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What You Need To Know About The New COVID-19 Variant

a 3D model of the new coronavirus with red spike proteins
A 3D model of the novel coronavirus, with red spike proteins on the outside.

The new, more infectious variant is already in Texas, but one microbiologist says proactive research along with social distancing and vaccinations are our best bet for beating it.

From Texas Standard:

As scientists track the spread of the new so-called UK variant of the coronavirus, more is being revealed about its origins and how it might affect people here in Texas.

UT Medical Branch microbiologist Pei-Yong Shi told Texas Standard that it's still unclear if the new variant will interact differently with COVID-19 vaccines, but he says no one should panic. Rather, he says it's an opportunity for researchers like him to learn all they can to get ahead of its spread. Shi and several other researchers recently published a paper about the variant, which was discovered in the United Kingdom. A new coronavirus variant has also appeared in South Africa.

Shi says one likely important difference is in the variant's quality of spike proteins, which can latch onto human cells and infect them. The difference in spike proteins could be what's making the new variant more infectious.

"Those mutations clearly might have potential to affect the transmission ... as well as potential effect on the vaccine and the therapeutics," Shi said.

Still, the variant is new in the United States. It has been detected in one man in Harris County. But Shi says the recent rise in hospitalizations is most likely because of the earlier variant.

It's important that scientists closely monitor changes to the coronavirus. Shi says the UK has done a good job of that with this variant, and the United States needs to do the same.

"If you don't do this kind of follow-up sequencing and monitoring, you would miss the opportunity to identify them early, and then, so that you can take effective precautions afterwards," Shi said.

And those precautions are still the same as they've been for months: wear masks, social distance, wash hands – and now, get vaccinated as soon as you're able.

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Michael Marks
Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
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