The Briefing provides an at-a-glance view of some important developments in the information universe surrounding COVID-19. The views presented here are solely those of ECRI Horizon Scanning and have not been vetted by other stakeholders.

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The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, has been mutating since it emerged in 2019, as expected of a coronavirus. However, current emerging variants tend to be more transmissible. For example, a mutation known as N501Y seems to be making the variant known as B.1.1.7 (or the UK variant) more infectious. This mutation was recently found to be present in a variant emerging in Ohio.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified 2 existing tests​ (Linea COVID-19​ Assay Kit and TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit) with potential to identify possible B.1.1.7 infections. National efforts to increase genomic surveillance of this and other variants are ramping up (see Topics to Watch).

Preliminary studies suggest that the Pfizer vaccine is likely to work against the N501Y mutant, but research is ongoing for other vaccines and other variants. For now, getting vaccines into people remains our best prospect to control the spread of the illness, but vaccination processes are facing the twin challenges of communication and scheduling (see Topics to Watch for some possible solutions).

Smartphone Applications to Manage COVID-19 Vaccine Communications and Scheduling

At a Glance

  • The recent availability of multiple COVID-19 vaccines has created a need for broad campaigns to improve vaccine education, safety and efficacy monitoring, and appointment scheduling.
  • With federal protocols for managing COVID-19 vaccinations lacking, state and local governments started developing their own policies and procedures, using a variety of approaches. These include smartphone apps or other electronic tools to educate the public and help ensure an orderly vaccine rollout.
  • Multiple smartphone apps are under development to help public health professionals communicate about and schedule COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The apps support vaccine distribution, education, and guidance. The apps can deliver patient communications through phones, smartwatches, and computers and allow users to learn about the vaccines, schedule vaccine appointments, and report side effects. Users also can be reminded about second doses or about engaging in protective measures after receiving their vaccinations.

Surveillance Programs to Identify and Follow the Spread of Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants

At a Glance

  • In December 2020, two genetic variants of SARS-CoV-2 with higher transmissibility were identified in the United Kingdom (variant B.1.1.7) and South Africa (B.1.351). These variants were subsequently detected in locations around the world.
  • The variants do not seem to increase disease severity. But they might be more transmissible than the previously dominant variant, which might lead to an increase in infections and subsequent COVID-19–related deaths. And concerns remain that these or future variants might compromise COVID vaccine efficacy.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working with the genomic sequencing companies Illumina and Helix to expand the national surveillance infrastructure to detect and track new variants.
  • The CDC has also partnered with clinical and national laboratories, state and local health departments, and universities to increase sequencing-based surveillance and tracing.

Commentary in this COVID-19 Scan reflects preliminary views of ECRI Horizon Scanning and internal ECRI stakeholders.
The information contained in this document has not been vetted by other stakeholders.

We welcome your comments on this Scan. Send them by email to [email protected].

Posted: January 28, 2021

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