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Deadlier or not? The latest COVID-19 mutations and you

Deadlier or not? The latest COVID-19 mutations and you
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Variants of the SARS-COV-2 virus caused by mutations are spreading widely and fear is spreading with them. Most of the public never heard of viral variants until recently and, for many, the news sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. 

The South Africa variant known as B.1.351 has now been found in South Carolina and there is concern that the new vaccines may not be fully effective against it. Pfizer has studied it and the good news is that, in the laboratory at least, there is still a significant degree of protection provided by their vaccine.

With the United Kingdom (U.K.) variant, the worry is different. Is it more virulent? Will you be more likely to die if you get it? The answer is that we really don’t know, since we lack the ability to trace it properly. Hospitalizations and deaths are easier to track than case numbers. Tracking variants needs genetic tests that are not performed routinely.

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From the beginning of the pandemic in China, studies have shown that a large proportion of the mild infections have gone undocumented. This means that we vastly overestimated the death rate because we underestimated the number of cases.

This problem has persisted. Recent studies have shown that one in five to one in three people who are infected with the original SARS-COV-2 virus experience no symptoms whatsoever. 

The SARS-COV-2 variant B.1.1.7 now predominating in the U.K., and spreading here in the U.S., appears to be much easier to transmit, with estimates as high as 50 to 70 percent more so. But a virus that spreads more easily can do so with a lower viral load, which leads to more asymptomatic cases and is even more difficult to detect. Our COVID-19 tests are less accurate when the viral load is lower and the symptoms are fewer. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there likely are far more false-negative results, or cases missed, with the new genetic variants. The more that cases are missed, the higher the death rate will appear to be.

According to data published by the U.K. government, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reviewed 1.2 million people tested for COVID-19 and found that, among 2,583 deaths which occurred over a month, patients were 30 percent more likely to have the new variant. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser, said that, with the new variant, there was an increase of the death rate over the age of 60, from 10 to between 13 and 14 out of 1,000, but he acknowledged that only a small subset of cases were considered. For the vast majority of deaths, it was unclear which variant was involved. And patients reportedly were not dying of this strain once they were in the hospital — a sign that it really may not be more virulent.

If the virus is slightly more deadly now, it is likely due to the current winter weather.

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Economist Richard Carson and a group of expert modeling researchers at University of California, San Diego, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) matched daily temperatures during the pandemic with death rates. They were able to determine that the virus became more virulent at lower temperatures and that around 40 degrees Fahrenheit was ideal for the virus. By the time the weather dropped to 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit), the model showed deaths rising by 160 percent due only to the influence of cold weather. This increase in cold weather was true regardless of genetic variant.

We need to follow the science and not jump to hasty conclusions about any of the new emerging variants. Good public health measures and a rapid deployment of the vaccines will protect us from all the current variants and prevent future ones from emerging.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of "Doctor Radio" at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, "COVID: the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science."