MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The arrival of the COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom (UK) came as no surprise to West Virginia University scientists who study and track COVID-19 and its variants.

That’s why when WVU recently confirmed that three people in Morgantown, two of whom are students, had contracted the UK variant, scientists didn’t scramble. However, many in the public did because they have heard conflicting messages in the media and from others. Dr. Peter Stoilov, an associate professor at WVU, came up with a simple to understand analogy about variants.

Dr. Stoilov

“You can look at it as a breed of the virus,” he said. “For example, if you look at dogs, dogs have different breeds. A variant is a breed of a virus. It’s different from the original by a number of features.”

These different features are being closely studied and monitored by WVU scientists, like Stoilov. The associate professor actually leads the team of WVU scientists.

He said he and his colleagues are working hand-in-hand with Marshall University, the West Virginia DHHR, and the Monongalia Co. Health Department to make sure they are staying on top of everything.

Already, he said, there are some troubling aspects of the UK variant.

Original SARS-CoV-2 virus using fixed cells being examined under a microscope at WVU lab, Feb. 2, 2021. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

“What’s somewhat troubling about these variants is that they spread faster,” Stoilov said. “We want to know if such viruses are going around so we can react quickly and in a focused manner so we don’t affect the whole state, but we strike in certain areas.”

Shutting down the entire state is no longer an option. In fact, Stoilov said, it has been proven that shutdowns can be devastating to people’s everyday lives. That is why a targeted approach to combating the UK and/or any other variant is preferred.

Ideally, Stoilov said, he and fellow scientists would like to develop treatments for variants.

Pfizer vaccines delivered by the West Virginia National Guard to WVU Medicine

“We want to keep an eye on this so we can guide future therapies and future vaccine development,” he said. “And actually, the vaccine companies, so Moderna and Pfizer are already reacting and developing a new vaccine that would protect against the new variants better than the current versions of the vaccine.”

For now, Stoilov said, there has been scientific research to show the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against both the UK and South African variants. However, there are some unknowns because a formal study hasn’t been completed to see how Pfizer and Moderna vaccines perform.

Fortunately, some informal lab studies have demonstrated that even though there’s some reduction of efficacy, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines still remain effective against new variants.

As scientists and drug makers work to develop new vaccines and therapies to treat current and future variants, the public can play an important role.

A man receives his COVID vaccine at the Monongalia Co. Health Department vaccine clinic

“In addition to vaccination, I would like to strongly encourage everybody to wear masks,” Stoilov said. “This is still a very effective way of preventing the virus spread. We’re doing a great job. If you look at the numbers, the infections are dropping off precipitously in the past few weeks, so let’s just keep up doing what we’re doing.”

He added that members of the public needs to still make plans to get vaccinated the first chance they get.

“They should vaccinate themselves as soon as they get the chance. I strongly encourage vaccination. These vaccines will protect against the new variants.”