News broke last week of a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, emerging in Africa and spreading to parts of Europe, Asia, and Australia. While a notice like this is nothing new, Omicron and the other variants that have come before it are a good reminder that COVID-19 is constantly evolving and is not likely to go away anytime soon. In the meantime, no matter how many new mutations of concern emerge, dedicated testing remains one of our strongest weapons against virus spread.
Many Americans appear to be breathing a long, collective sigh of relief as we steadily return to the way things were pre-coronavirus. Almost 50% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and health mitigation mandates have eased or been lifted in most states, resuscitating restaurants, businesses, sports venues and houses of worship. Our national parks are even seeing record numbers of visitors.
We’ve talked about getting “back to normal” for 16 months, and in select nations, “normal” finally seems within reach. But the rise of the delta, lambda and other coronavirus variants is throwing progress toward world recovery into renewed disarray.
The delta variant, in particular, has received extensive news coverage since it emerged in India nine months ago, and the strain is now surging across mainland Europe. It quickly became the dominant strain in India and the United Kingdom, and it wasn’t long before it arrived stateside. Now, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the delta variant is the dominant strain in our country. In Los Angeles alone, which recently returned to an indoor mask mandate, the variant now is driving a 10,000-case weekly uptick.
New COVID-19 cases are increasing, with particularly pernicious clusters having emerged in Missouri, Arkansas and several other states. And while the delta variant most seriously threatens unvaccinated individuals, vaccinated people have still fallen prey to its unique and more intense symptoms.
With more contagious mutations rapidly spreading and causing breakthrough cases, testing is the most reliable way to maintain the elevated level of “normalcy” we’ve achieved in the last few months.
What are variants?
Think back to high school biology class. Natural selection dictates that some members of a species adapt so they are able to survive and reproduce, while others are unable to do so and die out. This applies to all living organisms, including microorganisms like viruses.
Any one virus will likely spawn many, perhaps hundreds of mutations after the initial strain, each doing its best to keep from dying out. Scientists name each new mutation after a progressive letter of the Greek alphabet. The first major mutation of SARS-CoV-2 (what we know as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is now referred to as the “alpha” variant. The fourth notable strain is named after the Greek letter, delta.
Some mutations are simply not resilient enough to survive, leading those viruses to die out or greatly diminish in spread, like the SARS-CoV-1 — which disappeared after 2004. A lack of stable MERS-CoV mutations has similarly tampered Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) infections since it first appeared in 2012.
Other viruses, however, mutate more quickly and aggressively, making them more likely to endure. These include the human immunodeficiency viruses that cause AIDS, as well as influenza viruses. Those that continue to successfully spawn mutations but eventually fade into the background are what we call endemics.
Today, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating at a far more vicious rate than SARS-CoV-1 or MERS-CoV, leading experts to believe it will one day reach endemic status. But current strains pose numerous threats that will likely keep COVID-19 from being reduced to that status anytime soon.
Why are these new variants so concerning?
The delta variant is alarmingly tenacious, spreading 225% faster than the original strain. Those infected with this strain have, on average, about 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than those infected with the initial strain. To put it simply, it makes much less of the virus to infect you.
Particularly unique is its heightened impact among younger age groups. A London study found that people under age 50 are 2.5 times more likely to become infected with the delta variant. This is especially alarming given that children ages 12 and under can’t yet be inoculated. To date, 4 million children have been infected with COVID, with 31,000 cases in late June alone.
So it goes to say, unvaccinated people are most at risk. That means there’s a glass-half-empty way of looking at the current 48.5% full vaccination rate in the U.S.: 51.5% of Americans aren’t protected. It’s no wonder new case counts are surging in low-vaccine areas, leading the nationwide count to nearly double in mid-July.
Meanwhile, the Pfizer vaccine has been deemed 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the delta variant, 5% lower than against the alpha variant. (Pfizer has announced plans to ask the Food and Drug Administration to authorize a booster dose of its vaccine, hopefully to begin a trial in August.) Moderna said its vaccine has exhibited a “modest reduction in neutralizing titers” against the delta variant when compared to its effectiveness against the initial strain. These reports may not seem significant, but even a small drop in efficacy can create new challenges with such an aggressive strain.
A more recent addition to the World Health Organization’s Variants of Interest list, the lambda variant first appeared in Peru in August 2020. It’s now the dominant strain in that country (which has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths per capita), having been found in more than 80% of cases since April 2021. The mutation has appeared in at least 29 countries, including many South American nations and Australia, and it’s been detected in Nevada and Utah. Scientists have yet to determine whether this variant is more contagious than the original strain.
Finally, a return to international travel has played a huge role, and these strains could once again threaten a global industry. Travel from delta-afflicted countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil led to the delta variant becoming the United Kingdom’s dominant strain. By the time U.K. leaders placed India on its highly restrictive “red list” in April, it was too late, leading to renewed talks of border closures.
How is testing our best weapon?
Combining the already largely effective COVID-19 vaccines with dedicated testing efforts is our best safeguard against the spread of current and future coronavirus variants.
Even before the alpha, delta and other variants sprang up, we knew COVID-19 vaccines weren’t flawless. Breakthrough cases have happened since the very first shots in the arm were given, only now they’re more likely since newer variants spread more aggressively. Continued testing in higher-risk situations pinpoints these breakthrough cases – which include asymptomatic infections – before they can lead to further transmission. This makes testing a smart investment for businesses, government bodies or other entities whose operations are inherently high-risk.
Worksite Labs specializes in 98-99% accurate PCR testing with results in as little as 90 minutes. That way, we allow minimal time for more vicious variants to propagate — and stay on top of them even if they do. By requiring testing, industries whose operations potentially facilitate (and are threatened by) COVID-19 — travel, cruising, live music, sports, schools, prisons and the like — can keep the virus from dealing the blow it initially dealt last year.
Individuals — in addition to practicing health mitigation strategies — should undergo testing after partaking in such high-risk activities. Not only is it a common-sense step to stay physically healthy, it can help people maintain mental wellbeing too. Keeping fear to a minimum reduces stress and cortisol levels, which results in healthier immune systems. And building up the immune system is anyone’s best defense against any disease.For 16 months and counting, COVID-19 has had a grip on our nation and the world. Now, the escalating presence of new variants threatens to pull us back into shutdown. But with our full-throttle testing efforts, Worksite Labs can patch any holes in our country’s armor, with routine testing that complements other sensible actions to contain the virus and help us stop the spread.