What will happen next with the COVID-19 pandemic remains a wait-and-see situation, but University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Osterholm believes the new strain that has led to a new round of strict lockdowns in the United Kingdom is a harbinger of things to come in America.
"What we're seeing right now in England I think is going to be a harbinger of things to come," said Osterholm, noting on his weekly podcast that the virus has spread to at least 33 countries, including the U.S. "In terms of where it's going, I think this is going to spread across the world and we can expect to see what is happening in England happening in many other locations."
There are two confirmed new variants of the coronavirus and neither have been confirmed in Minnesota, though Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that "it is probably here."
"We are looking for this variant, we have the capability to do it in our public health lab," said Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Department of Health commissioner. "We are screening for it continually."
The one found in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, including some U.S. states, is known as B117. Another variant initially discovered in South Africa is known as B1351. What's critically important is that the Centers for Disease Control so far has found no evidence to suggest COVID-19 vaccines won't work against the mutations.
And according to Reuters, Pfizer has been conducting trials to see if its vaccine works against the mutations, and announced on Thursday evening that its vaccine appears to be effective against these two virus strains, though its study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Osterholm recorded his latest podcast prior to this announcement, but it would be welcome news as the South Africa mutation in particular concerned him, after there were possibilities raised that it might be able to evade the vaccines made so far.
The CDC says the virus mutating to a degree that it renders the vaccines less effective would be the worst-case scenario, but there "is no evidence that this is occurring, and most experts believe escape mutants are unlikely to emerge because of the nature of the virus."
Vaccine manufacturers have said that they would be able to tweak vaccines to tackle mutations, albeit it would potentially take at least six weeks to do so.
Nonetheless, mutations of the coronavirus are however believed to be more contagious, while the vaccination process is only just getting underway in the U.S.
In Britain, hospitalizations have skyrocketed, raising fears that more cases in America could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths at a time when the country is already breaking records daily.
"Early indicators show that this variant, while not any more deadly in terms of the fatality rate, it does appear to be about 50-70% more contagious, which means it takes less of it, it's much quicker and it spreads very quickly," Walz said Wednesday.
Osterholm expects more variants to arise in time, saying he "wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow we had a U.S. variant that was found."
"We need to just pray at this point that vaccine-induced immunity, and to that degree, previous illness immunity, will provide protections against these particular strains," Osterholm said.