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Risks of R.1

Expert answers questions about the new COVID-19 variant.

Article Author: Alexis Kirkland

Article Date:

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As the COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread, another strain is making headlines.

Known as R.1, it was first discovered in the United States in March 2021 during an outbreak at a Kentucky nursing home. Research about the strain is still ongoing, but it appears to have several mutations of importance.

Shalika Katugaha, MD, system director of Infectious Diseases at Baptist Health, shed light on what we know so far about the R.1 mutation, as well as the ongoing threat of future COVID-19 variants.

When and where did R.1 originate?

This variant was first detected in Japan in December 2020 and has since spread to other countries around the world, including the United States. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the R.1 variant was first discovered in the U.S. during an outbreak that infected 46 residents and staff at a Kentucky nursing home in March 2021. Since then, R.1 has been detected in 47 states and linked to more than 2,200 cases nationwide.

Is the R.1 variant more contagious?

According to the CDC, R.1 has several mutations of importance that indicate it may be more infectious, and possibly able to reduce the effectiveness of neutralizing antibodies from vaccines.

“The Kentucky nursing facility outbreak has received so much publicity because 90% of residents and 52% of staff were fully vaccinated when infected,” said Dr. Katugaha. “But, despite the breakthrough infections, this story still shows the importance of getting vaccinated. Those who had gotten the shots and tested positive for this virus strain were less likely to have symptomatic illness or require hospitalization. Virus attack rates (likelihood of getting sick after exposure) in the unvaccinated were also 3-4 times higher than those in vaccinated residents and staff.”

Should we be concerned about this strain?

Right now, the CDC doesn’t define R.1 as a variant of concern or interest.

“Nationally, the number of cases attributed to delta is greater than 99%, which means that variant remains our biggest concern,” said Dr. Katugaha. “While any new strain can pose a danger, it’s unlikely the R.1 variant will overtake delta as the most severe or transmissible.”

Dr. Katugaha added, “You might see outbreaks of R.1 in small pods or clusters, like the nursing home scenario in Kentucky, but it’s not necessarily causing widespread infections. Currently, the R.1 variant only accounts for 0.5% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and worldwide.”

Why isn’t R.1 named after a letter from the Greek alphabet?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “key” coronavirus variants are to be named after letters of the Greek alphabet to avoid confusion from their scientific names, as well as prevent discrimination that may come with naming a variant after its country of origin.

“Only variants of interest or concern are named after letters of the Greek alphabet,” said Dr. Katugaha. “Since the R.1 variant does not fit into that category, it does not have one.”

What is our biggest concern surrounding COVID-19 variants?

“We’re continuing to focus on getting the unvaccinated vaccinated,” said Dr. Katugaha. “Until we have control of the virus and achieve herd immunity, we’ll continue seeing new variants. And future mutations may be able to evade our vaccines.”

Dr. Katugaha added, “The coronavirus reproduces very quickly. Just one virus can make 100,000 copies of itself. Some mutations may be significant and survive within the population, and some may be insignificant. But the only way to prevent these new mutations is to decrease the number of infections so the virus can’t continue to evolve.”

What can we do to protect ourselves against R.1 and other variants?

“The best thing you can do is get vaccinated,” said Dr. Katugaha. “We also need to stay cautious about coronavirus overall, not just new or specific variants. Our focus should be on the bigger picture of the pandemic because we are still not out of a time of caution and concern. Florida is an area of high transmission, so everyone should still be masking indoors, social distancing and frequently washing their hands.”

At Baptist Health, we want to help keep our community informed about COVID-19. For more information about COVID-19 vaccines, visit baptistjax.com/covid19vaccine. Click here to find a vaccination location near you.

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