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Spread of COVID-19 variants raises concern in 2-state region

Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 6:30 AM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - While it looks like COVID-19 cases are falling in the country, top health officials are worried new strains will lead to another surge.

Some experts in the two-state region believe the U.K. variant will become the most dominant in Georgia and South Carolina.

Among them is Georgia Coastal Health District Director Dr. Lawton Davis.

“Viruses always change,” Davis said. “That’s the reason we have to get a flu shot every year, is because the flu viruses change.”

Davis said it isn’t surprising that the coronavirus has changed. But he said what is unusual is that it has gotten stronger. Viruses typically get weaker with time. But he said these new variants are much more contagious and may even be more deadly.

There are more than 1,500 cases of the U.K. strain nationwide; 79 of them in Georgia, and only one is in South Carolina.

Georgia Coastal Health District Director Dr. Lawton Davis says in just a matter of months, a coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom - also known as B.1.1.7 - could become the dominant strain in Georgia and South Carolina.

“We know it’s in Lowcountry South Carolina. We know it’s in Georgia,” Dr. Davis said. “You may as well assume that it’s here, and it’s spreading.”

While new variants may be spreading, Dr. Davis says the current vaccines are still effective against them. He says they were developed in a way that should still allow them to defend against different versions of the virus.

“Meaning, if the spike protein or the virus changes enough,” Dr. Davis said, “you don’t have to go back to square one.”

Davis said the COVID vaccine could end up being much like the flu. That means we could be getting a COVID vaccine every six months to a year, for years to come.

“You just need to assume that it’s here, and it’s probably here to stay,” he said.

Experts including Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky say the downward trend in coronavirus cases could reverse if new variants take hold.

The problem, as experts see it, is that the U.S. has been slow to ramp up a rigorous genetic surveillance system for tracking the variants’ spread and measuring how much of a foothold they have gained here.

“The fact of the matter is we’re kind of in the dark,” said Dr. Diane Griffin, who studies infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. She said the variants are “probably widespread even if we don’t know it.”

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will spend $200 million for the CDC to triple its levels of genetic sequencing to identify mutations that might make the coronavirus more infectious or more deadly. Separately, Congress is considering a bill that would provide $1.75 billion for such work.

“We’re chasing a moving target. It’s changing a little too fast for comfort,” said Dr. Lucio Miele a geneticist at LSU Health Sciences in New Orleans. “We need to be proactive. We’re not invulnerable.”

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