“Even though I can tell you there are five confirmed and 20 pending confirmation in the state, without a doubt there are many more variant cases in the state.”

NEW ORLEANS — As many of us wait for our doses of the COVID vaccine, Louisiana health officials recently gave a dose of reality in this pandemic: Louisiana will likely endure a fourth surge in cases before we reach herd immunity.

“I think people need to be prepared for that. This variant is more transmissible it’s possibly more virulent,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter of the Louisiana Department of Health.

Dr. Kanter is talking about the so-called U.K variant of the Coronavirus. The CDC predicts that variant will be the main strain in the country by mid-March. So far, there are five confirmed cases in Louisiana. Dr. Kanter said 20 are pending confirmation by the CDC.

“Even though I can tell you there are five confirmed and 20 pending confirmation in the state, without a doubt there are many more variant cases in the state that we just don’t know about,” Dr. Kanter said.

They don’t know about those cases because of a lack of genomic sequencing of the Coronavirus. The CDC is currently taking up the bulk of that work, there’s not enough of it happening in the U.S. That genomic sequencing is vital in identifying mutations in the virus.

“So far it hasn’t changed enough that it would endanger the efficacy of vaccines, but there are 19 emerging clades of SARS COVID 2 that have been detected,” Dr. Lucio Miele said.

The clades Dr. Miele is referring to are the variants like the U.K. and South African ones we’ve heard so much about. Dr. Miele and his colleagues at the genetics department at LSU Health Sciences in New Orleans redirected their work to sequence the virus.

They’re hoping to partner with the state to get a better grasp on variant spread in Louisiana. While state officials acknowledge the need for genomic sequencing and tracking of the Coronavirus variants, there’s no timetable on if or when that kind of work could be expanded in Louisiana. 

Dr. Miele said it’s likely the current vaccines will have to be modified to protect from current and future mutations, which he said could be done relatively fast.

“It would take weeks, rather than months, but then you would have to manufacture and distribute the new vaccine,” Dr. Miele said.

As we’re already seeing, the distribution of vaccines can be bumpy. So, the message of masking and social distancing remains one of the few predictable aspects of this pandemic which keeps presenting new dilemmas.

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