christmas.

The ‘index case’ - the first individual identified at the heart of a cluster - was vaccinated against Covid and had returned from Cameroon three days before his positive result. The study claims he developed “mild” respiratory symptoms the day before his diagnosis.

However, when the scientists took a dive into Cameroon’s own genomic data, they were unable to find any sequences of B.1.640.2, suggesting the variant either hasn’t been detected in the country yet, or originated from elsewhere.

Perhaps it could be the case that the French traveller had a fleeting encounter with someone in an airport who was infected with B.1.640.2. At this stage, we simply don’t know.

Regardless, the alarm bells have yet to be rung when it comes to this particular variant.

Tom Peacock, a virologist at imperial College, said B.1.640.2 was “not one worth worrying about too much” at the moment. “This virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised,” he said on Twitter.

Other close viral cousins of B.1.640.2 have similarly been in circulation for weeks, but have also struggled to make an impact.

As to why it has this variant hasn’t been as successful in spreading as Omicron - despite its high mutation count - we can only speculate.

Although B.1.640.2 carries many of the same mutations seen in previous variants of concern, much depends on how they combine with one another to shape the characteristics of the virus.

It could be the case that some of the mutations are actually detrimental to the virus’ ability to enter our cells or replicate, thus hindering its ability to rapidly spread.

Data on B.1.640.2 is light, and until scientists have more of it, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to provide a clear answer as to why this particular variant hasn’t come to dominate.

Should that remain the case, it will ultimately be a good thing. For now, Omicron is the main variant of concern. Unless the picture changes considerably for whatever reason, that should be the predominant focus of our attention and scientific endeavours in the weeks to come.


Puerto Rico Faces Staggering Covid Case Explosion

More evidence that vaccination is only weakly protective against Omicron

The island had a 4,600 percent increase in cases in recent weeks after mounting one of the nation’s most successful vaccination campaigns.

At one point this week, the daily case count had surpassed 11,000, a very high figure for an island with just 3.2 million inhabitants.

Armed with her vaccine passport and a giddy urge to celebrate the holiday season, Laura Delgado — and 60,000 other people in Puerto Rico — attended a Bad Bunny concert three weeks ago.

Three days later, she was sick with Covid-19, one of about 2,000 people who fell ill as a result of the two-day event.

“We did so well; we followed the rules,” said Ms. Delgado, a 53-year-old interior designer. “We followed the mask mandate. Our vaccination rate was so high that we let our guard down. The second Christmas came, we were like, ‘We’re going to party!’”

The superspreader concert helped usher in an explosion of Covid-19 cases in Puerto Rico, which until then had been celebrating one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the United States.

The concert was one of a series of business events, company holiday parties and family gatherings that fueled a 4,600 percent increase in cases on the island, a surge that public health officials worry could linger into the New Year; the Puerto Rican holiday season stretches to Three Kings Day on Jan. 6.

While the Omicron variant has besieged the entire country, it is especially worrisome in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory already overwhelmed by government bankruptcy, an exodus of health professionals and a fragile health care system. Officials imposed a new wave of tough restrictions on travelers and diners in hopes of staving off the new wave of cases.

Rafael Irizarry, a Harvard University statistician who keeps a dashboard of Puerto Rico Covid-19 data, tweeted the daunting facts: A third of all coronavirus cases the island has recorded since the start of the pandemic occurred in the past month. The number of cases per 100,000 residents jumped to 225, from three, in three weeks.

In December, the number of hospitalizations doubled — twice.

Without the polarizing politics that have plagued the debate over vaccines in other parts of the country, nearly 85 percent of those in Puerto Rico have received at least one vaccine dose, and about 75 percent have gotten both shots.

But in the face of a highly contagious new variant, a high vaccination rate is not that meaningful anymore, Mr. Irizarry said.


Governor Demands Biden Allow Florida to Purchase Blocked COVID Treatments

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has long been a bit of an outlier on the national scene when it comes to COVID-19, erring proudly and loudly on the side of liberty in terms of vaccine and mask mandates. This has, unsurprisingly, put him in the crosshairs of the Biden administration on several different occasions, as the two spar over an issue of states’ rights.

The latest battlefield that these two governmental entities are meeting upon is that of monoclonal antibodies – some of the leading treatments of COVID-19 currently available.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., called for the Biden administration to allow his state to obtain more monoclonal antibody treatments as it encounters the omicron variant of COVID-19.

“We’re past the point now where we’re able to get it directly from any of these companies,” DeSantis said during a press conference on Monday. “The federal government has cornered the entire market. They basically took control of the supply in September.”

This is the latest in a disturbing trend that seems to have pit the federal government against the Sunshine State.

The governor’s press conference came nearly a week after his surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, sent U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra a letter requesting the federal government restore distribution of monoclonal antibodies treatments to the state.

“The federal government is actively preventing the effective distribution of monoclonal antibody treatments in the U.S.,” Ladapo wrote. “The sudden suspension of multiple monoclonal antibody therapy treatments from distribution to Florida removes a health care provider’s ability to decide the best treatment options for their patients in this state.”

As Ladapo’s letter noted, HHS said in September that it would determine state-by-state distribution of certain drugs. An official reportedly said the move would “help maintain equitable distribution, both geographically and temporally, across the country.”

As of this writing, the Biden administration has not responded to Florida’s request or accusations.




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