A color-enhanced transmission electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient.

As Covid-19 Vaccination Continues, Variants Pose Challenges

New research and reporting this week raised further alarm about highly infectious variants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The new variants, researchers fear, will make it more difficult to control a pandemic that has already caused an estimated 2.28 million deaths worldwide.

In mid-December, officials in the United Kingdom reported that a new variant of the virus, termed B117, appeared to be spreading in the southeastern part of the country. The variant, early data suggested, spread more quickly than other forms of SARS-CoV-2. Other variants, emerging in Brazil and in South Africa, soon attracted attention from scientists and policymakers.

On Monday, U.K. officials reported detecting 11 cases of B117 that appear to have acquired a mutation that has also been seen in the South African variant. The next day, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge released preliminary data suggesting that this mutation may make the variants less susceptible to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, one of the two vaccinations currently approved for emergency use in the U.S. — although the vaccine still appears to offer some protection. The team’s research also suggests that the vaccine may be slightly less effective against B117 variants that lack the additional mutation.

“B117 will continue to acquire mutations seen in the other variants of concern, so we need to plan for the next generation of vaccines to have modifications to account for new variants,” said Ravi Gupta, the researcher who led the study, in a press release. “We also need to scale up vaccines as fast and as broadly as possible to get transmission down globally.”

One nightmare scenario may be unfolding in the city of Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon. Research published in December indicated that, by last fall, around three-quarters of Manaus residents had already had Covid-19, conferring some degree of immunity to repeat infections. But cases have surged there once again, overwhelming hospitals and further raising concerns that new variants are more transmissible and potentially more adept at evading the body’s immune response.

Still, so far evidence suggests that Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe cases of the disease, even when someone is infected by one of the new variants. What comes next, some experts suggest, may be a kind of high-tech arms race between vaccine developers and shifting variants of the virus. Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech team are already working on booster shots that could help increase protection against variants. And pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced a new partnership this week to produce a next-generation Covid-19 vaccine that may protect against a broader range of variants. The target date for introduction: 2022.

Also in the News:

• A federal judge quashed a controversial rule, put in place in the last days of the Donald J. Trump administration, that would have severely restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to use health data in setting its regulations. The rule, which was backed by industry advocates and many Republican policymakers, would have prevented the EPA from making certain regulatory decisions using data that was not publicly available. Advocates said the rule would make EPA science more transparent. Critics, including leading scientific organizations, argued that, because health data is often protected by privacy laws, the rule would damage the EPA’s ability to use important research findings. On Monday, Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court in Montana found that the rule was not issued in accordance with federal law. At the request of the Biden administration, Morris vacated the ruling and sent it back to the EPA for correction, effectively ending the policy. (Science)

• A preliminary analysis of California mortality statistics, which has not yet been subject to peer review, suggests that line cooks and other essential workers have suffered a disproportionate impact from Covid-19. A research team from the University of California, San Francisco analyzed California death certificates during the first seven months of the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on people aged 18 to 65. The team found that line cooks had experienced a 60 percent increase in mortality rate since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Agricultural laborers, construction workers, cooks, bakers, and warehouse line workers all saw mortality increases of more than 50 percent, compared to a 22 percent rise across people in all professions. The researchers found that many of the most high-risk jobs were low-wage, and often lacked paid sick leave or the ability to work remotely. Researchers also found racial disparities in the data, with White Californians of working age experiencing a lower increase in mortality than Black, Latino, and Asian people living in the state. (CNBC)

• A mysterious disease has been killing chimpanzees at a sanctuary in Sierra Leone for years. Since 2005, the gastrointestinal and neurological condition — which causes weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms — has claimed the lives of at least 56 animals at the facility. In a paper published this week in Nature Communications, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other institutions have shown that the illness is linked to a newly identified bacterium they propose to name Sarcina troglodytae. The new bacterium is closely related to another kind that can infect humans and other animals. But its effects are unusually devastating: The disease appears to be 100 percent fatal for chimpanzees While scientists worry about potential spillover to humans with any new animal disease, the researchers involved in this study caution that the disease is not contagious and has not been known to infect people. Scientists are now focused on testing water, soil, food, and vegetation in hopes of identifying the source of the bacterium. (Science)

• The lack of diversity within the wider environmental movement is a longstanding issue, with the roots of environmental justice reaching back to the early 1980s. Forty years later, according to a new report in Politico, leaders among Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities say far too little has changed, and they are demanding that they have a seat at the table when the Big Green environmental groups — the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC), and several other familiar organizations — lobby the ascendant regulatory regime of President Joe Biden. Communities of color also want environmental groups themselves to reflect and recognize that the lack of diversity within their own ranks — particularly in leadership roles — is part of the problem. Whether the movement can redirect attention and resources away from diffuse ecosystem-level agendas and onto the specific (and toxic) hog farms, uranium mines, and urban pollution zones that continue to have an outsized impact on communities of color is an open question, Politico notes. “It all felt rehearsed, it felt scripted, it felt like it was checking off a box,” one Black birding enthusiast said of the White environmental establishment’s previous efforts at diversity building. “I don’t get the feeling that they want to secede that power.” (Politico)

• And finally: The Covid Tracking Project, a journalist-led volunteer operation that filled a critical information void during the early days of the pandemic, has announced that it will draw to a close early next month. Alexis Madrigal and Erin Kissane, who have helped lead the project, wrote in a Monday blog post that the site would publish its last daily update on March 7, a year to the day after the project began. From the outset, the Covid Tracking Project won a reputation as one of the most reliable sources for nationwide data on Covid-19 testing — at a time when federal data collection was patchy and testing lagged woefully behind what was needed to contain the pandemic. According to reports, even the White House relied at least partly on the project’s testing tallies, which appeared to be more comprehensive than those published by the CDC. Now, with several journalism outlets and universities tracking Covid-19 data, and with the federal government showing signs of patching the holes in its public health data reporting, Madrigal and Kissane say the project isn’t the necessity it once was. Of the project’s hundreds of volunteer contributors, they write: “It’s time to release these brilliant people back to their lives.” (Covid Tracking Project)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Ashley Smart, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.