‘The response needs to be pretty aggressive’: What an epidemiologist says you should know about the P.1 variant in Mass. - Boston.com
Apr 07, 2021 4 mins, 26 secs
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The number of coronavirus variant cases is rising in Massachusetts, and local experts are warning that quick action is needed to prevent a surge in infections

Of particular concern is the increase in cases of the P.1 variant, first detected in Brazil

Massachusetts is one of the states seeing the highest number of cases (82), following only behind Florida (84), according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

At least 50 of the P.1 cases in Massachusetts have been detected in Barnstable County

As of Wednesday, the state has also identified 977 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, and 12 cases of the B.1.351 variant, initially found in South Africa, according to the CDC

Still, new data from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard revealed that less than a month from the first detected P.1 case in Massachusetts, the variant had spread faster than any of the other virus strains in the Bay State

Looking more broadly at the COVID-19 trends in Massachusetts, which has seen its cases, hospitalizations, and percent positivity rising, Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University and the director of Emergent Epidemics Lab, said he’s concerned about the position the state is in

He worries the state is heading into a potential surge before getting to the level of safety needed through vaccinations and the benefits of warmer weather, which is why he and others have cautioned against a speedy reopening plan for Massachusetts

The epidemiologist said the reason for the rise in cases in Massachusetts is not necessarily the P.1 variant, rather it is likely the B.1.1.7 strain propelling the increase

“It’s going to require even higher levels of vaccination coverage to get to any kind of herd immunity, and it also means that it’s going to spread faster than we’re used to seeing,” Scarpino told Boston.com

The challenge Massachusetts and most of the United States faces when it comes to the variants is a lack of systematic surveillance for the virus strains

So when looking at the cluster of cases identified on the Cape, the question remains whether Massachusetts really does have some of the highest levels of the P.1 variant — or whether the state has just been able to catch it first

Ultimately, what matters is what happens next, Scarpino said

“The response needs to be pretty aggressive,” he said

“We saw basically a month earlier this time last year with the Biogen superspreading event how one event that leads to 50, 60 cases then becomes 500 cases and 1,000 and tens of thousands of cases

Researchers are still actively investigating what the potential implications are of the P.1 variant, Scarapino said, but so far laboratory studies are suggesting the vaccines aren’t as effective against it

There is also research that has not yet been peer-reviewed that suggests the variant is more infectious than the B.1.1.7 strain, he said

“For me, the take-home message is nothing is settled yet,” the epidemiologist said

“But the signs point towards this being a very concerning variant that we should take seriously and do everything we can to prevent it from spreading.”

For the B.1.1.7 variant, because it has become prevalent in more than a few areas, there have been a few studies that indicate the COVID-19 vaccines are just as effective against the strain as they are against the previous version of the virus, meaning individuals who have been vaccinated are still “pretty safe,” Scarpino said

With the variants like B.1.1.7 and P.1, what is important for unvaccinated individuals to remember is that activities that may have been safe before are now not as much because people may be more infectious with the variants, the epidemiologist said

“The COVID rates now are what they were in mid-November,” Scarpino said

“That means that the risk was high before we had the variants here, and now it’s much higher because of the fact that these [variants] are more transmissible.”

While the Northeastern professor said he thinks urgent action should be taken to address the rising variants in Massachusetts, he suspects officials are not going to walk back the state’s reopening decisions “absent a really spectacular rise in cases.”

That reality is unfortunate, since when it comes to epidemics, acting early is always better than acting late, Scarpino said

That’s why he and others were opposed to the way Massachusetts reopened

“Part of the reason we’ve been in this mess for a year is because we wait until it’s too late and then we do something,” he said

Doing so is particularly important, according to Scarpino, because Massachusetts is seeing a lot of cases among younger age groups right now

The professor said he hopes Gov

“We are close to something that looks a little bit more normal, we’re just not there yet,” he said

Doing so is essential to preventing another holiday surge, the threat of which has only been made worse by the growing presence of the variants, Scarpino said

“We need to take these variants incredibly seriously, much more seriously than we’re doing now,” he said

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, Scarpino said, the length of the tunnel depends on the actions of individuals and officials over the next month


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