By Estrella Ramos, South Kern Sol

Viruses constantly change through mutation, so new variants of a virus are expected. They naturally mutate as they spread through a population and happen by chance. It can lead to weaker versions of the virus or in a way that helps the infection to spread.

A mutation is a change in a virus’s genome, which is the set of genetic instructions that houses all the information the virus needs to function. According to the CDC, “The virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus.”

There have been new versions of the virus since its first detection, but they have not been much different from the original variant, until now, health officials say. A new variant of Covid-19 was first found in the United Kingdom and called VUI-202012/01 or B.1.1.7.

According to Public Health England, “Backwards tracing using the genetic evidence suggests this variant emerged in September 2020 and then circulated at very low levels in the population until mid-November.”

Their collected data from genome sequencing, epidemiology (the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns, and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations), and modeling suggests that it transmits more easily than other variants.

They explained there is no evidence that it is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality.

Other health authorities from around the world have also concluded that it does not appear more deadly than previously identified coronavirus strains. The variant continues to be investigated.

In conclusion, it is more infectious than the original strain but does not make anyone sicker.

However, scientists say it could have more of an effect in young people. COVID-19 virus enters human cells via a receptor called ACE2, it is found on many cells in the upper respiratory tract. The amount of ACE2 a person expresses increases over time, meaning young children have very little. Adults have an abundant ACE2 in their nose and throat, making it easier for the original strain of COVID to infect them. Children are believed to be less affected due to this fact.

This may be different in the new strain because it is less inhibited. “The newer virus has an easier time doing that and children are therefore equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults,” said Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London and a New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) member. The number of children

infected is expected to increase.

NERVTAG confirmed that the growth rate of the new strain is estimated to be 71% higher than other variants. It is transmitted the same way and the symptoms remain the same. Public health officials advise the continual practice of the same preventative measures: correctly wearing a mask, washing hands thoroughly, and limiting contact with others, to name a few.

Multiple studies reports indicate that the vaccine is still effective against the new strain.

Back in late December, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the new variant has been found in the southern part of California.

The CDC keeps track of the amount of B.1.1.7 lineage cases reported in the United States, 72 in total. It has been found in 8 American states: California (32), Florida (22), Minnesota (5), New York (4), Colorado (3), Connecticut (3), Georgia (1), Indiana (1), Pennsylvania (1), and Texas (1).

Kern Sol reached out to Michelle Corsen, program manager and public information officer for Kern County Public Health Services Department, to establish whether any cases of this particular strain have been found in Kern County cases. There has not.

A similar but separate variant has been identified in South Africa, where scientists say it is spreading quickly along with coastal areas of the country.

It is important to understand how, when, and where COVID-19 mutates.

Keeping track of this new information may feel difficult but it remains essential if local communities aim to slow the spread of the virus and prevent further related deaths. Kern Sol recommends Kern County residents to stay informed and continue to abide by CDC health guidelines.