2021: A year of déjà vu with new coronavirus strains and oxygen shortages

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2020 was a year of firsts. It was the first time many of us experienced a pandemic, endured mandated lockdowns, wore face masks for reasons other than making a fashion statement and witnessed a global toilet paper shortage.  

With about 2.3 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, a global travel ban, record low unemployment rates and minimal knowledge about the coronavirus pathogen, these past 11 months have tested the patience of individuals worldwide. 

With the exciting discovery of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that are 95% effective, it seems that 2021 can only get better. At the time of writing, according to an article by the CDC, there have been about 600 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) in 26 U.S. states, two U.S. confirmed case of the Brazilian variant (P.1) and five confirmed cases of the South African Coronavirus strain (B.1.351) in South Carolina. If you ask me, it seems like history is repeating itself quite suspiciously as we approach the pandemic’s one-year anniversary. Around this time last year, we were shrugging off reports of the novel coronavirus in China. With new strains and potential oxygen shortages, we should think twice before we make the same mistake again. 

“If you ask me, it seems like history is repeating itself quite suspiciously as we approach the pandemic’s one-year anniversary. Around this time last year, we were shrugging off reports of the novel coronavirus in China. With new strains and potential oxygen shortages, we should think twice before we make the same mistake again.”

Many may wonder why these recent COVID-19 developments should be concerning when there are multiple effective vaccines on the market to protect ourselves against the virus. According to an article from The Guardian, Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine trials reveal that the current vaccine is 95.6% effective against the original coronavirus, 85.6% against the B.1.1.7 variant and only 60% against B.1.351. 

Additionally, Public Health England has declared that the B.1.351 variant is no longer specific to those with a travel history as there have been 11 confirmed cases of individuals who have not traveled abroad. Testing for B.1.351 is also increasingly difficult, as PCR tests are not sensitive enough to detect B.1.351 amongst other variants. However, the variant can be identified by genetic sequencing with the Cog-UK consortium, which receives only 5% to 10% of swabs from those who test positive for COVID-19. As a result, there are B.1.351 cases that are never tested. Overall, this means that getting tested regularly, avoiding travel and getting the Coronavirus vaccine is not enough to protect ourselves against B.1.351.  

paper cutout of syringe and viruses
Many may wonder why these recent COVID-19 developments should be concerning when there are multiple effective vaccines on the market to protect ourselves against the virus. Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

What’s even more terrifying is the uncertainty of B.1.351’s spread and its effects. Experts don’t know much about B.1.351 just yet. According to a BBC article, they believe that the N501Y mutation may make B.1.351 more contagious and the E484K mutation could dodge an individual’s immune response. According to the CDC, scientists are currently trying to understand how far B.1.351 has spread, how the illness caused by this variant differs from other variants, and how B.1.351 may affect existing vaccines and therapies. A Wall Street Journal article reports that South African researchers think that the variant is 50% more contagious because of how fast COVID-19 transmission has been since the variant was identified.  Research regarding B.1.351 is still very preliminary and uncertain. The CDC is closely monitoring the spread of the variants and its effects on COVID-19-positive patients.  

“If the new unknown and potentially deadly coronavirus strains weren’t enough déjà vu for you, many cities worldwide are now in an oxygen shortage, very similar to last spring.”

If the new unknown and potentially deadly coronavirus strains weren’t enough déjà vu for you, many cities worldwide are now in an oxygen shortage, very similar to last spring. A KHN article reports that the shortage of oxygen has made Los Angeles County officials warn paramedics to conserve it as portable cylinders and concentrators have become less accessible. Additionally, liquid oxygen, which is stored at cold temperatures to conserve space, is freezing the equipment that delivers the oxygen to patients. Richard Branson, respiratory therapist at the University of Cincinnati, states, “You can completely — literally, completely — shut down the entire hospital supply if that happens.” 

Just because we’ve developed a COVID-19 vaccine and are sick of social distancing protocols, news stories filled with crisis and wearing masks, doesn’t mean we should ignore the recent coronavirus developments. In fact, we cannot afford it. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the pandemic’s progress in order to promote the correct protective measures against the virus.  

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