WHEELING — After the initial wave of COVID-19 ravaged the country, subsequent surges in the virus were identified by the designations of their variant viruses — most prominently the delta variant, with more, such as the alpha, gamma, and recently-identified mu variants popping up occasionally.
Ultimately, however, the myriad mutations of the disease are largely of interest to the health officers who trace the spread of variants. For the average person on the street, the main concern is that the variant cases are more contagious, but their symptoms and severity don’t differ much from the baseline disease, or from one another.
Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble said it’s not uncommon for people to ask what variant they’ve tested positive for, but that aside from idle curiosity, the answer won’t change much in terms of their prognosis.
“A lot of people who test positive will ask the tester, … ‘Was that delta?’ And that really doesn’t have an impact on the illness,” Gamble said. “The symptoms are going to be similar, the progression of disease or case management is relatively the same. The only thing it’s identifying is that you had a variant, and right now we assume most, if not all, of our cases are variants.
… Several months ago, predominantly what we saw was COVID. The regular COVID virus, when you have a variant, it’s the variant of that virus.
“That’s why it’s still important to get vaccinated,” he added.
“You’re still getting vaccinated for the original virus, but passing around the community are a number of variants. They’re difficult, more infectious, and can cause problems, therefore the need to get vaccinated just against the base COVID is important.”
What is of interest to the public, Gamble said, is the greater susceptibility to infection from the variants. The vaccine against COVID-19 was developed against the baseline virus, which does protect against the disease and lessen symptoms from all varieties, but is not tailored to the individual strains.
A comparable disease in that regard, Gamble said, is influenza. While the flu vaccine protects against the most common strains of any given year, the hundreds of variants of the flu ultimately mean that some cases will make it past inoculation.
“There are nearly 200 types of flu viruses,” Gamble said. “Each season, we usually have a vaccine made up of several of those types of viruses, but we can’t make a vaccine that’s universal. We don’t have a COVID vaccine that’s universal, we have one, and it provides the protection against COVID, and with regards to the variants, it provides protection against hospitalization and severe illness. It is proven to reduce hospitalization and deaths, but also (affects) an individual’s health outcome.”
Due to this, Gamble said, the variants tend to be more contagious than the baseline COVID virus, as the vaccine is not specifically tailored to combat against that variant.
Gamble said that among breakthrough cases — COVID-positive patients who had been vaccinated — he sees an initial spike in illness toward the beginning of infection, which tapers off over the course of 10 days, with mild symptoms. Among the unvaccinated, Gamble said, he instead sees the same spike in illness, but which maintains its strength over the same 10-day period, and which either drifts off over time or requires additional treatment, including hospitalization.
“There is a benefit to vaccination, whether it’s identified later as having one of the variants,” he said. “It helps with data and future vaccine development, but doesn’t have a large variant upon how we treat it, manage it, and track those diseases.”
While a vaccine may be developed to target specific variants of the disease, a booster shot would not be the silver bullet to protect against all variants at once. Gamble said that the third dose, which is currently authorized only for immunocompromised individuals, is an additional dose of the vaccine which has been available for months, rather than a new dose protecting specifically against variants.
“The word that we have … is that the booster is the same vaccine that we were providing originally in the two doses,” he said. “There’s no difference as far as we know today. There’s time for that to change, but it’s the same quantity and type of vaccine. We don’t have a separate storage for booster versus initial doses. It’ll be the same thing.”
Gamble provides weekly updates for new COVID-19 cases on the county health department’s website, in which he also provides a breakdown of which cases have been diagnosed as which variant. As of Sunday’s update, Ohio County reported 86 cases of the alpha variant, also known as the U.K. variant, 20 cases of the delta variant, and two cases of the gamma variant.
“It’s the future of the disease, whether it’s vaccine development or what we’re seeing across the country,” Gamble said of tracking variants. “It was really useful a couple months ago, because we could say that delta was rising and moving in this direction, and a lot of our positives were just the regular virus, so we got to see how it moved and prepare for it.
“… As we move forward as a society for years to come, the vaccine will change to address variants, maybe the most predominant variant, or one that covers all the variants out there. But right now, there’s three types of vaccines in the United States, and they address the COVID virus. When it comes to specific variants, they’re still part of the COVID virus family.”