What colleges should know about the coronavirus variants

by Joseph K. Clark

Coronavirus cases are trending downward across the U.S., but the emergence of several concerning variant strains has dampened some of the optimism about where the pandemic is heading.

Public health officials keep a close eye on three separate variants, first discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. Early studies suggest these mutant strains could be more transmissible or render vaccines less effective.

More recently, two notable variants popped up on opposite sides of the U.S. Researchers say a mutation first identified there last year is more transmissible in California. However, their study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet. Scientists also say in two separate studies, neither of which has been published in an academic journal, that a new variant in New York is spreading rapidly and may weaken the strength of vaccines.

coronavirus variants

Much remains unknown about the variants, though some of the early data is worrisome. Still, college leaders shouldn’t think their rise means the fight against coronavirus on campuses is unwinnable.

“Regardless of the variant, we know that masking works, we know that physical distancing works, we know that good hygiene works,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force. “We need to continue to focus on the things that work.”

Higher Ed Dive asked infectious disease and public health experts about how colleges should prepare for the variants and whether they should change their approach to the virus due to the new strains and the growing availability of vaccines.

Where do variants come from?

Some viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, frequently mutate. Many of these changes aren’t significant, or they make the pathogen unable to replicate, essentially killing off that line. But sometimes, they make the virus more transmissible or cause more severe diseases; scientists closely watch these variants.

“Every time it replicates, there is a chance for a mutation,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health. “If you’ve got a lot of replication going on because there are a lot of cases, then there is more opportunity.”

Should colleges be testing for variants?

To track variants, scientists must genetically sequence samples of the coronavirus. These efforts can be expensive, however. An epidemiology professor at Emory University in Georgia, Patrick Sullivan, said he was skeptical that sequencing virus samples from students and campus employees would best use colleges’ resources. Instead, he recommended keeping abreast of what state public health authorities are learning about the variants, while Barkin suggested asking those officials if they recommend sequencing campus samples.

However, surveillance for coronavirus variants across the U.S. is spotty at best. That may change soon, as the new coronavirus relief bill Congress is considering sets aside nearly $1.8 billion for sequencing and tracking the virus.

How do the variants impact the vaccines?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three vaccines for emergency use. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines required two shots and were about 95% effective in clinical trials, though they may be less effective against some variants. The agency also recently greenlit the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot and is 66% effective.

The Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory panel has stressed that the vaccines were tested at different times and against different variants.

Although many college students aren’t yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccines, they may have concerns now about how the variants interact with the shots. It’s still unclear whether and how much particular variants weaken vaccines. However, scientists who’ve conducted or reviewed early research on the new strains say the shots should still offer some protection, particularly against severe cases of COVID-19.

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