While it sounds a bit like how a cat would say “new variant,” the Mu variant of the Covid-19 coronavirus is far from a catastrophe. There’s nothing yet to suggest that the current Covid-19 vaccines won’t work against the new Mu variant. However, not enough is really known about this latest addition to the World Health Organization (WHO) “Variants of Interest” list to draw any strong conclusions. Nonetheless, it has already made its way to nearly every state in the U.S. And that includes California.
Yes, according to an announcement from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on Friday, the Mu variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has been in Los Angeles County since at least mid-June. From June 19 through Augusts 21, the Department has found the Mu variant in 167 samples. Although the variant only accounts for less than one percent of all Covid-19 coronavirus samples that have been sequenced in California and the U.S., it’s clear that the Mu variant had entered the U.S. by the start of Summer. Back then though, who Mu?
Now if you are calling it the “moo” variant just so that you can justify treating an infection with ivermectin designed for cows, don’t. As I indicated on August 21 for Forbes, do not take livestock ivermectin unless you are a cow and worried about worms. And the pronunciation of “Mu” is more like “ewww” with an “m” in front of it, sort of like the sound you emit when you start eating something tasty but find a fly in it. Or it can be like Muesli without the “sli.”
The Mu variant actually isn’t that new. It was first detected in Columbia back in January 2021 and has since spread to at least 39 countries. Until recently, it’s been known as the B.1.621 SARS-CoV-2 variant, which sounds like a vitamin mixed with an area code. But on August 30, the WHO placed this variant on its variants of interest list. And it’s all Greek to everyone. It’s official name is the Mu variant.
Here’s a CNBC news segment on the new Mu:
The emergence of the Mu variant shouldn’t be a huge surprise. As I’ve indicated before for Forbes, the Covid-19 coronavirus isn’t always that precise when it reproduces and makes new copies of itself. It can be like a drunk person making a photocopy of his or her butt, making mistakes that result in slightly different versions of the virus or variants. So the more the virus spreads and reproduces, the more variants will result. And countries that fail to contain the spread of the virus like Peru, Brazil, India, the U.K., and the U.S. will continue to help this happen. So expect more variants to emerge to the point where the WHO runs out of Greek letters and has to start naming new variants after galaxies, constellations, boy bands, or whatever.
Of course, the big question is which variants will be big problems and which ones will make people hoard toilet paper again. Right now the Delta variant is to alpha dog so to speak in the U.S. It is the Stan Gable of the variants being the most dominant and widespread. Mu is still a bit of a mystery or a mewstery. The variant has some mutations that raise some eyebrows. The P681H mutation, which is also found on the Alpha variant, potentially help the virus enter cells more readily and thus be more transmissible. But it’s not clear yet. Two other mutations, the E484K and K417N, seen in the Beta variant as well, could help the virus evade antibodies, as described in a publication in the scientific journal Nature from back in February. If this is the case, then immune protection from either vaccines or natural immunity may not be as effective. However, again the jury is still out on this. The Mu variant has additional mutations (e.g., R346K and Y144T) that may or may not affect the virus’s ability to get past immune defenses and spread. More studies are needed to determine what the deal may be.
Until this variant spreads more widely in a population that has a lot of people vaccinated, it’s really difficult to tell how effective the vaccines may be against this variant. That’s the inherent paradox. You don’t want to say, “go Mu, go, spread everywhere,” in order for researchers to measure how many fully vaccinated versus unvaccinated people end up getting infected. So for now, you’ll have to treat the Mu variant like you would the next episode of Tv series The Bachelor. You don’t quite know what may happen.
Nevertheless, don’t panic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will probably never say, “OK, now is the time to panic.” Plus, radically different “escape” variants, or ones that can successfully evade immune protection offered by the currently available vaccines, typically don’t emerge suddenly. Instead, changes in the virus may be more likely to evolve progressively over time.
This Mu variant is a reminder, though, of the importance of continued social distancing and face mask use for now. The virus is still spreading rapidly throughout the community. On Friday, the Los County Department of Public Health confirmed 37 new Covid-19 related deaths and 2,673 new Covid-19 cases. Vaccination rates are still too low in many parts of the country to adequately interrupt transmission. Less than 60% of people in California are fully vaccinated, even though vaccination rates in California have been higher than those in many parts of the country.
This isn’t the time for premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions. As is the case when some other things come prematurely, premature relaxation can lead to a disappointing and messy situation. It can even make you go “Mu.”