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Researchers have discovered several new COVID-19 variants in the city of Philadelphia. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

As variants of COVID-19 run rampant in the city of Philadelphia, Penn Medicine experts say the key to controlling the spread of variants is continued adherence to public health guidelines and accelerated rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

A recently released Penn Medicine study by Chair of the Department of Microbiology Frederic Bushman and his team found that 35% of the sample COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia resemble variants of the virus. The study found cases of the B.1.1.7 variant — which at least two Penn students contracted in early February — along with cases linked to the New York variant, B.1.526, and two different California variants, B.1.427 and B.1.429. The study also found cases similar to variants originating in South Africa, B.1.351, and Brazil, P.1. All six of these have been deemed variants of concern or interest by experts.

In addition to the increase in variety of variants from across the world, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Michael Feldman, who works on the team conducting the genomic sequencing of the variants, said that the team has seen spontaneous mutations occurring on the “baseline virus” that exists in the Philadelphia area. 

“[Mutations are] to be expected. Not only can viruses come in from other locations, because people travel, but the virus can spontaneously mutate within your local region, and we’ve certainly seen a little bit of that as well. [This is] nothing terribly concerning, nothing out of the ordinary — pretty much what we were expecting to see before we started doing all the sequencing,” Feldman said.

The increased prevalence of variants, coupled with the slight uptick in Philadelphia's COVID-19 positivity rate since the beginning of April, has raised questions of how variants will affect the Penn and Philadelphia communities and if they will spread more easily.

Bushman and his team are currently working on answering these questions. Since the study's March 29 publishing date, they have ramped up their sequencing efforts. He said his team is attempting to gather more data on the prevalence of variants in the Philadelphia area, moving from just 80 genomes sequenced to over 500 in the span of a few weeks.

As Bushman and the team look for answers, assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Kyle Rodino said the most important thing the community can do right now to prevent variants from spreading further is to follow public health guidance and get vaccinated.

“We know the things we’ve been doing all along work, no matter what type of variant we’re talking about. Things like distancing, hand washing, and masking, and the responsibilities we’ve all been working with since the beginning of the pandemic are still completely useful and effective against any of the variants that have been noted,” Rodino said. “Everyone’s certainly looking to return to normal, but making sure we continue to do those things is really important in a time like this.”

Rodino, Bushman, and Feldman all agreed that mass COVID-19 vaccinations are the other key piece of the puzzle when it comes to mitigating the spread of concerning variants, as well as COVID-19 in general.

“The answer going forward is always going to be vaccines," Feldman said. "The best way to frame thinking around the vaccines is that the vaccines we are using generate such a robust antibody response that even if a variant has some ability to avoid the antibodies that are being produced, they are never 100%. The antibody concentrations in our body after the vaccine is so high that so far, it does not look like any of the variants can 100% escape coverage with these vaccines."

Vaccine developers Pfizer and Moderna are also both in the process of studying the COVID-19 variants. Both companies are mulling the importance and feasibility of creating booster shots for the vaccine that may help lower the risk of contracting a more contagious and vaccine-resistant variant.

All Penn community members are currently eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Penn's on-campus vaccination clinic in Gimbel Gymnasium. Members of the Penn community can sign up for an appointment through the University's scheduling platform, and new appointments for the upcoming week will open by Friday afternoon each week.