Area doctors concerned over emerging variants, some with ability to avoid COVID-19 antibodies

NOW: Area doctors concerned over emerging variants, some with ability to avoid COVID-19 antibodies

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- While it’s normal for viruses like COVID-19 to mutate over time, area doctors are keeping a close eye on three particular COVID-19 variants, because some may have the ability to avoid natural antibodies.

“Each of them appears to bind better to our cells, making them more easily transmitted from person to person,” said Dr. Ben Weston, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and medical director for Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management.

Each of the three COVID-19 variants come from different countries, including the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. While they’re known for their ability to spread faster, Dr. Weston says two of them could cause a new set of problems.

“In particular, the variants in South Africa and Brazil appear to also be able to avoid the antibodies that have been created from previous COVID infections,” adds Dr. Weston.

Dr. Weston says this means people previously infected with COVID-19 may be more prone to reinfection with the new variants.

“The Brazil variant was first confirmed Monday and that was a case in Minnesota. The South African variant has not been yet detected in the United States and we certainly hope it stays that way,” he said.

Natural antibodies and the COVID-19 vaccine are both shown to be effective in fighting the U.K. variant, which is likely already widespread in the United States amid the vaccine rollout. As for the other two, Dr. Weston says the strains from South Africa and Brazil remain a question.

“We would expect that the vaccine would still be effective even against these variants, though perhaps not quite at the extremely high 94 or 95-percent effectiveness,” says Dr. Weston.

“I’m doing everything I can and I will continue to do everything I can to get more vaccinations to the city of Milwaukee,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Dr. Weston is worried the new variants could eventually cause another wave of infections amid low testing numbers Milwaukee is experiencing now.

“That combination of increased transmissibility and less immunity for those who’ve been sick absolutely raises a concern for another wave of infection,” Dr. Weston said.

“I think it’s important for us to keep that focus on testing because that’s one of the fronts in this war that we need to continue to fight,” said Mayor Barrett. “Unfortunately we have seen a decrease in the number of people who have been tested.”

Despite the emerging variants, Dr. Weston says COVID-19 precautions should not change at all.

“We should still mask, we should still distance, we should still avoid gatherings and certainly we should still receive the vaccine when it’s offered to us,” he says.

Share this article: