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What health officials know, don't know about Brazil P.1 variant

Minnesota health officials confirmed the first case of the P.1 variant in the U.S.

In the national spotlight for an unwanted reason, Minnesota health officials on Monday confirmed the first U.S. case of the coronavirus strain known as the Brazil P.1 variant. 

Little is known about the variant that has wreaked havoc in Brazil, but there are some early findings from health leaders to suggest some possibilities. 

Here's a list of things health officials believe they know about the P.1 variant. 

  • It was first discovered in Brazil as far back as last July. 
  • It is now confirmed in the Minnesota, Peru, Germany, South Korea and Japan. 
  • Its spike protein mutation helps it better attach to cells, meaning it's likely more transmissible. 
  • It might be capable of reinfecting people who previously had the original SARS-CoV-2 strain. 

Here's a list of things health officials don't know about the P.1 variant: 

  • No evidence at this point to suggest that it is deadlier. 
  • No evidence at this point to suggest that it causes more severe illness. 
  • No hard evidence at this point to say that vaccines won't work on it. 

According to the CDC, "there is evidence to suggest that some of the mutations in the P.1 variant may affect its transmissibility and antigenic profile, which may affect the ability of antibodies generated through a previous natural infection or through vaccination to recognize and neutralize the virus."

It's the point of the P.1 strain potentially reinfecting people, possibly evading antibodies and being more contagious, that are causes for concern. 

Moderna announced Monday that its vaccine is slightly less effective against the South Africa variant known as B.1.351, which has similar mutations to the P.1 variant. Though the vaccine isn't quite as effective against the South Africa strain, it does “remain above levels that are expected to be protective," Moderna said, noting that it's now examining whether a booster dose might be required to tackle the South African strain.

Moderna has not published findings of vaccine efficacy specifically for the P.1 strain. 

STAT News, a leading health reporting medium, reported a recent student estimated that around 75% of of people who live in Manaus, Brazil had been infected with the original SARS-CoV-2 strain by October.

In December and January new cases in the city have exploded, raising concerns that the P.1 strain can evade antibodies from SARS-CoV-2, leading to reinfection of people who would've otherwise had an assumed level of immunity after their first bout with COVID-19.

STAT goes on to say that it's also possible that P.1. might be "so transmissible that it can spread just fine even in communities with 75% protection," though it should be noted that a case of reinfection was confirmed by scientists on Sunday

The reinfection involved a 29-year-old woman from Manaus who experienced mild symptom from SARS-CoV-2 in March and then tested positive again in December, with scientists confirmed the second case to be the P.1 variant.

The P.1 variant has been confirmed in just one person in the United States – the Minnesotan who traveled to Brazil, – while the B.1.1.7 variant, known as the United Kingdom strain, has been confirmed in eight Minnesota patients and has been found in dozens of other U.S. states. Both Moderna and Pfizer have announced that their vaccines work against the B.1.1.7 variant. 

"I worry about the shifting baseline and I worry about the fact that we may see this B.1.1.7 take off in the next several weeks, and if that happens on top of the high level of cases we have now, we're in deep trouble," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director for the Center for Disease Research and Development at the University of MInnesota, on his podcast las week

"We've gotta monitor very, very carefully this other variant that has been found in South Africa as well as in Brazil in terms of what it means for vaccine protection," Osterholm added. "This is going to be a challenge. We're going to get through it. If we need to, we can make new vaccines, but for the time being this is going to be a challenge." 

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