coronavirus variant

‘Be Skeptical:' NYC Health Officials Race to Quell Concerns After NYT Variant Report

A New York Times report, partly citing nonpublic data from Columbia University, suggested a COVID variant less susceptible to vaccines may be spreading in NYC; city health leaders say there's no evidence it has contributed to the case trajectory and thus far is not a cause for public health concern

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What to Know

  • The NYT reported, in part citing unpublished research from Columbia University, that a new variant seemed to be popping up in the city with a mutation that could weaken the effectiveness of vaccines
  • Neither city nor state officials had previously spoken publicly about the research; Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor's senior health adviser, encouraged skepticism: 'Not all variants are of public health concern'
  • The paper didn't immediately respond to criticism over the story; the Columbia doctor quoted in it said, 'It’s odd that we are being criticized for doing good science to alert the city what’s going on'

A New York Times report on a possible new COVID variant spreading in New York City is making waves, but scientists and City Hall were quick to criticize what they said was the potentially premature release of unfinished research.

The Times reported Wednesday, in part citing unpublished research from Columbia University, that a new variant seemed to be popping up in the city with a mutation that could weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.

Neither city nor state health officials had previously spoken publicly about this new development, and it immediately raised concerns about the prospect of another surge of illness.

But prominent figures were quick to criticize both Columbia and the Times for reporting what they suggested was unfinished work.

"This wasn't even a 'pre-print' - I was asked to provide comment on someone's draft manuscript that still had tracked changes and didn't include the figures. Based on this, the NYT wrote a story. This is an absolute mess," Nathan Grubaugh, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter.

With new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus circulating, health experts are adjusting their recommendations for face masks. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined LX News to explain why you should make sure your face mask is well-fitted and double up.

City Hall also keyed in on the early release of data, with Mayor Bill de Blasio's spokesman taking both the university and newspaper to task.

"It’s great that Columbia and other academics are looking into COVID variants. But please, please for the love of all that is holy share the data with public health officials before you publicize pre-writes that still have track changes with the NY Times. That’s all," Bill Neidhardt tweeted Thursday morning.

One of De Blasio's top scientific advisors also criticized the reporting, and others like it, as "pathogen porn" that was unhelpful to public health efforts.

"Plea to academics: please review high impact studies w/govt health depts before marketing it to media. We’re left to decipher science from journalist’s abstract while fielding calls from electeds, public, media how this changes policy. Pathogen porn isn’t helping public health," Dr. Jay Varma tweeted early Thursday.

In an interview with LX News, Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed the multiplying mutations of the coronavirus, including a U.K. variant that is thought to be more deadly as well as more contagious. Watch the full interview with Dr. Fauci on NBCLX this Tuesday at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET.

He expounded upon the point later in the mayor's daily coronavirus briefing, encouraging New Yorkers to "be a little skeptical" of what they read.

"Not all variants are of public health concern. Some variants are just that -- they're variants, they're just a little bit different. Some variants are variants of interest -- they have changes in their structure that might change the virus' property," Varma, senior public health adviser to the mayor's office, said. "And some variants are variants of what we call public health concern -- they have these mutations and we have enough data to show that they change whether the virus is more infectious, whether it's more lethal, whether it can change immunity."

As far as the Columbia report, Varma said, "We need to just consider this a variant of interest -- something that is interesting that we need to follow and track. But it doesn't change anything about our public health concern. We need more data and studies to understand that."

Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city health commissioner who himself battled COVID-19 earlier this month, said there is no evidence at this point to suggest the variant identified in the Columbia report has contributed to the trajectory of cases, which he emphasized continue to decrease from their latest holiday spike.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here

Source: ny.gov

"We also don't have any evidence that the variant is concentrated in any part of the city," Chokshi said. "The science around this is just less established compared to other variants like the U.K. variant, which we're closely tracking as well. As we get the information from these new studies, they remain quite exploratory with respect to the real-world effects -- and that's the most important thing from the public health perspective."

With new COVID-19 variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil now spreading, doctors are rushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before more mutations arise. Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a regional director of One Medical, joined LX News to talk about why vaccines are so important right now and how she encourages her patients to overcome their skepticism about it.

One scientist, Eric Topol, took to Twitter to question why the report on a possible "scariant" had been published without review in the biomedical community. (The story, in addition to the Columbia research, also cited publicly available but pre-publication data from Caltech as well.)

The author of the Times story responded to Topol with her reasoning.

"To be fair, I convinced them to let me write about it so that readers could see both lines of evidence at once. And everyone I quoted saw the manuscript and thought it looked legit. It should be out soon! (It’s been submitted)," Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted Wednesday night in response to Topol.

The paper was not immediately available to comment on criticisms of the story.

The Columbia University doctor quoted in it, Dr. David Ho, who heads up the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, told News 4, "It’s odd that we are being criticized for doing good science to alert the city what’s going on. City officials were notified couple of weeks ago. The NY Times began with another preprint from Caltech that appeared days ago."

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday said new data indicated the existing COVID-19 vaccines were still effective against new variants. “Right now from the reports we have literally as of today, it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them with the big caveat that you want to play close attention to it,” Fauci said.

New York City officials, while taking issue with the Times' report on any locally emergent variant, have repeatedly expressed concern about other more transmissible coronavirus strains that have grown more prevalent in the U.S.

Varma encouraged information-sharing to continue, even in the wake of criticism; it's just a matter of qualifying the data, should it be released to the public.

"We definitely want all of our academic partners to be working closely with us, sharing their data, sharing their findings, because this is a challenging battle and public health is a team activity," he said.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom last year, has spread to nearly every state in America, 45 as of the CDC's latest report. To date, New York state health officials confirmed at least 154 cases of that strain (136 according to the CDC), which city officials say may be more lethal, according to preliminary U.K. evidence, than previously believed, as well as more contagious. New Jersey has confirmed 55 such cases.

The South African variant has different mutations on top of the ones present in the U.K. strain, prompting concern about the efficacy of current vaccines against it. Moderna will soon begin clinical trials of a COVID booster shot for the South African variant, citing a weaker immune response for its two-dose regimen against this particular strain. That variant is still relatively rare in the U.S.

New York has confirmed two cases so far, both in Nassau County, while the CDC reports 49 detected cases in 15 states. By comparison, the U.K. strain has been found in more than 2,100 U.S. samples.

Locally, Fordham University said in a email to students, faculty and staff that the U.K. strain had been found at their Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. That single case comes as cases at the university have more than doubled over the past month at that campus, shooting up from 2.73 percent positivity on Feb. 11 to 5.54 percent positivity on Tuesday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci highlighted preliminary studies which indicate that coronavirus vaccines will have a positive impact in slowing the spread of COVID-19. “Vaccine is important not only for the health of the individual to protect them against infection and disease… but it also has very important implications from a public health standpoint for interfering and diminishing the dynamics of the outbreak.”

The CDC only updates its variant numbers three times weekly, so the latest federal data may not reflect the latest local data. New York City and state have ramped up their testing and investigation of potentially new strains in recent weeks. The CDC is expected to update its numbers later Thursday, though.

In an interview with Sirius XM radio Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, acknowledged federal genetic sequencing is not yet at the level "we want to be yet" as far as identifying and tracking COVID variants.

"But the CDC is really ramping up a lot, much more than we had previously, to get a much greater percentage of the isolates," Fauci said. "We start sequencing them, put them in a common data bank so that we could really determine what the pattern of prevalence or not of a particular variant. They've really accelerated considerably over the last several weeks.”

Overall, vaccines are expected to work on the variants that have emerged and new strains that will emerge over time. City officials said engaging in the core mitigation efforts that curbed the spread in the first place -- mask-wearing, socially distancing, washing hands and staying home when sick -- remain the most effective means of protection against more transmissible strains as well.


Not sure how the process works? Or when you might be able to get an appointment? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here


New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers

Click on each provider to find more information on scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 Vaccine.

Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC

"The single most important message that New Yorkers need to hear is that we need you to continue to do all of the things that we've been doing. We realize this is painful and difficult but persistence is really important," Varma said. "Follow the guidance on that, particularly the guidance on potentially wearing two masks if you don't have a well-fitting mask. when your turn's up, get vaccinated."

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