By Dr. Henning Ansorg, M.D., FACP, Health Officer County of Santa Barbara, Department of Public Health

You may have heard about a new strain of COVID-19 (B117) that is more easily transmitted than the standard form of the virus. People who are exposed to this mutation of the virus are more likely to become infected. The first known U.S. case, in a Colorado National Guardsman in his 20s, was reported on December 30, 2020. In California, six cases of  potentially more infectious new coronavirus variants were detected during the first week of the new year. 

Fortunately, there is no evidence that this new COVID variant has a higher fatality rate or causes more severe illness than the currently predominant strain, according to the CDC. Robert Cyril Bollinger, Jr, M.D., M.P.H. at Johns Hopkins Medicine, sums it up: “Although the mutated coronavirus may spread faster from person to person, it does not appear any more likely to cause severe disease or death.  We are not seeing any indication that the new strain is more virulent or dangerous in terms of causing more severe COVID-19 disease. For a virus to survive, it may be more advantageous for it to evolve so that it spreads more easily. On the other hand, viruses don’t get the chance to reproduce if they mutate to become deadly. If we get too sick or die from a particular virus, we can’t transmit it.”

Our currently authorized vaccines will protect people against the new strain. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said that the variant “doesn’t seem to evade the protection that’s afforded by the antibodies that are induced by vaccines.”

Stuart Ray, M.D., Vice Chair of Medicine for Data Integrity and Analytics at Johns Hopkins Medicine says that human behavior is important. “The more people who are infected, the more chances there are for a mutation to occur. Limiting the spread of the virus through maintaining COVID-19 safeguards (mask wearing, physical distancing and avoidance of gatherings and travel) give the virus fewer chances to change.”

For more information about local public health orders, guidance, and vaccine distribution in Santa Barbara County, please visit: https://publichealthsbc.org/