Kimberly Lindsay

Grant County Public Health Administrator Kimberly Lindsay

A variant has likely contributed to the uptick in COVID-19 cases in Grant County.

Grant County Public Health Administrator Kimberly Lindsay confirmed the virus variant B.1.526 has been identified in Grant County but said she could not provide specifics about where it was located.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies B.1.526 as a “variant of interest,” which is being monitored, but not a “variant of concern” that has been shown to cause increased transmissibility or disease severity.

In Grant County’s region seven, shared with Deschutes, Harney, Klamath, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake and Wheeler counties, the Oregon Health Authority reports 13 variant cases.

Dr. Anthony West, a senior research specialist at the California Institute of Technology, is the lead author of a research paper detailing the institute’s recent work on the B.1.526 variant.

West said that a variant of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — has a small number of changes to its genome. He said a few variants appear to spread more rapidly than others.

West and other researchers at Caltech first discovered the rise in B.1.526 by scanning for mutations in hundreds of thousands of viral genetic sequences in a database called GISAID.

He said the fraction of B.1.526 viruses increased rapidly in early 2021. West said roughly half the B.1.526 viruses carried spike protein mutation E484K, which adversely impacts a specific subset of antibodies against COVID-19. Certain monoclonal antibody treatments may be less effective, according to the CDC.

West said people who had been infected before or were vaccinated were able to offset the B.1.526 in lab experiments but not as well as the original version of the virus.

West said researchers saw uncertainty in February about how well the vaccines would work against the variants. However, he said, the data over the last couple of months has been “quite reassuring” surrounding the effectiveness of immunizations against the variants.

He said variants now account for a significant portion of infections and vaccinations remain the “best tool” to control the pandemic.

“Generally, the vaccine will still be effective against B.1.526 since the immune system produces many different antibodies as well as T cells that recognize the virus,” West said.

Dr. Jeremy Kamil, an associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, said it is crucial to be mindful of “over-interpreting” the emergence of a variant.

Virus variants are a significant public health concern, but viruses continually change. As a result, new variants have developed and disseminated internationally throughout the pandemic.

Researchers have been studying the genetic material of the virus to see how it might be changing. For example, they analyze genetic sequences of viruses taken from a small proportion of infected people to chart the appearance of new versions.

Kamil said most variants are meaningless, but others can make things much worse by spreading and making people sicker.

“When you add natural selection to the mix, what nature does is something that is by accident an advantage,” he said. “Then Darwin tells us that selection can operate on those advantages.”

Kamil said the advantage could be an “epidemiological event” where someone is infected by a virus with a series of mutations that make it more transmissible and spreads the mutated virus to people, who spread it to others.

“So there’s a variant that just increases abundance by chance,” he said. “They got lucky.”

Kamil said there is a virtual “zero chance” the vaccine will fail. He said the immune system is multi-layered

He said the immune system gets a “head start” when the vaccine is in play.

“It’s much better if the police have a blurry mugshot of the criminal than if they have no picture at all,” he said. “Sure, it might take the cops a little longer to catch a criminal that’s wearing a wig, fake mustache and sunglasses. But they’re going to catch him in a couple of blocks.”

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Steven Mitchell is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. Contact him at steven@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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