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New coronavirus variants ‘not magic,’ mitigation measures will work, expert says

While research into emerging coronavirus variants is ongoing, one expert cautioned that they are "not magic," and the measures in place to mitigate current spread will still work against the new strains. Mutations also aren’t out of the norm for a virus, especially one with such high community spread, Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at John Hopkins Center for Health Security and associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a media briefing Thursday.


"What we are seeing with SARS-CoV-2 is not unexpected," she said, during the "COVID-19 Variants: What They mean for Testing and Vaccines, Reaching Herd Immunity and Driving Down Transmission," briefing. She added that the country needs to scale up sequencing efforts to better track mutations.


"I want to emphasize that these variants are not magic," Gronvall said. "A lot of the things we’ve been doing throughout this pandemic will continue to work when it comes to these variants."


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The diagnostic tests that were developed to detect the initial strains will also continue to work, she said, adding that if there are any "threats to the capacity of testing," the FDA is monitoring and will notify manufacturers and consumers.


"Also, we are encouraged that the vaccines that have FDA emergency use authorization are continuing to be effective," she said. "There’s a lot of data that’s coming out about the vaccine efficacy against these variants and a lot of laboratory data that doesn’t tell the full picture, we’re continuing to monitor the situation. At least for the vaccines that currently have emergency use authorization they still appear to be very protective."


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Dr. Andy Pekosz, co-director of the John Hopkins Center for Excellence for influenza research and surveillance and professor and vice-chair of the department of microbiology and immunology, added that the driving factor behind the variants is the high numbers of coronavirus cases in the community.


"We also need to realize case numbers are one of the things that [are] driving the likelihood of this virus acquiring mutations that make it more transmissible," he said. "If it’s a 1 in a million chance, we’ve let the dice roll 900,000 times because we haven’t been able to control cases out there. Controlling case numbers is going to be the most critical thing we do to lessen the likelihood of more variants."


Pekosz also said the threat of another surge in cases due to an emerging variant can be lessened through an accelerated and concentrated vaccination effort, which coupled with infection rates would provide a high level of immunity.


"I think that the vaccine and national infection provide enough immunity that we’re not going to see huge numbers of cases of the new variants coming through," he said. "They may slow down the rate at which case numbers go down, but I think everything I’ve seen so far about immune responses suggests that these variants are still susceptible to the immunity induced by vaccine or infection."


Still, he said immunity induced by the COVID-19 vaccine is both stronger and longer-lasting than one left by prior infection.


"Both types of immune responses will help us, but we really want to focus on getting the vaccination campaign up and going because that’s the stronger immunity and the longer lasting immunity," he said.