OSU Expert Says Virus Variants Are Spreading, Especially Among The Unvaccinated

Jun 4, 2021

Wastewater samples collected by OSU's TRACE Project has helped researchers and the state track the prevalence of the virus that causes COVID-19 as well as where mutations or variants are showing up.
Credit Mark Farley / OSU

As of today, roughly 66% of Oregonians 18 and older have had at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. An expert at Oregon State University says that's not enough to help protect the less vulnerable, like children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Brett Tyler also says the virus is mutating and becoming more dangerous, particularly in the unvaccinated population. And, yes, that includes children under 12.

Kellner: When it comes to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, we hear a lot about the variants and how effective the vaccines are at preventing infection. It’s mutating and spreading. And this week the World Health Organization even changed the way we talk about the variants. It’s a lot to keep track of. So I called one of the top experts in the state.

Tyler: My name is Brett Tyler and I’m the Director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing at Oregon State University, and I’m also a co-principal investigator of OSU’S TRACE Project.

Kellner: The TRACE Project uses wastewater samples and door-to-door testing to detect where the virus and its variants are most prevalent. The variants are categorized by the country of origin and a letter/number combination. On May 31st, the WHO renamed the variants using the Greek alphabet. Tyler agreed this would be helpful.

Tyler: Referring to the variants by countries is not really equitable. And then by the technical name like B.1.1.7 it really kind of gets to a mouthful especially if you get to something like B.1.1.519. And even we have trouble keeping straight all the dots and the bs and the ones.

Kellner: Variants of concern are more transmissible and can cause more severe illness. The Oregon Health Authority lists 5 variants of concern in the state.  

Tyler: We can detect the B.1.1.7 Alpha variant in 94% of samples collected statewide. So it’s everywhere. More recently over the last 4 weeks or so, we’ve started to see the so-called Brazilian variant P.1 also called Gamma now, rising steadily and it’s now detectable at least at low levels in 53% of locations.

Kellner: Tyler says the current vaccines are shown to be effective against the Alpha variant. He says evidence shows the vaccines may be less effective against the Gamma variant. But the virus level in a person’s body can be undetectable. They could be asymptomatic and spread it to others.

Tyler: What we don’t know is if you’re carrying a low-level of virus like that, can you pass that on to vulnerable people around you, an elderly relative or somebody who has immune suppression because they’re on cancer treatment, it's possible you can still pass the virus on to them. So definitely there’s some need for caution. And also, you know, we're not vaccinating children yet.

Kellner: Despite incentives in Oregon like a chance to win a million dollars, a college scholarship or tickets to a basketball game, there are still a lot of people who aren’t vaccinated. And Tyler says they’re at a much higher risk.

Tyler: For the people who are not vaccinated, these strains which are currently in circulation, the Alpha and the Gamma form, are very, very infectious. And actually epidemiological theory says that the more people you vaccinate, the strains that survive are going to be the most infectious ones. The latest data I've seen suggests that the infection level among unvaccinated people is as high as it’s ever been.

Kellner: With summer travel in high gear, and restrictions loosened in many places, Tyler worries that people are throwing caution to the wind and not practicing the basics we all learned last year.

Tyler: So people who are not vaccinated, they should get vaccinated, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t get vaccinated. And for as long as they’re not vaccinated, they really need to be maintaining mask wearing, physical distancing and so forth. They’re really putting themselves and the people around them at risk.

Kellner: And the risk increases, he says, when people who are not vaccinated are around those who are. Children 12 and older can get the Pfizer vaccine. But what about the younger kids?

Tyler: And it's really unknown what the impact of loosening up protections, you know physical distancing and so forth, is going to be on the infection of children. That’s the one thing I'm most concerned about.

Kellner: When kids head back to school in the fall, there will be a mixture of vaxxed and unvaxxed.

Tyler: We still don’t know enough about what’s going to happen when a very large percentage of children are infected by the Coronavirus. The current data I’ve seen suggests that 1% of children could get really, really sick and even die. You now take the entire school-age population in Oregon and figure out 1% of that, that’s still a lot of people and a lot of families that are going to be impacted.

Kellner: The TRACE Project will be in Corvallis again this weekend, testing for antibodies developed from previously having COVID-19 or from recently being vaccinated. They’ll also be offering a vaccine, right at your doorstep. And the data they collect will continue to advance our understanding of SARS-CoV-2.