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Washington will have to ‘see what happens’ with mu variant

An encouraging sign for passersby spotted in the window of a restaurant in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. (MyNorthwest photo)

As the delta variant makes up almost all of the COVID-19 cases in Washington state, another variant is emerging onto the scene: the mu variant.

“I think we don’t really know what mu is going to do right now,” said Dr. Keith Jerome, the head of the UW Virology Lab. “It is, yes, yet another variant. It seems to have certain things we would be concerned about. Seems to kind of focus on the ability to evade immunity, which is a little different from delta, which seems to mostly work by being more infectious.”

“We’re going to watch it. It may or may not out-compete delta,” Jerome added. “Delta has really just beaten all the other variants. We sort of need to spend the time and see what happens.”

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Cases of the mu variant have been found in Washington, Jerome noted, but he says they’re very rare right now and there’s no evidence that cases of it in the state are growing in frequency yet.

For now, Dr. Jerome says more than 99% of cases in Washington are the delta variant.

The unvaccinated population

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross asked Dr. Jerome for his opinion on what to do about the unvaccinated population, especially focused on the risk they pose to children under 12.

“As physicians, we’re always going to treat the sick people in front of us,” he replied. “That’s just the reality of the oath that we took and that’s what’s going to happen. I think on a societal level, once you get outside the realm of medicine, then I think, as a society, we can decide how much risk we’re going to let individuals take and how much risk we will let them take when those paying the risk are others in society.”

“That’s partially what we’re seeing here,” he added.

Vaccine mandates have also started to proliferate across the state. While these mandates don’t force people to get vaccinated, they do require vaccination if the person wants to work for the state or in schools, or participate in a certain activity.

“I suspect you’re going to see more and more of that as this wears on and people want to get back to their lives,” Dr. Jerome said.

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However, even people who are vaccinated can get re-infected with COVID and can pass it on.

“Certainly we know that the vaccines are better at preventing illness and hospitalization from delta than they are preventing any infection with delta,” Jerome said. “We’re definitely seeing more and more cases of people who have been vaccinated have a positive delta test. It definitely does reduce how infectious you are — I think that’s pretty clear that it seems to reduce the amount of virus that you have if you do get infected and how long you’re infectious, but that’s not complete.”

“So, yeah, people can can certainly pass the virus on even if they’ve been vaccinated,” he clarified.

Then what do we do when we have a large group of unvaccinated people and no approved vaccine for children under 12? Thankfully, Dr. Jerome says the pediatric vaccine trials are moving forward to address that.

“There should be data from the Pfizer trials later this month,” he said. “We were originally hoping there’d be an approval hopefully by the time school started, clearly that didn’t happen. FDA requested more people in the trials and longer follow up, really to be sure they’re safe.”

“Even with delta, it’s still true that kids generally do better with the infection than adults, although we’re seeing more and more kids in the hospital now,” he noted. “We do need to be sure that it’s safe. Kids are different than adults. They have different potential side effects and their immune systems are different. We do need to figure this out and make sure that the risk benefit is correct, that the kids benefit more from the vaccine than they might from any potential problems with the vaccine.”

Jerome does think a vaccine will be approved, but it’s not something the FDA wants to be wrong about.

“FDA is very, very risk averse in terms of they really don’t want to have an approved product [that may] hurt anyone,” he said.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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