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UB researchers say every COVID-19 ‘variant of concern’ detected in Erie County

UB scientists doing genomic sequencing on coronavirus have determined 'the virus is still out there, and it is different than what we started with.'

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be behind us, but the virus is still prevalent in Western New York.

According to scientists at the University at Buffalo, every "variant of concern" identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now been detected in Erie County. 

UB researchers are studying the genomic sequences of the variants up close. They say in April, over 90% of cases sequenced in our part of the state showed evidence of these variants.    

“The virus is still out there, and it is different than what we started with,” said Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, co-director of the Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence at UB and associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, who leads the sequencing team.

“If you were in close contact with someone who tested COVID-19 positive, you should get tested and quarantine as recommended by the Department of Health.” 

2 On Your Side's MaryAlice Demler spoke with Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at UB, about this news. 

Demler: How much should this news concern us?

Dr. Russo: It should concern us a little. Two of the variants of concern -- one of them described as the one from South Africa 351 and the other initially described from Brazil, P-1 -- may allude protection afforded by prior protection. However, we know our vaccines are likely to be extraordinarily effective against these variants, so I think the secret here, is for everyone to get vaccinated, even those individuals who have been previously infected, and that way they'll attain the maximum degree of immunity.

Demler: Many people in our community started getting vaccinated several months ago, and although COVID numbers have decreased greatly, no one is ready to say it's gone for good. So I'm hearing a lot of folks wondering if they might need a booster shot this fall or next year. What is the current thinking?

Dr. Russo: The only certainty about booster shots is that there is significant uncertainty at this time. I think the consensus is that, at one point, we will need a booster shot, but when that will be? I think that it's not clear.

Demler: Right now the prevailing thought is that once you get the vaccine you have immunity for approximately how long? Do we know or does it vary from vaccine to vaccine?

Dr. Russo: The reason for the uncertainty is that these vaccines are new. And we do have data from individuals that have been vaccinated out to six months from Moderna, and the degree of protection and immune response still looks great at six months. We also know that if you've been naturally infected, antibody levels look great at eight months. And so we know the immunity from vaccination is better than immunity from natural infection, so one would predict that we would get at least a year out of this vaccine, but we're following this closely, and we'll see how antibody levels do over the next six months or so.

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