Examining COVID-19 and Its New Variants Found Across Texas

As vaccines continue to roll out, life is slowly returning to normal. Since the world shutdown last March, it is refreshing to picture a world without COVID-19.

While we approach an end to this pandemic, variants of the original virus have begun to sprout across the world.

To date, the COVID mutations with the largest presence globally are the United Kingdom (UK), South African and Brazil variants.

Last month, a student at Texas A&M University (TAMU) was identified to have a variant of COVID, which has been dubbed as the BV-1 variant.

BV-1, named for its origin in Brazos Valley, has also led to the discovery of BV-2 and BV-3 variants.

Ben Neuman, Ph.D., Global Health Research Complex Chief Virologist and professor at TAMU, explained that even though the student tested positive for the BV-1 variant, her case was luckily mild.

Dr. Neuman at the Neuman Lab at Texas A&M University

"We know that the disease was mild. She actually thought she was asymptomatic at first, but then had a little fever for half a day. The cough didn't go away and [she] just felt off," Neuman said. "Which for COVID-19, that's pretty mild. And that's one of the better outcomes that you would see."

While her case was mild, she still was reported to have symptoms that lasted longer than a normal case of COVID. While Neuman knows a great deal about the virus, there is not enough information yet to determine why this student had symptoms over a longer period.

"The caution there is that this is one case … COVID-19 is the most variable viral disease that I have ever heard of. All we can say is that 'oh, that was kind of unusual, and let's see when this happens again,'" Neuman said. "We've been looking for potential contacts, [but] all those leads have gone cold. So now, we are sequencing … another 600 positive samples that came in from various places on campus. We're interested to see what those say."

Neuman noted that since people can travel and go places, these variants spread naturally. The three new variants found in Brazos Valley were found from a small sample size. However, larger studies around Texas are beginning to show a wide range of variants.

"We reported three new variants out of a very small sample. We only looked at 92 sequences, and 70% of the ones we got back were some kind of variant of concerns," Neuman said. "There was just a big press release out of Houston Methodist, they've now found every variant under the sun. But they've sequenced 20,000 people, people's virus rather. The more you look, the more of this you find. And I think all these things that we hear about are out there because the world is connected, and airplanes still go to all kinds of places, and that's fine. But it means it comes with a risk, and the risk is that viruses get to move around."

The mystery surrounding COVID comes from the initial problem of early 2020, we still do not fully understand how or why COVID affects people in different ways.

"Initially, it actually looked fairly easy to understand, and I still think it is. That [is] because it was almost identical to the original SARS Coronavirus," Neuman said. "I think the mysteries about this one are more in the way that it has different effects in different people. We understand a lot of that now. We know that there are certain cells and if things are set up in a particular way, then yes, it's going to take this path or the other path. But you can't just look at somebody you know, and say, 'Oh, yeah, you're going to have a really bad time with this, but you're going to be fine.' That's not how anything works."

In addition to not fully knowing how the virus will affect different people, more information is needed to determine the risks associated with the variants for those who are vaccinated. The vaccines that are currently available are proving to be some of the best ever made; with COVID, you can never be sure.

"When the virus changes, you always worry that the vaccine may not cover quite as well as it used to," Neuman said. "[People are} much less susceptible, but we do see some vaccine breakthrough. These are the best vaccines that humankind has ever made. Some years, the influenza vaccine was only hitting about 40%. Other years, it's up around 60%, which is fine. These mRNAs are way above 90%. The other ones are still above 70%. These are just crackerjack vaccines. But, yeah, 90 percent is not 100% and everybody is different."

Over the past year, COVID has brought almost every industry together to fight this pandemic. With the best and brightest minds working toward the same goal, it is inevitable that we beat this virus. Despite that, it would be extremely beneficial if not just all the professionals were on the same page, but the general public as well.

"People from every branch of science are now sort of spilling over into the Coronavirology swimming pool, and it's great. I don't think they'll all stay here. But for now, you've got pretty much the best people in every field working on this one thing and progress is astronomical," Neuman said. "What we're running into now is not so much a problem with science, because the science has come through; we got super-fast vaccines that work outstandingly well. The problem [is], how do people feel? … All that stuff is way outside my area of expertise. In the end, it is probably at least as important as the science. We're making the tools, but in order to be able to use the tools, you basically need, yeah, the assent of the entire public."

Dr. Neuman at the Neuman Lab at Texas A&M University