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Infectious Diseases Expert: No Evidence New Coronavirus Variant Is Any Deadlier


As officials try to improve vaccine distribution, a new strain of coronavirus has shown up in at least two states this week. Scientists say that while the variant does not appear to be more dangerous, it does seem to be more contagious. And, of course, all this is happening as hospitals across the country operate at or near capacity and brace for what might be another post-holiday surge.

We wanted to know more about how this virus is mutating and how we should think about it, so we've called Matt McCarthy. He is a physician, an authority on infectious disease and professor of medicine at Cornell University. And he's the author of "Superbugs: The Race To Stop An Epidemic."

Dr. McCarthy, it's nice to have you back with us on the program. Thanks for joining us.

MATT MCCARTHY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we jump into the specifics of this new strain, I just would like a refresher on how a virus mutates. I mean, how exactly does this happen? And how do we know that this virus has mutated?

MCCARTHY: Right. So coronavirus is an RNA virus, and these types of viruses are prone to mutate because every time they replicate, there's a chance for a new introduction of something new into its genetic code. And we were expecting it to mutate. You know, this is not a surprise. It's just like influenza or measles or some other virus. These things all mutate, usually with what we call selective pressure.

So if there is some reason for it to mutate, it will, such as the introduction of new drugs or vaccines or convalescent plasma. Anything that attacks the virus will cause it to change.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that. I mean, how should we think about the fact that there are - at least a couple of states have reported cases of this new strain? And so far as we know - because we know that people have had a hard time with contact tracing - but so far as we know, the individuals weren't traveling, didn't have contact with folks who were in places where we knew this new strain had developed. I mean, how should we think about that?

Is that concerning? Or is this something that - to be expected in a pandemic of this size, where there's - this many people are infected?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, we've known about this variant since the summer, and we've been keeping track of it. And what caught our attention is that it started to become the dominant strain in certain parts of the United Kingdom. And the expectation is that if it was in the United Kingdom back in the summer, and people were flying to the United States, as they have been for a while, that it was certainly going to be here.

Now, what we know about it is that based on modeling, it looks to be more transmissible, and it looks to cause a bit of a higher viral load, meaning that when you cough this variant, you may be expelling more of the virus, which could be the way that it's more transmissible. Now, there's no evidence it's more deadly, or that it's resistant to our vaccines, or that it's resistant to our treatments. But the fact that it could spread more quickly and that this is a potentially deadly virus is cause for concern. The fact that it could go through a community more quickly is enough to get all of us to pay very close attention to it.

MARTIN: You were on this program to talk about your book on so-called superbugs. These are drug-resistant bacteria that are - you know, they're dangerous, difficult to treat. And in that interview, you talked about the relationship between the government and pharmaceutical companies, and you said there should be more cooperation in drug development so that medical professionals can better handle outbreaks.

Now, that was in 2019. Has this whole experience that we've all been living through changed your view on the relationship between Big Pharma and the government at all? Is anything working the way you think it should be?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. So the short answer is that Operation Warp Speed has been a tremendous success. And the reason it was successful is that the federal government removed risk from these companies from taking on a very risky project, which was a vaccine for a new virus, and taking on such an important problem - you know, the greatest pandemic of our lives.

Now, what we need to do after this pandemic is behind us is we need to put renewed attention on the antibiotic crisis, the fact that these pharmaceutical companies don't want to make new antibiotics because it's very expensive, and it's very risky. We can use Operation Warp Speed as a model to attack superbugs and to attack the fact that there are going to be drug-resistant pathogens that are going to be attacking us for the remainder of our lives and for generations to come.

Operation Warp Speed is a great example of how these companies can do a very difficult thing if we incentivize it and we remove the risk, and we give them the right publicity, frankly, to make this worth their while.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, what should just people listening to our conversation be thinking about right now? I mean, you're based in New York, which has experienced this COVID-19 surge this past spring. I mean, you were really on the front lines in more ways than one - right? - in seeing this whole thing unfold.

But, you know, a lot has changed since then, for better and for worse. I mean, on the one hand, the virus has spread all over the country. On the other hand, you know, more treatment options and a vaccine. So you've got this on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand situation. How do you encourage our listeners, just all of us as people, to think about the moment that we are in?

MCCARTHY: For the people who are listening, you know, it's not going away anytime soon. We've got to stick to the things that we know that work - the social distancing and doing what we can to not put ourselves in harm's way.

MARTIN: We just heard from Dr. Matt McCarthy, associate professor of medicine at Cornell University and the author of "Superbugs: The Race To Stop An Epidemic." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.