‘We do not yet know what caused this mutation:’ Doctor on new strain of coronavirus

Yahoo Finance Kristin Myers and immunotherapy researcher Dr. Leo Nissola discusses the latest strain of COVID-19.

Video transcription

KRISTIN MYERS: I will now turn to immunotherapy scientist Dr. Leo Nissola. Dr., thank you so much for coming to us again. I want to ask you about the mutation that Anjalee just described. We hear that it has already reached the United States.

I wonder if people should really start to worry that this will make the pandemic worse.

LEO NISSOLA: Hi there, and thanks for having me. A pleasure to be here with you again. And I wish I had better news to share. As you have seen in the news and we have heard from several sources that this new strain that first appeared in the UK is more contagious. It is more contagious.

And what this means is that this virus is spreading from person to person faster than ever before. So we do not yet know what caused this new mutation, whether it is too selective pressure or something else that caused these spiky protein changes to happen.

So what we do know is that this new strain is called B117 and it makes it easier for this virus to infect other people. Since many people have already shared these concerns in the news, is – we do not know if this is already in the United States.

So what worries me is that we have not yet set travel restrictions at the federal level. And that does not necessarily mean a travel ban. But that means we need to examine our test features and see if the tests we have in the US are able to identify this new strain. And if not, we need to be able to update them.

KRISTIN MYERS: Wait a minute, Dr. I want to interrupt you here because I have to ask you–


KRISTIN MYERS: – Are you telling me that there is a possibility that the tests we have at the moment may not even detect this new mutation and this new virus strain? So that means I really assume – because this is a bit amazing to me – that if this new strain is already here in the US, that someone could be out there and infected with it, maybe asymptomatic, and the test might not even pick it up? That’s what you’re saying?

LEO NISSOLA: It is correct.


LEO NISSOLA: So we do not know if this new tribe is here. And we do not know if the tests we have already approved in the United States are capable of detecting this new strain. So we do not know. So for all we know–

KRISTIN MYERS: So about these travel restrictions, so–

LEO NISSOLA: – this tribe may be here already.

KRISTIN MYERS: So about the travel restrictions– I know you’re saying we might really need to reconsider them. Should we then really start considering these flights coming from the UK, that we should set up coronavirus tests for passengers arriving on these flights? For right now, the United States is not doing that.

LEO NISSOLA: Absolutely. I think– I just heard Governor Cuomo say on television today that New York will take matters into their own hands. And I agree with that. Because we need to be able to identify at the federal level who is entering the country, what they bring with them – if it’s a new strain of coronavirus or something else. And we have not seen that yet.

But again, one problem with taking these measures at the state level is that someone could fly in from, say, the UK to Chicago and then fly to New York. And then you would miss the new strain or the new virus that would potentially come in with these people.

So there are a lot of things I’m worried about. One of them is that I’m not sure if the tests we have today, which have already been approved, are capable of detecting this new strain. And I’m not sure if this virus, this new virus strain, is already here or not. It’s unclear.

KRISTIN MYERS: Should the US really start considering more lock-downs, especially since we have news of this new strain, especially since we have holidays and we know people are going to meet with their friends and their family? We have Christmas. We have New Year right after that.

And we know – and you have come on this program and even said – that the winter months are only getting worse. We are not at the top yet. We have 18.2 million cases right now.


KRISTIN MYERS: This number will only cross upwards. Then we’re really going to start saying, hey, you know what? We actually need to close indoor dining, not just in New York City, but we should start closing indoor dining everywhere. We need to be far more restrictive than we are right now, especially since this new tribe may be out there and we can not even detect it.

LEO NISSOLA: Well, a few things there– I do not agree with the lock or free for everyone. What I agree with is that there is a middle ground. There is a need for tracking contacts, which is very difficult to implement in the United States due to civil liberties – which, of course, is privacy, which I also think we should discuss more actively.

For me, I believe there is a need to make over-the-counter, free, home-COVID testing easier and accessible. We are only in the baby’s steps to make it happen. If you can get tested today and make sure you test negative before going out to see your grandmother, that would be an incredible thing. But it’s really hard to do.

Trust me. I have tried to go that route with my own family and with my own loved ones. It is not easy. You still have to skip many different hangers to get tested. And if you are asymptomatic, and if you have not been in contact with someone who has tested positive, in various conditions it is difficult to get.

But I think there are things we can do to improve our chances of including spreading this virus and flattening the infection curve again. And that’s frequent testing, free testing of asymptomatic people, contact tracking and making sure people understand that we’re not asking people to be completely locked inside the lock inside their home during the holiday season.

All we ask is that people wear a mask when they go outside, to be conscientious about their health, and if you experience other symptoms that they go to the CDC website and make sure they check boxes to see if they have potential COVID symptoms or not.


LEO NISSOLA: And so that they do not have to congregate with people who are outside their household, especially not in this winter season. As you mentioned, we expect COVID cases to increase. And with this new strain, COVID cases will increase much faster.

KRISTIN MYERS: So to the point that the last question for you here, dr. – and I hate to inject this kind of slightly bad news right when we end this – but how bad do you expect this to be in January after the holidays and maybe even February, which is the coldest month, at least for us here in New York? How bad do you think it will be?

LEO NISSOLA: So I think it depends again on the states. States that still allow people to go for indoor dining, people to go to the gym or bars, as you have seen in Florida – you would expect to see cases grow exponentially and infections rise.

And then again, our healthcare system is already at the breaking point. In California, there are many ICUs that have capacity. So I’m worried that the winter season is coming, things are going to increase. And we share a lot of bad news unless we take this to a federal level of COVID restrictions and make sure people understand how serious this is.

I still get a lot of emails and questions about my DMs on Twitter or Instagram from people who still don’t take it seriously. And I’m very surprised.

KRISTIN MYERS: Okay. Well, hopefully some people out there, at least looking at our conversation, are starting to take this a little more seriously, especially with the new strain out there. Immunotherapy scientist Dr. Leo Nissola, thank you very much for joining today.

LEO NISSOLA: Thanks for letting me come. Good holiday.

KRISTIN MYERS: Happy holidays to you too.