Thankfully COVID-19 cases are on the decline here in Montana but state residents must remain ever vigilant.  While the Big Sky State, home to CrossTx, experienced a running average of 1,293 COVID-19 cases by Nov. 20 (an all-time high for the state and ten-fold more than the Summer); and hospitals were operating at near or even above capacity then thankfully by Feb. 2 this running seven day average came down to 316.   A relief as everyone is ready to move toward normalcy.

But we are by no means out of this crisis. Mutant variants of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged from the United Kingdom, to South Africa to Brazil.  CrossTx reports that these coronavirus variants have arrived in the United States and now local news reports, such as a recent entry by Andrea Lutz at KTQV  caution that Montana health officials warn that these new mutants are close by, showing up in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota.

While the UK variant known as B.1.1.7  is reportedly highly contagious the South African variant called 501.V2  seems to concern scientists even more.

While a single variant or change in SARS-CoV-2 is almost certainly covered by the existing vaccines approved under emergency use authorization–the Pfizer/BioNTech (BNT162b2) and Moderna’s mRNA-1273 (both messenger RNA-based vaccines)—this may not be so with variants undergoing more dramatic transformation.  They are cause for concern.

Why?  These variations may empower SARS-CoV-2 to more efficiently and effectively attach tightly to the ACE2 receptor, thus more easily penetrating the human host’s cells suggests some preliminary and still non-peer reviewed studies from the University of Pittsburgh.

The natural concern would be that the existing vaccines would be less effective hence increasing the risk for infection, and further contagion. What we don’t need now is a less potent vaccine combined with a more contagious pathogen.

Vaccine Makers taking Action

There is plenty of pressure on pharmaceutical manufacturers such as Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax to monitor these trends.  Montana residents should be mindful as well that these companies aren’t sitting still. For example Moderna recently announced the Cambridge, MA-based biotech company would actually modify its second inoculation, in effect creating a form of booster shot that is tailored more toward the South African mutant strain.

Billings Clinic on the Move

New reports from KTVQ share that Billings Clinic is taking the lead in testing for mutant variant forms of SARS-CoV-2.  Again they haven’t been identified in the state as of yet but we can’t be too cautious at this point.

So even for those folks in the state that have been vaccinated against the coronavirus all must still be ever vigilant, following the public health guidance. Why? Because if the new strains do show up the existing vaccine may not offer full protection—we just don’t know.

Recently Billings Clinic introduced TaqPath,  a powerful new testing system that can generate results in just 24 hours. Thankfully now Montana not only has powerful new assay technology but also experts such as Dr. Christina Kavran a pathologist at Billings Clinic: she and team in Billings are on high alert monitoring and tracking for this new unwanted pathogen. The stakes are high as according to the recent entry in the local news Dr. Kavran reports, “It could become the prevalent virus” meaning if this South African variant finds its way here and we are not following protocol new spikes in cases could result.

One Goal: Beat this Pandemic

Our goal in Montana, the rest of the United States and for that matter, the rest of the world has to be to work together, follow the public health guidance here in this state, thus contributing  to conditions favorable for fewer transmissions and thus, less infections. We want to take away the opportunities for this horrific virus to mutate further.  Don’t let it happen in Montana.

Daniel O’Connor
Chief Business Officer
CrossTx, Inc.