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‘Six Weeks to Get Our Act Together:’ UCSF Medical Chairman Explains COVID-19 Variants

Around this time last year, COVID-19 felt a world away from most residents in the US. A grueling year and over 26 million US COVID-19 cases later, a light has finally appeared at the end of a distant tunnel. As of late 2020, there were two popular vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer en route to being authorized and administered. Frontline healthcare workers were beginning to be vaccinated, and things were finally starting to look up. However, recent developments have put a threatening damper on this tentative optimism. New COVID-19 variants have emerged all over the world, showing higher rates of infection. These strains have already been detected in the US. 

According to Dr. Robert Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), “There are three main [variants] we’re talking about now: one in the UK, one in South Africa, and one in Brazil. We know that the one in Britain is about fifty percent more infectious than the one we’ve been dealing with for the past year.” 

Already, two of these new strains have been detected in the Bay Area, the UK strain and the Brazilian strain. While the impact of the more infectious variants has yet to fully hit emergency rooms and hospitals in Berkeley, the increased contagion as well as other potential unknown repercussions will make vaccinating large groups of people even more urgent. As outdoor dining resumes, Berkeley must be especially vigilant about protecting itself from more infectious strains. 

 Zara Taylor, a Berkeley High School (BHS) junior in the Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS), has been struggling with an auto-immune disease during this time. “It’s been pretty hard,” Taylor said. “Because I’m immuno-compromised, it’s definitely been a struggle. There’s a lot of pressure from my family to be really careful.” 

She hopes that in the new year, schools and stores can begin to reopen, but she doesn’t want to rush into anything, especially given the more infectious variants that might cause bigger problems, locally and worldwide. “I don’t want to be part of the reason someone’s parents or grandparents get really sick, and I don’t want to be sick either.” Taylor has been hearing more about the new variants, and hopes they won’t cause as much chaos as the original virus did last year. “I just really hope we can get the vaccines out to more people soon and go back to some sort of normality.”

Dr. Wachter explained that, although scientists and doctors are not quite sure yet, there are also some early hints that this new variant may come with a higher fatality rate as well. So far, in the US at large, there are several hundred known cases caused by the UK variant, said Dr. Wachter. 

Luckily, the vaccine still appears to be effective for this variant. Dr. Wachter said, “If we can get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, the combination of more people being vaccinated and natural immunity may get [us] to a point where, even though the UK variant is beginning to take off in the United States, we have enough people vaccinated that it will not become as overwhelming as in the UK.”

On a less hopeful note are the more worrisome South African and Brazilian variants, both of which, Dr. Wachter said, seem very similar. According to him, what makes these variants so dangerous is that mutations have changed the part of the virus’ structure that the vaccine attacks, the spike protein on the exterior of the virus. “The results from the vaccine studies tell us that [the South African and Brazilian variants] don’t render the vaccine completely ineffective, but they do make it less effective than it would be otherwise.” 

When it comes to vaccines and winning the race against COVID-19, Dr. Wachter believes that the US has a chance to stay ahead of the variants by dampening the number of transmissions before they become a huge problem. If the virus cannot infect new people, it cannot continue to mutate into different strains. 

On the other hand, Dr. Wachter said, “There’s also a chance we might screw it up, where we’re too slow, and the variants come and cause yet another surge before we have enough people vaccinated.” He estimates this scenario will play out in March, saying, “We have about six weeks to get our act together.” 

When it comes to the origin of the variants that are currently showing up in the US, Dr. Wachter thinks that, however possible it may have been for variants to have originated in the US, it’s more likely they were transmitted through travel. When it comes to schools and workplaces, “we don’t want to open up too fast. You have to weigh in the fact that these variants may become a larger proportion of the virus.” Wachter added, “There’s a possibility that … we’re going to need to stay in a lockdown for longer than we otherwise would have to.”

The US and Berkeley are facing a fork in the road. The idea of another long lockdown doesn’t appeal to anyone, but even high school students are prepared to shelter in place if it means saving lives. It is up to us to stay safe as we wait for more vaccines to be administered. A higher vaccination rate could help slow the spread of variants, which seems to be a principal worry, but it’s crucial to consider the lives of others and just hold on a little bit longer.

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