As new coronavirus strains emerge in other countries, expert emphasizes importance of staying home

December 21, 2020
Empty street in England
Much of England is under lockdown due to a surge in coronavirus infections. Image via Unsplash

A nationally known infectious diseases expert at the Medical University of South Carolina says the new coronavirus strains that emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa show the need to double down on public health measures and get as many people as possible vaccinated.

“The sooner we can get the pandemic under control and prevent the virus from spreading like wildfire the better, because it will prevent the virus from being able to mutate further,” said Krutika Kuppalli, M.D. 

Kuppalli serves as an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at MUSC , an Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and vice chair of the Global Health Committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America

Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant in the United Kingdom is 70% more contagious than other strains. Some countries have banned flights from the U.K. to try to slow the spread. Meanwhile, another variant has caused a resurgence of COVID-19 in South Africa. The mutations involve the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to infect people.

CDC image of the new coronavirus 
CDC image of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We expect viruses — especially RNA viruses, which is what the coronavirus is — to mutate,” Kuppalli said. “We've had other mutations previously in the pandemic. It’s not surprising we’re seeing these things. The thing that’s concerning is that this appears be more transmissible than other ones. There’s still a lot of information we don’t know.”

Kuppalli said the question of whether the coronavirus vaccines will work against the new strains came up over the weekend at a meeting of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. “They are monitoring it. Things so far look good.”

But vaccines aren’t a reason to ease up on things like mask wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing, Kuppalli said. “We need to figure out numerous ways to control the coronavirus. The vaccine is not a magic bullet. It’s using the vaccine in addition to our public health measures. A large part of this is in our control.”

She’s encouraging people to stay home for the holidays. “I know it's a big ask. I know people want to see their family, they want to see their friends. But we know what to do. We have the public health tools. We have a vaccine that is on its way that we're rolling out as quickly as we can. We need everybody to play their part.”

It’s possible that the new strains will show up here, brought via flights from the affected countries. “I think we've been fortunate here in Charleston and MUSC where we haven't had this big surge yet compared to other places. But I talk to my friends at other institutions, which are being inundated by COVID cases, and it's awful. I think we really need to think about that and we need to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent that from happening here for as long as possible.”

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Helen Adams

Keywords: COVID-19