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What You Need to Know About the Highly Contagious R.1 COVID Variant, According to Experts

·3 min read
What You Need to Know About the Highly Contagious R.1 COVID Variant, According to Experts

The Delta variant continues to be the driving force behind COVID-19 cases in the U.S., but there’s another variant that’s been getting some buzz in the news. It’s called R.1, and it caused an outbreak at a Kentucky nursing home last spring. So what is the R.1 variant and what do officials think? Here’s what you need to know to keep your loved ones, and yourself, safe.

What is the R.1 variant?

The R.1 variant was the subject of a spring 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that noted that this particular COVID-19 variant has “mutations of importance.” One of those mutations, called the D614G mutation, “demonstrates evidence of increasing virus transmissibility,” per the CDC. Meaning, it could be more infectious than previous COVID-19 strains. However, the CDC does not currently list R.1 as a variant of interest or concern.

Other mutations in R.1 have been seen in variants that have made the CDC’s list of variants of concern. These mutations, the CDC says, may not respond as well to COVID-19 treatments and may be able to at least partially evade the vaccine.

Some reports say the variant has appeared in 47 states, but since R.1 is not being actively monitored by the CDC, it is hard to know for sure—but it's at least known to have shown up in Kentucky.

What happened during the R.1 outbreak?

The CDC study analyzed data from the Kentucky nursing home outbreak, which took place in March. That report showed that, among 83 residents and 116 healthcare workers, 26 residents and 20 works tested positive for COVID-19 during the outbreak. Genomic testing later found the infections were due to the R.1 variant.

All of the people who were infected had symptoms and one of them died. About 90% of the nursing home residents and 52% of staff had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and, overall, 25.4% of the residents and 7.1% of the staff were infected.

While the CDC points out that “attack rates were three to four times as high among unvaccinated residents and healthcare professionals as among those who were vaccinated,” the organization also notes that the data suggest the COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against R.1.

The data also detected four possible reinfections, which shows “some evidence of limited or waning natural immunity to this variant,” the CDC says.

How worried should you be about the R.1 variant?

Not very. It’s important for public health officials to be aware of R.1 and track its location in the country, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. But, he says, it’s not something the general public should stress about right now. “R.1, although smoldering around, is not really competing with the Delta variant in any serious way,” he says. (The Delta variant currently makes up 98.4% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to CDC data.)

Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “It is unlikely to supplant Delta,” he says. Still, Dr. Adalja says, “it’s important to study this variant, its response to vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, and its spread.”

In the meantime, doctors recommend that you make sure you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and continue to mask up indoors in areas with substantial or high levels of COVID-19 transmission.

This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.

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