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Researcher says COVID variant R.1 is ‘something really to watch’

The R.1 variant, now in Georgia, was first detected in the U.S. in a Kentucky nursing home in March. The CDC says it infected 25 percent of the vaccinated residents.

ATLANTA — Out of all the COVID variants emerging, the one called R.1 got into a nursing home in Eastern Kentucky this past March -- a nursing home where almost all of the residents were vaccinated.

That R.1 COVID variant, carried into the facility by an infected health care worker, was able to infect one-fourth of the vaccinated residents. The same variant is here in Georgia.

“That’s the first warning, that there was a virus that spreads through a fully vaccinated population,” said William Haseltine, Ph.D., a COVID-19 researcher and a former Harvard Medical School professor.

“This particular one, one that can penetrate vaccine defenses in nursing homes, gives you cause for concern,” he said, calling the variant “something really to watch.”

In that Kentucky nursing home, one of the vaccinated patients died, and two of the unvaccinated patients died. R.1 has since spread to all but three states, with more than 2,200 cases nationwide.

In Georgia, there are fewer than 100 R.1 cases, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Dr. Haseltine, who wrote in Forbes this week that R.1 can lead to “increased resistance to antibodies,” told 11Alive on Wednesday that there are now more than 10,000 R.1 cases worldwide.

Credit: WXIA-TV
William Haseltine, Ph.D.

“This virus, this particular strain, has a potential to get around,” he said. “It’s doing it differently from many of the other viruses.”

Haseltine said the R.1 variant can simply overpower vaccine antibodies.

“It’s doing it mostly by making more of itself once it gets into the body, not only by evading what happens on the way in.”

Haseltine said there is no question the vaccines are generally successful in preventing serious illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded this past April that the vaccine the nursing home residents received, two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, did reduce the severity of the symptoms experienced by the vaccinated residents who were infected.

But because R.1 infected such a large proportion of the vaccinated residents, one-fourth of them, the CDC said there is concern about “potential reduced protective immunity to R.1.”

“We need to know what it is that can break through our vaccines,” Haseltine said, with researchers racing to stay ahead of, and try to stop, potentially resistant variants.