“Don’t Panic”: Officials ease fears about new variant strains in NYS

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Earlier this week Governor Cuomo announced that the first case of the South African COVID-19 variant was identified in the New York City area. Questions remain on how the state and local health experts are tracking and preparing for the virus.

Viruses can mutate in two ways: developing resistance to antibody treatments or changing their genome sequence to spread. Like living organisms, viruses mutate in order to survive.

“Variants arise when viruses mutate within people. The more opportunity it has to infect the more opportunity it has to replicate its genome,” John Moore, professor of immunology and microbiology at Weill Cornell Medicine, said.

“They’re noticing there is more aggressive spread meaning that it [variant] is spreading more quickly person to person,” Dr. Justin Nistico, D.O, from Arnot Health told 18 News.

18 News reported earlier this month that the U.S. variant tracking process is fairly new, as the CDC increased their sampling capacity in January.

“The CDC has kind of built up or really primed their system to start identifying these variants,” Dr. Nistico added.

How are variants tracked locally?

“Samples from patients are taken to laboratories and the viral sequence is determined in machines. You can look in specific places and tell whether or not it’s a new variant,” Moore added.

In the Twin Tiers, health systems like Arnot Health and Steuben County Public Health feel prepared if a variant outbreak were to occur locally.

Dr. Nistico added, “We have a lot of different treatment modalities that the state has helped us with and also we have worked with other health facilities that are in the region.”

“We do not have any new written guidance from the State Department of Health on treating a variant any differently,” Darlene Smith, Director of Steuben County Public Health, said.

With more virus strains popping up around the world, experts are monitoring them closely and evaluating the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines on the new strains. Officials remain optimistic in handling an outbreak because there is significantly more infrastructure in place at the local, state and federal level for virus prevention. Do the vaccines measure up?

“It’s literally too early to tell. We don’t know. The mRNA vaccines are just that much stronger and so there is a very good chance that their efficacy won’t be impacted in any serious way, even by this more problematic South African variant,” Moore added.

By tweaking their vaccines, a process that should be easier than coming up with the original shots.

Viruses constantly mutate as they spread, and most changes aren’t significant. First-generation COVID-19 vaccines appear to be working against today’s variants, but makers already are taking steps to update their recipes if health authorities decide that’s needed.

COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna are made with new technology that’s easy to update. The so-called mRNA vaccines use a piece of genetic code for the spike protein that coats the coronavirus, so your immune system can learn to recognize and fight the real thing.

“It’s relatively easy to adjust the composition. It’s just swapping a different gene sequence into the design, but of course then you have to make the vaccine in very large amounts and that doesn’t happen overnight,” Moore continued.

As vaccinations continue, experts are hoping for herd immunity across the country so that we can return back to normal. For now, it is important to remember the general safety protocol like social distancing and wearing masks.

“All the normal COVID precautions are going to go a long way in preventing a variant from making its way to Steuben County,” Smith concluded.

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