UTMB detects new COVID variant from India in Houston area

Vaccines can protect against the new "India" variant

HOUSTON – The COVID-19 variant ravaging India right now has been detected in our area. There are at least two patients with this highly contagious form of the virus at UTMB and doctors suspect there could be a lot more.

In India, people are battling devastation from a cyclone and the pandemic.

The B.1.617 strain of the coronavirus there is killing people by the thousands. Dr. Janak Patel, UTMB director for healthcare epidemiology and infection control, said hardly anyone with family there hasn’t felt tremendous loss from the uncontrolled spread.

“They are clamoring for the vaccine. You know, of course, they’re seeing the epidemic first hand. That’s very devastating, so that has woken up a lot of people. There was a time early on when the vaccination effort began when COVID case numbers were low, that people were reluctant to get a vaccine, but right now with the current tragedy, everyone, pretty much everyone, is struggling to get access to a vaccine,” Patel said.

Here in our area, access to a vaccine is not hard to come by. There’s hardly any wait or appointment needed anymore and you never have to pay. However, more than half of Texans are still unvaccinated, which makes the detection of the Indian variant much more alarming.

“Studies recently have shown that it’s at least two times more contagious than the UK variant that was already considered to be much more contagious than our original strain. So, the Indian variant is currently, in the world, the most contagious strain we have,” Patel explained.

He said this means people need to still take precautions such as face masks and handwashing until a larger percentage of the population is vaccinated.

UTMB discovered something promising about the Pfizer vaccine.

According to their study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, COVID-19 antibodies from the Pfizer vaccine remain highly active against the California and New York variants.

While they have not yet determined if the same is true with the Indian variant, it’s a promising discovery that the vaccines might be a good match against mutations.

Meaning, even if you have breakthrough cases, you might not get severely sick no matter what mutation you come in contact with.