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What we know about the new strains of the coronavirus

Mutated COVID-19 viruses are more contagious, but not more deadly

ST. LOUIS — Japan has found another variant of the coronavirus in four travelers arriving from Brazil. The new strain shares some of the same markers as the highly contagious strain that's making its way across the United Kingdom and South Africa.

More research needs to be done to see if current vaccines can protect against the strain found in Japan.

Doctors agree the United Kingdom and South African strains can be prevented with the vaccines available. Mercy Infectious Disease Physician Dr. Farrin Manian explains why.

"The basic structure of the vaccine is going to be unchanged and it's not going to be affected by the new strain," Dr. Manian said. "It really looks like the vaccine causes an immunity that should neutralize this new strain as well."

In medicine, it is normal to have a need to create new vaccine based on viral mutations.

"Fortunately for this virus, the changes that we're seeing are not so dramatic as you might see with influenza," Dr. Manian said.

Scientists said they've found the U.K. and South African strains are more contagious.

"The estimates are anywhere from 50% to 70% more likely to transmit," explains Dr. Alex Garza with the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Agreeing with Dr. Garza, Dr. J. William Campbell the Chief of Infectious Diseases at St. Luke's Hospital says, "As far as we can tell, the variant does not put a person at risk for more serious disease, but what the variant does is that it spreads more easily, so you are more apt to catch it from somebody else."

The CDC is tracking COVID-19 cases caused by variants. To date, both Illinois and Missouri have not found a mutation of the virus in samples sent to state laboratories or the CDC.

In late December, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced they would be increasing the number of specimens tested for genomic sequencing.

Dr. Alex Garza says the state of Missouri is also testing samples for the U.K. variant. Missouri is sending approximately 25 samples per week to the CDC for genomic sequencing.

Missouri's samples not sent to the CDC are sent to a partner lab in Minnesota. In an email to 5 On Your Side, Lisa Cox with Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services wrote, "The Missouri State Public Laboratory is currently developing it's own whole-genome sequencing capability to definitively detect these variants and will have this ability in the coming weeks." 

Dr. Garza says it's always good to have more information. 

"The value is in helping public health and the healthcare systems understand," he said.

He says more testing, enables more tracking which could help answer questions like, "Do we have a potential for more cases? More hospitalizations? Will there be more demand on healthcare services?"