An expert explains virus mutations, the Delta variant of COVID-19 and which masks offer the best protection for patients with cancer.
When a large number of people catch a virus, it allows for variants and mutations to occur – such was the case with the Delta variant of COVID-19, adding even more of a risk to immunocompromised individuals, like those with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
“Viral variants arise by mutation of the virus’s genetic material,” said Daniel Engel, professor of microbiology, immunology and cancer biology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “The overwhelming majority of the time, these mutations do not alter the virus. The mutations are silent. However, extremely rarely, a mutation or a set of mutations will occur in the population that gives the virus a significant advantage over the original virus from which it came.”
Engel was a presenter at the CLL Society’s recent webinar on staying protected from COVID-19 and its Delta variant.
Engel emphasized that the most effective ways to prevent variants from coming up are to keep infections down through public health measures such as vaccination of the population, masking, social distancing and hand-washing.
At the start of the webinar – which was geared toward survivors and caregivers – the audience took a COVID-19-related poll. Five percent reported that they had COVID-19 at some point, and 98% of the audience said that they received the vaccine. Despite these high numbers, only 3% of viewers said that they felt “very well-protected” from the virus, and 27% feel “protected.”
Webinar moderator Dr. Brian Koffman – who is a CLL survivor himself – advised patients to “get vaccinated, but act as if you’re not vaccinated,” and continue measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
Engel agreed, especially since monoclonal antibody therapy and vaccination may be less effective against the Delta variant of COVID-19, though he noted that researchers are working tirelessly to develop better vaccines and new treatments as the virus continues to evolve.
But, until then, masking will continue to be vital.
“Based on the science, the best mask to wear is an N95 mask. I highly recommend wearing an N95 (because it) provides the best individual protection, and cloth masks do not provide enough protection. I recommend against them,” Engel said.
Surgical masks are OK, according to Engel, and KN95 masks are good, but are not made to the same standards or offer equal protection as N95 masks, which can easily be ordered on Amazon, Engel said.
All of these measures can not only prevent people from getting COVID-19, but also from more variants occurring, too.
“The keys to preventing variants from coming up are the same keys to getting infections down,” Engel said.
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