Fox Chase expert speaks about new COVID-19 strains

An expert at Fox Chase Cancer Center says evidence does not indicate the new COVID-19 strains carry new or more severe symptoms, but could be easier to spread.

Dr. Glenn Rall said there is so far no evidence the new COVID-19 strains carry new or more severe symptoms. Photo via Fox Chase Cancer Center

Just as vaccines to combat COVID-19 were approved for distribution, news of mutated strains of the virus originating around the world arose. Many questions about these new strains have arisen, including if the vaccine that just began rolling out will continue to be effective in fighting the virus.

Evidence and historical precedence indicate yes, the vaccines will continue to be effective, though nothing is known for certain, said Dr. Glenn Rall of the Fox Chase Cancer Center. There is also no proof that the virus carries new or more severe symptoms than the strain that put the country on lockdown last March.

A new strain of the virus known as B.1.1.7 was first detected in Kent County in England back in September and has since then become the most common variant in the UK. Last week, a patient in Dauphin County was detected to have the strain.

Does that mean this mutant strain of the virus will become the dominant strain in Pennsylvania? It’s impossible to know for sure yet, though Rall wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen.

“Words like mutant help to exacerbate the fear of the virus. It’s important to note here that viruses mutate like crazy,” Rall said.

It is not new or surprising knowledge that viruses mutate when they enter a person’s body as a means to become more fit for survival. For example, the flu virus mutates often, which is why it is recommended to get a flu shot each year.

Viruses mutate for a number of reasons, including making it easier to cling on to our protein cells, though most mutations actually end up making the virus weaker. Only the ones that make it easier for viruses to cling to our cells tend to stick around and spread.

Rall likened our protein cells to a crumbled-up piece of paper.

“What the virus clings to is the corners, edges, nooks and crannies within that rolled up ball of paper,” Rall said.

As a virus mutates, it could become easier for it to cling to one of these edges. In that case, the B.1.1.7 strain could be “stickier” than its parent strain, which is why it could become the more dominant strain.

“The new strain is maybe more transmissible, but so far there doesn’t appear to be any changes in the disease,” Rall said.

Evidence also suggests the vaccine will work on the new strains, as Pfizer-BioNTech has tested its vaccine against the B.1.1.7 strain as well as the strain found in South Africa.

“This is a dancing-in-the-streets moment for humanity that we have multiple vaccines that are this effective and in this short period of time,” Rall said.

There have been more than 97,500 cases of the virus reported in Philadelphia since last spring, and just over 2,600 deaths. Last week, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said he wouldn’t be surprised if the new strain was detected in the city. ••