Hot Topics in Infection Prevention: COVID Variants Renamed, Breakthrough Infections, and Lab Leak Debate

Saskia v. Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC
Saskia v. Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC

The new approach to naming COVID-19 variants utilizes the Greek alphabet.

New Naming System for COVID-19 Variants

With each new variant of COVID-19 comes new concern for increased transmissibility, impact to vaccination efficacy, and severity of disease. Every time a new variant is identified, those questions linger, with us more commonly finding impacts to transmissibility. As new variants are identified, the naming can sometimes create confusion for communicating them, which often results in a variant being referred to in terms of the area it was identified from, which is a practice we should be moving away from. This week though, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new labeling strategy for the variants. This new approach utilizes the Greek alphabet to communicate variants. For example, the current variant of concern gaining a lot of attention, B.1.617.2 is now labeled Delta. Hopefully, this will encourage a move away from the haphazard use of the country of origin, which fuels cultural and racial stigma.

Testing, Breakthrough Infections, and Normalizing Things

As more people in the United States get vaccinated, we’re moving to a point of identifying breakthrough infections. These infections are expected, not surprising, and can give us helpful

insight into the vaccines and even variants. For some industries, like professional sports and entertainment, where routine surveillance testing is done, it’s not surprising that we would see more cases – we’re looking for them! As Katherine Wu, PhD, noted in the Atlantic: “Breakthroughs can offer a unique wellspring of data. Ferreting them out will help researchers confirm the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, detect coronavirus variants that could evade our immune defenses, and estimate when we might need our next round of shots—if we do at all.” It often seems that when these infections occur, people are wholly surprised. It’s important that we communicate the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine in a transparent manner that informs people of such possibilities, but also the benefits of vaccination. Breakthrough infections will continue to occur—so now is the time to address them head-on so that people are not panicked, but also as a reminder that even if you are vaccinated, testing is still an important option following symptoms or even a high-risk exposure.

Lab Leak Theory for COVID-19 Origin Might Mask Racism

We don’t often wade into the “origin” aspect of diseases within the infection prevention world, but with so much swirl, it’s important to share some insight into this debate. Despite no real updates, the divisive and politicized origin of SARS-CoV-2 has come up again in the news. For some diseases, we struggle to truly identify their source—we’ve known about Ebola virus disease since 1976 and still have many questions. Most scientists note that there is an extremely low chance COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese lab and all indicators point to natural origin, emphasizing the racism that often follows media attention to this theory. Researchers though are warning caution over such allegations and the impact to global collaborations. Perhaps one of the most important lessons though is that none of this changes the inherent failures that impacted our response. Our gaps, vulnerabilities, and hurdles to response that have led to nearly 600,000 deaths and millions of cases … these are the issues we should focus on.