Lessons for Reporting on COVID-19 Variants

By: Lucía Ballón-Becerra | 02/01/2021

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

As governments around the world roll out COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, new strains of the virus have fueled growing concerns among experts. 

Scientists have linked a variant in the U.K. to a more rapid spread of infection, for instance, which has led the country to more strictly lock down. Another variant reported in South Africa also appears to be more transmissible than previous forms. 

What do we know about these variants? Do the new strains respond differently to vaccines? Has the uncertainty behind COVID-19, and the ongoing nature of the situation better prepared experts and health systems for future outbreaks? 

“[The coronavirus outbreak] has been one big learning experience about how quickly the situation can change and how we need to adapt as it transgresses,” said zoologist Bernardo Gutierrez during an ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum webinar.

Gutierrez is a researcher for the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, where he focuses on virus transmission. He joined Patrick Butler, ICFJ’s vice president of content and community, to discuss the science behind mutations, detecting variants and preparation for future outbreaks. 

Here are some key quotes and takeaways from Gutierrez during the session: 

On the emergence of virus mutations

  • Virus mutations occur naturally and are quite common. As the virus transmits and circulates within local populations, it makes copies of itself and accumulates mutations. 
  • Genome mutations occur at random, so the possibility that one of the random changes could improve the virus’ ability to spread does exist. However, the majority of mutations are silent, meaning the shifts do not affect the behavior of the virus, the type of disease, nor the speed of transmission. 
  • The U.K. and South African lineages have specific names, B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, respectively. The difference in names results from the underlying fact that these variants emerged from entirely independent origins.

[View past webinars and key quotes]

On transmissibility rates 

  • The two new variants have different mutations and can behave similarly to a certain extent in terms of transmissibility rates, but they are nonetheless different versions of the virus. The South African variant has two particular mutations — sharing one with the U.K. variant  — in an important part of the virus that could potentially be associated with its transmissibility
  • It is difficult to determine whether an increase in cases is directly caused by a new variant. Correlation does not mean causation; an increment in the number of cases should not necessarily be interpreted as the product of a new variant. Whether the U.K. variant heavily contributes to the increase in infections is actively undergoing study. 
  • There have been estimates of 30% to 70% higher transmissibility for the U.K. variant, but there is a degree of uncertainty to these numbers. The overall mean of these estimates seem to be somewhere near 50%, which is why the U.K. variant is said to be 50% more transmissible than previous forms of the virus. Identifying the full range of possible implications resulting from this change in transmissibility is still ongoing. 

On detecting variants, and differences between countries

  • By the time cases are detected in some countries, there is already a degree of circulation within its communities. Identifying new variants requires genetic sequencing, which is a technique that is still uncommon across the world. There are countries with a higher level of expertise and available resources, but there are some countries that are still in the process of building up their genomic surveillance — an analysis required for timely pathogen detection. 
  • The U.K. variant has been discovered in at least 45 countries by now, but different scientific approaches and circumstances yield different detecting outcomes, so it is likely present in many more. When the virus first began to reach other countries, the resources available and the setup of each surveillance system affected the ability to identify cases. Some public health agencies lacked the capacity, technology or resources necessary to detect cases early. 
  • The U.K. has long been advanced in genomic sequencing while the U.S. is not yet as experienced, meaning the new variant could be more widespread than currently recorded. For a country as large as the U.S., and that manages surveillance and etymological data at the state level, implementing a single coordinated strategy is challenging. 
  • The U.K. has implemented one of the most developed etymological surveillance strategies, which is a product of government support and effective coordination among many public health agencies and academic institutions, and early investments of resources and time.

On new variants and vaccine efficacy 

  • When the body develops an immune response to a virus, it does not necessarily produce antibodies that specifically target a tiny part of the virus protein that coats the envelope of the virus particle. Instead, the body develops different versions of antibodies that bind in slightly different ways across the protein, making antibodies and vaccines resilient to minor mutations.
  • The analysis so far suggests that the variants, particularly the U.K. variant, are not expected to affect the efficacy of vaccines. The South African variant may have a bigger effect on the behavior of the virus, and may even pose resistance to the vaccine, but due to the ongoing nature of the development it is not certain if this conclusion will hold. 

On future outbreaks and preparedness 

  • Given the trends of increasing globalization and travel, health systems and researchers around the globe need appropriate resources, protocols and robust monetary investments to contain future local outbreaks. 
  • Performing genome surveillance — which requires infrastructure and expertise — would be the ideal approach to prepare adequately for potential outbreaks, but resource availability could pose a challenge in different parts of the world. There are still different levels of research and resources available in different countries. 
  • The novel coronavirus has provided many lessons for the scientific community. Now, the pandemic toolbox contains more knowledge on pandemic control approaches, how diagnosis schemes are implemented, how information spreads, and the role of political differences. With this experience, health systems and researchers will be better positioned in the future when planning strategies and communicating developing information in uncertain times. 

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