Why international coordination is crucial to control COVID-19 variants

A new editorial published in Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 (RR:C19) offers recommendations to address emerging COVID-19 variants, stressing the need for coordinated international efforts in genomic surveillance and phenotypic characterization.

Authors Gina Borgo, Berkeley Public Health PhD candidate in infectious diseases and immunity; Yash Huilgol, second year medical and graduate student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program; and two other co-authors, provide insight into how COVID-19 variants, predicted to be more transmissible, emerge.

They note that at least three independent SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) variants have emerged in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa and have rapidly increased in prevalence in their respective geographic regions. This increase suggests that the genetic changes in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 provide some advantage to the virus, likely in human-to-human transmission. These three variants all have an unusually high number of mutations, including multiple mutations in the spike protein.

However, it is still unknown if these variants alter the efficacy of current vaccines and therapeutics and how they will continue to mutate.

The authors look at two preprints that describe studies examining what spike mutations emerge as the virus adapts to avoid detection by the immune system. The studies’ results provide insight into how SARS-CoV-2 can adapt to antibody immunity. The results suggest that vigilant monitoring of the viral population should be a high global priority as the vaccine is rolled out in only a small percentage of countries that have ongoing community transmission.

To stay on top of virus mutations, the authors recommend:

  • Investment in building genetic sequencing capacity.
  • Coordination on federal and local levels in the United States.
  • National genomic surveillance systems that coordinate as part of a global surveillance system.
  • Better communication with the public. The authors stress that, “it is imperative that public health authorities communicate what the variants mean for people’s day-to-day risk and explain why masking and physical distancing remain the best strategy for preventing disease and viral evolution.”

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