“People should be worried about natural mutations of Covid-19” says Dr. Kavita Patel

Thanks to natural mutations, more-infectious and potentially deadlier variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are now racing around the globe and are threatening to turn back the recent progress against the disease due to vaccination.

Last week Houston became the first big American city to report the presence of all five variants that have medical experts worried — a California strain called B.1.427/B.1.429, a New York variant classified as B.1.526, the Brazilian P.1 strain, a strain called B.1.351 that is believed to have originated in South Africa, and the U.K. mutation B.1.1.7, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts will become the dominant strain in the U.S. by the end of the month.

Each new variant comes with new, worrisome features. P.1, for instance, has been found to make reinfection easier, while new studies show that B.1.1.7 extends the infectious period beyond the original strain.

With so many questions being raised by the growing number of mutations, Yahoo News turned to resident medical expert Dr. Kavita Patel for answers. (The following interview was edited for clarity.)

Dr. Kavita Patel: I think people should be worried. There’s a large number, a majority of the population that has not been vaccinated. They should be very worried, because they are prime targets for these viruses with the variants to reproduce.

Remember, the goal of a virus is not to kill people, it’s actually just to continue to stay alive, and the only way it does that is by infecting people. People who are not vaccinated should be incredibly worried, which is why I, in turn, am very worried about the variants as I watch now 12 states and counting, very big states including Texas and Florida, lifting any sort of mask requirements or leaving it to individuals or businesses. That’s a group that should be very worried.

Even people who are vaccinated should have some concern because all these [vaccine] trials that went on, the majority of them did not happen when we had experience with these variants. So, we are all happy that the vaccines work to some degree against the variants, but we’re not quite sure how long it will last, whether we need a booster. All the manufacturers are already talking about booster vaccines, so getting a vaccine, like I did, is a ton of relief mentally, but, I’ll be honest with you, I’m still worried when I leave my house, mostly because of these variants.

To date, a little over 16 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Is there a level at which mutations won’t pose as big of a threat?

We do know that in just kind of normal virology or infectious disease that over 50 percent and higher, the more people who are vaccinated, [the more] decreased the rate of infectivity becomes. The R naught or the Rt, which is [the measure of] how many people, if you get the infection, you will infect, that number is already coming down and will continue to go down. It won’t get to zero, but it will be pretty darn close. So that if you get infected there’s basically no chance of you infecting anyone else when we get to a certain level of immunity.

Everybody’s asking, ‘Is that herd immunity?’ But it’s not a light switch, so above 50 percent, the higher we go, the more the chances of getting infected decrease. That’s good news. We’re getting closer and closer, but we’re not going to get there in the next — it’s going to be weeks if not months before we get to that point.

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